Since I posted my Pantheon of authors (here), partly to kick-start my goal of reading everything these authors have written, I have not read a book by a single one . . . until now. After months of trying to get through a middle portion (which I’ll get to in a minute), I can now say that I love Javier Marías most recent book, The Infatuations (Los enamoramientos, 2011; tr. from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costs, 2013).
As I’ve said before, Marías has some of the catchiest first sentences I’ve ever read. They often present a capsule of the whole novel while intriguing us with some kind of mystery by eliding “big” events that many other novelists, understandably, would use to catch the reader. Here is the opening sentence of The Infatuations:
The last time I saw Miguel Desvern or Deverne was also the last time that his wife, Luisa, saw him, which seemed strange, perhaps unfair, given that she was his wife, while I, on the other hand, was a person he had never met, a woman with whom he had never exchanged so much as a single word.
What do we have here? A man named Miguel — the narrator, a woman, is uncertain of his last name at this point in time — has somehow disappeared. His wife, Luisa, saw him last at the same time this seemingly unrelated and unknown narrator did. What stands out most, to me, is the uncertainty about the last name. Many authors today begin their books or stories with a whole litany of certainties, including full names, addresses, time of day, and type of food. Here, in the first line, Marías’s narrator doesn’t even know this Miguel’s last name. And why should we care?
As we soon learn, the narrator’s name is María Dolz, and she’s telling this story several years later. She can no longer be certain what Miguel’s last name was, though she read it a few times in the newspaper and even got to know his wife. Indeed, before he vanished from her life for good, she used to watch him and his wife every day at a café. Miguel and Luisa appeared to be the perfect couple. Both were beautiful, and it seemed they had everything in order, from their finances, to their children, to their love life. María watches them because she finds solace in their relationship; she saw “camaraderie between them and, above all, a certainty.”
That relationship, that certainty, is the main focus of the first part of the novel, as María deduces, in that wonderfully meandering method that Marías employs, what their home life was like. Throughout this part, she also wonders how that home life was shattered by Miguel’s unexpected, random, arbitrary murder by some stranger who, apparently, didn’t know whom he was attacking with a knife.
In the weeks and months following Miguel’s murder, María knows that Luisa is shattered. Understandably, Luisa does not come to the café in the mornings, and María spends much of that time exploring how nothing in life is certain.
Luisa’s life does begin the slow process of normalization, evidenced one morning when she returns to the café. María takes the chance to speak to Luisa, and an unlikely friendship begins; indeed, the friendship is so unlikely that it hardly endures one visit María makes to Luisa’s house.
At this point in the novel, Marías really starts to twist his themes around and around, playing with memory and certainty, relationships and doubt. At Luisa’s home, the Luisa confides in María:
People say: ‘Concentrate on the good memories and not on the final one, think about how much you loved each other, think about all the wonderful times you enjoyed that others never have.’ [. . .] [E]very good memory grows murky and turns bad. I don’t really have any good memories left. They all seem false to me. They’ve all been contaminated.
Luisa also talks about her two young children, both a bit too young to completely understand what happened to their father (as if anyone ever could), but the daughter is perhaps old enough to keep memories of her father throughout her life. What will those memories be like? How will they be formed over the next few months by Luisa herself as she tries to help the children remember their father and know that he is not coming back? How will this repetition over the passage of time affect Luisa’s own memory of Miguel?
As is often the case in a Marías novel, certainty breaks down. Characters can barely make a statement without going back and reiterating it again, circling around elusive certainty. Even things once known, given the right amount of time and thinking, slip away until we barely have any idea of the past.
That is the awful power of the present, which crushes the past more easily as the past recedes, and falsifies it too without the past getting a chance to speak, protest, contradict or refute anything.
María knows this will happen to Luisa too. Some day, her husband’s murder will be normalized: “Luisa’s present life has been destroyed, but not her future life.”
These themes come out much more in the last half of the novel, when María hooks up with Miguel’s best friend, a man she meets at Luisa’s house: Javier Díaz-Varela. We might be shocked to learn of this affair, since up to now María has always referred to the man by his last name; however, this is all part of Marías’s brilliance. It’s another way to show how we change the past; this is a trick María uses to distance herself from Díaz-Varela, to manipulate her own past.
As María’s uncommitted, barely-there affair with Díaz-Varela proceeds in spurts over the months, María learns some things that completely change her perspective of everything that has gone on before. It sounds like a clever plot gimmick we’ve had before (I’m looking at you, Atonement), but it’s just not that. This is Marías’s way of exploring the theme of perspective shifts and challenging the reader’s own sense of certainty.
I think this is an exceptional book, though, as I mentioned above, I had a devil of a time getting through about thirty pages of it. In fact, I put the book down in late June and only picked it up and finished it in August. Marías’s reiterations are always a bit long-winded, yet I usually find them invigorating. Here, they are particularly apt as they force us to go through the process of perspective shifts until we are also uncertain what is really going on. That said, where I lost patience was when reading Díaz-Varella’s incredibly long passages on Balzac’s Le Colonel Chabert. It wasn’t enough to dampen my spirit once I soldiered through it, but it was a high enough hurdle to my enjoyment of the book that I wanted to bring it up here.
Other than that, though, I found the book fascinating. It’s not terribly emotional. It’s got a crime at its heart, yet it’s a fairly simple mystery. It’s deliberately psychologically distancing, though intellectually interesting. Still, I found myself gripped as I sped to the end. I’m not entirely certain why, but that’s part of the fun.