Street knifing and a descent into memory
By Javier Marias Translated by Margaret Jull Costa Hamish Hamilton, 352pp, $32.99 (HB)
JAVIER Marias lives both in and outside Madrid (in two identical apartments, one in the city and one in a small rural town); he has written 14 books, including short stories and a collection of literary essays, and contributes a column on politics, literature, film, social issues and sport to the Spanish newspaper El Pais.
During his childhood (he was one of five boys) the family lived intermittently in the US, his philosopher father banned from working in Spain because of his opposition to the Franco regime. After university, Marias spent a year at Oxford teaching translation theory; his choice of Margaret Jull Costa as his regular English translator is not just informed but inspired. One hopes the linguists who translate his books into 30 or so other languages are just as outstanding.
It is not only what Marias writes about — from the fascinating subtleties of the individual mind to the effects of violence in action — but his breathtaking style that has persuaded Penguin to nominate him as a Modern Classic, ranking him alongside Miguel de Cervantes and Federico Garcia Lorca and signing up his entire backlist, as well as bringing out his 2011 novel, The Infatuations.
Yet Marias is not well known in this country despite the plaudits of, for example, Antony Beevor, who judges his gripping and profound trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow (English version 2005-09), to be ‘‘ one of the greatest novels of our age’’. It is also relevant in its gradually unfurling demonstration that intelligence or espionage can be either ‘‘ white’’ or ‘‘ black’’; black knows no boundaries but is always justified by war or terrorism. Your Face Tomorrow would be black indeed were it not illuminated by Marias’s fastidious morality.
The Infatuations is much lighter in tone, partly because the first-person narrator is a bit player in the plot, though an important observer, and partly because she is a woman — a woman of considerable perception but little power. She may even be an experiment, for despite Marias’s legion of female readers, he has said that a man writing a female narrator is somewhat unbelievable, if not absurd.
But this narrator, who conjures up multiple, elaborate speculations following a street murder, has to be a woman (called Maria) so that she may befriend the wife of the victim. She used to see the two breakfasting daily in the cafe where she also sat. Enjoying at a distance their warm, intimate but unfussed affection, she secretly dubbed them the Perfect Couple, unaware they had noticed her noticing them and designated her the Prudent Young Woman.
When the husband, Desvern or Deverne (there is often uncertainty around names in Marias’s novels), is brutally knifed, Maria’s stream of consciousness pursues many questions: not just who killed him and why, or how the devastated wife will cope, but what it means when Maria catches herself mourning she learned the husband’s name ‘‘ too late’’. Too late for what? When Macbeth says of his wife, ‘‘ She should have died hereafter’’, must we agree that later is always better?
Marias frequently follows up the ‘‘ gaps’’ Shakespeare left unfilled, and in this novel juggles Macbeth against the Balzac story Colonel Chabert, in which a soldier officially declared dead returns six years later, only to find his wife happily remarried. Is it conceiv-