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.
The last time I saw Miguel Desvern or Deverne was also the last time that his wife, Luisa, saw him, which seemed strange, perhaps unfair, given that she was his wife, while I, on the other hand, was a person he had never met, a woman with whom he had never exchanged so much as a single word. I didn’t even know his name, or only when it was too late, only when I saw a photo in the newspaper, showing him after he had been stabbed several times, with his shirt half off, and about to become a dead man, if he wasn’t dead already in his own absent consciousness, a consciousness that never returned: his last thought must have been that the person stabbing him was doing so by mistake and for no reason, that is, senselessly, and what’s more, not just once, but over and over, unremittingly, with the intention of erasing him from the world and expelling him from the earth without further delay, right there and then. But why do I say “too late,” I wonder, too late for what? I have no idea, to be honest. It’s just that when someone dies, we always think it’s too late for anything, or indeed everything—certainly too late to go on waiting for him—and we write him off as another casualty. It’s the same with those closest to us, although we find their deaths much harder to accept and we mourn them, and their image accompanies us in our mind both when we’re out and about and when we’re at home, even though for a long time we believe that we will never get accustomed to their absence. From the start, though, we know— from the moment they die—that we can no longer count on them, not even for the most petty thing, for a trivial phone call or a banal question (“Did I leave my car keys there?” “What time did the kids get out of school today?”), that we can count on them for nothing. And nothing means nothing. It’s incomprehensible really, because it assumes a certainty, and being certain of anything goes against our nature: the certainty that someone will never come back, never speak again, never take another step—whether to come closer or to move further off—will never look at us or look away. I don’t know how we bear it, or how we recover. I don’t know how it is that we do gradually begin to forget, when time has passed and distanced us from them, for they, of course, have remained quite still.
But I had often seen him and heard him talk and laugh, almost every morning, in fact, over a period of a few years, and quite early in the morning too, although not so very early; indeed, I used to delay slightly getting into work just so as to be able to spend a little time with that couple, and not just with him, you understand, but with them both, it was the sight of them together that calmed and contented me before my working day began. They became almost obligatory. No, that’s the wrong word for something that gives one pleasure and a sense of peace. Perhaps they became a superstition; but, no, that’s not it either: it wasn’t that I believed the day would go badly if I didn’t share breakfast with them, at a distance, that is; it was just that, without my daily sighting of them, I began work feeling rather lower in spirits or less optimistic, as if they provided me with a vision of an orderly or, if you prefer, harmonious world, or perhaps a tiny fragment of the world visible only to a very few, as is the case with any fragment or any life, however public or exposed that life might be. I didn’t like to shut myself away for hours in the office without first having seen and observed them, not on the sly, but discreetly, the last thing I would have wanted was to make them feel uncomfortable or to bother them in any way. And it would have been unforgivable and to my own detriment to frighten them off. It comforted me to breathe the same air and to be a part—albeit unnoticed—of their morning landscape, before they went their separate ways, probably until the next meal, which, on many days, would have been supper. The last day on which his wife and I saw him, they could not dine together. Or even have lunch. She waited twenty minutes for him at a restaurant table, puzzled but not overly concerned, until the phone rang and her world ended, and she never waited for him again.
It was clear to me from the very first day that they were married, he being nearly fifty and she slightly younger, not yet forty. The nicest thing about them was seeing how much they enjoyed each other’s company. At an hour when almost no one is in the mood for anything, still less for fun and games, they talked non-stop, laughing and joking, as if they had only just met or met for the very first time, and not as if they had left the house together, dropped the kids off at school, having first got washed and dressed at the same time—perhaps in the same bathroom—and woken up in the same bed, nor as if the first thing they’d seen had been the inevitable face of their spouse, and so on and on, day after day, for a fair number of years, because they had children, a boy and a girl, who came with them on a couple of occasions, the girl must have been about eight and the boy about four, and the boy looked incredibly like his father.
