Jacqui review the infatuations by Javier Marias

the infatuations

The Infatuations by Javier Marías
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

When someone tells us something, it always seems like a fiction, because we don’t know the story at first hand and can’t be sure it happened, however much we are assured that the story is a true one, not an invention, but real. At any rate, it forms part of the hazy universe of narratives, with their blind spots and contradictions and obscurities and mistakes, all surrounded and encircled by shadows or darkness, however hard they strive to be exhaustive and diaphanous, because they are incapable of achieving either of those qualities. (pg. 310)

When something happens in life, how do we ever know if someone is telling us the truth, that their version of events is accurate? Or do we just have to accept the impossibility of ever knowing anything (or anyone) for sure? These questions are central to The Infatuations, the latest book by Javier Marías.

The novel is narrated by María Dolz, a woman in her late thirties, who works for a publisher based in Madrid. Every day, María has breakfast at the same café where she sees a married couple who also take breakfast together on a daily basis. María can see how much this handsome man and woman enjoy each another’s company, as they talk, laugh and joke ‘as if they had only just met or met for the very first time’. María never speaks to her ‘Perfect Couple’ (as she thinks of them) but simply seeing them together and imagining their lives lifts her mood at the start of each day.

One day, the couple (Miguel and Luisa) are absent from the café; at first María assumes they have gone away on holiday and, deprived her morning fillip, she feels a little bereft at their absence. Later, she learns from a colleague that Miguel has been stabbed repeatedly and murdered by a homeless man in what appears to be a tragic case of mistaken identity. In fact, María had already seen the newspaper report of the murder (coupled with a photograph of a man lying in a pool of blood) without realizing that the victim was the husband from her Perfect Couple.

A few months later, María sees Luisa at the café again, accompanied this time by her two young children. After a while, the children depart for school leaving Luisa alone and María decides to offer the widow her condolences. She soon learns that Miguel and Luisa had also noticed her at the café; indeed they even had their own name for her, the ‘Prudent Young Woman’. Luisa is keen to talk, so she invites María to come to her home that evening where María meets the intriguing Javier Díaz-Varela, one of Miguel’s closest friends. Although María doesn’t see Luisa again for some time, she bumps into Javier purely by chance during a visit to the museum and the two become lovers. As María continues to see Javier, she learns a little more about his relationship with Luisa and uncovers other information which causes her to question Javier’s true motivations and desires…and these discoveries cast a different light on events and circumstances surrounding Miguel’s death.

What Marías does brilliantly in The Infatuations is to use the events surrounding Miguel’s murder to weave an elegant meditation addressing fundamental ideas about truth, chance, justice, love and mortality. There’s a philosophical, meandering, almost hypnotic quality to Marías’s writing. His extended sentences seem to capture a person’s thought process by giving us their initial perceptions or ideas, often followed by qualifications or even an alternative theory. And he softens the boundaries between thoughts and speech, too; once immersed in the middle of an extended passage, it isn’t always easy to tell whether you are listening to a character’s inner reflections or observing their conversation with another. This technique might sound a little confusing, but it isn’t at all; Marías pulls it off with tremendous skill and style, and Margaret Jull Costa’s translation is simply wonderful.

During this meditation, Marías offers us reflections on a number of existential themes. For example, how we cling to the dead, feeling ‘an initial temptation to join them, or at least to carry their weight and not let them go’; how the dead should never come back, however much we would like them to; how an unexpected or a particularly dramatic death can dominate our memories of that person, almost stealing part of their existence from them:

You could say that those who die such a death die more deeply, more completely, or perhaps they die twice over, in reality and in the memory of others, because their memory is forever lost in the glare of that stupid culminating event, is soured and distorted and also perhaps poisoned. (pg. 75)

Marías is particularly insightful when it comes to grief and how the death of a loved one affects those who remain. In this passage, María Dolz observes Luisa’s daughter, Carolina, with her mother in the café. It’s almost as though mother and daughter have swapped roles as Carolina tries to look after Luisa:

She kept one eye on her mother all the time, watching her every gesture and expression, and if she noticed that her mother was becoming too abstracted and sunk in her own thoughts, she would immediately speak to her, make some remark or ask a question or perhaps tell her something, as if to prevent her mother from becoming entirely lost, as if it made her sad to see her mother plunging back into memory. (pg. 41)

And the following passage on grief reflects some of my own experiences following the sudden death of my mother (many years ago now). There’s no finer example of why The Infatuations resonates so deeply with me:

