The Infatuations by Javier Marías

Although violent death hangs over the narrative from the very opening of The Infatuations, this is a book whose action happens in remembered and imagined conversation with the living and the dead. Though this can be disconcertingly circumlocutory, there is a beautiful talking heads art to the narrative.

The narrator, María, works in a publishing house dealing with pompous modern novelists and breakfasts everyday in a café close to work where she observes a couple who also breakfast there everyday. She calls them the Perfect Couple (it later transpires they had named her the Prudent Woman) and although they don’t ever exchange words, María finds comfort and hope in the happiness they project and looks forward to seeing them as some kind of good omen for her day. Then, one day, the husband is stabbed to death by a homeless man and María’s expression of condolence to the widow compels her into a world of infatuation far from perfect. She falls in love with the deceased husband’s best friend and sees quite clearly his infatuation with the widow. The apparently random death of the husband starts to look more like an orchestrated crime passionnel.

However, romantic infatuation is only part of the story. Most of the main characters have a passion for literature. Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and Balzac’s Colonel Chabert are the most frequently mentioned literary references and their stories impinge upon the plot until ‘Everything becomes a story and ends up drifting about in the same sphere, and then it’s hard to differentiate between what really happened and what is pure invention.’ This beautifully salacious idea about the compelling nature of narrative – it has recently been proved that we experience the lives of the characters we read about, see – to shape our reality is pleasingly offset by María’s scathing opinions of modern writers and her belief that ours is an age in which we are compelled to listen to others ‘regardless of what they have done, and not just in order to defend themselves, but as if the story of their atrocities were itself of interest.’ We have to conclude, in the end, after all the talk and contemplation that opposing truths can exist at the same time and that, unless something directly impacts upon us, it is easier to allow things to fade into the background. This makes María the embodiment of the Prudent Woman and an unnerving example for our age.

The Infatuations is spellbinding novel, feeding our desire for plot with a diet of thought. I thoroughly recommend it. A paperback edition comes out this March.

Next week I’m reading Blood Fugue by Joseph D’Lacey and then The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (because I’m keen to know what happens next). As before, suggestions for further reading are very welcome.