This is the starting point for The Infatuations, the latest novel by Javier Marías, the Spanish writer who won an IMPAC award in 1997 for A Heart So White.
The plot of The Infatuations unfolds slowly. Marías, a master at conjuring the strange, idle thoughts that inhabit a person’s daydreams, is in no rush to get to the conclusion of his crime novel, which transplants the hard-boiled world of the great American noir writers for playful European metaphysical thought.
María, the novel’s central character, is a thirtysomething working in the publishing industry. Each morning before work, she ambles into a cafe, observing a well-to-do couple. They see each other almost every day. Neither knows much of the other’s lives; they never talk to one another. María pieces together the main elements of their lives by eavesdropping and observation — the husband, Deverne, is aged about 50 years, the wealthy scion of a film distribution business; his wife, Luisa, is not yet 40. They have two children, a boy aged about four, a girl around eight. The couple seem impossibly happy — attentive, easy in each other’s company, “amused by life”.
Their idyllic life is shattered one day, however, when Deverne is stabbed to death by a vagrant, an act that María learns about from a gory newspaper report, which is topped with a picture of Deverne lying on the street, his shirt half off, the life having drained from him. Some time later, María approaches Luisa to offer her condolences. She’s invited to Luisa’s house, where she encounters Javier, a best friend of Deverne, with whom she begins an affair, a liaison that has unsuspecting consequences.
The Infatuations is densely filled with literary references, though it’s a relatively light read. At the heart of it lies a series of illusions to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, The Three Musketeers and chiefly to Honoré de Balzac’s Colonel Chabert, a novella about an officer during the Napoleonic wars who disappears, presumed dead, only to return years later to find his wife has married a wealthy count.
The great pleasure of The Infatuations, which has just enough twists and turns and reveals to keep the reader’s interest piqued, are the diversions Marías careers down, on all manner of subjects, from the state of falling in love to the nature of lying, to the gnawing worm of doubt and problems of conscience.
If there is a criticism with The Infatuations, it’s that his characters are so smart and knowing, beyond credibility at stages, as if the novel was peopled by a series of omniscient narrators, but it’s a small quibble with a hugely enjoyable work.
“It’s a novel,” as Javier, who, of course shares the same first name as his creator, says, “and once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us”.