The Infatuations is one of a handful of contemporary novels—Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled and Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending are two others that come immediately to mind—that made me think after I finished it: This is one of the greatest works of fiction I have ever read. Javier Marías’s latest book, his 12th novel, is both a murder mystery and a philosophical work that dares to confront big moral questions about life, fate, and death. The greatest achievement of this book is that its many long, philosophical insights feel like integral parts of the story rather than digressions. They are, in their quietly devastating way, as exciting as the tale of murder that prompts them.
The narrator of The Infatuations is María Dolz, a thirty-something woman who works for a Madrid publishing house. Every morning before work, she has breakfast at the same café as a couple she has never spoken to but who beguile her with their elegance. The man appears to be around fifty years old and wears expensive suits and tailored shirts. He has a cleft in his chin and reminds María of Kirk Douglas. To María, he is a man “who is simply not prepared to go through life without enjoying its million and one funny sides, even in the midst of difficulties and misfortunes.” His wife is younger and sportier, a woman who favors jeans and “skimpy sandals that revealed delicate feet.” María “didn’t regard them with envy, not at all, but with a feeling of relief that in the real world there could exist what I believed to be a perfect couple.”
When the couple does not appear one June morning, María misses her “little morning stimulant” and wonders what happened to them. A colleague gives her the news: The previous evening, a gorrilla (homeless person) named Luis Felipe Vásquez Canella accosted the man, “Miguel Desvern or Deverne,” as María refers to him, accused him of turning Canella’s daughters into prostitutes, and then killed Desvern and his chauffeur. Canella stabbed Desvern sixteen times with a butterfly knife and left him to die in a pool of blood.
María does not see Desvern’s widow, Luisa, until three months later in the café. She approaches Luisa and offers her condolences. Luisa, grateful for the wishes, tells María that she and her husband had noticed her many times—their name for her was the Prudent Young Woman—and asks her to stop by her home for a drink. Over glasses of port, Luisa tells María that she is trying to get on with her life, but it’s hard to accept the advice of well-meaning acquaintances who tell her to remember the good moments and forget the last, bad one. “[A]ll my memories,” she says, “are now soiled by that sad and bloody ending.”
During this visit, a man named Javier Díaz-Varela stops by Luisa’s home. One of Desvern’s closest friends, Díaz-Varela has dropped by to see how Luisa is getting on. Many months later, María sees Díaz-Varela at the Natural History Museum. Even though she is dating another man, she begins an affair with him. The affair goes on for a long time, even after Díaz-Varela admits that his ultimate hope is for Luisa to get over her grief and fall in love with him. This announcement doesn’t shock or upset María as much as a late-night visit she and Díaz-Varela receive from a man named Ruibérriz, who brings news that the circumstances behind Desvern’s murder may be different from those she had been led to believe.
A summary of the plot of The Infatuations won’t do the novel justice. This is a rare breed, an intellectual thriller. Marías writes gorgeous sentences (the English translator is Margaret Jull Costa, who has translated many of the works of José Saramago) and fills the book with dozens of poignant insights about fate, death, and the vagaries of desire.
At one point, María muses that the bereaved “tend to think that the death of a loved one is something that has happened more to them than to the deceased.” She lists artifacts a loved one might leave behind, among them, “the medicines that have suddenly become utterly superfluous and that will soon have to be thrown away, or the special pillow or mattress on which head and body will no longer lie…the sweets someone bought for him and which no one will dare to finish, as if doing so were an act of theft or profanation.”
The Infatuations has many beautiful passages such as these. This is a great novel, one of the finest you will ever read.
More of my comments on The Infatuations are on Bookreporter.com.
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