The Infatuations by Javier Marías

Against the grain

Books Reviews
The Infatuations by Javier Marías

Great art often emerges from breaking…or at least tweaking…rules. A work that transcends its conventions can produce special results.

Here’s such a book.

Described by some as “metaphysical inquiry” but disguised as a murder mystery, The Infatuations takes you where very few novels do…to dark thoughts and long passages of suggested theories or, at times, even to entirely imagined conversations between characters. Plot advancement takes a back seat. Instead, a narrator’s thoughts offer various perspectives on life, death and love…and, appropriately, infatuation.

Javier Marías takes a unique approach. His priorities as a writer differ from others; his narrator channels him in saying:

“It’s a novel, and once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matter are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot that we recall far more vividly than real events and to which we pay far more attention.”

That passage, along with various others sprinkled throughout, presumably refers to the book itself. Interspersed with bits that apply to the author’s own work, The Infatuations sometimes overlooks the actual story to instead highlight how Marías presents his story.

He makes his intentions quite clear early on, lulling the reader with hypnotic prose after providing some context for his musings. Details spill out, eliminating many of the main questions so that the writer can set the stage for his narrator, María Dolz, to uncover mysteries that surround her from the opening sentence:

“The last time I saw Miguel Desvern or Deverne was also the last time that his wife, Luisa, saw him, which seemed strange, perhaps unfair, given that she was his wife, while I, on the other hand, was a person he had never met, a woman with whom he had never exchanged so much as a single word.”

We have here an immediate idea of Marías’s writing style…or at least Margaret Jull Costa’s translated English version of his style. Count the commas—nine. Marías obviously and absolutely revels in taking a single idea or thought, then riffing, building on it, sometimes for paragraphs, even pages, at a time. One sentence runs a page and a half. At times, multiple pages pass with no action or event, instead centering on the narrator’s inner reflections.

Is it ludicrous for a 300-plus page murder mystery to rely so heavily on introspection?

Not really, when Marías has also created with The Infatuations (originally Los enamoramientos in Spanish) a novel replete with references to the writing world, publishing and classic literature that brilliantly support his storytelling and themes. We find reference to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Balzac’s Colonel Chabert and Dumas’ Three Musketeers in these pages, all in service to the basic whodunit.

Marías, who has taught at universities in Europe and the United States, got his first writing job as an English-Spanish translator for Dracula scripts. He has since translated countless other literary classics and also written plenty of short stories to go along with this 12th novel. He first published a novel in 1971, at a precocious age 20.

Known in part for his approach to writing—Marías begins with minor planning, writing as he goes, and does not redraft—his style has won many admirers. The author lives in Madrid, his native city, where this novel also takes place.

So…after the literary gymnastics…what is The Infatuations really about?

We have María Dolz. (Whether Marías named his main character María to represent himself, or to confuse people reading about his book is unclear.) María sees the same couple at a cafe every morning. Even though María hasn’t actually met the pair, she admires them from afar…and she gradually feels as though she gets to know them.

One day, the pair remains notably absent. We learn that a homeless man has stabbed the male member of the couple violently to death in broad daylight. Please note: These are not spoilers—the author makes this all quite clear in the first few pages.

Miguel’s death, seeming a little too random, motivates María to introduce herself to the widow. The widow, in turn, introduces Maria to two friends at her house. To speak of any further plot at this point will risk tearing away a tangled web of mystery.

The author uses breaks in plot to infuse his narrator with his views, plenty of them, particularly on death. The musings cover not only the passing of a loved one, but also perceptions of the deaths of non-relatives or complete strangers.

“We mourn a great writer or a great artist when he or she dies, but there is a certain joy to be had from knowing that the world has become a little more vulgar and a little poorer, and that our own vulgarity and poverty will thus be better hidden or disguised; that he or she is no longer there to underline our own relative mediocrity; that talent in general has taken another step towards disappearing from the face of the earth or slipping further back into the past…”

On the surface, this appears to have nothing to do with Miguel’s death, draws no direct comparisons to it. The discussion and analysis of death’s after-effects remain more vital to the novel than the events surrounding Miguel’s death. Marías addresses this on both a small and large scale.

In today’s world, fatality rates from natural disasters, bombings and diseases wipe out such large numbers that people develop a high level of insensitivity to it all. The news surrounds us with a constant atmosphere of death. If hundreds die here and thousands there, what is one mere ambulance rushing to one scene?

“We almost never ask ourselves what very real misfortune they’re rushing to, it’s just another familiar city sound, a sound with no specific content, a mere nuisance, empty of meaning.”

Perhaps cold, it holds truth. Sure, we may sometimes wonder where that ambulance goes, but certainly not every time. How often do people put a conversation on hold or stop in traffic for a siren, then eagerly wait to resume their interrupted task? How long should someone contemplate the wailing before getting back to their lives normally?

“We live quite happily with a thousand unresolved mysteries that occupy our minds for ten minutes in the morning and are then forgotten without leaving so much as a tremor of grief, not a trace.”

Even if we do stop to contemplate, what does it accomplish? What can we do for the person? What could they have done for themselves?

“…the reality is that anyone can destroy us, just as anyone can conquer us, and that is our essential fragility. If someone sets out to destroy us, then it’s very difficult to avoid destruction, unless we drop everything and focus entirely on that struggle.”

How, then, do people go on day-to-day, knowing the inevitable end could await us around the next corner?

The questions actually matter less to Marías than the fact that people raise such questions in the first place. How often do people think of these things in their daily lives? How often does this come up in other books? Remember, it’s about the possibilities of the plot…not the plot itself.

The style cannot entirely escape criticism. For some, even an appreciation for introspective searching cannot mask a burning desire to know what happens next in a snail-paced plot. Additionally, some sentences do feel like run-ons, and this reader often looked over lengthy thoughts about death before realizing: I don’t even remember if Maria’s talking about herself or imagining someone else’s thoughts. Backtracking to reveal the source of the thoughts becomes a regular…and sometimes tiresome…act.

Still, Marías forces us at every turn to question the source of words, to remember and separate facts from suspicions. He toys with a reader, mixing clouded memories and theories with actual monologues (or discussions) with characters. A reader must always remember the difference between what our somewhat intentionally unreliable narrator has proven and what she has assumed. Again, author Marías’ words say it best:

“People start out seeing one thing and end up seeing quite the opposite. They start out loving and end up hating, of shifting from indifference to adoration. We can never be sure of what is going to be vital to us and who we will consider to be important. Our convictions are transient and fragile, even the ones we believe to be the strongest. It’s the same with our feelings. We shouldn’t trust ourselves.”

Marías didn’t write this book to make readers remember a heroic protagonist. He didn’t write it to make hearts race in suspense, or to make us tell friends about one specific jaw-dropping moment.

This book sets out to leave a lasting impression on how we look at some of life’s most difficult, complex and terrifying aspects. In that aspect—arguably the most relevant aspect—he succeeds tremendously.

Carlo Sobral is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer.

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