I tried to retell the plot of this novel to a friend the other day. Usually retelling plots is a very silly thing to do, certainly never to be attempted without gloves on. I failed miserably. The eloquence and the subtlety were lost, the understatement went missing, and the story turned into tasteless old junk from your kitchen’s freezer. What we were looking at was a Mexican soap opera unworthy of anyone’s time or attention. Which is a shame. Because The Infatuations is something of a triumph.
And then again – it would be the same with Marcel Proust (note that I’m not making any far-reaching comparisons here). In Search Of Lost Time would be no more than a sentimental French melodrama. Swann and Odette would be a cliché. Same with Flaubert and countless others. Which is all to say that some novels simply can’t be dissected that way. For all its intriguing plot shenanigans, The Infatuations is all about the style.
I’ll give away the premise. Maria (or Prudent Young Woman) is from the world of publishing. You might forget that in the process of reading the book, but try not to. It’s important. Each morning she comes to one particular café in Madrid, and each morning there’s this married couple sitting nearby having breakfast. Looking so happy and contented. Maria feels drawn to them, she becomes infatuated with the image. The smiles, the little laughs – but then you never really know with people, do you?.. A terrible accident happens, and Maria has an unlikely chance to do what no one should ever do: get close to the object of her obsession. The story does go to fairly exciting places once we leave the cafe, but like I say. All about the style.
The style is meticulous, but always graceful and never labored. It twists and twirls, often around one scene or even a thought. It’s enchanting, and you get entangled into the textures that create true beauty out of what is essentially mundane and repetitive. Somewhere in the middle of the novel, Javier Marias retells (ah!) the plot of a short story by Balzac (whose main idea – ‘the dead are wrong to come back’ – becomes so significant in this context). It is done in a very detailed, nonchalant, matter-of-fact way. But very early into The Infatuations I realised that if we’re never going to leave the Madrid café in the course of these 352 pages, I won’t mind. I’ve accepted the rules of the game, I’m in. It will take you two pages to see where you stand. I personally bow my head to both the author and Margaret Jull Costa, the translator of the novel.
Marias likes a sparkling sentence that he can later suck on for a paragraph or two. “It’s easy to introduce doubt in someone’s mind” is surely a key one, reflecting as it does the strange, existential, slightly Dostoyevskian world that Maria finds herself in. Where you can neither confirm nor refute anything and where each truth is only a half-truth. The characters are never real. They breathe, but abstractly, and their looks never come through. They’re not even one-dimensional – they’re translucent. But The Infatuations is that kind of book. It creates its own universe inaccessible to conventional senses and way beyond Spain. With a plot that is merely an embellishment.
It was a long read for me, but then I never really pushed it. Like all great art, The Infatuations was great escape.