Sometimes novels have a story and sometimes they are about things, and sometimes both. This is a both novel. I have remember that every time I pick up a Javier Marias novel, especially his older ones, that this will be the case. Our basic set up here is that Juan is a translator for the UN and he’s recently married/about to be married. His father, a secretive man who has been married several times takes up a fascination with Juan’s new marriage (he asks him “‘So you’re married, now what?'”) and his new wife. This connection leads to the unravelling in part of the Juan’s father’s history and gives Juan more information than he really needed or wanted.
The tensions between fathers and sons (and I’ve got my own) leads to a number of problems, certainly literarily. It’s arguably the most basic conflict in the history of letters, whether in the Bible, Greek and Roman myths, or other creation stories. So here, rather than the son being the rival, the father is. His father’s multiple marriages not only erases the importance of his mother, but specifically means his own wife is potential subject to his father’s will. Not only that, but the real fear that he will simply become his father, is much more terrifying. The novel also spends a lot of time looking at the act of translation as a kind of metaphor for the inability to correct interpret any language or meaning distinctly — language being a muddy medium to transmit communication.