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Saturday, December 04, 2021

A Love That Kills

A meditation on death and memory,by a very European novelist

Written by Sudeep Paul |
July 27, 2013 1:37:09 am

Book: The Infatuations

Author: Javier Marías

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton

Price: Rs 550

Pages: 346

Velazquez’s Las Meninas gives the impression that the nine people in the frame,barring the sleepy dog,are staring at us,the viewers. Till we see the mirror in the background,and the reflection of Philip IV and Queen Mariana in it. The royal couple is the subject of their attention,and Philip and Mariana are posing for the artist (Velazquez himself),also seen inside the frame. By giving the bodies of the minor characters an illusion of depth and spatially locating them,while reducing the real subject to a shadow,Velazquez was perhaps challenging our everyday idea of reality. Apart from the reality that is visible and tangible — the nine characters — there is a reality that cannot be touched but only seen. Or imagined.  

Javier Marias’s latest novel,

The Infatuations,is more interested in the process of peeling the layers of reality than in the realities themselves. In a sense,therefore,this is vintage Marias,arguably the foremost among living Spanish novelists,ably served here by Margaret Jull Costa’s translation that captures the paradox of Marias’s prose style — at once flamboyant and terse,understated and effusive. The title,however,presents an unbridgeable gap — the Spanish Los enamoramientos does not translate as the English “infatuations”. The verb “enamorar” means “to inspire love” while the reflexive “enamorarse” is “to fall in love”. “Enamoramiento” is thus the act or state of falling in love,which is not the same as being infatuated. “Enamoramiento” cannot be rendered by a single English word,and Marias himself has noted the problem. “Infatuations” is the closest we can get.

Maria Dolz,Marias’s 30-something narrator,works at a publishing house. We know little about her past,but what appears at first to be chance,puts her centrestage. Maria is obsessed with a couple she sees almost every day while having breakfast at a cafe. Their perceived happiness and mannerisms make her name them the “Perfect Couple”,as she,in a way,falls in love with them,or rather with their image of conjugal bliss. Then one day,the couple disappear and months pass before the wife returns to the cafe,without her husband. Later,Maria discovers a news photo depicting the husband lying in the street,dead,or nearly dead,from stab wounds inflicted by a mad vagabond who had taken over a parking lot. Miguel Desvern (or Deverne,the Catalan “Desvern” modified for the Castilian speaker),the husband,ran a big family business in the film distribution industry,and his widow Luisa Alday is a professor at the University of Madrid. Maria befriends her while offering her condolences and soon finds herself in a sexual entanglement with Deverne’s best friend,Javier Diaz Varela,a refined and womanising intellectual besotted with Luisa,the only focal point of whose existence is winning Luisa once her grief has subsided.

Miguel is the ghost,the shadowy subject,who defines the lives of the others by remaining “still on our horizon,from which he has not entirely vanished”. Like the layers of memory,true and false,that recollect Miguel,Marias uses conflicting perceptions and misperceptions to offer readers a murder mystery that is a meditation on death and forgetting,which philosophises on the morality of love and murder,on fate,and on the guilt of secret knowledge. In Marias’s world,little usually happens. What matters is what we make of the little that happens. Not interested in solutions,Marias presents page after page of monologues (even when two characters converse) or long-winded thoughts that try to determine if there is one truth or perception that can be prioritised over others,and to resolve the conflict between desire and acting on that desire.

At the heart of Infatuations is what Marias calls the “truth of fiction” — what real life misses but the art of telling a make-believe story grasps. Thus,Diaz Varela’s predicament and manoeuvrings can only be understood from Balzac’s Colonel Chabert,the tale of a man long supposed to be dead who returns to the world of the living — only to cause a lot of unhappiness to his remarried wife,but mostly to himself. Read by Diaz Varela at length to Maria to justify his pursuit of Luisa and the undesirability of the return of what is past,Chabert is the driver of the novel’s moral debate,helped along by Macbeth (a standard Marias point of reference) and Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. If the Desverns had inspired love in Maria,she consciously falls in love with Diaz Varela,knowing he cannot reciprocate and offer,at best,an infatuation. In his apartment,she overhears a conversation that may or may not imply Diaz Varela’s hand in Miguel’s death.

A murder,unlike a theft,Maria reflects,cannot restore what it has taken from the world. Yet,once the road has been chosen,and if indeed “there is no forgiveness”,is there any point in not carrying on? Diaz Varela,putting Miguel’s apparently chance death in perspective,quotes Dumas: “A murder,nothing more.” But if the murderer,or he who commissioned the murder,convinces himself that the deed was involuntary,a stroke of luck provided by life,what happens to his secret sharer? Near the end,Maria says,“No one is going to judge me… there are no witnesses to my thoughts.” What she cannot escape is her guilt.

By the time Javier Marias had risen from All Souls (1989,trans 1992) to the three-volume Your Face Tomorrow (2002-07),he had acquired the stature of a present-day Proust. A very European novelist,it is a tribute to Marias’s genius that his chapter-long monologues or “thought” digressions do not bore,but sustain his popularity.

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