Authors: Javier Marias
While the Women are Sleeping
Chatto & Windus
Published by Chatto & Windus 2010 First published in the United States by New Directions Books 2010
First published in Spain in 1990 as
Mientras ellas duermen
by Alfaguera, Grupo Santillana de Ediciones, S.A.;
While the Women are Sleeping
contains ten of the stories from the original Spanish edition.
Copyright © Javier Marías 2010 Translation copyright © Margaret Jull Costa 2010
Javier Marias has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
The translator would like to thank Javier Marías, Annella McDermott, Palmira Sullivan, and Ben Sherriff for all their help and advice.
First published in Great Britain in 2010 by
Chatto & Windus/Random House
Table Of Contents
Of the ten stories that make up this collection, a few perhaps require some explanation.
‘Lord Rendall’s Song’ was first published in my anthology
(Ediciones Siruela, Madrid, 1989) in apocryphal form, that is, attributed to the English writer James Denham and purportedly translated by me. For that reason, I also include at the beginning of the story the biographical note that appeared there, since some of the facts in it contribute, tacitly, to the story itself, which would, otherwise, remain incomplete.
‘The Life and Death of Marcelino Iturriaga’ was published in
El Noticiero Universal
(Barcelona, 19 April 1968). It was, I believe, my first published piece. I was sixteen when it appeared, although I see from my typewritten original that it was written on 21 December 1965, that is, when I was just fourteen (be kind, please). Perhaps the most interesting thing about it, however, is that it bears some similarity to another story of mine, ‘When I Was Mortal’, written in 1993 and included in the story collection of the same name.
As regards ‘A Kind of Nostalgia Perhaps’, I was asked to contribute a story to a Mexican anthology, the royalties for which would go towards helping children in the state of Chiapas, who would provide the illustrations for the book. The deadline was so short that I decided to adapt an earlier story ‘No More Love’, which appeared in the collection
When I Was Mortal.
The English characters have been replaced by Mexicans, and the ghost is no longer a nameless rustic youth.
while the women are sleeping
For Daniella Pittarello,
in gratitude for all her
For three weeks, I used to see them every day and now I don’t know what has become of them. I probably won’t ever see them again, at least not her—one tends to assume that summer conversations and even confidences will lead nowhere. Not that anyone has anything against that, not even me, even though I do wonder about them or perhaps miss them slightly. Only very slightly, as one misses everything that disappears.
I nearly always saw them at the beach, where it’s difficult to get a good look at anyone. Particularly so in my case, because I’m nearsighted and would rather see everything through a haze than return to Madrid with a kind of white mask on my otherwise tanned face, and I never wear my contact lenses when I go to the beach or the sea, where they might be lost forever. Nevertheless, from the very first moment, I was tempted to rummage around in the bag in which my wife, Luisa, keeps my glasses case—well, the temptation came from her really, because she, if I may put it like this, was constantly transmitting to me the more peculiar activities of the more peculiar bathers around us.
‘Yes, I can see him, but only vaguely, I can’t make out his actual features,’ I would say when she, in an unnecessarily low voice, given the noise level on the beach, would point out some character she found particularly amusing. I would keep screwing up my eyes, reluctant to get my glasses out only to have to return them once more to their hiding place once my curiosity was satisfied. 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—closer to hand than my hidden glasses since it was on her head—and advised me to look through its mesh. And I discovered that by peering through this screen I could see almost as well as with my contact lenses, more clearly in fact, although my field of vision was greatly reduced. From that point on, I myself must have become one of the more peculiar or eccentric beachgoers, bearing in mind that I often had a woman’s straw hat, complete with ribbons, clamped to my face with my right hand while I scanned the length and breadth of the beach near Fornells, where we were staying. Luisa, without a word of complaint or a flicker of annoyance, bought another hat that she didn’t like as much, because hers, with which she had intended to shade her face—her fine-featured, open, and as yet unlined face—became mine, not for my head, but for my eyes, the hat through which I saw.
