This is yet another brilliant novel by Javier Marías. I'm not going to pretend to any kind of objectivity; he has become one of my favorite writers in a very short time. In this short, intricately crafted novel, Marías explores the intersection between love and dreams. Is the true experience of love something a person experiences actively and with intention, or is its essence made up of recollection and imagination? And what happens when a person's best chance of happiness seems to come while dreaming?
In this early novel, the protagonist is a rising young tenor who is traveling to Madrid to sing the role of Cassio in Verdi's Otello. With scenes of the landscape rushing by the train windows, he observes a trio of fellow travelers, two men and a mysterious and melancholy sleeping woman. As the protagonist becomes acquainted with Natalia Manur, her controlling husband, and her paid companion Dato, he quickly falls under Natalia's spell. Throughout the rest of the novel, he explores the depth of his feelings, wrestles with the gap between anticipation and reality, and struggles with a series of memories, sometimes of dreams, that he hopes will lead him to love.
At the beginning of the novel, the protagonist expresses some ambivalence about his focus on his dreams, "I don't know whether I should tell you my dreams.... They are dreams that become somewhat tedious after a while because the person dreaming them always wakes before the end, as if the dream impulse had worn itself out in the representations of all those details and lost interest in the final result, as if dreaming were the only true ideal and aimless activity left." In spite of these concerns, he moves back and forth between dreams and lived experience, between imagination and memory.
The world of opera provides the perfect setting for these explorations, and not only because of the resonances between the young tenor's dilemma and Otello. Marías provides some funny, and sometimes poignant, descriptions of the follies and foibles of opera stars. The many different roles they play on and off stage, and the projection of feeling during performances, raise some of Marías's questions regarding the relationships among recollection, anticipation, and any true feelings, especially love. The characterization of Natalia also bears some resemblance to female protagonists in opera, as Marías admits in his Afterword. She seems ethereal throughout, more an imagined ideal than a flesh and blood character. This representation works perfectly, given Marías's themes of interest in the novel.
Highly recommended for Marías's beautiful, dreamlike writing style, his masterful exploration of his key themes, and the surprises he threads into his narrative along the way.