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
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 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 13th novel (and the 10th 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 amongst 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 its treacherous minutes and sly seconds, until a strange, unthinkable day arrives, when nothing is as it always was...
*translated from the Spanish by the estimable Margaret Jull Costa (Saramago, Pessoa, De Queirós, Atxaga, et al)" Recommended By Jeremy G., Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
From the award-winning Spanish writer Javier Marías comes an extraordinary new book that has been a literary sensation around the world: an immersive, provocative novel propelled by a seemingly random murder that we come to understand — or do we? — through one woman’s ever-unfurling imagination and infatuations.
At the Madrid café where she stops for breakfast each day before work, María Dolz finds herself drawn to a couple who is also there every morning. Though she can hardly explain it, observing what she imagines to be their “unblemished” life lifts her out of the doldrums of her own existence. But what begins as mere observation turns into an increasingly complicated entanglement when the man is fatally stabbed in the street. María approaches the widow to offer her condolences, and at the couple’s home she meets — and falls in love with — another man who sheds disturbing new light on the crime. As María recounts this story, we are given a murder mystery brilliantly reimagined as metaphysical enquiry, a novel that grapples with questions of love and death, guilt and obsession, chance and coincidence, how we are haunted by our losses, and above all, the slippery essence of the truth and how it is told.
"Sometimes startling, sometimes hilarious, and always intelligent....Marías [has] a penetrating empathy." New York Times Book Review
“The Infatuations is mysterious and seductive; it’s got deception, it’s got love affairs, it’s got murder...sheerly addictive.” Fresh Air/NPR
“Haunting....Evokes verbal puzzle-makers like Borges, and Marías’s ingenious chessboard plots bring to mind the 20th century’s grand-master strategist, Vladimir Nabokov.” Los Angeles Times
“An arresting story of love and crime.” San Francisco Chronicle
“Great art often emerges from breaking, or at least tweaking, rules. A work that transcends its conventions can produce special results. Here’s such a book....The Infatuations takes you where very few novels do.” Paste magazine
“A masterly novel....The classical themes of love, death, and fate are explored with elegant intelligence by Marías in what is perhaps his best novel so far....Extraordinary...Marías has defined the ethos of our time.” The Guardian (UK)
“Javier Marías is a master of first lines. He’s a master of other things as well....All Marías books feel like chapters in one much longer book. And it’s one you should start reading, if you haven’t already.” Slate
“Beyond the interesting ideas his work draws on, Marías’s novels are simply a pleasure to read....The Infatuations, containing the qualities of Marías’s best work, is an important addition to his oeuvre.” The Millions
“Marías’s novel operates on so many levels simultaneously, it becomes a piece of evidence itself, an artifact that proves its own argument.” The Onion A. V. Club
“Marías’s novel weaves an intricate web, but its triumph is in the power of its narrator. Marías has found the ideal voice — detached, inquisitive, and vigilant — for one of his finest novels.” Los Angeles Review of Books
A New York Times Book Review
Notable Book, NPR Great Reads, and Onion
A.V. Club Best Book of 2013
Each day before work María Dolz stops at the same café. There she finds herself drawn to a couple who is also there every morning. Observing their seemingly perfect life helps her escape the listlessness of her own. But when the man is brutally murdered and María approaches the widow to offer her condolences, what began as mere observation turns into an increasingly complicated entanglement. Invited into the widow's home, she meets — and falls in love with — a man who sheds disturbing new light on the crime. As María recounts this story, we are given a murder mystery brilliantly encased in a metaphysical enquiry, a novel that grapples with questions of love and death, chance and coincidence, and above all, with the slippery essence of the truth and how it is told.
About the Author
Javier Marías was born in Madrid in 1951. The recipient of numerous prizes, including the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Prix Femina Étranger, he has written thirteen novels, three story collections, and nineteen works of collected articles and essays. His books have been translated into forty-three languages, in fifty-two countries, and have sold more than seven million copies throughout the world.
Reading Group Guide
The discussion questions and other material that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about The Infatuations
, Javier Marías’s suspenseful novel about love, murder, and the unknown possibilities in every moment of ordinary life.
1. Over the period of a few years, María has spent part of every morning watching a married man and woman in a neighborhood café. She is drawn to them because of their seeming happiness, “as if they provided me with a vision of an orderly or. . . harmonious world” (4). Is this a strange thing to do? What does it reveal about María?
2. The “Perfect Couple,” as María calls Miguel and Luisa, is abruptly severed when a homeless man stabs Miguel to death in a seemingly unmotivated attack. When María learns that Miguel was killed on the same day she last saw him, she realizes that “his wife and I had said goodbye to him at the same time, she with her lips and I with my eyes only” (30). What do you think of María’s reaction to the murder? Is María in love with Miguel?
3. When María visits Luisa, both speculate on what Miguel might have been thinking as he was being stabbed and as he lay dying (50-51). María’s projection of Miguel’s state of mind proceeds in single sentence of more than two pages in length (52-54). What role does the imagination—especially imagining the thoughts or experiences of others—play in this novel? Why do you think the novel is occupied with questions about different possible paths and outcomes?
4. Luisa tells María that Miguel’s death has changed her way of thinking: “It’s as though I’ve become a different person since then . . . with an unfamiliar, alien mentality, someone given to making strange connections and being frightened by them” (49). She now hears a siren and is overcome with dread, not knowing who might be ill or wounded or dying. Has her husband’s death made Luisa think more like a novelist?
