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A great Spanish novel for our time by Javier Marias

Renowned Spanish writer Javier Marías has written an exquisite novel, his 13th and perhaps his best, “The Infatuations.” It contains the classical themes of love, death and fate – as the Argentine-born writer Alberto Manguel puts it – inextricably mixed.

Some critics say it is the best Spanish novel since “Don Quixote.” It reads so beautifully that I had trouble not making note of remarkable phrases on every page.

There is a linguistic habit embedded in it, however, to which American readers will have to adjust. Instead of terse sentences in the novel, there are long colloquial elocutions, artfully set out, of pro and con arguments, without too brusque a change of direction; perhaps a European or Middle Eastern practice or both, in origin.

Here is how “The Infatuations” begins: A young woman, María Dolz, works in the publishing business in Madrid. She stops at a café each morning where she is drawn to a couple who appear to live an “unblemished” existence, one perhaps she dearly wishes she could emulate. María observed the couple carefully each day.

“The man is less than 50 and dressed with an old-fashioned elegance and seemed genuinely amused by life. He addresses the waiters formally as usted and treats them with a kindness that never topples over into cloying familiarity.” His name, María learned later: Miguel Desvern.

The woman, Luisa, Miguel’s wife, closer to 40, wears clothes by Céline. She was “as tall as him, olive-skinned, with shoulder-length, dark, almost black hair and very little make-up … She was clearly as pleasant and cheerful as he was, although her laugh wasn’t quite as loud.”

When the couple fail to show up for a number of days, María wonders, “How fragile they are, these connections with people one only knows by sight.” They have brought a ray of sun to her own life, a depressing existence she admits, spent catering to the whims of spoiled writers.

María thinks to herself, “You could say that I wished them all the best in the world, as if they were characters in a novel or a film for whom one is rooting from the start, knowing that something bad is going to happen to them, that at some point, things will go horribly wrong, otherwise there would be no film.”

Something has gone awry in the lives of Miguel and Luisa Desvern; otherwise there would be no novel. What can it be? A note of premonition is introduced when María indicates that Luisa “… waited 20 minutes for him at a restaurant table, puzzled but not overly unconcerned, until the phone rang and her world ended, and she never waited for him again.”

A few days earlier María had her stomach turned by a picture in the newspaper of the murder of a Madrid businessman, stabbed to death. She didn’t make any connection with Miguel Desvern at the time. The photo was so different from her recollection of Miguel in the café: a man, “lying on the ground … in the street itself, without a jacket or tie … with his shirt unbuttoned and the tails hanging out … with a pool of blood all about …”

María didn’t know, until she was later told by her colleague Beatriz, who also breakfasted at the café, that the poor devil pictured in the news was the cheerful man she watched every day and who earlier had the “infinite kindness” to raise her spirits.

María gets up enough nerve some time later to approach Luisa, whom she sees with her children about to leave for school at the café. “Forgive the intrusion,” Maria says, “…You don’t know me, but my name is María Dolz…”

“Yes, of course, we know you by sight as well … We used to call you the Prudent Young Woman,” Luisa smiles in return.

Thus begins a friendship between the two women. It also signals María’s falling in love with a man she meets at Luisa’s house, Javier Díaz-Varela, and his role in the mystery.

“The Infatuations” is a stunning novel, complicatedly told as a Spanish morality play. It is, in the end, a “metaphysical enquiry” involving questions of “love and death, guilt and obsession, chance and coincidence” and how they relate to telling the truth.

The import of this is relayed to us by María, who listens raptly to Javier, who tells a story about a novella by Balzac. When she asks about the specifics of the book, Javier says, “What happened is the least of it. It’s a novel, and once you’ve finished a novel, 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 to which we pay far more attention.”

A word about the title translated into English. Alberto Manguel observes that “Infatuations” is the only possible English translation for the “enamoramientos” of the original title. Margaret Jull Costa (the translator), 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.”

An example of “enamoramiento”? Consider María’s falling in love with Javier. At first she believes that Javier is only biding his time, postponable and provisional, waiting to take Luisa as his latest conquest.

As a result María thinks to herself, “We cannot pretend to be the first or the favourite, we are merely what is available, the leftovers, the leavings, the survivors, the remnants, the remaindered goods, … we manage to believe in these chance falls in love, and many think they can see the hand of destiny in what is really nothing more than a village raffle at the fag-end of summer … When we get caught in the spider’s web, we fantasize endlessly, and at the same time, make do with the tiniest crumb … knowing that he is still on our horizon, from which he has not entirely vanished, and that we cannot yet see, in the distance, the dust from his fleeing feet.” This is folly fully realized, yet acted upon: “enamoramiento.”

Later María comes to grasp that the random killing of Miguel Desvern on the street is not what it appears. It is a homicide that she has become privy to, making her an accomplice to murder, giving her a bad conscience and, as a result of her infatuation, and perhaps repugnance or fear of Javier Diaz-Varela, who may or may not have been complicit.

Marías turns the plot of “The Infatuations” on its head more often than one can count. He justifies his tergiversations by saying, “… the horrors that novelists think they invent are as nothing compared to the truth.”

I’m not so sure. As María says, “‘drip-feeding us with horror”: “It’s all a matter of time, infuriating time, but our time is over, time, as far as we are concerned, has run out, time, which consolidates and prolongs even while, without our noticing, it is simultaneously rotting and ruining us and turning the tables on us ... Everything becomes a narrative and sounds fictitious even if it’s true …nothing is incompatible in the land of memory … No one is going to judge me, there are no witnesses to my thoughts.”

Is this so? I don’t think so. We are witnesses. It is this sensibility – that everything tends toward attenuation – that a superior novel like “The Infatuations” brings to judging life.

An important footnote: All too often the skill of a translator of novels is overlooked. This shouldn’t be so with Margaret Jull Costa, who renders Portuguese and Spanish literature so effortlessly into English. She is a longtime translator of Javier Marías and of Jose Saramago.

Michael D. Langan is a retired U. S. Treasury Enforcement official.


The Infatuations

By Javier Marías


338 pages, $26.95