September 8, 2013

Javier Marias’ new novel brilliantly creates a taut metaphysical thriller

“The Infatuations” by Javier Marias, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Knopf, 352 pages, $26.95)

“The Infatuations” by Javier Marias, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Knopf, 352 pages, $26.95)

“Yes, a murder, nothing more.”

Nothing more than another misfortune that makes the headlines, then vanishes into thin air.

Nothing more than the timeless malady of humanity, as old as Cain, as ubiquitous as the wind.

Nothing more than a man stabbed 16 times on the streets of Madrid by a homeless psychopath. Nothing more than his wife left husbandless, his children left fatherless.

Nothing more than an apparently senseless killing. An indignity. An outrage. An accident.

Or is it?

The man could have died at any other time, we are told; indeed, he would have died at some other time. In the drip, drip, drip of passing days, death looms as the all-encompassing future: elemental, inexorable, irresistible.

But today, Miguel Desvern – or is it Deverne? – lies dead. And, “fortunately or unfortunately, the dead are as fixed as paintings, they don’t move, they don’t add anything, they don’t speak and never respond,” the narrator of Javier Marias’ brilliant new novel tells us.

What’s more, the dead foolishly dare to come back. They are quite wrong to try. Yet they cling to the living, asserting rights they no longer have.

They do not realize that death is nothing more than fate, than the workings of chance, than the misery of being mortal. They crave a secure hereafter, not a temporary “could have been.” Not a barren “nothing more.”

Yet something more always looms for the living: “What does ‘hereafter’ or ‘at some point from now on’ mean, when ‘now’ is, by its very nature, always changing.”

Every morning like clockwork, Maria Dolz eats breakfast in the same cafe in Madrid, admiring the lively, laughing Perfect Couple of Miguel Desvern and his wife, Luisa. They notice her, too, of course, but not as obsessively, dubbing her the Prudent Young Woman.

After Miguel is stabbed to death not far from the cafe, Maria gingerly approaches Luisa to offer her condolences, then comes to her house for an eventful evening, during which she meets Javier. Her infatuation with him soon follows, which in Spanish connotes more than our English equivalent: “the state of falling or being in love.”

But Javier dissembles as much as he resembles the ideal lover. This Maria learns much later in the novel, and in her smitten state – needing to be needed – she chooses not to act on what she knows.

For Javier claims to be Miguel’s best friend, but a friend who saved Miguel’s life by taking it. No, by having it taken. No, yet again: by having someone else have it taken.

The possibilities spin endlessly in Maria’s mind, reflecting and refracting around the themes of love, death and time, repeating themselves, then circling back in a self-correcting loop. As she recounts her infatuations first with the Perfect Couple, then with Javier – who loves only Luisa, and who may have killed in an effort to win her elusive affections – we see how “the truth is never clear, it’s always a tangled mess. Even when you get to the bottom of it.”

Thus, the truth of the novel: We are caught not so much in a stream of consciousness as in a double helix of fiction, its DNA. Hypnotic in its strange but familiar movements, fostering infatuations of our own. Infatuations with Marias’ (yes, his characters’ names intentionally mimic his own) rich, musical prose. Infatuations with his narrative drive, pushing ever onward.

But “once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten,” Maria says. Instead, what matters “are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with.”

And the controlling idea of “The Infatuations” has to do with only one thing: the dead.

“The worst thing that can happen to anyone, worse than death itself, and the worst thing one can make others do, is to return from the place from which no one returns, to come back to life at the wrong time, when you are no longer expected, when it’s too late and inappropriate.”

Javier Marias ranks as Spain’s pre-eminent novelist of ideas, often mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Here, he hangs a taut metaphysical thriller on the frame of a straightforward murder mystery. He has created a splendid tour de force of narrative voice – all of it Maria’s – calm, assured and disciplined yet alive and ever-changing, self-consciously questioning its own reports.

Marias peppers his novel’s economy of action with sleek, clean intricacies of coincidence, hewing to the rhythms of thought, and never making a false step. His sustained focus, the inevitability of his forward motion, reflects the obsessive side of Maria’s infatuation, its fantasy, its re-creation of reality, its sacrifice of the old moral codes for the immediate rawness of love. The result? A luminous performance full of literary allusions – to Balzac, Dumas and Shakespeare – and wry portrayals of undesirable characters.

The book also teems with patterns of repetition: phrases, descriptions, emotions, situations. For Marias, repetition is the aesthetic counterpart of infinity, shot through with uncertainty and ambiguity.

What makes his novel succeed on such a grand scale is how Maria’s repartee holds all things at arm’s length: fate, character, morality, love.

In this way, everything becomes fictitious, even if it’s true, even if it’s time itself.

“Each morning (time) turns up with its soothing, invariable face and tells us exactly the opposite of what is actually happening: that everything is fine and nothing has changed, that everything is just as it was yesterday.”

But the dead resist all fictions; they insist on joining all factions of the living. They desperately want to return.

Still, “people do, in the end, allow the dead to depart, however fond of them they were, when they realize that their own survival is at risk and that the dead are a great burden.”

Fortunately, “The Infatuations” is anything but dead, living on in its invigorating welter of ideas, creating its own stellar hereafter.

“Yes, Marias has written a novel. And something much more.”

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