One day, we were enjoying ourselves following the exploits of a small Italian sailor, that is, an insubordinate one-year-old wearing nothing but a sailor’s hat, who, as we kept reporting to each other, was going around destroying not only the fortifications built in the sand by his siblings and older cousins but doubtless some of his progenitors’ long-term friendships, and doing so with the same aplomb with which he drank the salt water (he seemed to swallow gallons) to the complete unconcern of the families accompanying him. He frequently lost his sailor’s hat and then was left completely naked, lying on the shore like a spurned cupid. On another day, we followed the despotic comments and idle comings and goings of a middle-aged Englishman—the island was heaving with Brits—who kept up a kind of running commentary on the temperature, the sand, the wind and the waves, speaking as emphatically and grandiloquently as if he were uttering deep, long-pondered maxims or aphorisms. He had the virtue, one that is becoming increasingly rare, of believing that
is important, or, rather, that everything that comes from oneself has the virtue of knowing itself to be unique. His slothful nature was evident in how he sat—his legs always inelegantly splayed—and in the fact that he never took off the green T-shirt with which he protected his barrel chest from the sun, not even to go into the water. Needless to say, he never swam and when he did wade into the sea, never very far, he only did so in pursuit of one of his offspring so as to photograph him or her in action from a better angle or closer up. With his green stomach—but not, for example, his chest—wet from the waves, he would return to the shore muttering further unforgettable pronouncements, which the wind promptly scattered, and pressing his camera to his ear, as if it were a radio, seemingly concerned that it might have got splashed, a primitive way, I suppose, of checking that it had come to no harm. Or perhaps, we thought, it was some kind of camera-radio.
Then one day we saw them, I mean they came to our attention, well, to Luisa’s first and then to mine, through my seeing hat. From then on, they became our favourites, and, each morning, without realising it, we would look for them first before choosing our spot and would then choose somewhere close to theirs. On one occasion, we arrived at the beach before them, but, shortly afterwards, saw them roar up on a gigantic Harley-Davidson, with him at the handlebars wearing a black helmet (with the straps hanging loose) and her clinging on to him, her long hair streaming behind her. I think what drove us to seek out their company was that they offered us a rare sight, one from which it’s always hard to look away: the spectacle of one human being adoring another. In accordance with the old and still valid rule, it was he, the man, who did the adoring, and she, the woman, who was the appropriately indifferent idol (or perhaps she was just bored and wished she had something to complain about). She was beautiful, indolent, passive and, by nature, languid. Throughout the three hours we spent at the beach (they stayed longer, perhaps taking their siesta there and, who knows, remaining until sunset), she barely moved and was, of course, concerned only with her own beautification and cleanliness. She dozed or was, at any rate, lying down, eyes closed, on her front, on her back, on one side, on the other, covered in sunscreen, her gleaming arms and legs always fully extended so that no part of her would remain untanned, no fold in her skin, even her armpits, even her groin (nor, it goes without saying, her buttocks), because her bikini bottom was minuscule and revealed that she was entirely free of hair, which made one think (well, made me think) that she must have had a Brazilian wax before she arrived. Now and then she would raise herself into a sitting position and then spend a long time with her knees drawn up while she painted or polished her nails or, with a small mirror in her hand, scrutinised her face or shoulders for blemishes or unwanted hair. It was odd to see her holding the mirror to the most unlikely parts of her body (it must have been a magnifying mirror), not just to her shoulders, I mean, but to her elbows, her calves, her hips, her breasts, the inside of her thighs, even her navel. I’m sure her navel could never have had any fluff in it, and perhaps what its mistress wanted was to suppress it altogether. As well as her tiny bikini, she wore bracelets and various rings, never fewer than eight of the latter, distributed among her fingers. I rarely saw her venture into the water. It would be easy to describe her as a conventional beauty, but that would be a poor definition—too broad or too vague. Rather her beauty was unreal, which is to say ideal. It’s what children think of as beauty and which is almost always (unless the children are already deviants) an immaculate beauty, unmarked, in repose, docile, gestureless, with very white skin and large breasts, round—or at least not almond-shaped—eyes, and identical lips, that is, with upper and lower lip identical, as if they were both lower lips: the kind of beauty you get in cartoons or, if you prefer, in advertisements, and not in just any advertisements, but those you see in pharmacies, deliberately devoid of any hint of sensuality that might trouble other women or the elderly, who are the people most often in pharmacies. And yet neither was it a virginal beauty, and although I wouldn’t say it was a milky pale beauty—or perhaps creamy is the word, it was the kind that would take time to turn brown (her skin was glossy, but not golden)—like Luisa’s beauty; it was a smooth, voluptuous beauty, but one that didn’t cry out to be touched (except perhaps when clothed), as if it might melt at the slightest contact, as if even a caress or a gentle kiss could become violence or rape.