The husband dressed with a slightly old-fashioned elegance, although he never seemed in any way ridiculous or anachronistic. I mean that he was always smartly dressed and well coordinated, with made-to-measure shirts, expensive, sober ties, a handkerchief in his top jacket pocket, cufflinks, polished black lace-up shoes—or else suede, although he only wore suede towards the end of spring, when he started wearing lighter-coloured suits—and his hands were carefully manicured. Despite all this, he didn’t give the impression of being some vain executive or a dyed-in-the-wool rich kid. He seemed more like a man whose upbringing would not allow him to go out in the street dressed in any other way, not at least on a working day; such clothes seemed natural to him, as though his father had taught him that, after a certain age, this was the appropriate way to dress, regardless of any foolish and instantly outmoded fashions, and regardless, too, of the raggedy times in which we live, and that he need not be affected by these in the least. He dressed so traditionally that I never once detected a single eccentric detail; he wasn’t interested in trying to look different, although he did stand out a little in the context of the café where I always saw him and even perhaps in the context of our rather scruffy city. This naturalness was matched by his undoubtedly cordial, cheery nature, almost hail-fellow-wellmet, you might say (although he addressed the waiters formally as usted and treated them with a kindness that never toppled over into cloying familiarity): his frequent outbursts of laughter were somewhat loud, it’s true, but never irritatingly so. He laughed easily and with gusto, but he always did so sincerely and sympathetically, never in a flattering, sycophantic manner, but responding to things that genuinely amused him, as many things did, for he was a generous man, ready to see the funny side of the situation and to applaud other people ’s jokes, at least the verbal variety. Perhaps it was his wife who mainly made him laugh, for there are people who can make us laugh even when they don’t intend to, largely because their very presence pleases us, and so it’s easy enough to set us off, simply seeing them and being in their company and hearing them is all it takes, even if they’re not saying anything very extraordinary or are even deliberately spouting nonsense, which we nevertheless find funny. They seemed to fulfil that role for each other; and although they were clearly married, I never caught one of them putting on an artificial or studiedly soppy expression, like some couples who have lived together for years and make a point of showing how much in love they still are, as if that somehow increased their value or embellished them. No, it was more as if they were determined to get on together and make a good impression on each other with a view to possible courtship; or as if they had been so drawn to each other before they were married or lived together that, in any circumstance, they would have spontaneously chosen each other—not out of conjugal duty or convenience or habit or even loyalty—as companion or partner, friend, conversationalist or accomplice, in the knowledge that, whatever happened, whatever transpired, whatever there was to tell or to hear, it would always be less interesting or amusing with someone else. Without her in his case, without him in her case. There was a camaraderie between them and, above all, a certainty.
There was something very pleasant about Miguel Desvern or Deverne’s face, it exuded a kind of manly warmth, which made him seem very attractive from a distance and led me to imagine that he would be irresistible in person. I doubtless noticed him before I did Luisa, or else it was because of him that I also noticed her, since although I often saw the wife without the husband—he would leave the café first and she nearly always stayed on for a few minutes longer, sometimes alone, smoking a cigarette, sometimes with a few work colleagues or mothers from school or friends, who on some mornings joined them there at the last moment, when he was already just about to leave—I never saw the husband without his wife beside him. I have no image of him alone, he only existed with her (that was one of the reasons why I didn’t at first recognize him in the newspaper, because Luisa wasn’t there). But I soon became interested in them both, if “interested” is the right word.
Desvern had short, thick, very dark hair, with, at his temples, just a few grey hairs, which seemed curlier than the rest (if he had let his sideburns grow, they might have sprouted incongruously into kiss-curls). The expression in his eyes was bright, calm and cheerful, and there was a glimmer of ingenuousness or childishness in them whenever he was listening to someone else, the expression of a man who is, generally speaking, amused by life, or who is simply not prepared to go through life without enjoying its million and one funny sides, even in the midst of difficulties and misfortunes. True, he had probably known very few of these compared with what is most men’s common lot, and that would have helped him to preserve those trusting, smiling eyes. They were grey and seemed to look at everything as if everything were a novelty, even the insignificant things they saw repeated every day, that café at the top of
Príncipe de Vergara and its waiters, my silent face. He had a cleft chin, which reminded me of a fi lm starring Robert Mitchum or Cary Grant or Kirk Douglas, I can’t remember who it was now, and in which an actress places one finger on the actor’s dimpled chin and asks how he manages to shave in there. Every morning, it made me feel like getting up from my table, going over to Deverne and asking him the same question and, in turn, gently prodding his chin with my thumb or forefinger. He was always very well shaven, dimple included.
