In an interview with the Guardian earlier this year, the Spanish novelist Javier Marías objected to the rather well-worn idea of the novel as a vehicle for imparting knowledge. “For me,” he explained, “it is more a way of imparting recognition of things that you didn’t know you knew. You say ‘yes’. It feels true even though it might be uncomfortable.” The plots of his novels, insofar as they can be said to have any real plots at all, often hinge on the revelation of such truths. Someone hears something or learns something or is told something, and the knowledge they’ve acquired sets in motion what one character calls “the incessant beating of my thoughts.”
Rarely is this knowledge welcome. The opening words of Marías’s 1992 novel A Heart So White—“I did not want to know but I have since come to know”—betray a disposition shared by virtually all of his shadowy narrators. In the later Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, a cheating husband away on a business trip in London with this lover learns twenty hours after the fact that his wife has died suddenly and unexpectedly. The thought torments him, and toward the end of the novel he unburdens himself to the narrator (who, as it happens, was with his wife when she died). As he listens, the narrator reflects:
telling a story is tantamount to persuading someone or making oneself clear or making someone see one’s point of view and, that way, everything is capable of being understood, even the most vile of acts . . . we have to find a place for it in our consciousness and in our memory where the fact that it happened and that we know about it will not prevent us from going on living.
This largely internal process of trying to assimilate an incident or situation propels each of Marías’s novels. He is unique in his focus, not on the external facts of plot (his plots, when summarized, can often sound preposterous), but on the internal action those plots set in motion. As a character in his latest novel, The Infatuations, likes to remind us, it is not the plot of a novel that is important—what happens is so easily forgotten—but rather the “possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with.” What happens in a Marías novel is less important than what doesn’t happen—or what happens only in the overburdened minds of his characters. Their looping thoughts and reflections, expressed in Marías’s long sentences with their deferrals and digressions, equivocations and inquiries, constitute the real drama of this preternaturally gifted writer’s urgent fiction.
The narrator of The Infatuations is María Dolz, a disenchanted editor at a publishing house who takes her breakfast at the same café every morning, a habit she shares with a married couple whose outward displays of love and affection have become, for María, a necessary antidote to the monotony of her daily grind. She observes this perfect couple from afar—“the nicest thing about them was seeing how much they enjoyed each other’s company”—and though she doesn’t speak to them or approach them (on a single occasion they exchange nods of familiarity), the life-affirming delight of seeing them has become a necessary part of María’s otherwise tedious day.
As the novel opens, however, the unthinkable has happened: the husband, Miguel Deverne, has been brutally murdered, stabbed to death in broad daylight by a crazed man in what appears to be a case of mistaken identity (noir-like murders and acts of violence abound in Marías’s fiction). María, shocked by this senseless, violent act, follows the story until, inevitably, “the item vanished from the papers completely, as tends to happen with all news nowadays: people don’t want to know why something happened, only what happened.”
Months go by before María sees Deverne’s wife, Luisa, again and when she does she offers her condolences and is invited to drop by Luisa’s apartment. The revelation of the widow’s hopeless grieving and unshakeable conviction that she will never recover is a poignant example of what Marías has elsewhere called “narrative horror”: the disruption of the imagined, expected story of one’s life. In the third and final volume of Marías’s opus, Your Face Tomorrow, the narrator reflects: “it’s understandable really that people should hate knowledge and deny what is there before their eyes and prefer to know nothing and to repudiate the facts, that they should avoid the inoculation and the poison and push it away as soon as they see or feel it near . . .”
Luisa, though she obviously cannot deny what has happened, finds the horror that her husband’s death has injected into her life almost impossible to bear:
‘People say: “Concentrate on the good memories and not on the final one, think about how much you loved each other, think about all the wonderful times you enjoyed that others never have.” They mean well, but they don’t understand that all my memories are now soiled by that sad and bloody ending. Each time I recall something good, that final image rises up before me, the image of his cruel, stupid gratuitous death, which could so easily have been avoided. Yes, that’s what I find hardest to bear, the sheer stupidity of it and the lack of someone to blame. And so every good memory grows murky and turns bad. I don’t really have any good memories left. They all seem false to me. They’ve all been contaminated.
At Luisa’s apartment María meets one Javier Díaz-Varela, Deverne’s charming, womanizing best friend who now helps take care of Luisa and her two young children. María embarks on a love affair with Díaz-Varela despite knowing that her infatuation with him is not reciprocated. In fact, she realizes Díaz-Varela is merely waiting for Luisa to move on so that he can take the irreplaceable Deverne’s place. María imagines that something of this sort might have suited Deverne: for his best friend to become a kind of “unhusbandly husband,” to serve as a back-up father figure to the children and offer Luisa the reliability and comfort of a life partner, without any actual consummation of the relationship.
This gentlemen’s agreement is, as far as the reader is concerned, entirely a product of María’s imagination. Like her, we cannot now whether such an agreement or exchange ever took place. But there it is in María’s mind and on the page. It is the seed from which the remainder of the novel—that is, the remaining two hundred and fifty pages—sprouts toward its chilling conclusion. This growth is minutely charted: the rest of the novel is taken up almost entirely with conversations between María and Díaz-Varela—conversations that are more like monologues or lectures, delivered with glacial aplomb by Díaz-Varela while his temporary lover, infatuated, listens and reflects.
