Wednesday, 1 December 2010

While the Women are Sleeping by Javier Marías

The stories of Javier Marías have a surprising tendency to sneak up on the reader again long after reading them.
It is as if after being absorbed, the stories gestate in the back of the mind and then jump out again and demand attention, requiring that they be pored over again.
In the stories in While the Women Are Sleeping, events are often superfluous to meandering musings and speculation as the narrators are forced into new states of mind and gnawing obsessions by what they have experienced or what they have just been told.
Each story usually ends with the narrator (and quite often the reader as well) sitting at a tangent from the direction their life had been heading at the start of the story.
Quite often there is a vaguely supernatural element, such as when a beggar curses a man who shunned him or a ghost seems to correspond with the son of her dead lover.
And this is where the questions start to plague the reader. The story has been read, absorbed, and reflected on and, with a whimsical chill of satisfaction, understood.
Then a day or so later while driving to work, or cooking the dinner it comes back with an unanswered question . . . “But how did he . . .?” or “How could she do that if . . . ?”
A case in point is the story “One Night of Love,” in which a son starts to receive letters from a woman who says she was his late father’s lover and that he has still not joined her six months after his death. She says this is because the son, who narrates the story, buried his father rather than cremated him.
As an incentive to the son to arrange for his father to be disinterred and cremated, the woman offers the son a night of passion with her.
He does not take her up on the offer but arranges for the cremation. A few days later he receives another letter in the woman’s handwriting, which he leaves unopened and which smells faintly of the cologne that his father used to wear.
Even after two or three readings, just when you think you have got what Marías is playing at, he will throw up a fresh surprise and new unanswered questions.
The Madrid-based writer, translated in this collection into English by Margaret Jull Costa, has a rare ability to haunt the imaginations of his readers.
He is more than just a storyteller—he’s a manipulator of the psyche who can jolt his readers into new states of perception.
This review was first written for and published by the New York Journal of Books.

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