A café in Madrid. From her table across the room a solitary woman watches an attractive couple share breakfast morning after morning and speculates pleasurably about their relationship. One day they fail to appear and as time passes she feels a deepening sense of loss. Later she learns that the man has been murdered, stabbed to death in the street — an apparently senseless crime.
The tragedy of the happy couple touches and disturbs her. Then, almost accidentally, she finds herself becoming involved with the widow and the dead man’s best friend. At first all is straightforward: loss, grieving, consolation. Gradually the relationship becomes more complex: she begins an affair with the friend, recognising that she is little more than a stopgap in his life. And so things continue, until, at a certain point a remark overheard, an ominous hint, sets up unease and leaves her floundering. Nothing is quite as it seems — but how could it be? We’re in Javier Marías territory. This is a novelist who doesn’t deal in the straightforward; his narratives are serpentine, his vocabulary one of ambiguity, his landscape a place of shadows.
The Infatuations is a metaphysical exploration masquerading as a murder mystery. The narrator, the widow and the best friend spend much of the book engaged in conversation, or imagined conversation, or recollected conversation, living simultaneously in a past both real and fantasy, tinged with nostalgia and regret, and a future imbued with suspicion and impossible hopes. The truth is slippery. There is action: but the killing will have taken place in the past, as will the love-making. Head-clutching stuff, but quietly addictive.
Marías is a wolf in sheep’s clothing: his ostensible subjects look seductively mainstream: his 1,600-page trilogy Your Face Tomorrow reads like Proust re-imagined by Le Carré — spying, adultery, betrayal, sex and violence. But these are devious means to other ends. Calm, labyrinthine sentences last for pages; an authorial pause button can freeze a violent act while an examination of treason or loyalty runs its course, and the action is resumed.
His novels (13 so far) have brought him prizes and an international following. There is talk of the Nobel. In Spain he spans the worlds of literature and academe, while writing a popular weekly column in El País. He has translated Shakespeare, Nabokov and Faulkner, and his past includes a spell at Oxford, lecturing on translation, an experience which inspired his novel All Souls. He followed it with A Heart so White, which won the 1992 Dublin IMPAC prize.
While critics have invoked Proust and Henry James in reviews of previous books, Marías himself claims Sterne as a major influence — he translated The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy into Spanish, and his own playfulness and tantalising side-trips are very Shandyesque, though the sinister, disturbing undertones and occasional casual violence are all his own.
At several points in The Infatuations, the male protagonist recounts snatches of a Balzac story. When the narrator asks how it ended; what happened? he replies:
It’s a novel, and once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us … Fiction has the ability to show us what we don’t know and what doesn’t happen.
Between the interstices of the fragile plot of The Infatuations are disquisitions on life and death, freedom, the consequences of love, the impossibility of ever knowing another, and the role of fiction. Marías’s books generally feature a narrator who observes the scene without necessarily understanding everything. Translation enters repeatedly into his narratives, and Margaret Jull Costa, who has provided superb translations for most of his books, including this one, says he’s like Paul Klee who claimed he ‘took a line for a walk’: Marías, she says, ‘takes a thought for a walk. He makes us think.’
Along the way we get his immaculate prose and his sardonic view of the implacable nature of time — what Larkin called the long perspectives open at each instant of our lives.
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