#SpanishLitMonth (plus): Javier Marias

I’m trying to sneak in a quick non-Women in Translation review, a remnant of the Stu Jallen’s Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month (which he has very graciously extended to August for latecomers like me).

I discovered Javier Marias and his trademark long, baroque sentences in 2016 or thereabouts, after seeing so many blogger friends praising him. I had also heard Margaret Jull Costa talk about the challenges of translating his prose (a difficulty compounded by the fact that Marias himself translates from English into Spanish). I absolutely loved A Heart So White and instantly bought several other books by him, but I stalled while reading the first part of the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow. So it was with some trepidation that I rediscovered him – and the hypnotic joy of reading his circuitous prose – with the novel The Infatuations.

Like many of his novels, The Infatuations has a mystery at its core, but completely and utterly pulversises any expectations we might have for crime fiction. The narrator, Maria (aka the Prudent Young Woman), has been quietly admiring an attractive couple who have breakfast every morning at the cafe where she likes to go before work. She idealises them, invents a back story for them – just like any one of us would (or perhaps just those of us who are writers).

The nicest thing about them was seeing how much they enjoyed each other’s company. At an hour when almost no one is in the mood for anything, still less for fun and games, they talked non-stop, laughing and joking, as if they had only just met or met for the very first time, and not as if they had left the house together, dropped the kids off at school, having first got washed and dressed at the same time – perhaps in the same bathroom – and woken up in the same bed, nor as if the first thing they’d seen had been the inevitable face of their spouse, and so on and on, day after day, for a fair number of years… There was a camaraderie between them and, above all, a certainty.

Well, isn’t that something to aspire to? Especially if you are a woman who does not have much of a social or love life, and who is not entirely satisfied with her publishing job and demanding, egotistic authors. No wonder Maria feels bereft when her favourite couple abruptly stop coming there for several weeks. At first she thinks they might have gone on holiday, but she then discovers that the man was killed in the street on his birthday.

Shocked out of her customary reserve, Maria decides to go up to Luisa, the grieving widow, when she sees her months later at the cafe with her daughter. To her surprise, Luisa seems eager to speak to her – perhaps as a reminder of happier times, or because she has exhausted the patience of her close friends in talking about her sorrow.

That’s another of the problems when one suffers a misfortune: the effects on the victim far outlast the patience of those prepared to listen and accompany her, unconditional support never lasts very long once it has become tinged with monotony. And so, sooner or later, the grieving person is left alone when she has still not finished grieving or when she’s no longer allowed to talk about what remains her only world, because other people find that world of grief unbearable, repellant… Perhaps Luisa clung to me that afternoon because with me she could be what she still was, with no need for subterfuge: the inconsolable widow, to use the usual phrase. Obsessed, boring, grief-stricken.

While visiting Luisa, Maria meets a friend of the couple, the handsome Javier Diaz-Varela, and starts a somewhat desultory affair with him. Or at least, she suspects that the affair is meaningless for him, because the one person he seems to be most concerned about is Luisa. She soon decides that he is waiting in the wings to emerge as the widow’s saviour, but she cannot help hoping that at some point he will realise that he will never win the woman of his dreams and might stay with Maria ‘out of pure inertia’.

The authors cleverly surfs between the real-life conversations that Diaz-Varela and Maria have (about characters from Balzac and Dumas, of all things!) and through the words that Maria feels he implies through his gestures, until we are no longer quite sure what is real and what is imagined. And then Maria overhears a secret conversation which makes her very suspicious indeed… a melodramatic plot twist that, interestingly, also appeared in the very next book I picked up (56 Days by Catherine Ryan Howard). Needless to say, this leads to quite a dilemma, with Maria seriously grappling with issues such as truth and guilt, loyalty and love, and what constitutes justice.

A thief can give back the thing he stole, a slanderer can acknowledge his calumny. The trouble with murder is that it’s always too late and you cannot restore to the world the person you killed.

Marias is a master at playing with the readers, misleading them and then pulling the rug from under their feet. Yet, underneath all that mischief and apparently aimlessly meandering style, there are some very serious questions being asked (and no clear answers being given) about what sort of world we live in – where the strongest and most ruthless seem destined to win – and whether the truth will indeed set us free.