While the Women Are Sleeping by Javier Marías is a collection of ten beautifully written short stories that raise questions about love, death, the afterlife, and the capability of people to be truly original. The collection opens with the title story “While the Women Are Sleeping” and highlights the interaction between two men—strangers and fellow beach goers—outside a hotel pool in the middle of the night: “Viana buried his face in his hands, as I’d seen him do from above, from the balcony, but not from down here, by the pool. And I saw then that this gesture had nothing to do with suppressed laughter, but with a kind of panic that nevertheless failed to negate a certain serenity.” However, tension mounts as their friendly conversation morphs into one man’s obsession with his girlfriend, and Marías creates intensity and suspense with amazing skill.
In the stories “Gualta” and “Lord Rendall’s Song” the main characters meet up with identical versions of themselves, one at a dinner party, the other after coming home from war, and begin to question which version of themselves is the real one. Marías writes:
I still remember the look of stupefaction on Gualta’s face (which was doubtless also on mine), when the headwaiter who brought him to our table stood to one side, allowing him to see my face for the first time. Gualta and I were physically identical…but it wasn’t just that: we even made the same gestures at the same time and used the same words…and in Gualta I saw an utterly repellent individual, capable of anything, potential firing squad material…And it was from that night, without even informing my wife of my intentions, that I began to change.
Beyond these stories, readers will meet the ghost of Emiliano Zapata, will be trapped in an elevator with a black-magic-practicing butler in New York City, and will explore the relationship between love and death. This collection spans four decades of his writing career, and his story “The Life and Death of Marcelino Iturriaga” was written when Marías was only 14 years old! His writing is elegant, and his work has the rare combination of being both simple and deeply philosophical. I especially enjoyed the elements of magical realism, and how Marías uses intricate details to develop his characters’ personalities—an absolutely haunting collection.