Perhaps it is not so much that the characters are thinly developed but that it is hard to make them out through the scrim of their Dostoevskian lucubrations.
The Infatuations by Javier Marías. Translated, from the Spanish, by Margaret Jull Costa. Knopf, 338 pp., $26.95.
By David Mehegan.
In this sixth of the Spanish writer Javier Marías’s novels to be published in the United States, we are led through a ruminative and ponderous exploration of the aftermath of murder and the personal responsibilities borne by the perpetrators and bystanders. Rumination, as is clear from the conduct of any cow in the field, is a slow process. Although it is not long, The Infatuations feels slow and oddly bulky.
Set in present-day Madrid, the story is narrated by María Dolz, a single woman in her mid-30s with an administrative job at a book publisher. She does not seem to be an editor, though she has considerable dealings with various authors, for most of whom she shows contempt. María is decidedly a ruminant and a speculator about people. Each morning before work, she breakfasts in a local café, where she has for some time observed a married couple with two young children. After they have their morning coffee, they leave as their children are whisked off to school by a chauffeur. María names them “the perfect couple.” As the novel begins, she tells us that her most recent sighting of them was her last, since Miguel, the husband, shortly after leaving the café, was stabbed to death in the street by a half-mad street person who mistakenly accused him of ruining his two daughters, who are prostitutes.
When she learns of the murder, María pays a condoling visit to Luisa, the widow. Luisa recognizes her from the café and greets her warmly, telling her, “We used to call you ‘the prudent young woman.’” Luisa is nearly overcome with grief. She goes through the motions of life because she must for the sake of the children, but in all her waking hours she is tormented with the horrifying fate of Miguel, who was practically butchered with 19 wounds. That she would pour this out in extended detail to a complete stranger is only the first of this novel’s improbabilities. During the visit, the dead man’s best friend, Javier Díaz-Varela, arrives for a visit, and it becomes clear that he is doing all that he can to help the family. “He gave the impression,” María tells us, “of being a habitual, almost continuous presence in that house or in that life, that of Luisa the widow.”
María is fascinated with Javier, and soon they are sleeping together, although aside from an accidental meeting at a museum and a date for a drink, the liaison is so matter-of-factly stated that it is not clear exactly how it happens. She thinks he is beautiful and tells us that she is in love with him, but it is a strangely passionless love. She believes (apparently with good reason) that he is only keeping her around for minor amusement while he waits for Luisa, whom he loves, to get over Miguel. In the meantime, she herself keeps a dull secondary lover. She is comfortable enough with this situation, notwithstanding her love for Javier (declared to us, though apparently never to him). After all, what really interests María is not sex or work or friends but rather figuring people out. Her driving force is curiosity, the need to find out how the story ends. When she observes Javier’s attentiveness to Luisa, she imagines (within quotation marks) an extended conversation between the two friends in which Miguel has a premonition of death and makes Javier promise to take care of Luisa. This conversation goes on for so long — several pages — that we almost forget that she is daydreaming.
Then one day, dozing in bed after a coupling at Javier’s apartment, she hears a coarse male visitor outside the bedroom engaged in intense conversation with Javier. She feigns sleeps as he comes in to check on her, then tiptoes to the door to eavesdrop, hearing enough to conclude that there was more to Miguel’s death than she or anyone else had believed. At this point, you might assume that I have given away the plot, but in fact it has enough unexpected twists to keep the reader confused and surprised.
This is a work of fiction, about a character who works with fiction writers. In places, such as in the case of her imagined dialogue between Miguel and Javier, María herself is functioning like an imaginative writer. As for the crime at the center of the novel, she witnessed nothing and sees no direct evidence — everything she knows, except for the photograph of the dead man in the newspaper, is reported to her by someone else, so she has to picture it, imagine it. At the same time, two classic French works of fiction figure in the story: Honoré de Balzac’s 1832 novella Colonel Chabert and Alexandre Dumas’s Three Musketeers. Javier brings up the former and describes it to María in detail, to make the point that Luisa must and will eventually get over the loss of Miguel. In it, a French officer is grievously wounded in the 1807 Napoleonic Battle of Eylau and believed killed. His widow remarries and has a comfortable new life. But the officer did not die, and when he returns years later to claim his wife, she refuses to believe that it is him. In the second novel, which comes to María’s mind, Athos, one of the Musketeers, tells of marrying in his youth a 16-year-old girl. When he discovers that she has been a prostitute, he kills her. Again, somehow she survives and reappears in the novel as the unscrupulous older woman, Milady. María ruminates obsessively on these two stories and on how they apply to Miguel, Luisa, and Javier.
