Street knif­ing and a de­scent into mem­ory

The Infatuations

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ju­dith Arm­strong

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-

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