Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Reviewed by Harriet
As a couple, they had spotted me like one of those distant shapes on the ocean that can’t be ignored and had afforded me a glimpse into the long and indissoluble misery that was their marriage.
It’s only a few months since I was introduced to the celebrated Spanish novelist Javier Marías, when a friend gave me his 2013 novel The Infatuations for Christmas. I used to have a bit of a block about reading literature in translation – a feeling that it was important to read the actual words of the writer – but I’ve come to realise in recent years that I was missing out a lot, and certainly a great translator, such as Marías has in Margaret Jull Costa, makes the whole experience not only seamless but enjoyable. I was completely won over by The Infatuations, and when I saw that Marías had a new novel coming out I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.
Thus Bad Begins is narrated by Juan de Vere, a man in his fifties, who is looking back to the 1980s, a memorable period in his life when, aged about 23, he was employed by a film director, Eduardo Muriel, as a sort of secretary and assistant. He finds himself spending increasing amounts of time in Muriel’s apartment, where he witnesses the daily unkindness of his employer towards Beatriz, his wife. In her early forties, Beatriz is still a very attractive woman, but Muriel loses no opportunity of telling her how fat and ugly she is, something Juan finds both puzzling and distressing. Late one night, he stands in the dark watching Beatriz as she knocks on her husband’s door and begs him to let her come in. But he only torments her further and turns her away, refusing even a sign of affection. Juan becomes increasingly obsessed by this inexplicable cruelty, which, he learns from Muriel, stems from something that happened in the past, a secret he is not willing to divulge. Attracted to Beatriz, and sympathetic towards her obvious unhappiness, Juan takes to following her on her frequent absences from the house, and discovers that she too has a secret, though not a very happy or fulfilling one.
Meanwhile, though he won’t take Juan fully into his confidence, Muriel asks him to investigate an old friend of the family, Dr Van Vechten: ‘According to what I’ve been told … the doctor behaved in an indecent manner towards a woman or possibly more than one’. He asks Juan to take the older man out in the evenings, to clubs and bars, introduce him to young women and get him talking. ‘Reveal yourself as vile and unscrupulous and watch his response, whether he approves or is of like mind.’ Much against his will, Juan does as he is asked, and in doing so uncovers not only the doctor’s shady past but also much that he didn’t fully understand about the political machinations of the Franco era and the deep divisiveness of the Spanish Civil War. In 1980 the dictator had been dead for only five years, and the country was slowly recovering from the effects of his long and oppressive regime. For the young, a hectic desire to throw oneself into frantic enjoyment had become the norm:
It was a time when almost no one slept in Madrid. No one could entirely avoid the nocturnal ferment of those anomalous years, which, if you had a bit of money and however wretchedly unhappy you felt, were celebratory despite the political unease and the uncertainties of all kinds.
It is fascinating to read about this now far-off time, in which divorce was still not legal in Spain (a fact that has some impact on Muriel’s marriage). Although there has been a sort of political truce, in the sense that people’s pro- or anti-Franco loyalties are supposedly forgotten, it’s clear that much anger and distrust still lingers under the surface and threatens friendships and relationships.
Eventually, and after some tragic developments, Juan discovers not only Van Vechten’s secret but also that of Beatriz and Muriel. So I suppose you could describe this novel as a thriller of sorts. But what I’ve been telling you about the plot in no way encompasses the brilliance of Marías’s writing. The story that unfolds here could be told in a great many fewer pages than the 500 the novel holds, and indeed the secrets, when they are revealed, are not always all that earth-shattering. What makes up the rest, and gives the book its wonderful appeal, is the constant access we have into the mind of the narrator, as he muses, remembers, puzzles, and fantasizes. He’s much given to philosophical analysis, to pondering the meaning of things he witnesses. Events that take up less than a minute – such as the partly accidental touching of a woman’s thigh in a taxi – can take more than four pages to describe. Then there are all the literary references – the title of the novel is taken from Hamlet’s speech on finding he has killed Polonius, ‘Thus bad begins and worse remains behind’, a line which is frequently reiterated and referred to, as are other Shakespearean echoes.
Marías’s sentences go on and on, rambling here and there, digressing and returning, much, perhaps, like those of the eighteenth-century novelist Laurence Sterne, whose novels Marías has translated into Spanish. In lesser hands, this could be boring or irritating, but here we have a writer who is perceptive and intelligent, who can encompass both tragedy and humour. He has won numerous international literary awards and his work has been translated into forty-two languages. I loved every minute of this, and my only regret is not having discovered Marías before. Luckily there’s his whole back catalogue of novels to catch up with, so I shall certainly be making up for lost time.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Javier Marías, Thus Bad Begins, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Penguin, 2016). 978-0241972809, 506pp., hardback.
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