Javier Marías is one of Spain’s most prominent writers. Regularly tipped as a candidate for the Nobel Prize, he is also a respected translator of important English language literature, a journalist and a publisher. A literary heavy weight, in other words. His latest book, The Infatuations is the first philosophical murder mystery I’ve come across. There are no nail-biting chases through dark forests, no mutilated bodies floating in the sea, the action is almost exclusively cerebral. Or, as Boyd Tonkin of The Independent newspaper called it: ‘A thinking person’s murder mystery.’
Maria, the narrator, a single, ‘no longer so very young’ publisher observes a couple on her daily morning visits to the local café. They seem like the perfect match: attractive, happy and deeply in love. Suddenly, they stop coming. Maria later discovers that the man, Miguel Desvern, was the victim in a brutal, well publicised and, apparently, random murder case. Maria befriends the victim’s wife, Luisa, and is introduced to Miguel’s best friend, and, now, the widow’s loyal supporter Javier Díaz-Varela. Javier is sensuously described:
He had delicate features, almond eyes with a vaguely myopic or abstracted expression, rather long lashes and a full, fleshy, shapely mouth, so much so that his lips looked like those of a woman transplanted on to a man’s face, it was very difficult not to notice them, I mean, not to keep staring at them…
Maria falls madly in love with Javier, or rather, becomes totally infatuated with him. Javier, on the other hand, has his own infatuation. A classic love triangle ensues, with all the positioning, hopes, disappointments and jealousy that entails.
The book consists almost exclusively of conversations, real or imagined, most of them between Javier and Maria. They discuss at length the process of overcoming the loss of a partner, drawing on examples from world literature such as Balzac and Shakespeare. Marías digs into some of our darkest innermost thoughts.
We never dare to desire anyone’s death, still less that of someone close to us, but we know intuitively that if a certain person were to have an accident or become ill towards the end of his life, it would in some way improve the universe or, which comes to the same thing, our own personal situation.
The interaction between Javier and Maria is laden with tension. Maria knows she is just a romantic interlude, Javier give her no reason to believe otherwise, but that doesn’t lessen her infatuation. It’s a classic case of an unrequited love: she awaits his calls but knows they might stop at any time. He uses her, but she knows it. Their relationship is like a game of chess. Every gesture is analysed, every movement full of meaning, at least in her imagination. There are real or imagined streams of conversation, sometimes they are almost indistinguishable.
Marías is interested in the unsaid, the hidden, and the way we communicate without words, the body language of a lie, for instance. He’s preoccupied with the games we play, how people twist the truth to suit themselves and what love does to our judgement.
He knew exactly how I felt, the loved one always does, if he’s in his right mind and isn’t himself in love, because in that case he won’t be able to tell and will misinterpret the signs.
One day, Maria overhears a conversation that changes everything. She now has information that can change the lives of those around her. But will she act upon it? And what really is the truth?
When someone tells us something, it always seems like a fiction, because we don’t know the story at first hand and can’t be sure it happened, however much we are assured that the story is a true one, not an invention, but real.
As you will have gathered by now, The Infatuations is not a light read. If you are after an action packed thriller, this is not it. If you are looking for a superbly written, intellectually challenging, philosophical pondering around the act of killing, the loss of a loved one and the anatomy of infatuation, this might be it.
The Infatuations is on the long-list for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which I have written about elsewhere in this blog.
The Infatuations is published by Penguin, 352 pages.