Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Support Our Annual Fund Drive! CounterPunch is entirely supported by our readers. Your donations pay for our small staff, tiny office, writers, designers, techies, bandwidth and servers. We don’t owe anything to advertisers, foundations, one-percenters or political parties. You are our only safety net. Please make a tax-deductible donation today.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Pay Attention to Their Men

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Great story-tellers leave a unique signature on their work–usually something amorphous but so distinct that you recognize their genius immediately, even though it may take years to fully understand them. Part of the pleasure of reading is figuring out the puzzle each time you return to their work, finding piece here, locating another piece somewhere else. Javier Marias—who was born in Madrid–easily fits in this category, though his work is barely known in the United States. The ten short stories in While the Women are Sleeping sparkle with an unconventional audacity, a deceptive simplicity, packing at the same time an emotional wallop hard to forget.

Take, for example, “The Resignation Letter of Se?or Santiesteban,” about a young Englishman who accepts a job teaching at a Spanish language institute in Madrid. His duties are fairly innocuous, mostly teaching Spanish, until the custodian of the institute has to leave for medical reasons, and Derek Lilburn is asked to lock up the building each night. That would be no problem but for a warning from the director that a ghost arrives each night just about the time of closing and can be heard taking seven steps to the bulletin board and then eight steps back to the entrance before leaving. Nothing more, except each morning a resignation letter appears on the bulletin board:

Dear Friend,

In view of the regrettable events of recent days, the nature of which run counter not only to my habits, but to my principles, I have no alternative, even though I am well aware of the grave difficulties my decision will cause you, of resigning forthwith from my post. And may I say, too, that I strenuously disapprove of and condemn your attitude to the aforementioned events.

Leandro P. de Santiesteban

The director of the institute, who hired Derek Lilburn, says he hasn’t a clue about what the letter means—nor, he says, does anyone else who has ever worked there. But young Lilburn can’t leave the mystery at that, so he begins spending his nights in the institute, only to discover that the letter of resignation never appears on the bulletin board if he remains in the building—only the nights he locks up the institute after hearing the seven steps, followed by the eight retreating ones. Ghosts (or perhaps I should say the supernatural) appear in other stories in the collection but more ubiquitously as an obsession, as in Edgar Allan Poe: the death of a beautiful woman.

Nowhere are those two subjects—a beautiful woman and death—as cleverly brought together as in Marías’s title story: “While the Women Are Sleeping.” Early in the story, the narrator and his wife observe another couple at a resort who spend their entire days with the woman sun-bathing and her much older companion obsessively photographing her from every conceivable angle. Day after day the same activity, as the man takes hundreds of pictures of the woman. Then one night when the narrator suffers from insomnia, he looks out his hotel window and sees the photographer down below him in the courtyard. Joining him, he asks the older man why he keeps taking the same photos of his companion. The response: “I film her because she is going to die.”

The narrator asks if the woman has a fatal illness. The answer is an emphatic no. The photographer–because he is much older than his companion–does not want her to see him grow old; thus, he plans to kill her. But here the story becomes much more sinister. The photographer takes his obsessive pictures of her each day so that when the woman dies, he will have photos of her exactly as she was before her death. The narrator speculates that the woman has been murdered earlier in the evening, but then the tables are turned again as the photographer asks him how does he know that his own wife hasn’t died or been murdered during the time the two of them have been talking?

The startling ending is even more electrifying as the narrator understands that both women may be dead. And, worse, the photographer has changed his appearance, including shaved off his mustache as if he is planning to flee the scene of the murder(s) undetected. The story hasn’t ended; there are still more surprises.

Thanks to Margaret Jill Costa for her rich translation of Marías’s remarkable short stories.

While the Women Are Sleeping
By Javier Marías
Translated by Margaret Jill Costa
New Directions: 129 pp., $21.95

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

Weekend Edition
September 30, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Henry Giroux
Thinking Dangerously in the Age of Normalized Ignorance
Stanley L. Cohen
Israel and Academic Freedom: a Closed Book
Paul Craig Roberts – Michael Hudson
Can Russia Learn From Brazil’s Fate? 
Andrew Levine
A Putrid Election: the Horserace as Farce
Mike Whitney
The Biggest Heist in Human History
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: the Sick Blue Line
Vijay Prashad
In a Hall of Mirrors: Fear and Dislike at the Polls
Alexander Cockburn
The Man Who Built Clinton World
John Wight
Who Will Save Us From America?
W. T. Whitney
When Women’s Lives Don’t Matter
Jeremy Brecher
Dakota Access Pipeline and the Future of American Labor
Binoy Kampmark
Pictures Left Incomplete: MH17 and the Joint Investigation Team
Andrew Kahn
Nader Gave Us Bush? Hillary Could Give Us Trump
Steve Horn
Obama Weakens Endangered Species Act
Dave Lindorff
US Propaganda Campaign to Demonize Russia in Full Gear over One-Sided Dutch/Aussie Report on Flight 17 Downing
John W. Whitehead
Uncomfortable Truths You Won’t Hear From the Presidential Candidates
Ramzy Baroud
Shimon Peres: Israel’s Nuclear Man
Brandon Jordan
The Battle for Mercosur
Murray Dobbin
A Globalization Wake-Up Call
Jesse Ventura
Corrupted Science: the DEA and Marijuana
Andrew Sullivan
The Democratic Plot to Privatize Social Security
Daniel Borgstrom
On the Streets of Oakland, Expressing Solidarity with Charlotte
Marjorie Cohn
President Obama: ‘Patron’ of the Israeli Occupation
Norman Pollack
The “Self-Hating” Jew: A Critique
David Rosen
The Living Body & the Ecological Crisis
W. T. Whitney
When Women’s Lives Don’t Matter
Richard W. Behan
Hillary Clinton and Our Moribund Democracy
Joseph Natoli
Thoughtcrimes and Stupidspeak: Our Assault Against Words
Ron Jacobs
A Cycle of Death Underscored by Greed and a Lust for Power
Kim Nicolini
Long Drive Home
Art Martin
The Matrix Around the Next Bend: Facebook, Augmented Reality and the Podification of the Populace
Andre Vltchek
Failures of the Western Left
Laura Finley
Presidential Debate Recommendations
José Negroni
Mass Firings on Broadway Lead Singers to Push Back
Leticia Cortez
Entering the Historical Dissonance Surrounding Desafinados
Robert J. Burrowes
Gandhi: ‘My Life is My Message’
Charles R. Larson
Queen Lear? Deborah Levy’s “Hot Milk”
September 29, 2016
Robert Fisk
The Butcher of Qana: Shimon Peres Was No Peacemaker
James Rose
Politics in the Echo Chamber: How Trump Becomes President
Russell Mokhiber
The Corporate Vice Grip on the Presidential Debates
Daniel Kato
Rethinking the Race over Race: What Clinton Should do Now About ‘Super-Predators’
Peter Certo
Clinton’s Awkward Stumbles on Trade
Fran Shor
Demonizing the Green Party Vote
Rev. William Alberts
Trump’s Road Rage to the White House
Luke O'Brien
Because We Couldn’t Have Sanders, You’ll Get Trump
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail
[i]
[i]
[i]
[i]