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Javier Marias

"While the Women Are Sleeping"

November 2, 2009

Javier Marias fixes the curious tone of this short story, about candor and its opposite, in the three sentences of the first paragraph.

For three weeks, I saw them every day, and now I don't know what has become of them. I'll probably never see them again — at least, not her. Summer conversations, and even confidences, rarely lead anywhere.

Beneath the cool, neutral surface — no names, no news, only the implication of a summer holiday — crouches an ambiguous narrator. (This is not to say that he is especially ambiguous. If anything, he is an everyman narrator, his smooth surface inviting the reader's identification.) What is the nature of his ignorance? Is the fact that he doesn't know "what has become of them" a source of concern, or merely an idle curiosity? The second sentence begins by suggesting nostalgia but then trails off into vaguely erotic underbrush. Finally, there are those confidences, presumably with strangers. We know how improper such confidences would appear to the loved ones who aren't party to them.

This opener is followed by three paragraphs of set-up and indirection that steep our sense of the narrator's reticence. "They" don't appear until after we have learned a number of other things; for example, the name of the narrator's wife, and a certain facility that she has for ministering to his needs. Too vain to wear sunglasses on the beach — which would result in "a kind of white mask on my otherwise perfectly tanned face — the narrator must find another way of compensating for his near-sightedness. He and Luisa, like most well-married couples, like to comment on the people whom they see when they're together, an effortless intimacy all the more comfortable in the languid atmosphere of a sunny beach; but how can he contribute to the review if he can't see?

Then one day Luisa, who knows the strangest and most insignificant things and is always surprising me with scraps of useful knowledge, passed me her straw hat and advised me to look through the gaps. And I discovered that by peering through the hat I could see almost as well as if I were wearing contact lenses — better, in fact, although my field of vision was greatly reduced. From that point on, I must have seemed like one of the more eccentric beachgoers, since I often had a woman's straw hat, complete with ribbons, clamped to my face while I scanned the length and breadth of the beach near Fomells, where were staying.

Once you have read the entire story, this quietly droll suite of sentences screams, upon review, for explication, but I shall limit myself to the sweet paradox of the narrator's surreptitiously surveying the beach while attracting attention to himself by covering his face with a beribboned hat. That he is enabled to spy on the other vacationers, including, eventually, "her" — who, not surprisingly, turns out to be a great beauty — through a woman's hat supplied by his wife is one of those details that begs to be unpacked.

The first part of the story settles on a description of the couple that "them" turns out to refer to. She, as I say, is beautiful, and, like beautiful women everywhere, she is absorbed by her beauty. Life at the beach is an ongoing toilette: she studies herself relentlessly, examining odd parts of her body with a hand mirror, and plucking rogue bits of hair from her smooth skin. Her companion, an overweight and much older man, is no less devoted to her beauty, for he does nothing but film her with a video camera. Marias's description of this odd couple is extraordinarily effective, setting "them" on a plinth — upon which he only just stops short of chiseling the legend, "This story is about these strangely ill-matched people" — while imprinting the narrator's sensibility on a scrim that we perceive but are too distracted to attend to.

The longer second part of the story recounts a dramatic conversation that the narrator, goaded by insomnia, has with the fat man, sitting by a swimming pool in the middle of the night. (The setting alone calls for unpacking!) While their women are sleeping, the men re-enact the mythic encounter between strangers that ends on a note muted recognition that calls Baudelaire's invocation to mind: "mon semblable, mon frθre." But what is recognized? And by whom? It would almost seem — from that first paragraph — that the narrator doesn't learn much of anything. But we certainly learn a lot about him. The fat man, whose name is Alberto Viana, has a surprising story to tell, and I am not going to spoil it here, but as he pours out the frightful nature of his attachment to the beautiful young woman, we listen with the narrator's ears, and that listening eventually informs us that the narrator is the sort of person — as most of us are — who would rather not know anything about himself if what there was to know sounded anything like Viana's confession. We, too, would be only too content to see ourselves with the greatly reduced field of vision permitted by a spouse's bonnet.

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