Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías review – ‘a demonstration of what fiction can achieve’
An unhappy marriage reflects the trauma inflicted by years of fascist rule in a probing novel from the celebrated Spanish author
Friday 26 February 2016 07.30 GMT
“This is a grubby c ountry.” So says Eduardo Muriel, a producer of B-movies, to Juan, the narrator of Thus Bad Begins, the latest novel by the revered Spanish writer Javier Marías. The grubbiness in question is the taint of decades of rule by the fascist victors of the civil war, the franquistas who have revenged themselves upon their Republican colleagues and neighbours, leaving many of those not dead or in prison unable to pursue careers or support their families.
Juan (who has the un-Spanish surname De Vere, with its telling linguistic echo of verity, truth) is 23 years old and working as Muriel’s assistant, in which capacity he spends a lot of time at his employer’s home and has a ringside seat at a dreadfully unhappy marriage. Juan becomes an eavesdropper on scenes of discord and abjection, as Muriel torments his wife, Beatriz, verbally abusing her and refusing the slightest hint of affection. The novel takes place in 1980, shortly before divorce was legalised in Spain, and Beatriz appears to be stuck in a relationship that offers her no escape from her misery. Juan does not understand what lies behind Muriel’s behaviour. He appears to be punishing Beatriz for some past transgression, though what it is, the young man does not know.
Outside the doors of the Muriel household, Madrid is caught up in the wild years of La Movida, the period after Franco’s death when Spain’s ossified social conservatism began to dissolve in a hedonistic wave of creativity and experiment. “It was a time when almost no one slept in Madrid,” remembers Juan, who tells the story in retrospect, with the insight and nuance of a much older man. “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.”
Muriel, who often blurs the boundaries between professional and personal, gives Juan a delicate job. He wants him to befriend one of the older men in his social circle, an eminent paediatrician called Jorge Van Vechten, and discover if there is any truth in a troubling rumour. “According to what I’ve been told … the doctor behaved in an indecent manner towards a woman or possibly more than one.” Muriel doesn’t make the nature of this indecency clear, but insists that Juan start taking Van Vechten out to bars and clubs, in the hope that he will boast or confide in the younger man. “See if you can get him talking about the past,” orders Muriel. “Reveal yourself as vile and unscrupulous and watch his response, whether he approves or is of like mind.” Thus Juan, representative of the new post-Franco generation of young Spaniards, is cast back into a sleazy past, in which personal secrets and transgressions are inextricably linked with the country’s brutal political history.
This is familiar territory for Marías, both in its forensic examination of the grey areas of personal morality and in the way personal stories reveal truths about the historical trauma buried beneath the surface of modern Spain. His magisterial trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, which also deals with the legacy of the civil war, has a strong claim to be the best European novel of the 21st century to date, and the fiction he wrote in the 90s, particularly A Heart So White and Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me, pays precise and revelatory attention to the nuances of human relationships: our compromises, lapses and evasions. As with this past work, in Thus Bad Begins, Marías’s narration has a deceptively aimless quality, circling round apparently minor or inconsequential details that are gradually revealed to be integral to an extremely taut structure. As ever, Margaret Jull Costa translates his long, winding sentences into beautiful English prose, both erudite and conversational – a considerable stylistic feat.
Marías is a novelist who indulges his foibles, and Thus Bad Begins contains many elements that will be familiar to his fans. An anglophile, who has translated everything from Sterne to Faulkner into Spanish, he frequently takes his titles from Shakespeare – in this case Hamlet: “I must be cruel only to be kind / thus bad begins and worse remains behind.” Lines from the plays echo through his prose, and characters occasionally break off from whatever they are nominally doing for a spot of textual exegesis. At one of Muriel’s social gatherings, a bumptious young professor appositely recites Rumour’s speech from Henry IV, part 2 (“Upon my tongues continual slanders ride / The which in every language I pronounce / Stuffing the ears of men with false reports”), pausing only to unpack De Vere’s unusual surname, which is also that of the 17th Earl of Oxford, reputed, at least by those who can’t stomach the thought of a clever commoner, to be the “real” Shakespeare.
Real or fake, decent or corrupt, Juan, in common with many of Marías’s male characters, has streaks of snobbery and vanity and a slightly old-fashioned sexual preoccupation with tight skirts, heels, laddered tights, and the presence or absence of underwear. Thus Bad Begins takes place in a milieu of queasy misogyny, and sexual transactions are part of the fabric of a high society in which “everyone is everyone else’s jester” and “there are those who live their whole lives in a state of continuous secrecy and concealment”. The cumulative effect of the novel, as Juan is drawn away from the relatively simple pleasures of his twentysomething world into the secrets of older men and women, is a fusion of a coming-of-age story with something like a conspiracy thriller. As ever, with Marías, it is an arch and sophisticated entertainment animated by a probing moral intelligence, a demonstration of what fiction at its best can achieve.
• Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men is published by Penguin.