Maria, a woman in her thirties who works as an editor in a publishing house (where she dislikes and despises most of its authors) has breakfast every day in the same Madrid café.
The Infatuations by Javier Marias
Hamish Hamilton, 346pp, £18.99
She likes to watch a husband and wife who also breakfast there, and dubs them in her mind “the Perfect Couple”. One day they are missing, perhaps, she thinks, away on holiday. Then the man is murdered. She sees his photograph in the newspaper. There is apparently no mystery about the death. He has been stabbed by a deranged beggar apparently suffering from the delusion that the dead man had wronged him by making his daughters prostitutes.
A few weeks later, the widow is back at the café, with her young children. Maria impulsively approaches her to offer condolences. She learns that the Perfect Couple had a name for her in turn; they called her the “Prudent Young Woman”. The children are then collected and taken to school by a different man. The widow Luisa invites Maria to visit her. When she does so, they talk at length about the killing and bereavement. The other man, Javier, calls and is introduced as the dead husband’s best friend. Later Maria meets him again; they embark on an affair, even though it is clear that he really loves Luisa.
It sounds simple and straightforward enough, but nothing is simple in a Marias novel, partly because everything that is said and thought is subject to analysis and elaboration, and indeed much of the dialogue is not spoken, but consists of what the narrator supposes might have been said. This which is not said may be as revealing as what is said, may indeed be more truthful. On the other hand it may be quite mistaken and misleading. At the same time how much that is said is itself intended to mislead? Maria will discover that the circumstances of the murder were not as they appeared, but are they as she comes to suppose they may have been?
Marias is a remarkable novelist. You have to read him slowly, thinking about what he is saying, especially when his narrators goes off on a tangent which may last for many pages.
The Infatuations is, like all his books, very literary. The narrator broods on Macbeth’s response to the news of his wife’s death: “She should have died hereafter.” The best friend, Javier, draws her attention to Balzac’s novella, Le Colonel Chabert, the story of a French officer reputedly killed at the Battle of Eylau, who returns to France some years later and finds his wife married to another man. The dead shouldn’t come back, he says. Is he speaking about his murdered friend? Does he mean it’s a good thing he has gone? At the end of Balzac’s novella, the lawyer tells his clerk that “we lawyers see the same wicked feelings repeated over and over, and nothing can correct them, our offices are sewers that can never be washed clean.” But this too is ambiguous; after all, the function of a sewer is to carry the ordure away.
In the end an explanation of the murder may be offered to the narrator. But should she believe it? Should she question it? Should she, as it were, exhume the body? In doing so she would assume the responsibility of disturbing the new shape that the widow’s life has taken? She asks herself who she is to disturb the universe. Marias has written before about the power of the lie. But he also knows that the lie may make what would be insufferable tolerable. “Fiction,” one of his characters says, “has the ability to show us what we don’t know and what doesn’t happen”. Fiction is about revealing possibilities. Marias is less interested in telling a story – though there is always a story being told – than in extracting the significance of what is said, thought, supposed, imagined, and the relation of these things, of gestures also, to what is happening, has happened, or seems to have happened. He writes with restraint. “It is more horrifying,” he once said, “when something is insinuated” – rather than being thrown in your face. His novels are voyages of discovery – for himself first then for the reader. He finds out what he is writing about by writing it.
In one sense this book is a departure. In a Paris Review interview some six or seven years ago, he said that he found the idea of a male author using a female narrator “a little absurd” and implied that he didn’t think he could bring it off. Now he has. His “prudent young woman” rings true. That said, like his other narrators, she is more observer than actor; indeed her most important action may be the decision not to act – but then this is often the best course we can take.
The translation by Margaret Jull Costa, seems exemplary. By that, I mean that it reads naturally as English, yet retains a certain Spanish flavour.