In common with all Marías’s narrators, María is an unusually perceptive observer: she seems constantly to be getting at the people she is listening to, reflecting on their word choices, their expressions, and their movements, changing and molding her impression of them. She imagines conversations they may or may not have had, thoughts they may or may not have thought. She’s like a novelist. “I had never thought anyone else’s thoughts before,” Luisa tells María, “it’s not my style, I lack imagination.” María, on the other hand, immerses herself in the minds of others. While listening to Luisa in her apartment she realizes: “I was the one who had spent most time over those borrowed thoughts, albeit incited or infected by her; it’s very risky imagining yourself into someone else’s mind, it’s sometimes hard to leave.”
This clandestine aspect of the narrative give’s the novel an extra layer of fictionality: the reader participates in María’s perception of Luisa, Deverne, and—most importantly—Díaz-Varela, which is to say that the reader participates in the creation of the novel’s characters. Our perception of them, and of their actions, is constantly changed and complicated, sometimes even contradicted. This perception is never resolved, just as our perception of people in real life never is or can be. For María, there is the added issue of Deverne’s death, about which she learns something that contradicts the official account. “Far worse than my grave suspicions and my possibly hasty conjectures was the burden of having two versions of events and not knowing which to believe,” she tells us. The true account does not necessarily efface the false:
You still heard it and, although it might be momentarily refuted by what comes afterwards, which contradicts it and gives the lie to it, its memory endures, as does our own credulity while we were listening, when, not knowing that it would be followed by a denial, we mistook it for the truth. Everything that has been said to us resonates and lingers, if not when we’re awake, then as we drift off to sleep or in our dreams, where the order of things doesn’t matter, and it remains there tossing and turning and pulsating as if it were someone who had been buried alive or perhaps a dead man who reappears because he didn’t actually die, either in Eylau or on the road back or having been hanged from a tree or something else.
The reference to Eylau comes from a novella by Balzac that Díaz-Varela compels María to read, the story of a French officer who is mistakenly thought to have died during a battle only to return many years later to reclaim his old life. Díaz-Varela says to María of this novella: “Fiction has the ability to show us what we don’t know and what doesn’t happen [ . . . ] it allows us to imagine the feelings of a dead man who finds himself obliged to come back, and shows us why the dead shouldn’t come back.”
María didn’t want to know but has since come to know something that may or may not be true. It doesn’t really matter, in the end, whether it is or isn’t—it has entered María’s consciousness and there it will remain in some form for good, true or false. “Anything anyone tells you becomes absorbed in you,” she says, “becomes part of your consciousness, even if you don’t believe it or know it never happened and that it’s pure invention, like novels and films.”
All of this is, of course, reflected in Marías’s prose, which curls toward and then away from certainties with a snakelike dexterity. His sentences, long and complex, are syntactically suspenseful; their meaning is deferred and complicated by the accumulation of clauses that qualify or contradict their predecessors. For Marías to write a short declarative sentence, one imagines, would be a violation of a style that, as the novelist Edward St. Aubyn wrote in his review of The Infatuations, is an embodiment of the author’s skeptical worldview. Of course, English-language readers are indebted to the great Margaret Jull Costa for her sublime rendering of this worldview. A serial translator of Marías’s fiction, Jull Costa must surely rank first and foremost among contemporary translators. As with W. G. Sebald, one is rarely conscious of reading a translation—such is the uncanny ability of Jull Costa to inhabit and transmit the author’s voice and style.
The Infatuations is on some level a murder mystery, but it is also, less obviously, an inquiry into the tenuousness of narrative and—even less obviously—a complex display of the inherent truthfulness of fiction. It shows us that fiction writing, consciously or not, is something we do out of necessity; we know so little and construct narratives in an attempt to make sense of our surroundings and our peers, all the while knowing that these narratives are, as María argues, full of “blind spots and contradictions and obscurities and mistakes, all surrounded and encircled by shadows or darkness, however hard they strive to be exhaustive and diaphanous, because they are incapable of achieving either of those qualities.”
Because fiction is, in this respect, so lifelike, it is the art form most ideally suited to capturing this facet of human existence and experience. Fiction eschews certainty and solidity just as human experience does—despite what we think and imagine and tell ourselves. “Everything becomes attenuated,” María says, “but it’s also true that nothing entirely disappears.” In other words even fiction, despite its being fiction, is not entirely false. Even a lie, if it is told, exists in the “hazy universe of narratives”—a universe in which Marías has created a world all his own. The Infatuations expands thematically and stylistically on the bold fictional project that began with the 1986 novella The Man of Feeling, but despite its continuity Marías continues to surprise and unsettle. Like his sentences, it is a project with no end in sight.
Morten Høi Jensen is a freelance writer. His essays and reviews have appeared in Salon, Bookforum, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Dublin Review of Books, The Millions, and elsewhere.