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Tuesday, 11 March 2014

The Infatuations - Javier Marias (Translated by Margaret Jull Costa) - Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2014

infatuation  (ɪnˌfætjʊˈeɪʃən) 

— n
the act of infatuating or state of being infatuated
foolish or extravagant passion
an object of foolish or extravagant passion

(Collins English Dictionary 10th Edition)

I’ve put the definition here as all too often the word is mistakenly interchanged with “love”.  Meher Baba, an Indian “spiritual master” explained the difference as such; "In infatuation, the person is a passive victim of the spell of conceived attraction for the object. In love there is an active appreciation of the intrinsic worth of the object of love."

Our protagonist in Javier Marias’ “The Infatuations” is Maria Dolz, also known as “the Prudent Young Woman”, a name given to her by Luisa and Miguel Desvern or Deverne. Each morning she takes breakfast at the same café, observing a loving couple from afar but never speaking to them. There is acknowledgment of each other’s presence but no more than that. Our novel opens with Maria discovering that Miguel has been stabbed numerous times and killed, her silent relationship with the couple abruptly coming to an end.

Initially we have musings on voyeurism, for example, have you ever observed somebody and made up a story about their lives? A whole existence made up, a fiction, a creation of your own imagination. Maria had done just that, dwelling on their happiness, their obvious love for each other. But it’s only fantasy.

As a casual observer she has to come to terms with the sudden death of somebody she “knew”:

All this information was published over a period of two days, the two days following the murder. Then the item vanished from the press completely, as tends to happen with all news nowadays: people don’t want to know why something happened, only what happened, and to know that the world is full of reckless acts, of dangers, threats and bad luck that only brush past us, but touch and kill our careless fellow human beings, or perhaps they were simply not among the chosen. We live quite happily with a thousand unresolved mysteries that occupy our minds for ten minutes in the morning and are then forgotten without leaving so much as a tremor of grief, not a trace. We don’t want to go too deeply into anything or linger too long over any event or story, we need to have our attention shifted from one thing to another, to be given a constantly renewed supply of other people’s misfortunes, as if, after each one we thought: “How dreadful. But what’s next? What other horrors have we avoided? We need to feel that we, by contrast, are survivors, immortals, so feed us some new atrocities, we’ve worn out yesterday’s already.”

After another chance encounter with, the now widow, Luisa, Maria passes on her condolences and is invited to meet her at home. There Luisa discusses her grief, her inability to rationally move on from her loss and her lamenting. At that meeting a visitor, Javier Diaz-Varela arrives, he was a close friend of Miguel and is also seemingly consoling the bereaved Luisa. After another chance encounter a relationship begins.

Yes, we are all poor imitations of people whom, generally speaking, we never met, people who never even approached or simply walked straight past the lives of those we now love, or who did perhaps stop, but grew weary after a time and disappeared without leaving so much as a trace, or only the dust from their fleeing feet, or who died, causing those we love a mortal wound that almost always heals in the end. We cannot pretend to be the first or the favourite, we are merely what is available, the leftovers, the leavings, the survivors, the remnants, the remaindered goods, and it is on this somewhat ignoble basis that the greatest loves are built and which the best families are founded, and from which we all come, the product of chance and making do, of other people’s rejections and timidities and failures, and yet we would give anything sometimes to stay by the side of the person we rescued from an attic or a clearance sale, or won in a game of cards or who picked us up from among the scraps; strange though it may seem, we manage to believe in these chance fallings in love, and many think they can see the hand of destiny in what is really nothing more than a village raffle at the fag-end of summer…

Our story is a deep lamentation on death and the transient nature of relationships as well as love. I was briefly reminded of Ian McEwan’s “Amsterdam” (the relationships and the musings on death) or Julian Barnes’ “The Sense of an Ending” (making sense of our existence), but this novel contains more than existentialist musings (no criticism of the Booker Prize winners intended), it is a slow lamentation on envy, loss, jealousy, Balzac, “The Three Musketeers” and fiction itself:

It’s a novel, and once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matter 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.

A simple linear plot of a chance meeting, a murder, the subsequent investigation and the relationships formed, but something a lot deeper. Using the classical themes of death and love but through the eyes of an observer (Maria always seems to be at a distance even though fully embroiled), a prudent woman at that, we have an exploration of the tenuous grip on life, our relationships and our fickle future. Maria is but a passive victim of the spell of conceived attraction. An infatuation.

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Bellezza said...

I see her , Maria, as passive. But, not necessarily a victim. She willingly chose a relationship with Javier that she knew was not reciprocal. I questioned her for that. She was willing to accept so little for herself. It saddened me.

I wonder what will happen down the road with Javier and Luisa. What if she finds out what he did, do you think it will matter to her?

Messy_Tony said...

I don't think Maria is a victim any more than we're all victims of fate. I see her fulfilling a need as she so much wants to love somebody and the anonymous boyfriends (names no more) can't fulfil that need. She is indeed a sad character and generally men writing as women is something I baulk at - I think Javier Marias has done a good job though.

Luisa will surely not find out, she's moved on, would make a nice study though.

Unknown said...

No, Maria is in no way a victim; in fact, in some ways she is colluding with Javier, allowing her infatuation to blind her to what she should be doing...

...i.e. calling the police ;)

Bellezza said...

Tony, it's interesting that you say you generally balk at men writing as women for that's a thought that consistently runs through my mind (not to mention women writing as men). I'm not sure why, but it seems to lose some validity to me. Marias did a good job, but I wonder why he opted to tell the story through Maria's point of view rather than say, Javier's.

wecallupon said...

I loved the way he twists what is seena and what actually is real ,all the best stu