5. María imagines that in thinking of the bizarre misfortune of being attacked by a stranger, Miguel might have thought of María herself as one of a number of people “who are merely vague extras or marginal presences, who inhabit a corner or lurk in the obscure background of the painting and whom we don’t even miss if they disappear” (53). If María, as our narrator, is such a vague extra or marginal presence, do her first-person narration and her presence as a central character in the story dispel the notion of her obscurity?
6. Luisa says she would feel better if someone had plotted against her husband. She has looked up the word envidia—envy—and reads a part of the dictionary entry to María: “Unfortunately, this poison is often engendered in the breasts of those who are and who we believe to be our closest friends, in whom we trust; they are far more dangerous than our declared enemies” (61). Luisa later introduces Javier to María as “one of Miguel’s best friends” (59). Do you have suspicions of Javier at this point, or only later?
7. The second time María meets Javier they are in Madrid’s Natural History Museum, where dead animals preserved in the attitudes of life stare out of their cases. Why is this unusual setting relevant to Javier’s view that the grieving Luisa is holding on to “the image of Miguel, (106)” but that she will eventually assign him “a place in time, both him and his character frozen for ever” (107)? Do you agree with Javier that “the only people who do not fail or let us down are those who are snatched from us”?
8. María becomes sexually involved with Javier, and is drawn more deeply into the intrigue surrounding Miguel’s death. Look at the description of Javier on pages 85-86 and discuss what is appealing or provocative about him. How would you characterize María’s feelings toward Javier (117-121)? Is she obsessed? In love? Infatuated?
9. After Miguel’s death, María expresses the idea that the moment of death changes the identity of the person who dies. Javier is convinced that it’s only a matter of time until Luisa realizes that her husband is gone forever. How does Balzac’s novella Colonel Chabert demonstrate Javier’s view that something fixed and permanent divides the living and the dead—even if, as in Colonel Chabert’s case, the dead return to life (131-140)?
10. One night, some time after she and Javier have become lovers, María says, “I found myself wishing or, rather, fantasizing about the possibility that Luisa might die and thus leave the field open for me with Díaz-Varela, since she was doing nothing to occupy that field herself (147). I, for example, could launch an offensive against Luisa behind her back, one so oblique that she wouldn’t be aware of it because she wouldn’t even know that an enemy was stalking her” (151). The novel implies that all human beings are capable of fantasizing about the deaths of people who stand in their way. Do you believe this is true? Is it easy to understand or identify with these thoughts?
11. María is the first female narrator in a Marías novel. In an interview in The Paris Review, Marías noted that his female characters were “always seen through the eyes of a male.” In a scene in which María and Ruibérriz are talking, María has to decide whether she will emerge from the bedroom wearing only her skirt (166-175). Why are her thoughts about her body and her sexuality important in this scene and elsewhere? Why is it effective that the narrator in this novel is a woman?
12. Midway through the novel, Javier’s secret emerges when María overhears him talking to Ruibérriz, who was his intermediary with the homeless man who killed Miguel. Her reaction to this new knowledge is complex. Does she now think of Javier as a murderer, or does she think that Javier set up a chain of events that might well not have resulted in Miguel’s death, so he is not a murderer (176-194)?
13. Marías has said that literature is the “filter” through which he thinks and writes: “What I present to the reader comes from my experience and from what I have invented, but it has all been filtered by literature. That is what matters: the filter” (Paris Review interview). Discuss how the line “She should have died hereafter,” from Macbeth and the quote “Yes, a murder, nothing more” from The Three Musketeers, focus on the philosophical concerns of the novel (See 107-116, 218-219, 229-230).
14. What elements does The Infatuations share with mystery or detective fiction? How is it not at all like those genres? What do you make of the long discursive digressions? Are they always relevant to the larger questions and investigations of the novel?
15. Javier tells María, when she asks “what happened” to Colonel Chabert: “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” (227). Discuss this important statement in terms of your experience of this novel.
16. The entire story is transmitted through the perspective of María. Does this call into question her authority or her reliability? What is the effect of being inside a single consciousness throughout the novel? To what degree can the story be read as the projection onto a fictional world of the activity of a novelist’s mind, María standing in for Marías?
17. Miguel knew, says Javier, “that the fact we are here at all is entirely thanks to an improbable coming-together of various chance events, and when that coming-together ceases, we cannot really complain. . . . No one can complain about not having been born or not having been in the world before or not having always been in the world, so why should anyone complain about dying or not being in the world hereafter or not remaining in it forever?” (283). How does Miguel’s philosophy about the contingent nature of human life resonate through the whole novel? Is it an appealing perspective on life and death?
18. Once Javier agreed to do Miguel the favor of arranging his death, he says, “My mind had to start working and plotting like the mind of a criminal” (292). Does his explanation of the circumstances make Javier, in the mind of María, any less a murderer? Does she even believe that Miguel was ill? Discuss her statement “Everything that has been said to us resonates and lingers” (295).
When María sees Javier and Luisa in a restaurant, apparently now married, the novel comes full circle (326-331). She recalls the statement of the lawyer Derville in Colonel Chabert: “Far more crimes go unpunished than punished, not to speak of those we know nothing about or that remain hidden, for there must inevitably be more hidden crimes than crimes that are known about and recorded” (334). What do you think about the resolution of the plot, and María’s sense of the story’s ending?