Sunday 13 February 2022

Marías, I Just Read a Book by Marías...

 Having enjoyed a couple of novels by the Spanish writer Javier Marías – this and this – not long ago, I wasn't going to walk on by when I spotted another of his, The Infatuations, on the shelves of a Lichfield charity shop. It's an unfortunate title, the attempted translation of an untranslatable word, enamoramiento, meaning something like the process of falling in love. 'Infatuation' leaves out love and introduces an element of foolishness or delusion, but there is no noun, singular or plural, in English for falling in love. 
  But that is beside the point. The Infatuations is an enigmatic, hypnotically readable tale of love, murder and mystery told in the first person by a female narrator, María Dolz (whose Christian name almost replicates her creator's surname). The entire story is told through her perception of what is happening around her, fragmentary and baffled as it is. Although she has a (one-sided) love affair with one of the protagonists, she remains outside, the detached observer, trying to make sense of an increasingly mysterious and sinister situation.  She thinks, she thinks at great length, her thoughts enclosed in quotation marks as if they were speech. And her thoughts, like everything else in this novel, come in long, rolling, perfectly constructed sentences. At one point she even invents an extended, entirely conjectural, beautifully phrased dialogue between two of the characters, which draws the reader on for page after elegant page. Only later does the relevance of this imagined conversation become apparent. 
  The whole action of the novel is one long, evolving thought process, which begins with María watching a couple, evidently very happily married, whom she sees every morning in the Madrid café where she takes her breakfast. She is on nodding terms with them, nothing more, but the daily sighting cheers her and she likes to speculate about their happy life together (she is herself single). Then, one morning, they aren't there. Soon afterwards, María makes a shocking discovery: the husband has been murdered, stabbed on the street by a deranged vagrant. How could such a thing happen? How will his widow survive the loss? Is there more to this apparently random murder than meets the eye? For the rest of the novel, we follow María as she teases out some answers to these questions – or fails to – and the picture becomes at once clearer and more mystifying, the situation less resolvable. It's a fascinating process, expertly orchestrated by Marías, and I found it utterly absorbing, right to the end.
 The ghost of Macbeth hovers over The Infatuations, as it does (more obviously) over A Heart So White, but the strongest literary presence is a novella by Balzac, Colonel Chabert, about a Napoleonic officer apparently killed in battle who returns from the dead to find his wife remarried. This is discussed, more than once, at length. Also present is The Three Musketeers, specifically the grisly incident when Athos, in an earlier life, discovers his wife's criminal past and hangs her from the nearest tree (as she goes on to become Milady de Winter, this death too lacks finality). María works in publishing, a profession of which, in its present condition, she takes a dim view, regarding her firm's authors as a tiresome, vain and talentless bunch. One of them, permanently convinced he is about to win the Nobel prize – so convinced that he has his speech prepared, in Swedish – might even be a mocking self-portrait of Marías, an obviously Nobel-worthy writer who has yet to get the call from Stockholm. 
  This very fine, highly distinctive novel gave me a lot of reading pleasure – what more can you ask? I'm glad I spotted it, shelved among the run-of-the-mill Fiction A-Z, on that charity bookshop shelf. 

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