Strangers and fiction

The Infatuations, by Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£18.99, 352 pages

Javier Marías’s The Infatuations is, on one level, a traditional psychological thriller set in the aftermath of a seemingly random murder. It is also a love story and a meditation on life, fate and moral ambiguity – as well as being much concerned (as Marías often is) with the dead, who play a surprisingly active role in the lives of those they have left behind.

The narrator of Marías’s 13th novel is María Dolz, a single woman in her late thirties who works in a Madrid publishing house. María, who has to deal with the inflated egos and the (very funny) absurdities of a “megalomaniac boss and his horrible authors” is unflashy and underrated by the pompous men who surround her.

Her observer status, however, allows her to notice everything, especially the attractive and in-love “Perfect Couple” who breakfast every morning at the café she frequents. Nothing of their appearance and manner escapes her (or us): “he only wore suede towards the end of spring, when he started wearing lighter-coloured suits – and his hands were carefully manicured”. Although they never actually speak to María, we later learn that they knew her as “the Prudent Young Woman”, which pleases her.

This stylish husband, Miguel Deverne, is murdered by a deranged drifter and then referred to throughout the book by two surnames – Desvern or Deverne; in death, exact personhood is no longer fixed. (María notes drily: “His real surname was Desvern, and it occurred to me that perhaps his family had changed it at some point for business reasons.”)

The gradual revelation of how Deverne came to be killed forms the core psychological drama. We see everything as María does, and the novel bursts into life from the opening sentence – a perfect slice of Marías, writing as and through his almost-namesake narrator: “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.”

Marías’s long-serving translator, Margaret Jull Costa, makes sure that English readers lose nothing from being one step removed from the author’s conversational, winding, and often bleakly funny Spanish prose.

Marías, 61, is tipped as a future winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. In his native Spain he covers the cultural bases, from novels (like this one) strewn with literary references to a column in the newspaper El País, in which he discusses politics, football and other of-the-moment affairs. Fluent in English (Tristram Shandy is just one of the works he has rendered into Spanish), Marías has made translation a regular theme of his work.

María is not a translator-narrator, but inhabits the world of authors and their stories, although she sees nothing she wants to emulate: “I don’t want to be like those written voices that so often sound like muffled sighs, groans uttered in a world of corpses in the middle of which we all lie, if we drop our guard for a moment.”

Marías burrows deep inside the heads of his narrators, giving the reader a bumpy, brilliant ride through monologues in which it can be hard to tell what is said out loud between characters and what is internal stream of consciousness – or, at a further remove, what is merely conjecture, a narrator’s re-imagining of how the conversations or thoughts of others might play out. The prose requires attention and effort, and in return the author rewards us tenfold, allowing the verbal tricks of persuasion that we play on each other – and on ourselves – to be examined at length.

María gradually grows close to Deverne’s circle, and uncovers versions of the truth, although, as she admits: “The truth is never clear, it’s always a tangled mess. Even when you get to the bottom of it.” Even with imperfect knowledge, she has a moral choice to make and keeps us guessing until almost the last page. Yet what lingers in the reader’s mind is not the murder mystery, compelling though it is. Rather, it is the author’s examination of the ebb and flow of flawed relationships; the chances that bring us together and the fates (in this case, murderous intent) that pull us apart.

María’s narrative is by turns dreamlike and prosaic, confirming the author’s status as a brilliant modern incarnation of the ancient storyteller, bringing together the living and the dead, the real and the imagined. As the novel ends, having seen and heard so much, María suggests: “Everything becomes a story and ends up drifting in the same sphere, and then it’s hard to differentiate between what really happened and what is pure invention. Everything becomes a narrative and sounds fictitious even if it’s true.”

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