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:
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.