Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: The Infatuations


Ever since I started writing in English, I’ve been reading mostly American and British authors. Not only as a tool to become more proficient in the language, but also to understand what’s selling in English-speaking markets and how their stories are told. Once in a while, though, I’ll dig into world literature and look at what’s selling outside the US, mostly in Latin America and Spain.

This month I ran across a Spanish author called Javier Marías, who is apparently making waves across the Atlantic. From what I understand, there’s even Nobel Prize talk. His latest work, The Infatuations (in Spanish, Los Enamoramientos) is a literary novel (but honestly, what Spanish/Latin American author doesn’t write literary?) with elements of crime, obsession and love—or more specifically, elements of “falling in love,” which is not the same thing, according to the author. As Alfaguara (the Spanish publisher of this novel) indicates on its website, this is "a book about the state of being in love, which seems to justify everything."



The plot is simple: María Dolz is a book editor who’s been watching a couple at a café every morning for years (whom she affectionately calls “The Perfect Couple”) until one day, they stop coming. By chance, she learns that the Perfect Husband (Miguel) had been stabbed to death. When María sees the Perfect Wife again at the café, she approaches her for the first time and offers her condolences. The now-widow invites her to her home for a chat and opens her heart to María (known to them as “The Prudent Young Woman”). At the widow’s house, María meets a family friend (Javier) and from the prudent, distant observer she once was, María becomes entangled in the lives of these strangers until their fate lies in her hands.

Oddly, in this novel—which may seem so intriguing and juicy—the plot is not the most important thing. As the author himself tells us through one of his characters (in reference to another novel):

“What happened is the least of it. It’s a novel, and once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matter are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot that we recall far more vividly than real events and to which we pay far more attention.”

The author’s philosophy comes through in his work since, for example, we know very little about his protagonist. We come to know how María thinks and feels, but little to nothing about her past, her family or even her age. We’re stuck in this one anecdote of her life, this brief season where we learn the bare minimum about her (where she works and some of the people she associates with) in order to understand her choices and actions. This is a novel where the human condition (our fear of death, our unfulfilled desires, the things we do for love, the process of grieving after losing someone) becomes the focus of the story.

I found the novel to be both refreshing and frustrating. While the prose is engaging and identifiable (as I mentioned earlier, the author analyzes in great deal feelings and experiences most of us have had) he repeats his discourse in a way that the plot becomes sometimes static. I did enjoy his reflections and repeated motifs (he uses the same examples to illustrate his views on injustice and grief) but at the same time, I wanted the action to move along, I wanted to see the characters interact in different ways—as opposed to being told what they did and simply witnessing their philosophical conversations in almost every scene, which leads me to my other objection: the characters sounded (mostly) the same in their views of life (sort of cynical) and they all engage in super long monologues.

Despite my grievances, the novel is also refreshing and here’s why: the story doesn’t follow “the hero’s journey” or any predictable pattern (even though the reader is definitely intrigued to know what will happen and what did in fact happen to Miguel). It’s more of a “slice of life” type of story with no perceivable change in the protagonist or any of the other characters (aside from the end of a natural grieving process). I loved this because I am so tired of books and films that follow a formula as though it was a manual of instructions to install a dishwasher. It seems contradictory, doesn’t it? The same things that made it refreshing (the differences from the traditional storytelling model) also presented a source of frustration for me. In the end, though, the novel touches on much deeper issues than who killed Miguel and why or what will happen with the protagonist’s love life. It talks about how our perspective and memory may affect the truth (or what we perceive as such), it talks about how humans adjust to the loss of a loved one to the point where if that person were to come back, he or she may no longer have a place in our lives, and it talks about justice and impunity. In summary, it’s one of those novels that will leave you pondering for days and perhaps make you examine your own philosophies and fears.

Spanish edition of The Infatuations. Which cover do you like better?
Have you read this novel? If so, what did you think? Do you agree with the author in his assessment that ideas are more important than events in fiction? 

Check out these Cephalopod Coffeehouse reviews!

1.The Armchair Squid2.What's up, MOCK?!
3.Words Incorporated4.Scouring Monk
5.Huntress6.A Creative Exercise
7.Libby Heily8.Trisha @ WORD STUFF
9.Wishbone Soup Cures Everything10.mainewords
11.Julie Flanders12.Hungry Enough To Eat Six
13.Yolanda Renee14.M.J. Fifield
15.StrangePegs -- Turn Coat16.The Writing Sisterhood
17.Ed and Reub18.StrangePegs -- Vader's Offspring

28 comments:

  1. This looks intriguing! I like both covers but I really love the first one. I think ideas are more important than events in literary fiction, but if there are no events, things do get a little boring, don't they? Ideally you want some of both. Genre fiction is too often all events and no ideas, and unfortunately this is what most people seem to want.

    The way you describe this book reminds me very much of "The Sound of Things Falling" by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, that Colombian author I was telling you about. Which reflects what you said about Spanish-language writers being almost entirely literary. Vasquez's novel is about ideas, too, more than events, but it's also about the pleasure of language. I wish I could read it in Spanish, but even in English it's clear he's reveling in words.