At the start of one chapter, María tells us that Díaz-Varela “had a marked tendency to discourse and expound and digress, as I have noticed to be the case with many of the writers I meet at the publishing house, as if it weren’t enough for them to fill pages and pages with their thoughts and stories. . . .” This might be a playful dig by Marías at himself or his critics, since it is the very complaint they have often made about his style. Indeed one of the features of his storytelling manner is long psychological/moral/philosophical disquisitions in the mouths of characters, often in the form of paragraphs that go on for pages. Here is a small piece of Javier’s extended comment to María on Luisa’s predicament:
“’What seems like a tragic anomaly today will be perceived as an inevitable and even desirable normality, given that it will have happened. Right now it seems to her unbelievable that Miguel should no longer exist, but a time will come when it will seem incomprehensible that he could ever be restored to life, that he could ever exist, when merely imagining a miraculous reappearance, a resurrection, a return, will seem to her intolerable, because she will already have assigned him a place in time, both him and his character frozen for ever, and she will not allow that fixed and finished portrait to be exposed once more to the changes that afflict everything that is still alive and therefore unpredictable. We tend to hope that, of the people and habits we cherish, no one will die and none will end, not realizing that the only thing that maintains those habits intact is their sudden withdrawal, with no possible alteration or evolution, because they can abandon us or we abandon them . . .’” etc., etc.
Intelligent and eloquent this is, to be sure, but completely impossible as dialogue. Since no one in the world speaks in these carefully crafted essays, Marías occasionally throws in a marker to remind us that this is supposed to be somebody talking: “Díaz-Varela stopped, as if this long enumeration had left him momentarily drained. He poured himself another drink and took a long thirsty draught of it. He lit another cigarette.” There is much such sipping of drinks and lighting of cigarettes in this book. While María is not so loquacious, her thoughts similarly go on in perfect cadences for page after page, often within quotation marks as if they had been spoken:
“’If only Javier had died,’ I found myself thinking that evening, while I took one step after another. ‘If only he were to die right now and didn’t answer when I ring the bell because he’s lying on the floor, forever motionless, unable to discuss anything with me and with me unable to speak to him. If he were dead, all my doubts and fears would be dispelled, I wouldn’t have to hear his words or wonder what to do. Nor could I fall into the temptation of kissing him or going to bed with him, deluding myself with the idea that it would be the last time. I could keep silent for ever [sic] without worrying about Luisa, still less about justice, I could forget about [Miguel], after all, I never actually knew him, or only by sight for several years, during the time it took me to eat my breakfast each morning. . . . Why try to find out the truth, keeping silent is the far easier option, there’s no need to trouble the world with stories of those who are already themselves corpses and therefore deserve a little pity, even if only because they have been stopped in their tracks, have ended and no longer exist. Our age is not one in which everything must be judged or at least known about; innumerable crimes go unresolved or unpunished because no one knows who committed them . . .’” etc., etc.
Since she is thinking here and not speaking, there’s no need to stop to “take a long thirsty draught” or light a cigarette.
It might strike some readers, as it did me, that these two voices sound remarkably alike; indeed the widow Luisa’s long reflection on her bereavement also sounds quite a bit like this. It is almost as if these characters, who are thinly developed, are convenient mouthpieces for the controlling intelligence who invented them and is using them to explore certain psychological and moral themes, especially how society remembers and forgets terrible crimes and those who are its victims. It is fitting that one character is named Javier and the other is named María, since the author seems to be talking to himself. Perhaps it is not so much that the characters are thinly developed but that it is hard to make them out through the scrim of their Dostoevskian lucubrations. I have to say that in many cases I did not believe that either of them, notwithstanding their explanations, would behave as the author has them do. María takes a risk to her safety at one point that, given what she knows of the danger (and her caution early in the book), struck me as incredible. Likewise, Javier’s account of his own conduct, and its happy outcome revealed at the end, did not seem to me faintly believable.
Perhaps these are unimaginative questions, applied as they are to an international literary figure who has published, as the book jacket tells us, “thirteen novels, three story collections, and nineteen works of collected articles and essays.” (Marías is also a book publisher and a weekly columnist for the Madrid newspaper El Pais.) Possibly Javier and María are meant to be unreliable narrators. But it seems to me that there is a difference between an unreliable narrator and an unreliable author. Granting the manifest talent at the keyboard, The Infatuations had to me the hurried, less than fully fleshed-out feel of a studio exercise by a very busy writer.
David Mehegan is a contributing writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.