The Infatuations by Javier Marías

Javier Marías, Spanish writer, whose work has been translated into 42 languages. He is, like me, 67.

A woman sits at her regular table in a café and has noticed for many mornings a couple at their regular table. She has become fascinated by them; her day isn’t complete, or even ruined, if, because of work or some other reason, she has to miss her morning coffee and doesn’t get her daily dose of them. The husband is suddenly and brutally killed, murdered unnecessarily, possibly even mistakenly, and the woman goes up to the wife and offers her condolences and is invited into the life of the widow.

I’m not given anything away by telling you that: this all happens just before the novel begins.

This is the starting point, the seed, that allows Marías to write many conversations, some even imaginary; to explore the subject of death, or more specifically, the effects of death on those who remain.

Now, don’t get scared but I’m going to use a word that scares most readers: philosophical. It’s like a philosophical exploration of the effects of death on people, but the use of dialogue between characters, instead of long passages of prose, makes the ideas, the philosophy, so accessible. We’ve all thought about it (Haven’t you?). In conversations, as short sometimes as Marías’s, I’ve often used the sentence, ‘We cease to exist after we die in exactly the same way as we don’t exist before we are born’. This is the very subject of one of the conversations in the novel and one of the reasons I found the book so interesting, particularly because one of the characters refutes that statement. Another reason is that the writer is a man but the first person narrator is a woman. This is unusual. If the protagonist and author are of different genders the author usually chooses to use the third person.

(But there is also mystery. I started writing this blog when I was a third of the way through – I often start my blog well before I’ve finished the book, even finishing the blog-writing before I finish the novel-reading – when I had a sneaking suspicion that the circumstances surrounding the murder may not be true. I haven’t worked out how Marías triggered this thought, if it’s a red herring, or novelistic supposition. I shall see.)

Curiously, and comically, Marías gives the protagonist, the lonely woman in the cafe, Maria Dolz, a job at a publishing house. She has a very low opinion of writers; they continuously annoy, frustrate, and make unwanted demands on her. She is a passive woman, and knows it, but seems to enjoy subverting her writer’s wishes and gaining the upper hand if only to prove to herself that she isn’t as passive as she believes herself to be.

And now that she has been introduced into the life of the sudden widow, Luisa Desverne, and met her friends, she falls hopelessly in love with one of them, Javier Diaz-Varela, the one that she imagines would’ve been chosen by the murdered husband to console, care for, and eventually marry his wife had he had forewarning of his own demise; believing that Diaz-Varela is indeed biding his time with her, toying with her, waiting for Luisa to notice and accept him. Maria has a vivid and self-deprecating imagination.

‘If anything bad were to happen to me and I was no longer here,’ Desverne might have said one day, ‘I’m counting on you to take care of Luisa and the kids.’

‘What do you mean? What are you talking about? Why do you say that? You’re not ill are you?’ Diaz-Varela would have replied, anxious and taken aback.

(Ah, yes, a mystery!)

Marías is continually praised for his sentences, and his sentences are indeed dense, elegant, and rewarding; even very long, but don’t be fooled by a page long sentence; it’s usually a page of many sentences but only one full stop.

When someone is in love, or, more precisely, when a woman is in love and in the early stages of an affair, when it still has all the allure of the new and surprising, she is usually capable of taking an interest in anything that the object of her love is interested in or speaks about. She’s not just pretending as a way of pleasing him or winning him over or establishing a fragile stronghold, although there is an element of that, she really does pay attention and allow herself to be generally caught up in what he feels and transmits, be in enthusiasm, aversion, sympathy, fear, anxiety, or even obsession.

The book slowly takes on the form of a murder novel, but not one that could easily be turned into a movie as it all happens in the mind of Maria. She imagines a lot of things, conversations, desires, intentions, but does she imagine everything?

(I’m two thirds of the way through now … )

There is certainly a taste of fear for Maria’s well being, and a growing sense of excitement that borders on compulsive page-turning. I found myself reading the first paragraph of a new (short, un-numbered, un-titled) chapter to get the sense of the continuing story, but then find myself at the next chapter. There is also a recurring image of the dead returning which is always accompanied with a feeling of dread, even though the deceased has been greatly mourned.

… surely not!

You can buy the paperback, ebook, audio book, and/or read a free sample here.

Listen to Marías reading from one of his novels and talking about writing here.

Out in the Open by Jesús Carrasco


Jesus Carrasco pic
Spanish writer Jesús Carrasco

In the European summer of 1984 my partner and I were driving around Europe. One of our stop overs was the very un-tourist-town of Badajoz, on the Spanish Portuguese border. Western Spain is not dissimilar to the Australian interior, brown, dry and dusty. There were hot summer hazes on the bitumen, the look and dry odour of stubble and the sharp acrid smell of eucalyptus trees; but my childhood memories of the dry mid-north of South Australia in summer were debunked by the odd donkey cart, a stork perching on a power line, and olive groves. We stayed in Badajoz over night and saw our first bullfight in a red-brick Plaza de Toros, with an atmosphere not unlike an Aussie country footy match. There were food stalls, ice cream sellers, souvenir hawkers, and kids running around under the stands. One of those kids could’ve been 12-year-old Jesús Carrasco, born in Badajoz in 1972. Since school he has worked as a grape-picker, a washer-up, a music manager, an exhibition fitter, a graphic designer and an advertising copywriter, and somewhere during that time he achieved a Batchelor’s Degree in Physical Education. He began writing when he moved to Madrid in 1992 and now lives in Seville. Out in the Open (Intemperie in Spain) is his first novel and was a best seller in Spain and then the Netherlands in 2014.  It won the European Union Prize for Literature and also the English PEN Award and has been translated into 14 languages; this English translation for Vintage, UK is by Margaret Jull Costa.

It’s been called a ‘road’ story and a ‘dystopian’ tale, about a frightened boy who takes refuge in a hole in the ground and then escapes into a vast apocalyptic-like desert which has engulfed the land, his world. He is pursued by men of the village for an unknown reason, but the boy is obviously terrified and can do nothing but flee. He meets a lone goat-herd, an old man who lives on goat’s milk, dried meat, rancid almonds and mouldy cheese. A boy beginning his life and a man close to his end. They flee from the pack of men, and then a persistent bailiff and his deputy, and form a strange almost messiah-disciple-like alliance despite their mistrust of spoken words and their respective body odours : there’s not enough water to drink let alone to wash: anyway urine is better for wounds from fists, boots, backs of hands, and whips. Their only bond seems to be their shared branding as the ‘other’. No character has a name.

It’s written in a straight, past tense, third person narrative of plain language;

They crossed the stony ground at such a slow pace that they didn’t even kick up any dust. The landscape they passed through, full of abandoned arable fields and threshing floors, spoke to them of desolation. As did the flattened furrows covered in a crust of baked earth so hard that it only gave beneath the hooves of the heavily laden donkey.

Apart from the vivid writing the thing that urges you on is to find out why is the boy afraid, what terrible thing did he do? You are hungry for clues, your attention is sharpened. They are few but therefore precious. You hang on to them and you must resist letting your mind wonder around superfluous possibilities. The threat of violence is ever present, and when it comes, it is alarmingly real. Don’t be squeamish!

Place and time are unimportant, it is as if the land is devoid of people, hopes, ambitions and work. There is just ruins, rocks, bones, and dust. The boy and man protect each other, the boy certainly not really understanding why. There is a mule, a dog and a few goats: a small band of survivors? Outlaws? Refugees? If only it would rain! It is a story of self-reliance, determination, courage, acceptance, hope, and, and triumph? You will have to read it to find out.

You can purchase the book in various formats here.