The Impermanence of Being

In Javier Marías’ writing, nothing is sacred, no fact safe from doubt, no story left unflipped
The Infatuations | Javier Marías | Translated by Margaret Jull Costa | Hamish Hamilton | 346 pages | Rs 550
Novel
In her conversation with María, then still a stranger, Luisa ponders the belief ‘that what has ceased to happen is not as bad as what is happening, and that we should find relief in that cessation’—the idea that the past is an imagined refuge for present trauma

Javier Marías’ The Infatuations has an alluring premise: a woman, María Dolz, admires a beautiful and happy couple, Miguel and Luisa Deverne, while breakfasting at the same café every day for years, drawing great comfort from their presence. After a brief trip out of town, she discovers the man has been brutally murdered in the street. Her new infatuation with the dead man’s best friend, Javier Díaz-Varela, becomes a conduit for her continuing fascination with the couple. As the book winds its way through long, fleshy—and sometimes frustratingly thorough—considerations of love, death and other big words, Maria drifts carelessly towards the truth of the murder, and we, if we persist through what I gather are the author’s characteristic musings, are allowed to discover what they were for.

Persistence, it must be said, is required, though the rewards are plenty. For those who enjoy taking a machete to an intellectual thicket (to borrow and rearrange the words of Captain Jack Sparrow), or even watching someone else do so, the 346 pages of this book are a veritable jungle. But if you are the sort to surrender to a novel’s internal logic and take it very seriously, you might find your normal modes of reasoning grown over, as mine were, by the author’s universal scepticism. You might also become a touch obsessed with death for a few days.

Full disclosure: this is the first and only work by Javier Marías I’ve ever read, a fact that ought to disqualify me from reviewing it. But I’ll argue a fresh eye serves Marías’ style. The density of this book, its willingness to stop for a wrestle with the slightest passing existential dilemma, is better absorbed by the energetic uninitiated reader. I suppose I’m saying I think being new to Marías enabled me not to get sick of him halfway through this tremendous book—and I’m glad for it.

For much of the book, certainly the first half, one seems to be meandering through a superbly furnished—if not overfurnished—museum of metaphysical inquiry, and it helps if you don’t think much about where you’re headed and just keep going until you get there. Once ‘there’, it becomes clear the author’s narrative style—an exhaustive consideration of all interpretive possibilities of any event or situation—is pertinent to the novel’s plot. The characters are mouthpieces, yes, but not mere mouthpieces. And though it might seem so at first, the plot is not simply a Lady Gaga meat dress layered onto the novel’s philosophical skeleton in order to make it cohere. The novel’s narrative and its ‘story’—if you’ll permit a ‘straw man’ distinction—are organic to each other.

Had I read him before, this process may not have been nearly as deceptive and beguiling as it was. This is a brazenly speculative counterfactual, but seeing as the book and writer in question both seem enthusiastic advocates of precisely this sort of strident conjecture, I’ll allow it. I will allow myself, as Marías does his characters, to be judge, jury, defendant and both lawyers to make the most improbable arguments with complete earnestness and come to a conclusion that suits me. Marías endows all his characters with this peculiar sort of arrogance—a swollen ego, the confidence to speak with complete authority with little concern for counters and contradictions, mastery of their own narrative—a total dominance reflected in Javier Díaz-Varela’s sense of being ‘the only one who can tell the tale’. This power is paramount.

John Berger wrote in his 2008 novel From A to X that ‘the first reality is story’. In The Infatuations, Marías repeatedly asserts the vulnerability of ‘reality’, of verifiable fact, to the infinite interpretive possibilities of story. That the story is being told by someone gives rise to an uncertainty that looms large over the novel, because people cannot be trusted to be constant; people, as Díaz-Varela puts it, ‘start out seeing one thing and end up seeing quite the opposite’. Certainty is perpetually embattled by the potential for retelling. But the novel repeatedly suggests that narrative is also the solution to uncertainty—characters tell and retell their stories as a way of neutralising the ambiguity of events, and the reader must constantly renegotiate her scepticism.

A similar battle is ongoing throughout the novel between memory and impermanence, each of which is a solution to the other. Death is traumatic because it reminds us of the impermanence of things, and also because of the enduring memories we have of the dead. Death creates the problem of memory, but suggests itself—a guarantee of impermanence—as the solution. In turn, our memories can mitigate the impermanence of those we love, and the impermanence even of our grief can help us forget.

This meditation on memory and impermanence expands into an ongoing preoccupation with time—the existence of the future, Díaz-Varela argues, guarantees the impermanence of the present and the increasing irrelevance of the past. The pastness of something mitigates its occurrence, in the same way that the occurrence of it inflected everything that went before.

All of this speculation takes on a rather more sinister meaning when one is reminded that it is a discussion being had by people about the death of someone they know, or almost know. The willingness of Marías’ characters to exert the force of their interpretation onto an event of great and unexpected trauma often comes across as cruel. Although even widowed Luisa, the person most affected by the novel’s central death, seems amenable to considering theoretical inputs in her grief. For instance, in her only long conversation with María, then still a stranger, she ponders the belief ‘that what has ceased to happen is not as bad as what is happening, and that we should find relief in that cessation’—the idea that the past is an imagined refuge for present trauma. She doesn’t agree. Time doesn’t help her step out of her grief.

Death poses the ultimate uncertainty. It also changes the meaning of everything. Death defines everything that went before, and changes imagined futures—a fact that is promising for Díaz-Varela, but utterly dispiriting (or imagined) for Luisa. Meaning is always at risk in this novel, never dependable. Things previously empty of meaning, like the sound of an ambulance siren, become suddenly full, and others, like a planner no longer to be used, are hollowed out as a result Miguel’s death.

In Marías’ writing, nothing is sacred, no fact safe from doubt, no story left unflipped. If we are allowed some measure of certainty, it is only so we can later be robbed utterly of it. Reading Marías for the first time is somewhat like being inducted into a fraternity of argumentative sceptics, revisionists and liberty-takers. This can be a joyous induction, but a frightening one too. This sounds dramatic, and it is: The Infatuations forces you to constantly wonder about the narrative of your life, suggesting ways it might be upended.