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Balzac’s Colonel Chabert serves as the back story for Javier Marías’ profoundly wrenching and philosophically complicated new novel, The Infatuations. In Balzac’s novella, published in 1832, a woman married to a military officer learns that he has been killed in battle. After ten years (because of numerous complications), during which time she has remarried, her first husband reappears, assuming that the passionate love he shared with his wife has remained intact. In Marías’ own novel, Javier Díaz-Varela refers to Balzac’s novel as he explains to Maria Dolz why he cannot marry her, “The worst thing that can happen to anyone, worse than death itself, and the worst thing one can make others do, is to return from the place from which no one returns, to come back to life at the wrong time, when you are no longer expected, when it’s too late and inappropriate, when the living have assumed you are over and done with and have continued or taken up their lives again, leaving no room for you at all.”
The much larger context is that Díaz-Varela is waiting to marry a recently widowed woman, whose husband he is certain will not return from the dead. Thus, María’s love for him cannot be reciprocated, as he patiently waits for Luisa to forget her recently deceased husband. María knew Luisa and her husband (Miguel) as the “perfect couple.” For several years she ate breakfast in the same café where they did every morning, observed their affections for one another without ever speaking a word to them. “The sight of them…calmed me,” she observes. They became her strength, as she began each day. Then one day, she learned from the news that Miguel has been brutally murdered on the street, killed by multiple knife wounds from a deranged, homeless man. When María puts the story together, she realizes that the last time she saw Miguel was the last time Luisa saw him, as they all departed from the café to go their separate ways on that fatal day.
María did not know the names of the couple from the café but learned them after the brutal murder. She continued to return to the place for breakfast, as Luisa eventually did after a brief hiatus, prompting María to approach the other woman and offer her condolences. María tells the widow that without knowing their names, she had though of them as “the perfect couple.” Luisa says that she and her husband had a name for María also: “the prudent young woman.” The conversation continues and Luisa invites María to visit her, which she does. It is there that she meets Javier Díaz-Varela, who is referred to as Miguel’s best friend. Somewhat later, María and Díaz-Varela meet accidentally and begin a rather casual sexual relationship. It’s no more than that because Díaz-Varela confesses that he has been in love with Luisa for years and is waiting for the woman to forget her husband. As he tells her, “Luisa’s present life has been destroyed, but not her future life. Think how much time she has left in which to move forward, she isn’t going to stay trapped in the moment, no one ever is, still less in the very worst moments, from which we always emerge, unless we’re sick in the head and feel justified by and even protected by our comfortable misery.”
There are lengthy discussions about mourning and recovering from the death of a loved one between Díaz-Varela and María, particularly painful because María is so attracted to him (and willing to have a relationship with him until sufficient time has passed for Luisa to forget Miguel, or so Díaz-Varela believes). The novel becomes more complicated when María fantasizes that perhaps Luisa will die one day soon and she’ll be able to marry Díaz-Varela. And then what has already been a dark narrative becomes much darker when María overhears Diaz-Varela speaking to another man about the way the two of them set up Miguel’s murder. Can she still be in love with him? She confesses to feelings of “utter incredulity and basic, unreflecting repugnance.” How can she love a murderer? When she doesn’t hear from him for a couple of weeks, she is both relieved and frustrated by her conflicted love for him. She is bothered by the possibility that her desire for him cancels out what she knows that he has done.
Then—in an absolutely brilliant series of revelations—Díaz-Varela calls her and asks her to come to his apartment, making the situation even more fraught with tension for María because she understands that her murderer/lover has figured out that she overheard the conversation about the murder. Is she going to her own death? If Díaz-Varela has been involved in a man’s death (his best friend’s no less), how easy is it to be involved in a second murder? Will he murder her so he can eventually marry Luisa? Miguel obviously cannot return from the dead as did Balzac’s Colonel Clabert. Will Miguel’s widow want to marry Díaz-Varela? What are María’s obligations to Luisa to prevent the woman from marrying her deceased husband’s murderer? Do strong infatuations cancel our ethical beliefs? At what stage do despicable acts cancel all feelings of love?
The discussions of love in The Infatuations (dazzlingly translated by Margaret Jull Costa) are riveting at the same time that they are horrifying, bordering on the grotesque. Do extreme infatuations destroy one’s moral center? Javier Marías keeps a few tricks up his sleeve for the last third of the novel, surprising both the reader as well as one of his main characters—but which one you will have to discover by reading this emotionally devastating account of crimes of passion. Or maybe they are crimes of infatuation.
No surprise that the novel has been a huge international success.
Javier Marías’ The Infatuations
Trans. by Margaret Jull Costa
Knopf, 338 pp., $26.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.