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Review: The Infatuations by Javier Marías

“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…”

It seems likely that this observation by Díaz-Varela, the most enigmatic of the small cast of characters in Javier Marías’ latest novel The Infatuations, is also a statement that informed the book’s creation. This is not to suggest that riveting plot plays no role—to the contrary, the book centers on a brutal murder and the relationships that such pivotal events change and cultivate. Varying degrees and manifestations of infatuation, from the narrator María Dolz’s voyeuristic idealizing of a couple she observes but never interacts with to Díaz-Varela’s desire for his best friend’s widow, populate the novel with complex events and a sense of intrigue. It is simply the case that when reading Marías, what happens on the plot level is not the most engaging element, nor the most essential to a lasting effect.

A carefully composed piece of music is an apt analogy for The Infatuations, in some ways perhaps a more illuminating approach than trying to derive its impact from story or character alone. Much like recurring themes in a musical composition, phrases, bits of dialogue, and thoughts are repeated verbatim or with slight variations throughout the novel, responding to and even uttered by different characters, appearing in new contexts that slightly alter or enhance their meaning.

This obsessive revisiting of ideas that consume or even haunt us—the anxieties with which we become infatuated—is a key characteristic of the novel. Breathlessly long sentences punctuated almost exclusively with commas tend to read like a distilled transcript of universally familiar thought processes that, outside of fiction, are so fleeting as to be untraceable. Characters grapple with ideas that are morally significant and often uncomfortable—the problem of relief at the loss of a loved one, the manifold justifications with which we excuse our own cruelties, and, most persistently, the fact that once we are gone no one would truly welcome our return. Conventional scenes of action, which we tend to think of as central to a novel, are frequently interrupted and delayed indefinitely by yet another recasting of these themes into a new key.

The Infatuations by Javier Marías, translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa.

The Infatuations by Javier Marías, translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa.

The Infatuations operates unapologetically on its own terms, and readers with rigid expectations of what a novel should do are likely to be disappointed. Monologues go on for pages without so much as a response from other characters, tangents make for a book that often feels loose structurally, characters’ voices are rarely distinct from one another or even from the narrative voice, and—perhaps the cardinal sin for a book that sets itself up as a mystery—ambiguity ultimately sustains.

If, however, we keep in mind that every novel we pick up establishes its own rules and teaches us how to read it, The Infatuations is an immensely unique and rewarding reading experience. Marías is not unaware of the aforementioned accusations, but he writes a book that does not permit them to be shortcomings. This novel is deliberate about what it sets out to accomplish, and the rest qualifies instead as marginal or altogether negligible.

Yes, at the conclusion, mystery still lingers, but there is a sense of conclusiveness where the novel deems it most important. While certain elements of the plot remain indeterminate, the themes tie together in a moment of sudden unity and reconciliation reminiscent of the epiphanies so favored by literature’s great modernists. If we grant the novel its own terms—and we ought to— then it is both a success and an absolute pleasure to read.

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