Book review: The Infatuations by Javier Marías

THE author of this compelling crime thriller leads a life as surprising as any plot twist or turn. Hannah McGill is hooked.

THE author of this compelling crime thriller leads a life as surprising as any plot twist or turn. Hannah McGill is hooked.

The Infatuations by Javier Marías

Hamish Hamilton, £18.99

THIS cerebral, coolly compelling crime novel appears in the first instance to have one of those observant but passive narrators recognisable from works such as The Great Gatsby, Brideshead Revisited and The Secret History: a bystander who reports on the main action without doing a great deal to alter its course. As it turns out Maria, our guiding voice here, gets a little closer to the flame than the reader is initially given to expect – and responds in a rather more complex way. But the lines between passive and active participation, individual and shared responsibility, indirect influence and direct instruction, also turn out to be central to the novel as a whole. When is a murder not a murder? What influences might play in, above, beyond and perhaps behind the hand that grips the weapon? Can a great love justify a destructive act – and could killing somebody ever be the right thing to do?

Maria is a solitary young Madrid woman employed by a publishing house – largely, it seems, to babysit obnoxious writers, who are given to calling her to ask which socks they should team with their outfits. She sources secondhand glamour not from these fêted figures, but from a couple she sees every day in the café where she breakfasts. Well-dressed, confident, a little older than she, this pair – whose names she gleans to be Miguel and Luisa – make ­Maria happy with their obvious happiness. When tragedy befalls them, their watcher has a choice: let go of the fantasy of their relationship, or wade in and involve herself in the aftermath of its abrupt curtailment? She picks the latter path; and duly makes discoveries that both round out and challenge her simplistic characterisation of Miguel and Luisa­ as ‘The ­Perfect Couple’. One revelation is that she has been a character for them as well: they call her, ‘The Prudent Young Woman’, and that soubriquet too turns out to have both insight and dark ­inaccuracy to it.

Having instilled herself in what remains of the couple’s life, Maria meets their friend Javier, and is drawn into a relationship that appeals both in its own right, and as a way to find out more about her favourite couple. (It also creates a pairing – Javier and Maria – which forms a playful echo of the author’s name.) As its title suggests, much of what occurs in Marías’ novel is powered by the supposed passion stirred by one character for another, and this primacy of emotion does not languish unanalysed: over screeds of conversation and conjecture, these characters assess love and what it might drive them to do.

Yet Marías, perversely, takes a distinctly non-carnal approach to this romantically charged subject matter. We must take his word that these characters are hot for one another, since the prose keeps a fastidious distance from the meat of their affairs. (Although Marías does fall into a strangely common trap of the male writer occupying a female perspective: that of supposing women spend a lot of time thinking about their breasts.)

This is a mature, thoughtful take on potboilerish content: a crime thriller seen through a philosophical and literary ­filter, which, while it dwells ­little on the gory details of its central misdeeds, can find ­copious pages on which to ­synopsise and muse on slightly relevant texts by Balzac and Dumas.

This constant backgrounding of drama in favour of ­theory can get a bit much, as can Marías’ style, which favours tremendously long sentences, hooked together by multiple commas, which pile clause upon clause, sometimes 20 or 30 of them without a full stop – though sometimes dashes crop up – to break their tumble down the page, a habit that can be rather hypnotic, but can also tell on the patience of the reader, confuse her, send her scanning back, looking for the start of the point, or simply yearning for a semi-colon, to provide a little extra space, to permit her mind to catch its breath… But neither the defiantly cerebral cast of Marías’ prose, nor this demanding prose style, prevent The Infatuations from gripping the attention. Its protagonist intrigues from the start, when we don’t know whether she’s an innocent chronicler of other’s deeds, or a malign influence thereon; and its discussions on literature, love and responsibility offer a degree of exercise for the brain not commonly found in tales of lust and murder.

Smart, thoughtful, morally challenging and consistently surprising in its tense twists, this is a sleek atmospheric work – one that gives the lie to its persistent contention that fiction and “the idiotic world of publishing” have nothing much to tell us about our lives. But then, Marías may have specific axes to grind: he runs his own small press, which is named Reino de Redonda in tribute to his further surprising sideline: being king of the Caribbean micro-nation of Redonda. And there’s something you don’t get to say about many novelists. Marías, it seems, is no more predictable a figure than the characters he creates.