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.
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