‘The Infatuations’

THE INFATUATIONS. By Javier Marias. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. Knopf. 338 pages. $26.95.

‘Everything becomes a narrative and sounds fictitious, even if it’s true,” thinks Maria Dolz, the central character in superstar Spanish novelist Javier Marias’ “The Infatuations,” his first since completing the “Your Face Tomorrow” trilogy in 2007.

The opening pages of the novel are taken up with a narrative — a pleasing one — that Maria tells herself morning after morning, year after year. Before work each day, she sits in a cafe, across the room from “the Perfect Couple.”

“The world is raggedy,” Maria thinks, but the Perfect Couple’s “brief, modest spectacle” gives her daily hope. She confides, “You could say I wished them the best in the world, as if they were characters in a novel or a film for whom one is rooting from the start ...” They are characters in a novel, and Maria has already undercut her well wishes by telling us in Paragraph One that the man was stabbed to death in the street.

How Maria moves from her friendly feeling and couple crush to imagining the garish street scene becomes the immediate subject of the novel. “The Infatuations” is a murder mystery, but Javier Marias shrugs off the who-did-what-to-whom format soon enough in favor of existential questions.

As in other Marias novels, the stock plot seems like an excuse to set in motion a line of thought. His endlessly twisting and equivocating sentences are the real treat, as Maria goes deeper into the psychic burden of knowledge and confronts the contingencies that attach to a crime and its exposure.

In Marias’s telling, the very categories of guilt and innocence, thought and action, intent and fulfillment become as mysterious as a bloody body in the street. What is one’s role in the story of one’s life? Narrator? Instigator? Plaything of a master planner? How does everything connect? Are these connections real, or only in our minds?

Death is the supreme question mark, a provocation to the living. From the moment Miguel Desvern, the dead man, leaves his body, his own story is over. He shrinks and fades, becoming a catalyst for others’ stories.

Maria, who was only an observer while Miguel was alive, visits Luisa (Miguel’s wife), and begins an affair with Javier (Miguel’s friend, who is in love with Luisa). While Miguel is frozen where he fell, the survivors continue on, suffering “the awful power of the present” to crush and falsify the past.

As dodgy motives and suspicions pile up, Marias’s characters turn where the literary always turn: to books. Three works especially accrue meaning through repetition. Javier introduces Maria to Honore de Balzac’s “Colonel Chabert,” a novella about a man who is declared dead on the battlefield. When the man, Colonel Chabert, returns, not as a ghost but as a live man, no one is happy. By undoing what is done, he disturbs the universe.

Another response to death, Macbeth’s line, “She should have died hereafter,” when he’s told in Act V that Lady Macbeth is dead, captures a recurring sentiment in “The Infatuations”: that death is always untimely (Marias, by the way, is a Spanish translator of Shakespeare).

Marias’ third literary mascot is Alexandre Dumas, from “The Three Musketeers,” with the line, “A murder, nothing more.”

Marias so effectively honors his source materials that a crime of passion or calculation begins to seem like an act of chance. The instigator who causes “a murder, nothing more” might have won the action in a raffle.

By the end of “The Infatuations,” Marias has branched far from simple questions of cause and consequence. Instead, he traces the crude force of an action once it’s begun and brilliantly dramatizes moral confusion.

Who has clean hands? Who qualifies to judge? What does one death matter, when everyone dies sometime and no one is innocent ever?

Marias’ brainy detection leads us to a standoff, what he calls a “hazy universe of narratives, with their blind spots and obscurities and mistakes, all surrounded and encircled by shadows or darkness.”

Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.