The One with the Spanish Doppelganger

Javier Marias, While the Women are sleeping (1990)

This post has been lingering in my virtual drawer since the end of June. It’s probably time for me to finish it. Don’t ask me why today, because I might end up put it off *again* another month or year. Which I hate.

I read the whole book because a. it’s a short story collection, and b. It’s one of the 10 books from our shelves that I vowed to read. Other than that? I would have probably ditched it. And probably regretted it too.

The thing is that this collection is very uneven, made of 10 stories from the 1970s to the early 1990s. It’s the first time I read Javier Marias, so I don’t know if this is typical or not. A few didn’t speak to me at all – to the extent that I didn’t understand what I was reading. A few left me cold, like the story of an antique book in a booksellers window who might be worth a lot of money. Why would I care? A few were interesting but weird, like the small talk that a majordome confided in the narrator while they were stuck in an elevator, or an older husband in love with his very young wife. Most stories had a weird, surreal or supernatural twist. Most stories had unpleasant characters, or downright unlikeable, which made the collection a tough sell.

Overall, two stories stuck in my mind: the one, “Gualta”, about a man who meets someone who looks very very much like him, is named like him, only to find him totally despicable. So what’s a man to do? He tries to change himself through and through, changing style and taste and love and life, and just about everything. But what will his doppelgänger do? Will he stay the same as the original Gualta or undergo the exact same transformation?

The other story I liked best was “The Resignation Letter of Senor de Santiesteban” about a ghost in a school, which starts as one of these vague urban legends (we had one such legend in high-school, totally unfounded of course). The main character who tries to catch the ghost in the act is actually a lonely, and rather boring English teacher, a “man of little imagination” who is there on an exchange program. One of his (boring) duties is to stay late on Friday to lock up the school, but he’s warned that the ghost (who is only heard but never seen) comes every weekend to pin a resignation letter on a board. The rumor doesn’t tell who the ghost is and why he has resigned, but the English teacher seems an unlikely (if stubborn) candidate to pierce the mystery…

In the grand scheme of things, I’m not sure that this collection really lured me enough to try any of Marias’ novels in the future (for which he’s surely more famous than for short stories). But of course, should the litblog experts say otherwise… Has any of you ever read Javier Marias’ novels and found it great? Am I missing out on something?


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