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Posted on 27 Aug 2015 in Fiction |

JAVIER MARIAS The Infatuations. Reviewed by Adrian Phoon

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infatuationsSubtle psychological insights tumble out from Marías’s prose, taking centre stage even though they seem peripheral to the story.

Maria Dolz is an editor who works for a Madrid publisher. She is also a keen, if passive, observer of others. Every day before work she sits in a café and watches a beautiful couple who are deeply in love with each other. Maria in turn becomes infatuated with them. ‘I soon became interested in them both, if “interested” is the right word,’ she says. Shortly afterwards, she reveals the depth of her passion for them:

I felt indebted to them, they helped me get through the day and allowed me to fantasize about their life, which I imagined to be unblemished, so much so that I was glad not to be able to confirm this view or find out more, and thus risk breaking the temporary spell (my own life was full of blemishes, and the truth is that I didn’t give the couple another thought until the following morning, while I sat on the bus cursing because I’d had to get up so early, which is something I loathe).

Maria finds in the glamorous pair temporary respite from her own pothole-filled life, as she blurts out in the long, languorous sentence above, which is typical of the author who created Maria and whose surname sounds similar to her first name: Javier Marías, the Madrid-based novelist who is much lauded in Spain as a future Nobel Prize contender.

Marías burst onto the scene with novels, such as A Heart So White, offering up philosophical observations of human behaviour encased in ostensibly conventional romances, mysteries and dramas (that often bear Shakespearean titles). His sentences are long, built on a solid foundation of connecting clauses that recall Henry James, but the effect is more serpentine, as his characters painstakingly wind their way into difficult, sensuous self-revelations that seem to fade away almost as soon as they are announced.

The Infatuations is on the surface a murder mystery. One of the couple, Miguel Desverne, is brutally killed. Maria later comes into contact with Miguel’s widow, Luisa, who, in a slight stretch of credulity, instantly takes Maria under her wing. Maria gushes about the couple who sustained her morning fantasies. ‘I only ever knew you by sight, but you obviously got on so well and I always thought you made such a lovely couple,’ she says. Luisa reciprocates by claiming that she and Miguel used to observe Maria, too. They even called her the Prudent Young Woman.

As far as mystery goes, The Infatuations performs its requisite task, leaving multiple clues about the nature of Desverne’s death. There are several fascinating characters, including an insufferable writer who dreams openly about the speech he will give should he ever win the Nobel, and a pedantic academic. There is also a new suitor for Luisa – a handsome man named Diaz Varela, who attracts Maria’s fancy as well as suspicion.

But the key to the novel is the subtle psychological insights that tumble out from Marías’s prose, taking centre stage even though they seem to be peripheral to the story. Marías captures the grief of the bereaved beautifully in his evocation of Luisa, who, still in the early stages of mourning, declares: ‘I don’t really have any good memories left. They all seem false to me. They’ve all been contaminated.’

Because Luisa’s grief is refracted through Maria’s watchful eye, the book tells us as much about those who care for the bereaved as those who endure bereavement. Luisa, Maria explains, ‘wasn’t yet ready to be curious about others, she was in no state to take an interest in anyone or to probe other people’s lives, her own life was all-consuming and took all her energy and concentration, and doubtless all her imagination too’. We are aware that Maria is eerily absorbed by Luisa’s life, and that she is as consumed by the details of Luisa’s sadness as Luisa is consumed by the sadness itself.

Maria’s infatuation with Miguel, Luisa and later Diaz Varela is complicated by her gradual involvement in their lives. To say more would be to risk spoiling the mystery. Suffice to say, this is a story about readers, observers and voyeurs, and it charts their infatuations with literary zeal. For any literary type who has ever been told she or he thinks too much about things, Marías offers a view of human experience in which everything is open to interpretation and reinterpretation:

That is the awful power of the present, which crushes the past more easily as the past recedes, and falsifies it too without the past getting a chance to speak, protest, contradict or refute anything.

Life is more than a positivist surge forward towards a better future; it also requires a constant reengagement with the past, which becomes harder to distil as the present continues to shift.

Maria surveys the tumult of her emotions, including her self-effacement and her desires. It’s not hard to see in her obsession with Luisa a wish to savour the limelight herself. She riffs on ‘unequal relationships’, in which one person must struggle harder than the other to avoid ‘fading away or vanishing’. One way to achieve recognition in such a relationship is …

… simply to wait and do nothing, trusting that eventually the other person will miss you, that your silence and absence will become unexpectedly unbearable or even worrying, because we all very quickly grow accustomed to what is given to us or what is there.

The other way is to become indispensable:

… to try, subtly, to infiltrate the daily life of that other person, to persist without insisting, to make a space for yourself, to phone, not in order to suggest getting together – that is still forbidden – but to ask a question, some advice or a favour, to let him know what has been going on in your life – the most efficient and most drastic way of involving someone else – or offering information; being present, acting as a reminder to him of your existence, humming and buzzing away in the distance, creating a habit that imperceptibly, almost stealthily, installs itself in his life, until one day the other person, missing your, by now, customary phone call, feels almost affronted – or experiences something bordering on abandonment – and, overcome by impatience, invents some absurd excuse, awkwardly picks up the phone and finds himself dialling your number.

Paragraphs like this bring Maria’s own predicament into view, and make her the centre of things.

The Infatuations isn’t a perfect novel. Sometimes Marías’s observations seemed to have been jammed into the story and those about essential behavioural differences between men and women seem contrived, though arguably they tell us more about Maria’s undermined confidence about relationships with the other sex than about some universal absolute of human life.

But the novel deserves high marks for its author’s ambition and raw talent. Murder mysteries typically yield details about the motives behind a crime. The Infatuations attempts much more: to tell us about the motives behind everyday behaviour.

Javier Marías The Infatuations Penguin 2014 PB 352pp $22.99

Adrian Phoon is a Sydney writer. He’s appeared in SameSame, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age, New Matilda and a lot of karaoke bars. He tweets @highonprose.

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