Thursday, October 16, 2014

The infatuations - Javier Marias

With The infatuations, Spanish novelist Javier Marias sets another worthy effort alongside the long string of novels he’s given us already, the high points of which are perhaps A Heart So White (1992), Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me (1994), and the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow (2002-04-07). This new work possesses many of the qualities that have made his earlier ones so engaging: a ruminative yet mesmerizing narrative style, a touch of voyeurism, a crime or suspected crime, extensive analysis of a few lines of Shakespeare or the plot twist in a nineteenth-century novel, and an element of slowly accumulating suspense. It also introduces a new element—a female narrator.

Although the book is 330 pages long, the plot could be related in a few paragraphs. (Anyone who plans to read the book might want to stop right here, though I’m not going to give everything away. Those who don’t mind knowing a  little about “what happens,” read on.)
The narrator, a publishing executive named Maria, enjoys watching a middle-aged couple eat their breakfast every morning across the café from where she sits. They seem to her “the perfect couple,” always attentive to one another, always at ease, always laughing. 

One morning the man (his name, we later learn, is Miguel) is murdered on the street by a homeless man who mistakes him for someone else. Maria reads about it in the papers, and a few weeks later she steps across the café to the widow’s table to convey her condolences, whereupon Luisa greets her cordially and invites her over for a chat. Just as Maria had been observing her, Luisa and Miguel had also been observing Maria during those months they all shared a breakfast spot. They had referred to her as The Prudent Young Woman.

At Luisa’s apartment the two women have a long talk, full of nuances regarding the fact that they seem to know one another well, though they’re almost complete strangers. Maria feels that at any moment the veil will drop, Luisa will return to her state of despondency, and the two will never meet again. Later than night another man arrives—Javier, Miguel’s best friend, whom Miguel had entreated to “look after” Luisa, should any mishap befall him. Maria doesn’t know who he is, but finds it interesting observing his behavior, the familiar tone he adopts with Luisa—and the fact that in introducing Maria to Javier, Luisa can’t remember her name.

Maria soon becomes Javier’s lover, they discuss The Perfect Couple, the senseless murder, and a number of other things. But one evening at his apartment Maria eavesdrops on a conversation that seems to implicate Javier in his best friend’s death. Javier suspects that Maria heard the conversation, and he invites her over to “explain” what really happened. Should she go?

I will leave prospective readers the pleasure (or dread) of finding out for themselves what happens to Javier, Luisa, and Maria herself. My thumbnail sketch fails to even hint at (though readers of Marias’s earlier novels have come to expect such things) how much time Maria, and more especially Javier, spend teasing out how various elements of causation, motivation, chance and fate work in the world.

A single line from Macbeth resurfaces throughout the narrative: “She should have died hereafter.”  And perhaps the timing of Miguel’s death was equally inopportune. But for what reason? Meanwhile, elements of a Balzac novella about a soldier who returns from the dead only to find himself unwanted, and a few plot elements from The Three Musketeers, also serve an explanatory or meditative function.

And then there is the element of enamoramiento. It’s Important enough to serve as the title of the book. Javier claims there is no good translation into English, though “infatuation,” he suggests, may come close. Yet infatuation is by definition shallow, or at any rate doomed to be deflated—that’s what the word means—whereas the emotion Javier is describing is anything but.

It’s very rare to have a weakness, a genuine weakness for someone, and for that someone to provoke in us that feeling of weakness. That’s the determining factor, they break down our objectivity and disarm us in perpetuity, so that we cave in over every dispute…Generally speaking…people don’t experience such feelings for another adult, nor do they hope to. They don’t wait, they’re impatient, prosaic, perhaps they don’t even want to experience that feeling because it seems inconceivable, and so they get together with or get married to the first likely person they meet, which is not so very odd, in fact, it’s always been the norm….

Javier has long had such feelings toward Luisa—his best friend’s wife.

Fans of Marias’s earlier works will find much to enjoy in The Infatuations, yet the plot ends up being a little less compelling than it may sound. Maria is not a dynamic character, and Javier, prolix and full of cunning, cynical distain, worldly wisdom, and self-control, exhibits few qualities we can admire. Marias has made it easy for himself by leaving the widow, Luisa, and her dealings with Javier, largely out of the picture. She may provoke weakness in Javier, but we don’t see much of the effect she has on him face to face.

An added difficulty is that most of the book consists in complicated conversations that Maria is remembering. Yet Javier does most of the talking, and in one section running to many pages, she tells us what she remembers of Javier’s long-winded description of what he thinks she is thinking about what he may or may not have done—rather than simply telling her what he actually did do. She admits to us that whenever you hear a story being told, during the time you’re in its grip you believe it to be true. But the question continues to loom: is Javier really a murderer? Should she be sitting across from him late at night, mesmerized by the unending flow of words?

Finally, there is no way for us to know whether Javier and Miguel were good friends or not in the first place. We never actually see them interact. Yet it would appear that it hardly matters, once someone is in the grip of that weakness, that enamoramiento.

Once you've finished a novel," Javier says to Maria several times, "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."

Is this true? Perhaps. But for all its excellent qualities--the exquisite prose, the brooding suspense--the possibilities and ideas explored in The Infatuations remain a little thin, while events are few and far between.

Where is James M. Cain when we need him?

1 comment:

troutbirder said...

I completely enjoined perusing this most interesting blog. I enjoy book and other kinds of reviews, travel and vacation spots and most of all visits to St. Paul where my wife and I grew up. Your post on camping on Sawbill Lake brought back many fond memories. We also happen to live close to Forestville S.P....;)