Her male companion doubtless felt the same, at least during daylight hours. He was what you might call fat or even gross or obese, and he must have been more than thirty years older. Like many bald men, he believed he could make up for his lack of hair by wearing what little he had brushed forward, Roman-style (it never works) and by cultivating an abundant moustache, and that he could disguise his age, in that particular setting, by wearing a two-tone swimsuit, that is, with the right leg lime-green and the left purple, at least, such was his chosen attire on that first day, because, like her, he rarely wore the same suit twice. The two colours (the style of trunks never varied, only the colours) invariably seemed to clash, although they were always highly original combinations: blue grey and apricot, peach and rose mallow, ultramarine and Nile green. The trunks were as small as his bulbous body allowed—it was inappropriate to talk about them having legs, really—and this meant that his movements were always slightly constrained by the ever-present threat of a rip. For the fact is he was in constant, agile movement, video camera in hand. Whereas his companion remained completely immobile or idle for hours on end, he never ceased circling her, tirelessly filming her: he would stand on tiptoe, bend double, lie on the ground, face up and face down, take pan shots, medium shots, close-ups, tracking shots and panoramic shots, from above and from below, full face, from the side, from behind (from both sides); he filmed her inert face, her softly rounded shoulders, her voluminous breasts, her rather wide hips, her firm thighs, her far from tiny feet, her carefully painted toenails, her soles, her calves, her hairless pubis and armpits. He filmed the beads of sweat provoked by the sun, probably even her pores, although that smooth uniform skin seemed to have no pores, no folds or bumps, and not a single stretch mark marred her buttocks. The fat man filmed her every day for hours at a time, with few breaks, always the same scene: the stillness and tedium of the unreal beauty who accompanied him. He wasn’t interested in the sand or the water, which changed colour as the day wore on, or the trees or the rocks in the distance, or a kite flying or a boat far off, or in other women, the little Italian sailor, the despotic Englishman, or Luisa. He didn’t ask the young woman to do anything—to play games, to make an effort or to pose—he seemed content with making a visual record, day after day, of that naked statuary figure, of that slow docile flesh, that inexpressive face and those closed or perhaps fastidious eyes, of a knee bending or a breast tilting or a forefinger slowly removing a speck from a cheek. For him, that monotonous vision was clearly a perennial source of wonder and novelty. Where Luisa or I or anyone else would see only repetition and weariness, he must, at every moment, have seen a remarkable spectacle, as multiform, varied and absorbing as a painting can be when the viewer forgets about the other paintings waiting for him and loses all notion of time, and loses, too, therefore, the habit of looking, which is replaced or supplanted—or perhaps excluded—by the capacity to
which is what we almost never do because it’s so at odds with the purely temporal. For it is then that one
everything, the figures and the background, the light, the composition and the shadows, the three-dimensional and the flat, the pigment and the line, as well as each brushstroke. That is, one sees both what is depicted and the rough surface of the canvas, and it is only then that one can paint the picture again with ones eyes.