Everyone’s done it: looked across a room, noticed a particular couple, imagined their lives, and created a fiction out of the pair of lovers that—depending on mood or particular circumstance—might quickly devolve into an ugly sort of envy. Despite the fact that little to nothing is actually known about the couple, a summation is derived from a glance that says more about the onlooker than the looked-upon. Those familiar with the work of Spanish writer Javier Marías might recognize how such a commonplace occurrence can become the stuff of entire novels (or trilogies, as was the case with his epic series Your Face Tomorrow), and so it is with his latest, The Infatuations.
The novel’s narrator/inveterate-gazer, María Dolz, visits the same Madrid café each morning, where she has given the focus of her eavesdropping the honorific “Perfect Couple.” Though she has “only ever caught fragments of their conversation, or just the odd word or two,” Dolz is compelled enough by their presence and manner to wish them “all the best in the world, as if they were characters in a novel or film for whom one is rooting right from the start, knowing that something bad is going to happen to them.”
Her mornings spent watching them, before heading to work as a literary agent—by now, the reader can smell the fresh fertilizer for metafiction in the air—become increasingly important to María. Any feelings of inadequacy in their presence (“They didn’t need me or, perhaps, anyone: I was almost invisible, erased by their contentment.”) are remedied when that inevitable “something bad” happens.
She learns the husband’s name (Miguel Desvern) from a newspaper photo, after the couple fails to show one morning, and discovers he has been randomly stabbed to death by a transient on the afternoon of his birthday. Gradually she comes to know the widow, Luisa, after approaching her months later, at the same café, to offer condolences, albeit as a stranger. As it turns out, the “Perfect Couple” were watching too, perhaps less obsessively, as Luisa welcomes her back to her apartment and reveals they had both referred to the solitary Dolz as the “Prudent Young Woman.”
Marías reveals all of this efficiently, then sets it aside in the early pages of his four-part Infatuations. Death is not the spoiler here. Anyone equipped solely with the curiosity of a whodunit aficionado will be sorely disappointed, probably bored, and likely frustrated by the novel’s remaining three acts. Similar to Marías’ earlier novel, Tomorrow In The Battle Think On Me, the dead body is often the least interesting element. What follows are signature Marías digressions, with ruminations on death, time, truth, memory, envy, and infatuation—the great themes get turned over again and again, like soil in a graveyard.
There are long expository passages devoted to Balzac’s novella Colonel Chabert, whose plot commands almost as much detective work as Miguel’s murder. There are recurring passages from Macbeth, Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers, and some Keats for good measure. There is also a tendency for María offer up pages-long scenarios only to yank them away (after the reader’s imagination has been fully invested) with a dismissive, “Not that any of those things would happen,” or, “I didn’t actually think all this.” In fact, for much of The Infatuations,the action doesn’t so much happen as get discussed.
This is not to say there is no satisfactory payoff. It is a novel that can tug conventionally with the promise of revelation and deliver on the most obvious questions: What happened? Who did it? Why? But as one character contends, during a discussion of Balzac’s Chabert: “What happened is the least of it… What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot we recall more vividly than real events and to which we pay far more attention.”
Marías’ noveloperates on so many levels simultaneously, it becomes a piece of evidence itself, an artifact that proves its own argument. It is a dizzying feat that relegates “metafiction” to that dreary province literary terms go should they fail to articulate, as The Infatuations does so artfully, that life and fiction are inventions often made from the same materials.