    Does the Infatuations have an element of magical realism, too? It's pretty slight in Vasquez's book, but there's a ghostly, otherwordly feel to the narrative, even if no actual ghosts show up.

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    1. Well, there are events in this novel (and interesting ones). It's just that without all the thoughts and discussions it would probably be 50 pages long, ha ha! I often thought this could have been a short story if it was edited more, but I do agree with the author that the ideas are what have remained in my mind after I finished the book. Perhaps because some of them resonated so much with me.

      To answer your question, fortunately there are no elements of magical realism in this novel. That seems to be more of a Latin American device, although Ruiz Zafon uses it a bit doesn't he? I say "fortunately" because to me this has become sort of a cliche, like if you're a Latin writer then you *must* include some magical realism in your work. :~[

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  2. This sounds like a life-changing novel, something the reader does not and cannot take lightly. Good review.
    Author of Wilder Mage at Spirit Called
    Facebook Wilder Mage

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    1. No, it's definitely not a light read. Thanks for stopping by. :)

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  3. Aver, Lorenita. You know how you just wrote me an email this morning saying what I wrote to you deserves a phone conversation? :) The topic of this post feels the same to me.

    I'd have to say that I find the idea of your mind, developed with care and intention over the last decade to approach fiction in particular ways, interacting with a text that is at once refreshing and frustrating would make for a fantastic conversation over Twisters.

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    1. Any chance of you spending your spring break in the Land of Enchantment? :))) That Twisters conversation (and lunch) sounds so tempting!

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    2. Little one and I are thinking EP but looking into going up to the Q for part of it! You and your family would be the main reason. :)

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  4. I have not read this book but it sounds like something I would like. As for the author's statement that ideas are more important than events, I think it depends on the story.

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  5. I admire any effort on part of a creator to go off-formula. It sounds like this one worked well.

    Ideas more important than events? I don't know. For most writers, the events need to be interesting enough to keep the reader going. Many of the pillars of world literature are what they are for the ideas embedded within but plot is the vessel.

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    1. "Many of the pillars of world literature are what they are for the ideas embedded within but plot is the vessel."

      Good point!

      Like I said earlier, it does have an interesting plot. It's just that it moves slowly because it's so infused with all this talk about life, literature, etc.

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    2. Slow's okay, especially if the side explorations are interesting.

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  6. Wow, you definitely make a person want to pick up this novel. I like both covers, but I think reading the novel one would settle on one over the other. Interesting that redundancy (repeated motifs) isn't frowned upon here - I'd love to see how it's used. Thank you for such an in depth review!

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    1. You know, after reading the book I found the second cover and I thought it was completely appropriate for the story. I'm always intrigued by how different publishers come up with such different covers (and sometimes titles) for the same book.

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  7. This looks like it might be outside my comfort zone (as a reader) but color me intrigued.

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    1. Yeah, it's definitely not for everybody.

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  8. You need to read the Your Face Tomorrow books. That would be where all the love is coming from. They are brilliant.

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    1. I've heard about this series. They're thrillers, right? It would be interesting to see how he tackles something more fast-paced (are they?) Thanks for the recommendation!

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  9. Love a bit of wandering from the formula! And vote for the Spanish cover- more joyful :-)

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    1. I agree. It's definitely a more joyful cover, but it also conveys a sense of nostalgia, doesn't it?

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  10. "Oddly, in this novel—which may seem so intriguing and juicy—the plot is not the most important thing. As the author himself tells us through one of his characters (in reference to another novel)"

    Interesting how he chose one of his characters to get his point across. The character goes on to say that the novel is soon forgotten and not important, but on the contrary. You obviously couldn't get this one off your mind for a few days! Makes you wonder what he truly believes when it comes to storyline, plot, etc.

    This was a great review, and I'm glad you found it so refreshing! I suppose I would have honed in on the frustration aspect of it more, but that's just me! :)

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    1. "The character goes on to say that the novel is soon forgotten and not important, but on the contrary."

      Well, the character is talking about another novel (one from Balzac). The heroine wants to know how it ends and he tells her that the details don't matter, that what truly matters are the ideas the novel brings to the reader. I couldn't help but draw comparisons with The Infatuations. I think, in a way, the author is right. I still remember the details of this one, but I've been thinking way more about his theories on death and human behavior.

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  11. I think it's cool to read books that don't stick to a set formula, even if they can present challenges to our literary 'palate' so to speak.

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  12. Huh. Haven't read it, but it sounds amazing. I'm going to have to go check it out...more.

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    1. Please do!! I want to know what other people think about it. :-)

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  13. I hadn't heard of this book and I am definitely adding it to my reading list. The fact that it is considered for a Nobel gives it a lot of heft.
    I like both covers, but the Spanish one is more evocative. The English is very designer-ly & looks familiar to me...where I have I seen it before?

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