A third of the way through THE INFATUATIONS, Javier Marías’s new novel, Javier Díaz-Varela, a man who has been sleeping with the narrator, María Dolz, tells her about Balzac’s COLONEL CHABERT, an early work from the French author’s COMÉDIE HUMAINE cycle. A colonel is believed to have died in the Battle of Eylau. His widow inherits a large fortune and marries the wealthy Count Ferraud. Ten years later, to everyone’s surprise, Colonel Chabert returns and wants to resume his old life. But he discovers that his wife has built a new life, one “in which there is no room for him”. As Díaz-Varela explains to María, the novel is proof that “the dead are fine where they are and should never come back.”
The reason for Díaz-Varela’s interest in Colonel Chabert is the narrative force behind THE INFATUATIONS, a brilliant work that is as much a philosophical treatise on fate and the vagaries of desire as it is a thriller about a murder.
María Dolz works at a Madrid publishing house. She eats breakfast at the same café every morning before work. Also having breakfast at the same time each day is a married couple who fascinate her. The man is 50 years old and “dressed with a slightly old-fashioned elegance,” with made-to-measure shirts and expensive ties. His younger wife wears sportier attire than her husband, such as “skimpy sandals that revealed delicate feet.” Even though she and the couple never speak to one another, María looks forward to seeing them every day. “They were the brief, modest spectacle that lifted my mood before I went to work.”
"...a brilliant work that is as much a philosophical treatise on fate and the vagaries of desire as it is a thriller about a murder.... Marías’s great achievement here is to make the philosophical insights into life’s biggest questions as gripping as the murder mystery."
One morning in early June, the couple doesn’t appear. One of the waiters tells María that they have gone on holiday for the summer. She is saddened that she has “to wait until September for my little morning stimulant.” Shortly thereafter, however, her colleague Beatriz tells her that the man, whom María refers to as “Miguel Desvern or Deverne,” has been murdered. A gorrilla (homeless person) accosted Desvern on the street, accused him of involving the gorrilla’s daughters in a prostitution ring, and then stabbed Desvern 16 times with a butterfly knife.
Three months later, María sees Desvern’s widow, Luisa, in the café and extends her condolences. Luisa thanks her and invites María to her home, where, over glasses of port, she tells María that she can’t bring herself to hate the homeless man who killed her husband. It was a random murder, a case of mistaken identity. The killer has as much meaning to her as “a bit of plaster cornice that breaks off and falls on your head just as you’re walking by underneath.” There’s no more point to hating the killer than in hating that piece of plaster.
During this visit, Díaz-Varela, a friend of the Desvern family, drops by. He and María will eventually become lovers. Díaz-Varela tells María that, not long before his death, Desvern asked his friend if he would care for Luisa and their two children should anything happen to him. Díaz-Varela agreed, but he confesses to María that he is infatuated with Luisa and hopes that one day she will get over her grief and he can become her Count Ferraud. María is not upset by this revelation, as she, too, is in love with someone else. But when a man named Ruibérriz comes to Díaz-Varela’s flat late one night and, while María pretends to be asleep, murmurs something about a man who has “started to blab,” María begins to suspect that there may be more to the murder than she has been led to believe.
The richness of THE INFATUATIONS is not in the mechanics of its plot but in its philosophical underpinnings. Much of the novel consists of long and fascinating musings on the nature of death. Death is a sad occasion, Díaz-Varela says at one point, but when someone dies, we no longer have to deal with his annoying habits. At the passing of a great artist, some people derive perverse joy in the knowledge that the world is a little poorer, because the artist is no longer around to “underline our own relative mediocrity.” Marías’s great achievement here is to make the philosophical insights into life’s biggest questions as gripping as the murder mystery. And his long, vivid sentences (the English translation is by Margaret Jull Costa) are every bit as elegant as Desvern’s wardrobe. THE INFATUATIONS is an extraordinary novel.
Reviewed by Michael Magras on August 16, 2013