In some parallel universe, Marías is the love child of Alfred Hitchcock and Jorge Luis Borges. Spain’s most successful contemporary writer, and a likely contender for the Nobel Prize, he is both highly intellectual and highly attuned to the tricks and thrills of popular fiction. His cerebral games recall Borges; his slow-building suspense is worthy of Hitchcock. In Spain Marías is almost as famous for his eccentricity as his writing. He owns two near identical flats in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, one in which all the furniture is dark and another in which everything is white. He is also the appointed king of a tiny island, Redonda, of which AS Byatt, Alice Munro and Umberto Eco have dukedoms. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Marías’s cleverness has prompted something of an Amis-style backlash in Spain; all the same, he is a dazzling writer.
‘While the Women Are Sleeping’, first published in 1990, contains, in miniature, Marias’s favourite themes: human obsession, voyeurism and abusive relationships. A couple on the beach notice that a man close by is compulsively filming his much younger girlfriend, amassing hours of microscopic footage of her, while she lies almost motionless. When the narrator meets him at their hotel one night, he quizzes the man about his obsession and discovers the chilling reason for it.
First published as ‘Mientras ellas duermen’ in Mientras ellas duermen, Anagrama 1990, translation in While the Women are Sleeping, Chatto and Windus, 2010
Once upon a time, I had the best job in the world. For four years in my mid-twenties I spent much of my time travelling in southern Europe on behalf of several independent American publishers, one of which was responsible for the volume from which this story is taken. Those were heady times, both highly social — meetings, dinners — and highly alienating — long nights in lonely hotel rooms, too much coffee. I mention the context because I have a particular memory of reading this story on one of those trips, late at night, in a hotel room high above Plaza d’España in Madrid. Marias does late Spanish nights as well as anyone — just think of Tomorrow in the Battle… — and this story pivots out from just such a late night, an encounter in a night club between the story’s narrator and a Hungarian footballer by the name of Szentkuthy. Now, Marias isn’t a great short story writer. And this isn’t a great short story, but it does contain within it a great passage. It’s the part when the narrator recalls a goal Szentkuthy scored when playing for Real Madrid against Inter Milan, a goal of such bewildering and unnecessary brilliance that ‘it was not so much that he had stopped time as that he had set a mark on it and made it uncertain’. As well as being a brilliant passage of writing, it seems to me to provide a wonderful account of one aspect of the art of storytelling: the deferral of the end until the author decides it should arrive. It’s all about timing, that moment when the elastic snaps back and we can all breathe again and tend to our bruises.
In When I Was Mortal (trans. Margaret Jull Costa, New Directions, 2000)