The Infatuations, by Javier Marías
An intriguing murder mystery brings a Joycean sense of new possibilities
“The last time I saw Miguel Desvern . . .” The Infatuations begins, introducing the character who appears to be the important one, the focus of desire suggested by the novel’s title. But by the final chapter Miguel is no more. Laid to rest would be a kind way of putting it. But really he’s been vanished, erased, replaced. He has been murdered, that’s true, and we know this almost from the first page. But the how and the why of the murder are less urgent than the process, no less brutal, of his erasure. Desvern’s murder presents a mystery in conventional thriller mode. But Javier Marías is less interested in the solving of it than he is in working out what his death must mean, for the defunct as well as for the people around him who go on living.
As his narrator, María, insists time and again, she is not a detective. She works in a publishing house, but what she is, above all, is a philosopher. Relentlessly, she speculates on existence, love and the implications for both of death and the passage of time.
She has long had the habit, María tells us, of breakfasting at the same cafe, and for nearly as long has been watching from afar a husband and wife who also have breakfast there. They’re personable, attractive. And to observe their connubial happiness makes her briefly happy before she goes off to pass the day at the publisher’s, dealing with tiresome writers. She thinks of her breakfast pair as the Perfect Couple.
One day she sees in a newspaper a photograph of the man, lying bloodied and dying in the street. He has been stabbed. It is only then that she finds out his name, Miguel Desvern, or possibly Deverne, and his wife’s name, which is Luisa.
Some time later she takes the opportunity to commiserate with Luisa, who confides in her with the intensity that grief imparts. Luisa introduces her to Javier Díaz-Varela, a friend of her dead husband. Díaz-Varela is clearly besotted with Luisa. But María falls in love – this is one of the few things she is sure about – with him, and they have a casual affair, conducted on his terms. And she begins to indulge not so much suspicions as speculations that her lover was involved in the murder of his friend.
It’s a plot that in the hands of a traditional and less interesting novelist could have been walked down predictable pathways. Murky business dealings in the underworld of Madrid, a treacherous wife perhaps, a hit man from Buenos Aires, an increasing body count . . . And Marías does toy with these and other possibilities, but for the most part he eschews them. After all, María (Marías likes to toy with names as well) is a woman who thinks and imagines; she doesn’t believe much in reality. Nor does she care, as she tells us disdainfully more than once, about the problem of justice and injustice.
Indeed, it’s quite a feat that María, few vestiges of whose own reality are disclosed, should be able to hold our attention as she does. She has no past. We are told nothing about her family or friends or previous lovers. She is fully engaged only when she is being disparaging about the vanities and idiocies of her writer clients. Of her domestic life we learn only that from her bed she likes to observe the trees outside her apartment building when they are agitated by the wind. In her meditations and speculations she is not so much obsessed as an embodiment of obsession.
Discursive, digressive, repetitive, she speaks in a style reminiscent of the French nouveau roman. Statements are restated, reiterated, qualified and modified. Events and conversations that María imagines and invents are granted just as much significance in relation to the action as ones that are real – though what is real is never certain either. And if this implies that the novel is gnomic or obscure, it’s not. It’s clear and transparent, even to a pedantic degree.
Preferring the comma to the stop, Mar í as’s extended, many-claused sentences equally have a Jamesian quality. Not that he affords the same pleasures and challenges as the great Henry James, but then our contemporary mores and sensibilities are also less exquisite than, say, Isabel Archer’s in The Portrait of a Lady . His brocade has to be worked with more brittle threads on a synthetic fabric. There is a scene, for example, wry but squirm-making, where María is faced with a dilemma that would never be Isabel’s. Should she wear a bra with her rumpled skirt, or should she not, as she emerges from Díaz-Varela’s bedroom (indeed, should she emerge at all?) to confront a delicate and potentially perilous situation?
Regular readers of Javier Marías will recognise his themes and concerns, repeated across his several novels. The questionable nature of reality, the greater truth of fictions, the mysteries of love and death. In The Infatuations a character can be a quixotic hero or a treacherous villain, depending on what story you believe.
He’s an intriguing, deeply European writer. But what makes him exciting is not just his way of seeing but his way of writing. María’s ruminations – hypnotic, banal and profound by turns – open up, in the spirit of Joyce, a sense of new possibilities.
Anne Haverty’s most recent novel is The Free and Easy .