“What happened is the least of it. It’s a novel, and once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot that we recall far more vividly than real events and to which we pay far more attention.”
Being that there are so many ways in which one might consider a book’s overall effect (to say nothing of how certain elements may appeal to one reader over another), it can be rather arduous to convey what it is about a particular work that makes it resonate as it does. To some, prose is paramount. to others, believable characters and their development, with whom a reader can identify or at least empathize. Faithful dialogue, compelling plot, philosophical asides, broad scope, cross-cultural relevance, clever construction, unique narrative stylings, memorable voice, a timeless quality—all these and more are reasons often given when discussing what it is about a work of fiction that makes it so distinguished or outstanding. The one commonality shared by all the world’s great novels, however, be they past or present, is their remarkable ability to stay with us long after we’ve set the story aside. So it is with Javier Marías’s latest novel, The Infatuations (Los enamoramientos).
Published to wide acclaim in his native spain in 2011, the disputed king of Redonda’s most recent offering is a murder mystery par excellence. no mere formulaic thriller, Marías’s tale is one of perception, memory, grief, love, death, complicity, circumstance, doubt, chance, delusion, the multiplicity of motivation, and, of course, the nature of infatuation. Set within the capital city of Madrid and using a violent (and seemingly senseless) murder as its catalyst, the story follows María Dolz, a publishing house employee who entangles herself, however inadvertently at the onset, in the heinous crime’s aftermath.
All this information was published over a period of two days, the two days following the murder. Then the item vanished from the press completely, as tends to happen with all news nowadays: people don’t want to know why something happened, only what happened, and to know that the world is full of reckless acts, of dangers, threats and bad luck that only brush past us, but touch and kill our careless fellow human beings, or perhaps they were simply not among the chosen. 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, not a trace. We don’t want to go too deeply into anything or linger too long over any event or story, we need to have our attention shifted from one thing to another, to be given a constantly renewed supply of other people’s misfortunes, as if, after each one, we thought: “How dreadful. But what’s next? What other horrors have we avoided? We need to feel that we, by contrast, are survivors, immortals, so feed us some new atrocities, we’ve worn out yesterday’s already.
Once morbid curiosity, fascination, and, perhaps, schadenfreude no longer fuel our fertile imaginations, a murder (nothing more) becomes as disposable as any of the myriad news stories that we’ve somehow indulged as being momentarily relevant to our lives. Marías works this pervasive and perverse social peculiarity to great effect—intriguing us enough to concern ourselves with the fate of his characters (with ever the freedom to simply turn or walk away), yet forever eroding the space around them from which we can watch safely from the periphery. It’s a deliriously intoxicating technique, one evinced by our daily obsession with celebrity scandal, political malfeasance, far-off disaster, or nearby crimes of passion. These truncated news stories and soundbites, in reality, often have not the slightest thing to do with our own lives, but end up somehow consuming us (however briefly) all the same—as if they were somehow vested with the weight of our own personal stake. María is unable to turn away and neither are we.
Whereas so many whodunnits content themselves with little more than revealing the perpetrator and their hackneyed impulses, The Infatuations seeks to explore and confront a much broader purview. with perceptive observations and often tender insights into thought, reason, emotion, judgment, and the murky fringes of reality, Marías draws us into an almost inescapable role of accomplice and witness. He is able to do this so effectively by extracting the reader from the mystery of the murder itself (with which so few of us can identify) and repositioning one within the more familiar confines of love lost, relationships torn asunder, and the inevitable self-doubt which follows.
We tend to hope that, of the people and habits we cherish, no one will die and none will end, not realizing that the only thing that maintains those habits intact is their sudden withdrawal, with no possible alteration or evolution, before they can can abandon us or we abandon them. Anything that lasts goes bad and putrefies, it bores us, turns against us, saturates and wearies us. How many people who once seemed vital to us are left by the wayside, how many relationships wear thin, become diluted for no apparent reason or certainly none of any weight. The only people who do not fail or let us down are those who are snatched from us, the only ones we don’t drop are those who abruptly disappear and so have no time to cause us pain or disappointment. When that happens, we despair momentarily, because we believe we could have continued with them for much longer, with no foreseeable expiry date. That’s a mistake, albeit understandable. continuity changes everything, and something we thought wonderful yesterday would have become a torment tomorrow.
Is the author manipulating us? Are we willing participants? Are we rendered prostrate simply because the story evokes the universal feeling of unrequited desire and heartbreak? What about the abhorrent murder? Is all grief transmutable and therefore inexorable? Are we failing to see beyond all that is shown?
I would never know more than what he told me, and so i would never know anything for sure; yes, it’s ridiculous, isn’t it, that after all these centuries of practice, after so many incredible advances and inventions, we still have no way of knowing when someone is lying; naturally, this both benefits and prejudices all of us equally, and may be our one remaining redoubt of freedom.
Marías’s thirteenth novel (and the tenth to be translated into english), achingly beautiful and seemingly effortless like so much of his writing, could only have been carefully constructed by one possessed of a compassion and discernment alien to lesser writers. The Infatuations is not a flawless outing, but a remarkable and impressive one nonetheless. Marías’s exploration of doubt, truth, life, love, and violence does not answer any of the age-old questions of morality and mortality, but leaves us with the sense that there is much veracity and wisdom to be found within the shadows and gradations. A master of contemporary fiction (and regularly mentioned as a perennial candidate for world literature’s highest honor), Marías is among the finest european writers at work today.
The passing of time exacerbates and intensifies any storm, even though there wasn’t the tiniest cloud on the horizon at the beginning. We cannot know what time will do to us with its fine, indistinguishable layers upon layers, we cannot know what it might make of us. it advances stealthily, day by day and hour by hour and step by poisoned step, never drawing attention to its surreptitious labors, so respectful and considerate that it never once gives us a sudden prod or a nasty fright. Each morning, it 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—the balance of power—that nothing has been gained and nothing lost, that our face is the same, as is our hair and our shape, that the person who hated us continues to hate us and the person who loved us continues to love us. And yet quite the opposite is true, but time conceals this from us with is treacherous minutes and sly seconds, until a strange, unthinkable day arrives, when nothing is as it always was . . .
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
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