Thursday 20 June 2013

'The Infatuations' by Javier Marías (Review)

After the success of A Heart So White, the only question for me was which Javier Marías work to try next.  Should I look for one of his older works, or could I wait until his next one was released in a few months' time?  Which is when I discovered that the new novel was actually already out in the UK (and Australia), and that my library had a copy available...

The Infatuations (translated, once again, by Margaret Jull Costa) takes place in Madrid, where we follow María Dolz, a young woman working in publishing, who comes to a cafe every morning before work to prepare herself mentally for the day ahead.  Often she sees a man and a woman there, a pair she silently dubs 'The Perfect Couple', and though she never makes contact beyond occasional nods and glances, they become part of her routine.

The couple disappear for a while, and María eventually finds out that the man, Miguel Desvern, was killed in a tragic, senseless street attack.  María sees the wife, Luisa, again one day and condoles her.  She is invited back to the house, and meets a family friend, Javier Díaz-Varela... and it all gets a little bit suspicious from here.  You see, while María is infatuated with Javier (who is happy to have some fun), he only has eyes for the fair widow - which leads the attentive reader to think a little harder about the circumstances of poor Miguel's untimely demise...

The Infatuations is the story of a death which turn out to be less straight-forward and tragic than it first appears.  It soon becomes clear that there is a lot more to the story than what was publicly reported.  However, every time the reader starts to understand (or think they understand) what happened, the writer shifts the goals, changing the question and giving us more food for thought.  While the plot could be a thriller, the way Marías handles it makes it much more.

It's another deeply written work, a novel where every word seems important, or possibly important.  The success of the book depends on the narrative voice, and it's a very good one.  María (sarcastic, hard-bitten, cynical, but loving) tells us the story, one of love, loss, death and murder.  While María is suspicious of Javier's intentions, what interests her (and the reader) is how it all happened - and why.

María's connection with the couple is an interesting one in itself.  Despite seeing them on a regular basis for years, she never gets to talk to them - modern life is busy, and we are left with no time to reflect.  After Miguel's death, she catches herself thinking about ambulances, and the way we moan at delays in traffic instead of thinking about the poor soul inside the vehicle.  Of course, we always think about the dead when it's too late... 

But no matter how much we mourn the dead, do we really want them back?  Marías gently prods at the sore spots of our conscience, suggesting that this is not always the case.  Often, the one left behind is (eventually) better off, and Luisa, in her muddled, grief-affected way, seems to recognise this:
"Like I say, it's changed my way of thinking, and it's as if I don't recognise myself any more; or, rather, it seems to me sometimes that I never knew myself in my previous life, and that Miguel didn't know me either: he couldn't have, it would have been beyond him, isn't that strange?  If the real me is this woman constantly making all these connections and associations, things that a few months ago would have seemed to me completely disparate and unrelated; if I am the person I've been since his death, that means that for him I was always someone else, and had he lived, I would have continued to be the person I'm not, indefinitely."
p.53 (Hamish Hamilton, 2013) 
More importantly, Javier is a firm believer in this philosophy, and hopes that time will heal all wounds...

As much as it is about death and loss, The Infatuations (as you'd expect from the name) also examines love and lust (with a slightly Latin slant).  The book has several overlapping couples, chains of lovers waiting to see which way to jump.  While Javier pursues Luisa, María waits patiently with another lover for distraction:
"...with a little bad luck and a few more lovers of the kind who allow themselves to be loved and neither reject nor reciprocate that love, the chain could have gone on for ever.  A series of people lined up like dominoes, all waiting for the surrender of one entirely oblivious woman, to find out who would fall next to them." (pp.125/6)
It's an endless chain of hopeful lovers waiting for one grieving widow to move on...

Another interesting aspect to the novel is the clever intertwining of stories from classic French fiction with the main story.  Balzac's Colonel Chabert (a story of a man returning from the dead, and the consequences of his return) and Dumas' The Three Musketeers (particularly the part about the origins and return of the ominous Milady) become key to Marías' story, but gradually and skillfully, so that the reader only slowly becomes aware of the significance of the books.  There is also a mention for Old Goriot and (of course!) Macbeth - I am beginning to sense that Marías is obsessed with this play ;)

There are similar themes here to those found in A Heart So White, particularly the idea of letting the past stay there, and the style is again a wonderful creation of long sentences and phrases whose significance only becomes clear later on.  However, there are also some striking differences.  María's voice gives the novel a very different slant, and the humour of the publishing world (hated writers, boring parties, delicately turning down requests to source class-A narcotics...) makes a welcome relief from some of the darker episodes.

One criticism I had is that it is a little slow at times, particularly in the conversations between Javier and María (which appear to be happening at real-life speed...).  Nevertheless, the story keeps the reader's attention to the very end, and (just as in real life) our questions are never truly answered.  After 350 pages, we're no closer to uncovering Marías' secrets than we were at the start - which can be a good thing.

Great writing, and a good story.  If I were a betting man, I'd be putting a few bob on this to make next year's IFFP longlist (and possibly shortlist).  You heard it here first ;)