Born in Madrid in 1951, Javier Marías is the author of ten novels, as well as two collections of short stories and several books of essays. in 1997, he won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, one of the world’s most lucrative literary prizes, for the novel A Heart So White.
(Nowadays, the IMPAC prize is valued at €100,000 - if the winning novel is not in English, €25,000 goes to the translator.) A Heart So White was translated from Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa, who has also translated The Infatuations, his first new novel for Penguin. The author's work has been translated into 42 languages in total.
While his philosphical speculations may prove trying for some readers, The Infatuations is regarded as one of the Spanish writer's most accessible novels. In terms of pace and focus, it certainly helps that its core event is a frenzied stabbing incident on a Madrid street, resulting in the death of a seemingly loving husband and father.
It is at first surmised that the crime is the random act of a madman. Or it may be a case of mistaken identity by an unhinged father who believed his victim was responsible for luring his two daughters into prostitution.
The story is told by one María Dolz who breakfasts at the same café each morning, where she watches with fascination a man and his wife. Their apparent conjugal happiness and ease with each other simply intrigue her.
Indeed watching the pair becomes part of her ritual, before she moves on to her job at a publishing house, and husband and wife also separate for the day. The couple, she notices, have two young children. A male friend also appears from time to time.
Such is Marías’ compelling gift that the reader can’t help but be drawn in, and the portrait of these two middle-aged people in love is wonderfully evoked. Where will the novelist take this thread you wonder?
Following a period during which the couple fail to appear at the outside table, María discovers that the husband - whose name it transpires is Miguel Desverne - is dead, the victim of the frenzied stabbing which has naturally made headline news in Madrid.
Eventually, his widow Luisa returns to the café and María approaches her to sympathise. She tells her how much she and her late husband intrigued her each morning at breakfast, even though they were perfect strangers.
María is duly invited to Luisa's apartment where she meets the aforementioned male friend Javier. María and Javier begin to have a no-strings-attached affair. Luisa, it seems is the real object of Javier's affections, as he waits for her to overcome her sadness at losing her husband, who is also, we are given to understand, his close friend.
One day, lying in Javier’s bed, María hears a male visitor come into the living room and talk excitedly to Javier about a man who appears to be Desverne's murderer. It is a conversation that she wishes she hadn’t heard. She begins to fear for her own life, insisting to Javier that she heard nothing through the slightly-opened bedroom door.
Although it is not strictly in the genre, The Infatuations is as sophisticated as crime fiction can be, managing in its 346 pages to say so much about human nature, with its myriad fragilities, uncertainties and self-deceptions. No wonder Marías is translated into 42 languages; his themes are universal.