Is anything what it seems to be? Is there anything like a chance encounter, and if there is, what are the chances that it does not have the power to change the course of lives of all those involved?
In Spanish author Javier Marías’ universe, at least, the possibilities are ample. The Infatuations (translated from the Spanish novel, El Enamoramientos, by Margaret Jull Costa), is the latest novel by one of Spain’s most celebrated contemporary writers. Slot it as a murder mystery if you will, but don’t expect bloodshed or a knuckle-biting plot which races ahead of itself to make you dizzy. What Marías does, instead, and does so well, is suck the reader into myriad ruminations on love, life, death and the human mind.
Maria Dolz, an editor at a publishing house in Madrid, has a curious morning routine which involves a dapper middle-aged couple, whom she calls the ‘Perfect Couple’. For a few years, Dolz watches Miguel Deverne and his wife Luisa eat breakfast at a local café. Without having exchanged a word with the handsome couple, Dolz is quite drawn to the Devernes because “the nicest thing about them was seeing how much they enjoyed each other’s company.”
She notices the little things that make Miguel endearing -- the respectful manner in which he addresses the waiters and his ever-trusting eyes, for instance. Under Marías’ pen, Dolz is a most discerning, if voyeuristic, observer. Take, for instance, her thoughts on Miguel’s chin -- “He had a cleft chin, which reminded me of a film starring Robert Mitchum, or Cary Grant or Kirk Douglas…and in which an actress places one finger on the actor’s dimpled chin and asks how he manages to shave in there every morning. Every morning, it made me feel like getting up from my table, going over to Deverne and asking him the same question, and, in turn, gently prodding his chin with my thumb or forefinger. He was very well-shaven, dimple included.”
Life and numerous breakfasts go on until, one day, the couple stops coming to the cafe. Dolz finds that, strangely, the interruption in routine has left her quite bereft. She does not even make the connection between the couple and the photograph of a man in the local newspaper who was stabbed violently on the street. She soon finds out that Miguel has been murdered by a madman who actually mistook him for someone else. After much trepidation, she musters the courage to walk up to Miguel’s widow, Luisa, and is inadvertently sucked into a life which takes her on an affair with Miguel’s best friend, Javier Díaz-Varela. He, however, has his own secrets and Dolz soon finds herself walking into an unexpectedly twisted situation.
Marías is a man of many words, indeed. He experiments with feelings, of course, but what jumps out of the pages is the way he teases language and grammar. The Infatuations is full of incredibly long sentences, held together by multiple commas and clauses. One train of thought leads to another, and another, and this often goes on for a couple of pages. Yet, not once does Marías lose the reader. You cotton on, nodding to ideas both simple, candid and bizarre.
There is no thought -- be it about love, loss, death, or about a decision Dolz must make (for instance, whether she must wear a bra before walks into a room with a stranger in it) -- which is not speculated at length.
And there, right there, lies Marías’ biggest strength as a storyteller. His understanding of human failings is as deep as of human achievement, and he is not afraid to wonder about it at length. No event is isolated or without consequence, and Marías manages this feat even by allowing something to happen only once in four to five pages. The rest has characters pontificating and taking one of those delicious detours.
One of the high points of the novel is when Díaz-Varela reads out Honoré de Balzac’s 1832 novella, Le Colonel Chabert, to Dolz. Here, Marías explores the difficult circumstance of a man returning from the dead, and draws a parallel to the way Miguel occupies Luisa’s mind and, thus, in a matter of saying, ‘returns from the dead’ from time to time and haunts her. Marías plays with ideas that few acknowledge -- that, sometimes, the dead are better off dead, and that “there is no death that is not also, in some way, a relief that does not offer some advantage.”
In The Infatuations, even the mundane is philosophical and nothing is what it seems to be.
Published by Penguin