They took far less notice of me, infinitely less, than I did of them. They would order their breakfast at the bar and, once served, take it over to a table by the large window that gave on to the street, while I took a seat at a table towards the back. In spring and summer, we would all sit outside, and the waiters would pass our orders through a window that opened out next to the bar, and this gave rise to various comings and goings and, therefore, to more visual contact, because there was no other form of contact. Both Desvern and Luisa occasionally glanced at me, merely out of curiosity, but never for very long or for any reason other than curiosity. He never looked at me in an insinuating, castigating or arrogant manner, that would have been a disappointment, and she never showed any sign of suspicion, superiority or disdain, which I would have found most upsetting. Because I liked both of them, you see, the two of them together. I didn’t regard them with envy, not at all, but with a feeling of relief that in the real world there could exist what I believed to be a perfect couple. Indeed, they seemed even more perfect in that Luisa’s sartorial appearance was in complete contrast to that of Deverne, as regards style and choice of clothes. At the side of such a smartly turned-out man, one would have expected to see a woman who shared the same characteristics: classically elegant, although not perhaps predictably so, but wearing a skirt and high heels most of the time, with clothes by Céline, for example, and earrings and bracelets that were striking, but always in good taste. In fact, she alternated between a rather sporty look and one that I’m not sure whether to describe as casual or indifferent, certainly nothing elaborate anyway. She was as tall as him, olive-skinned, with shoulder-length, dark, almost black hair, and very little make-up. When she wore trousers—usually jeans—she accompanied them with a conventional jacket and boots or flat shoes; when she wore a skirt, her shoes were low-heeled and plain, very like the shoes many women wore in the 1950s, and in summer, she put on skimpy sandals that revealed delicate feet, small for a woman of her height. I never saw her wearing any jewellery and, as for handbags, she only ever used the sort you sling over your shoulder. She was clearly as pleasant and cheerful as he was, although her laugh wasn’t quite as loud; but she laughed just as easily and possibly even more warmly than he did, revealing splendid teeth that gave her a somewhat childlike look, or perhaps it was simply the way her cheeks grew rounder when she smiled—she had doubtless laughed in exactly the same unguarded way ever since she was four years old. It was as if they had got into the habit of taking a break together before going off to their respective jobs, once the morning bustle was over—inevitable in families with small children—a moment to themselves, so as not to have to part in the middle of all that rush without sharing a little animated conversation. I used to wonder what they talked about or told each other—how could they possibly have so much to say, given that they went to bed and got up together and would presumably keep each other informed of their thoughts and activities—I only ever caught fragments of their conversation, or just the odd word or two. On one occasion, I heard him call her “princess.”
You could say that I wished them all the best in the world, as if they were characters in a novel or a fi lm for whom one is rooting right from the start, knowing that something bad is going to happen to them, that at some point, things will go horribly wrong, otherwise there would be no novel or fi lm. In real life, though, there was no reason why that should be the case, and I expected to continue seeing them every morning exactly as they were, without ever sensing between them a unilateral or mutual coolness, or that they had nothing to say and were impatient to be rid of each other, a look of reciprocal irritation or indifference on their faces. They were the brief, modest spectacle that lifted my mood before I went to work at the publishing house to wrestle with my megalomaniac boss and his horrible authors. If Luisa and Desvern did not appear for a few days, I would miss them and face my day’s work with a heavier heart. In a way, without realizing it or intending to, 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). I would have liked to give them something similar in exchange, but how could I? They didn’t need me or, perhaps, anyone: I was almost invisible, erased by their contentment. A couple of times when he left, having first, as usual, kissed Luisa on the lips—she never remained seated for that kiss, but stood up to reciprocate it—he would give me a slight nod, almost a bow, having first looked up and half-raised one hand to say goodbye to the waiters, as if I were just another waiter, a female one. His observant wife made a similar gesture when I left—always after him and before her—on the same two occasions when her husband had been courteous enough to do so. But when I tried to return that gesture with my own even slighter nod, both he and she had looked away and didn’t even see me. They were so quick, or so prudent.
Excerpted from The Infatuations by Javier Marias. Copyright © 2013 by Javier Marias. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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.
"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
“The unspoken romance at the heart of Marías’s work is the recuperation of old-fashioned adventure within perfectly serious, cerebral contemporary fiction.”—The Daily Beast
“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
“Marías has created a splendid tour de force of narrative voice. . . . A luminous performance.”—Wichita Eagle
“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 haunting masterpiece.”—The Observer, UK
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?