And so, sooner or later, the grieving person is left alone when she has still not finished grieving or when she’s no longer allowed to talk about what remains her only world, because other people find that world of grief unbearable, repellent. She understands that for them sadness has a social expiry date, that no one is capable of contemplating another’s sorrow, that such a spectacle is tolerable only for a brief period, for as long as the shock and pain last and there is still some role for those who are there watching, who then feel necessary, salvatory, useful. But on discovering that nothing changes and that the affected person neither progresses nor emerges from her grief, they feel humiliated and superfluous, they find it almost offensive and stand aside: ‘Aren’t I enough for you? Why can’t you climb out of that pit with me by your side? Why are you still grieving when time has passed and I’ve been here all the while to console and distract you? If you can’t climb out, then sink or disappear’. And the grieving person does just that, she retreats, removes herself, hides. (pg. 64-65)

I loved The Infatuations (its Spanish title is ‘el enamoramiento’ – the state of falling or being in love, or perhaps infatuation). It’s intelligent, thought-provoking and superbly written; one to savour and revisit in the future. I don’t want to say very much more about the novel’s plot or Miguel’s death, but Marías sustains an air of mystery and ambiguity through to the finish leaving María Dolz to contemplate: ‘the truth is never clear, it’s always a tangled mess.’ (pg 326)

The Infatuations is published in the UK by Penguin Books. Page numbers refer to the paperback edition. Source: personal copy.

My review is here 

15 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. hastanton
    Apr 24, 2014 @ 12:21:27

    This is a brilliant review! I loved The Infatuations ( Altho my favourite Marias remains A Heart So White).

    Reply

    • jacquiwine
      Apr 24, 2014 @ 15:38:28

      Thank you! Yes, ‘A Heart So White’ is terrific. It’s the only other Marias novel I’ve read so far, but I’m keen to try a few more by him.

      Reply

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings
    Apr 24, 2014 @ 12:30:33

    Lovely review – I have a hardback copy I picked up in the charity shop on my shelf – can’t wait to read!

    Reply

  3. Tony
    Apr 24, 2014 @ 12:34:05

    Great review, Jacqui – but it really is time you got your own blog😉

    Reply

    • jacquiwine
      Apr 24, 2014 @ 15:50:47

      Thanks, Tony. I loved this one so much, and I discovered new things second time around. Yes, I guess I should start my own blog, but I’m very grateful to the IFFP shadow group and Naomi for hosting my guest posts!🙂

      Reply

  4. Bellezza
    Apr 25, 2014 @ 00:18:07

    Jacque, I know this novel spoke to us on many emotional levels, and you have done a marvelous job in reviewing it (something I found difficult to do). Your post also reminds me that in better get on with reading the last two of the short list I haven’t yet read: A Meal in Winter and The Iraqi Christ. The later I’m not particularly eager to read if I were completely frank.

    Reply

    • jacquiwine
      Apr 25, 2014 @ 17:19:06

      Thanks, Bellezza. Yes, I loved your ‘Infatuations’ review, and recall your reflections on the sections concerning grief. I guess these sections resonated with us as we’ve both lost someone very close…

      Really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on ‘A Meal in Winter’ and ‘The Iraqi Christ’ – I’ll keep an eye on your blog for forthcoming reviews.

      Reply

  5. Lisa Hill
    Apr 25, 2014 @ 02:52:43

    Lovely to see you here, Jacqui, but yes, I agree, it’s time you had your own blog, the network that has grown around Stu’s love of translated fiction wants to know more about the books you read!
    it’s fascinating to me to read your review and Stu’s and how both of you drew different but complementary insights. I think it’s the personal, the sharing of the self in these reviews that makes them so good to read:)

    Reply

    • jacquiwine
      Apr 25, 2014 @ 17:33:10

      Thanks, Lisa. Yes, I do need to get my act together on the technical front and start my own blog! Stu and my other IFFP friends have been very kind to publish some guest reviews, but they have their posts to manage. I shall try to get something started next month🙂

      That’s a great point about the sharing of the personal, how our individual life experiences give us different perspectives. I agree, it’s one of the interesting things about reading a variety of reviews of the same book..

      Reply

      • Lisa Hill
        Apr 25, 2014 @ 23:03:27

        Just one piece of advice from me, Jacqui, and that’s: just do it. Go to wordpress.com, and sign up, it is so easy, if you can type, you can have a blog. In the beginning nobody but you knows its web address, so you don’t need to worry that it has to be a professional looking effort from the get-go, and if you go with WordPress the support is great and there are lots of helpful videos on how to do things.

    • jacquiwine
      May 09, 2014 @ 07:19:15

      Hi Lisa, I’m all set up on WordPress now – I’m at http://jacquiwine.wordpress.com/

      I’ll be posting my IFFP reviews over the next couple of weeks, followed by new reviews. Thanks again for your encouragement. Jacqui x

      Reply

  6. jacquiwine
    Apr 27, 2014 @ 07:18:57

    Cheers Lisa, that’s great advice. I’ll definitely go with WordPress!

    Reply

  7. Trackback: The Infatuations by Javier Marías, tr. by Margaret Jull Costa | JacquiWine's Journal
  8. Trackback: My Books of the Year – 2014 | JacquiWine's Journal

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