The Infatuations is a tapestry of dialogues and fictitious dialogues woven on a fabric of a relatively simplistic plot and characters, by Javier Marías, grand master of intertextuality and high wizard of ideas, concepts, images, phrases that keep retelling and rewriting themselves.
The novel is structured around a murder mystery in which María, a café spectator observing the postcard-perfect mornings of a couple, becomes entwined after the couple have disappeared. Their reappearance in rather changed circumstances – newspaper photograph of the man stabbed to death, her rejoining the café with another man – triggers an entanglement which gives the author context for metaphysical contemplation. The plot and characters in this novel seemed to serve the sole purpose of channeling the author’s opinions and thoughts about facts of life, notably grief. While I don’t resonate with this aphoristic-truistic style, here it never succeeded in becoming a drawback for me, and the seductive beauty and exquisite flow of Marías’ style easily overcame my displeasure in this type of writing.
A top asset for a writer, his rare talent for observation combined with his fine psychological skill transpires not only from the hallmark Marías way of conveying thoughts and thoughts-in-thoughts and even thoughts-in-thoughts-in-thoughts, but also from fine descriptions of gestures which I particularly liked here (e.g. the scene with the little girl and her mother having breakfast).
Intertextuality today seems to be synonymous with Javier Marías’s name. Glimpses and interpretations of Shakespeare and Dumas punctuate this sweeping-sprawling story-telling which is less of a story and more of a telling. Most dialogues were built as fictitious ones encapsulated in the narrator’s monologues or even chains of monologues. The longest one was the narrator (María) recounting a made-up discourse of the other lead character (Javier) who recites the imaginary speech of the victim (Miguel) who weaves in the fictitious sayings of others.
Not incidentally, anthropologists and theorists of mind, e.g. Stiller and Dunbar, Premack and Woodruff, observe that humans generally can represent four or five layers of intentionality, or embedded imputation (e.g. I know he knows I know he knows…) before becoming uncomfortable. The reader has already been seduced by the time he becomes aware of the game Marías has played on him, one that is just as mesmerizing stylistically as it is, so the scientists suggest, unsettling “anthropologically”…
The characters in The Infatuations don’t evolve. There is nothing individualistic or unique in them, they just deliver what we can assume to be the author’s opinion about certain issues. Even relative strangers find it easy to unbosom themselves, using the same figures of speech in the same style of speech. The discourse-orrhea does not lack in authenticity, though, as most of them are intellectuals and intellectuals do talk a lot. But this apparent series of monologues/dialogues comes in a magnificently symmetrical structure: the discursiveness seems to be subdued in the opening and closing chapters which showcase more action. I loved this particular aspect, it did lend a sense of completeness to the novel.
Contemplation nowadays often translates into criticism in our postmodern world of irony and sarcasm, but not so in Marías. There was a lot of refreshing positiveness and appreciation for what the narrator observed especially in the first part of the story. I liked that, too, very much.
An excellent read.