“The Infatuations” is a novel about death: literal death, literary death, the enduring power of the dead, and the inconvenience of their return; most immediately, it is about the death of Miguel Deverne. Miguel is half of a couple that Maria Dolz watches each day as they breakfast at the same cafe. Neither envious nor scornful, Maria simply observes from a few tables away, deriving calm from their obvious, mutual infatuation. They are living proof that the “perfect couple” exists, that is, until Miguel is stabbed sixteen times, randomly, inexplicably, by a homeless man.
The author, Javier Marias, is not a household name. Despite a prodigious number of literary awards, he has yet to achieve the stateside acclaim awarded to Murakami or Bolano; his work lacks the western pop culture references of the former and the posthumousness of the latter. His prose has an exacting austerity, his sentences packed with clauses amending, contradicting, or clarifying what came before. Plot is not his concern; as one character says of a Balzac novella, “what happened is the least of it…what matter are the possibilities that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with.” Much of “The Infatuations” is imaginary, hypothetical, metaphysical digressions or conjectures, and projection on the part of Maria, who proves an inconspicuously subjective narrator.
In fact, the narrative is composed a bit like Marias’s sentences: a string of encounters, one bleeding into another, each amending, clarifying, or obfuscating what came before. When Maria finally interacts with the couple, now half a couple, she offers her condolences to Miguel’s widow, Luisa. To her surprise, Luisa reacts warmly, informing Maria that she and Miguel had in their own way returned her attention; to them, Maria was the “Prudent Young Woman.” Luisa invites Maria back to her home, where they talk, or rather, Maria is talked at; later they are interrupted by guests, one a minor, comically pedantic historian, the other Javier Dias-Varela, a friend of Miguel’s. Through a chance encounter Maria meets Javier again: they begin sleeping together, or rather, having sex, as Maria never stays the night. It is when she does stay the night that she overhears something that suggests Miguel’s death was not so random or inexplicable. It is the last time Maria and Javier sleep together, but not the last time she desires him.
Our experience of these events is filtered through Maria, and she constructs for us entire conversations: between Miguel and Javier, Miguel and Luisa; individual character’s thoughts: Miguel’s last frantic moments before his death and Javier’s self-reflection. We process these conjectures, simultaneously dismissing and internalizing them; they are no less valid than the stories Luisa or Miguel or others tell. As Maria says at one point, “Everything becomes a narrative and sounds fictitious even if it’s true.” Furthermore, nestled within the primary story are other tales, Balzac’s “Colonel Chabert” and fragments of “Macbeth” and “The Three Musketeers.” Dias-Varela has a love for the monologue, and his pre-coital time with Maria is spent expounding these narratives; Maria for her part placidly listens, content to watch his lips. Fictions intertwine, impressing themselves upon one another; the works of Dumas and Shakespeare become allegory for the novel’s events, or at least whatever version of events is related by the novel’s characters.
Something of a non-entity, Maria is privy to all angles of the story, except, of course, Miguel’s. But for all that, she is tertiary, to Luisa an earpiece for grief, to Javier a carnal diversion. She is a substitute, something which seems not to bother her: “I know that it wouldn’t offend me to be a substitute, because we are all of us substitutes for someone.” And should that someone cease to be, for reasons unattributable to, perhaps not even entertained by, the substitute, the way is then open. We profit from tragedy just as much as, perhaps more than, we suffer from it.
The book is in one sense about spectatorship: inured to media violence, “we live quite happily with a thousand unresolved mysteries that occupy our minds for ten minutes in the morning and are then forgotten without leaving so much as a tremor of grief.” Ostensibly, we desire certainty; in reality, it is the perpetual uncertainty of the present that sustains us. It is this uncertainty that allows us to weave a web of conjectures, a film of what-may-be we lay over the future. Maria is bound to Dias-Varela by uncertainty; it is he who phones when he desires her presence, who inclines his head towards the bedroom when he has finished talking. The one certainty, death, we avoid contemplating; its finality resists conjecture. The dead we read about, those bodies that, like Miguel’s, pop up in newspaper clippings, reassure us: “Fortunately the dead man they’re showing us here is someone else and not me, so I’m safer than I was yesterday.” We may retain our uncertainty for the time being.
In “Out of Sheer Rage,” Geoff Dyer wrote, “Life is bearable even when it’s unbearable: that is what’s so terrible, that is the unbearable thing about it.” Javier Marias would perhaps amend that to say that life is bearable when the dead oblige us by not returning as Colonel Chabert does. Only when they persist, “palely loitering,” is it terrible. But the present rarely lets them persist; that is its awful power “which crushes the past more easily as the past recedes.” The trick is to avoid doing what will persist, what will resist the present; the trick is to do as Maria does, to watch rather than act. For the only thing you can be guilty of—the only thing that will haunt you—is “picking up a weapon…everything else is contingency, things one imagines.”