The Infatuations by Javier Marías
ReviewIs there such as thing as chance, asks Javier Marías's masterly new novel
Friday 1 March 2013 17.30 GM
he strict sequence of events that makes up our lives seems to us, as it takes place, haphazard. A chance encounter, a sudden death, love at first sight, an overheard conversation, all belong, we imagine, not to a tightly plotted thriller but to the erratic jottings of a distracted dreamer. A woman might notice a couple meeting every day in the same cafe, discover later that the man has been stabbed to death by a demented beggar, and decide to speak to the widow the next time she sees her. Each of these events seems whimsical and arbitrary and yet, as Javier Marías shows in this masterly novel, chance is nothing but the result of our own negligent reading. Read in the proper order, from the first to the last chapter, everything we do and everything we witness, however unlikely or disconnected, fits into a story in which we are both narrators and protagonists.
Such is the case of María Dolz, a middle-aged woman who works for a Madrid publisher, who witnesses the couple's meetings, and then their absence; who discovers in the papers the murder of the husband, a certain Miguel Desverne; and who seeks out the widow, Luisa Alday, to offer her condolences. As it happens, Dolz meets Alday's new companion, a handsome man called Díaz Varela, who was Desverne's best friend. Dolz becomes infatuated with Díaz Varela and, shortly afterwards, they begin an intermittent sexual relationship.
"Infatuations" is the only possible English translation for the "enamoramientos" of the original title. Margaret Jull Costa, with her habitual skill, has rendered Marías's precise, somewhat laconic Spanish into graceful and equally laconic English, but the title necessarily defeats her. "Enamoramiento" is the act of falling in love, briefly but not less passionately; "infatuation" (the dictionary tells us) is to become inspired with intense fondness, admiration, even folly; unfortunately, in the English term, love is absent. As Dolz's lovely last words have it, after the end of an "enamoramiento" we continue to sense the loved one's presence, "knowing that he is still on our horizon, from which he has not entirely vanished, and that we cannot see, in the distance, the dust from his fleeting feet".
Dolz's narrative is studded with questions: What is her new lover's involvement with the widow? What are his true feelings towards both women? Did he have a hand in the husband's murder? And above all, what is her own role in the convoluted plot into which she seems to have fallen? Who, in fact, is she?
The classical themes of love, death and fate are explored with elegant intelligence by Marías in what is perhaps his best novel so far. The story's literary underpinnings are Macbeth (as is usual in Marías), Balzac's Colonel Chabert and, more surprisingly, Dumas's The Three Musketeers, all glossed by Díaz Varela, who paternalistically instructs Dolz on the importance these three books have for him. Central to Marías's novel is Balzac's colonel, a man supposed dead who returns among the living, much like the dead Desverne returns to haunt the minds of the survivors. Over this literary chorus echoes a grisly observation quoted by Díaz Varela from the Musketeer saga: "A murder, nothing more." For Dolz, the banality of murder implied in Dumas's words becomes translated as murder's monstrous immutability. "A thief can give back the thing he stole, a slanderer can acknowledge his calumny," Dolz thinks to herself. "The trouble with murder is that it's always too late and you cannot restore to the world the person you killed." She adds: "And if, as they say, there is no forgiveness, then, whenever necessary, you must continue along the road taken." Except that, eventually, the murderer will no longer think of his crime "as a monstrous exception or a tragic mistake, but, rather, as another resource that life offers to the boldest and toughest." He will feel as if he has simply inherited the terrible action, or won it at a raffle "from which no one is exempt". And this feeling will lead him to believe "that he didn't wholly commit those acts, or not at least alone". In these extraordinary words, Marías has defined the ethos of our time.
Marías is an old hand at hoodwinking the reader, layering his novels with plots that seem, each one, final, but then suddenly blossom into something unexpected. In The Infatuations, Marías may have been thinking of Macbeth's address to the witches: "If you can look into the seeds of time,/ And say which grain will grow and which will not,/ Speak then to me." Neither the reader nor the protagonists are capable of such foresight, but the clear knowledge that every event, however minuscule, might develop into a sprawling web of roots and branches, lends every detail in the novel (as it does in detective fiction) a possibly dangerous meaning. Over the events in the The Infatuations, this other, untold and latent story casts an ominous and uneasy shadow.
"Once you've finished a novel," says Díaz Varela to Dolz, "what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel's imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot that we recall far more vividly than real events and to which we pay far more attention."