Widely regarded as one of Europe’s top authors and, it can be argued, the best novelist writing in Spanish today, Javier Marías has, in his latest work, written an arresting story of love and crime. The first-person narrator of “The Infatuations” is a young woman smitten with a man and his wife – the “perfect couple,” in her eyes – whom she routinely observes having breakfast at the same cafe she frequents in an upscale district of Madrid. A discreet voyeur, María Dolz develops fervent, if reserved, feelings for Miguel and Luisa even as she, imaginatively, makes up stories about them for her own private consumption. While she is away on vacation, an act of violence interrupts this placid order of things, and the novel turns into a slowly unfolding tale of perception and detection.
Not your typical mystery, “The Infatuations” features one protracted scene after another. Objects are described and events narrated in the utmost detail. Interspersed within these lengthy passages – brilliant, if at times slightly tedious – are sudden flashes of narrative exhilaration. The plot at times appears to come to a standstill, and the novel itself begins to morph into something else that invokes the meditative pauses of essays, as finely nuanced as anything by Montaigne. But then, unexpectedly, an incident will trigger as much excitement as can be had in the tensest of thrillers.
Indeed, María finds herself more than once in the middle of splendidly crafted episodes of Hitchcockian suspense. Dialogue unfolds intermittently. A passionate utterance is followed by long brooding paragraphs in which she, vividly and strangely, recalls the past in all its minutiae and speculates profusely about the future. Only after these memories and conjectures is the next line of dialogue allowed to be heard.
Likewise, she devotes numerous sentences to describing the lips of Javier Díaz-Varela, Miguel’s best friend, but says hardly anything about the rest of his body. In this tale of envy, “Macbeth” is invoked several times, while long citations from “The Three Musketeers” shed light on the act of murder. Oddly, these fragments and digressions, which in a lesser stylist might act as irritants, whet the readers’ appetite, as we eagerly follow María’s measured progress through a few cafes and apartments in Madrid.
Then again, much of the novel happens mainly in María’s mind – or, obsessively, in what she feels is occurring in the minds of others. After Luisa tells her what Miguel must have been thinking at a given moment, she dreams up her own version of Miguel’s thoughts. She also imagines what Miguel must have felt about Luisa on that same occasion, or what he might have told Díaz-Varela about it; or what Díaz-Varela must have thought that she, María, was thinking.
A literary person who works for a publishing house and believes in literature as a form of knowledge, she even mentally writes her own passages for a novella by Balzac so that it can fit her present circumstances. Almost imperceptibly at first, this relentless inner storytelling comes to occupy a substantial portion of the text. If María is Marías’ creature, one has the impression that she too has enough materials to create a novel of her own – a subjective psychological tale that, in fact, lives in the fabric of “The Infatuations” as dramatically as the actual events in the plot.
Following Spain’s long tradition of fiction about fiction from Miguel de Cervantes to Miguel de Unamuno, Marías introduces (as in some of his previous novels) a character named Francisco Rico, whose fictional persona neatly coincides with that of Francisco Rico, a famous scholar of Spanish literature known for a canonical edition of “Don Quixote.” Providing a rare moment of humor, Rico faults Luisa for having in her own library a lesser edition of the book.
But the self-reflexive workings of Cervantes’ work – what Borges called its partial magic – don’t end there. Like Don Quixote, María is fond of telling herself stories, some of which may not be true; like Cervantes’ proto-novel, Marías’ text bravely unfolds in the boundaries between fiction and reality, where truth and fantasy merge or collide. Uncannily, a cardiologist mentioned in passing happens to exist in real life, as does the “odd-sounding” Anglo-American Medical Unit on calle Conde de Aranda, where he works.
These ambiguous regions, where untruths may confuse readers and characters alike, are also propitious for subtle love stories. Yet the state of falling or being in love – the enamoramientos of the novel’s original title, a concept that according to Díaz-Varela exists as a noun only in Spanish and Italian – does not blind María, who learns the circumstances surrounding the murder and resolutely faces the truth.
But if conventional mysteries normally conclude with retribution and atonement, Marías’ storytelling in “The Infatuations” remains a far more ambivalent space, a narrative realm where a story of murder is not necessarily a tale of crime and punishment.
ROBERTO IGNACIO DÍAZ
San Francisco Chronicle, October 11, 2013
A man is cut down in the street by a lunatic. His distraught widow sits in a café, awaiting his best friend. His best friend aspires to take his place as her husband. Translated from Javier Marías’s 2011 Spanish-language novel, “The Infatuations” presents this tangled web of human dealings from the perspective of María, a publisher’s assistant who frequents the same café as the ill-fated Miguel Deverne and Luisa, his widow, and who is slowly drawn into this web.
“The Infatuations” is a profoundly engaging work, although not for the reasons one might think. American press for the book has tended to emphasize the fact that it is nominally a murder mystery. This emphasis is misleading. The plot is so predictable as to be archetypal; one is reminded not of the sharp twists and turns of American or British mystery novels so much as the ritualized forms of Attic tragedy or commedia dell’ arte. In short, there is very little “mystery” to this mystery. Nevertheless, “The Infatuations” is still well worth reading, just as tragedies and commedie are still worth watching—the devil, as always, is in the details.
Marías has not given us a wholly original set of events to ponder; rather, he has given us a reflection on the transience of love and the ultimate insurmountability of death, a rumination of great tranquility reflected in his long, aperiodic sentences, which recall the peacefulness of Camus’s “The Stranger” without that work’s predominant haziness of detail. There are many extended passages on the final quietude of death, none perhaps so clear as an imagined speech that María attributes to the dead Deverne. Speaking of the dead’s indifference toward the activities of the living—specifically his own indifference to the marriage of his best friend and his widow—he says: “You know that everything will carry on without you, that nothing stops because you have disappeared. But that ‘afterwards’ doesn’t concern you.”
There are many such passages, particularly in the first half of the book. In them one finds a Lucretian sensibility of death as final, for the best, and not to be feared. Like Lucretius in “De Rerum Natura,” however, Marías’s persistent dwelling on the theme of mortality to the exclusion of other concerns—including getting the novel’s action off the ground—seems to belie this message; whether this is the intention of the author or rather a flaw is up to the reader. It seems to be his intention, for Marías knows well the ways in which people think, and accordingly the attribution of a flawed rhetoric should be reserved. It must nevertheless be noted that the novel’s constant digressions occasionally flirt with the trite: “There was still the possibility that it wasn’t, according to him, of course (I would never know more than what he told me, and so I would never know anything for sure; yes, it’s ridiculous, isn’t it, that after all these centuries of practice, after so many incredible advances and inventions, we still have no way of knowing when someone is lying; naturally, this both benefits and prejudices all of us equally, and may be our one remaining redoubt of freedom).” This observation is true, but is so commonplace as to be of questionable value even in a parenthetical statement.
Regardless of any imperfections in execution, “The Infatuations” is a remarkable book, not least in that it accomplishes the very difficult task of holding a reader for half its length before introducing any sort of dramatic conflict. Its ambition of scope is admirable, directly addressing as it does the two most looming themes of human thought, love and death; and yet it still manages to avoid entirely the overwrought tone that almost inevitably plagues such books. Indeed, here perhaps we find the greatest virtue of “The Infatuations”: it brings a peaceful reflection on mortality to our daily lives.
JUDE D. RUSSO
The Harvard Crimson, October 6, 2013