I do repent. But heaven hath pleased it so,
To punish me with this and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.
I will bestow him, and will answer well
The death I gave him. So, again, good night.
I must be cruel, only to be kind.
Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.
One word more, good lady —
(Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 4)
“THE TRUTH,” according to the one-eyed B-movie producer Eduardo Muriel, while lying on his living room floor and musing to his 23-year-old assistant Juan de Vere, “is a category that remains in suspension while we’re alive.”
The elegantly revealed truths and circuitous secrets occurring throughout Javier Marías’s Thus Bad Begins take root in 1980. Just five years after the death of Franco and decades of an extraordinarily oppressive regime, La Movida — an all inclusive and wildly hedonistic cultural moment — grips a still-traumatized Spain, which is far more invested in burning off the regimented layers of authoritarian fog than in collectively investigating the ugly realities of the recent past and forcing a formal rapprochement upon the legions of Franco loyalists, opportunistic technocrats, corrupt Catholic clergy members, and fascist sympathizers who ruled the country for generations. Juan de Vere — with an echo of verity, truth, ringing out like a persistent bell in his last name — serves as Marías’s unsentimental yet wisely humane narrator, dusting off freshly excavated secrets and revealing them decades after the fact in this masterful novel, which has been seamlessly translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa.
Named the best book of the year in Spain by El País, Thus Bad Begins is an absolute pleasure to read, and Marías is arguably one of Europe’s finest living writers. He is the recipient of numerous prizes, including the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Prix Femina Étranger, and he is a perennial favorite for the Nobel Prize. Born in 1951, he is the author of 14 novels and three short story collections. Fans of Marías will immediately recognize his careworn Madrid, the city where the author was born and also resides. Leading readers through the devastated personal and political landscapes superimposed over the cobblestones and shimmering facades of a sleepless city shaking off the death of Franco, Thus Bad Begins exposes the very human elements of political repression in a country on the cusp of a democratic restoration decades after a harrowing civil war.
Eduardo is a filmmaker in his 50s, and although his best films are behind him, he is still very much in demand as a producer in this newly awakened Spain. Juan (or young de Vere, as he is affectionately referred to by Eduardo and his long suffering wife, Beatriz) worships Eduardo and has proven to be a reliable and trustworthy assistant, thus winning Eduardo’s confidence. As a result, he spends a great deal of time in their palatial Madrid apartment. Juan eventually grows accustomed to the verbal abuse Eduardo continually heaps upon Beatriz, although he is disarmed by a scene of intolerable cruelty she suffers at her husband’s hands, just outside his bedroom door:
But I was alarmed to see him shift his hands from her shoulders to her neck … where it’s so easy to start pressing and, in a matter of two or three minutes, it’s all over, the irritating or hated person no longer exists and there is nothing to be done, the tongue that speaks and wounds has fallen silent and is perhaps now protruding from the mouth, motionless and bloated and purple, that’s how films sometimes depict the victim of a strangling. I don’t know if it has any basis in reality or is merely intended to terrify the viewer, who will think that, as well as kicking the bucket, he might end looking like a complete grotesque, with wide, bulging eyes that resemble painted porcelain eggs.
In 1980, divorce was still not legal in Spain, so Beatriz and Eduardo, like countless others, were trapped in the vortex of a deeply unhappy marriage. And while Juan may have won Eduardo’s confidence, young de Vere’s respect for the producer and growing affection for his wife and children keeps him from knowing what might be the actual cause of the misery afflicting them.
After witnessing the harrowing domestic scene between Muriel and Beatriz, Juan takes it upon himself to follow Beatriz through the city at a safe distance one spring afternoon:
I was imitating Hitchcock’s creations, suggested by that season of films to which Muriel had taken me, unresisting, and in which there are often long sequences during which no one says a word, no dialogue at all, just people coming and going from one place to another, and yet you sit, eyes glued to the screen, feeling increasingly intrigued and anxious, even when sometimes there’s no objective reason to feel that. The mere act of watching creates that feeling of anxiety, that sense of intrigue. We just have to lay our eyes on someone for us to begin to ask questions and fear for their fate.
Juan has to climb a tree in the garden of a monastery in order to catch a tantalizing glimpse of Beatriz’s rendezvous in a highly unlikely house of assignation, for what must serve as one of the stolen crumb-like respites from her unhappiness. The passionless and business-like manner in which Marías portrays her illicit tryst has few rivals in contemporary literature, and Beatriz’s attempts at kindling some sort of sustaining warmth in her bleak days turned ugly decades only leads her further down the path to greater unhappiness, where the harrowing yet sadly predictable consequences await her at the end of the road.
Eventually, Eduardo entrusts Juan with the ill-conceived task of befriending the esteemed pediatrician Jorge Van Vechten, who happens to be an old friend of the family and a very present member of Eduardo’s immediate circle, to learn if there is any truth behind the disturbing rumors that the doctor behaves indecently toward women. Eduardo encourages Juan to take the older man out on the town to experience the youthfully vibrant discos and bars dotting Madrid (where nearly all of the pretty young noses are powdered and everyone has seemingly sworn off sleep) and to lower himself to the esteemed pediatrician’s wolf-like level, in order to gain his trust then goad him into boasting about his sexual prowess. Juan naïvely agrees to this clandestine task and soon gets an unpleasant taste of just how effectively this esteemed pediatrician thrived both professionally and between the sheets during the old regime.
Marías’s ability to examine the morality and motivations of the handful of characters populating Thus Bad Begins is as clear eyed as it is nuanced. The tapestry of richly sophisticated themes and startling truths gradually revealed in this novel are not nearly as harrowingly episodic as the themes woven throughout some of Marías’s other celebrated works; however, his insights, illuminations, and astute observations keep the reader thoroughly invested.
Thus Bad Begins is very much a young university graduate’s coming of age story, while also accurately portraying the toxic effects of an ossified marriage crushing two fundamentally decent people. In addition, Thus Bad Begins is a captivating tale of political espionage with real world stakes, an homage to late-night electric-blue-nylon-hued B-movies, a broad meditation on that mad young Danish prince waging revenge and ultimately realizing that he is really no better than the sinners he has set upon. The novel is a suspenseful thriller harking back to Hitchcock at his most astute. Also, while not Marías’s intent, Thus Bad Begins, with its brutal depictions of life during and after a dictatorship, now serves as a dark primer for many readers who are grasping with the ugly possibilities and harrowing realities that a Trump administration may have in store for this country over the next four to eight years.
His highly circuitous narrative appears to meander nearly lackadaisically at times, and Marías — a gleefully unapologetic Anglophile who has translated into Spanish writers as diverse as John Ashbery, Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, J. D. Salinger, and William Shakespeare — is, on occasion, a bit too eager to decelerate the novel’s momentum in order to pay another homage to Shakespeare. However, my quibbles with these academic literary preoccupations and their occasional disruptions are minor, because ultimately, Marías is always close to revealing another integral truth or dusting off another carefully buried secret that draws the reader further into a finely crafted and suspenseful climax. The cumulative effect of his elegantly serpentine sentences, brilliant observations, deliberate unpacking, and masterful digressions make Thus Bad Begins an absolute must read.
Donald Breckenridge is the fiction editor of The Brooklyn Rail and co-editor of InTranslation. His novel And Then is forthcoming from David R. Godine/Black Sparrow in the late spring of 2017.