‘Thus Bad Begins’ by Javier Marías (Review)

IMG_5440Having first tried the work of Spanish writer Javier Marías a few years ago, I made a conscious decision last year to start making my way through his back catalogue, reading another five of his books (including all three in the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy) over the past twelve months.  As you can imagine, then, when news emerged of a new book appearing in English, once again translated by the wonderful Margaret Jull Costa, I was keen to get hold of a copy as soon as possible, ready to enjoy another week or so in the company of the Spanish master, his English assistant and their marvellous sentences.  So much for the anticipation – let’s see if the reality lived up to what I was expecting…

*****
Thus Bad Begins (published by Hamish Hamilton) is set in Madrid in 1980, where the Franco era has ended and people are beginning to explore the new freedoms available.  One of those people is the narrator, Juan de Vere, a young man working as a general assistant to film director Eduardo Muriel (a stern gentleman in his late forties with a dramatic patch over one eye).  Juan’s role entails spending time at the Muriel’s apartment, and it isn’t long before the young man notices Muriel’s cruelty to his wife, Beatriz, a beautiful woman whom the husband insists on insulting whenever possible.

De Vere is puzzled by this behaviour, obviously linked to a secret in the couple’s past he’s unaware of, but there are other secrets out there waiting to be uncovered.  One day Muriel summons Juan and charges him with a delicate and unusual task, one involving an old family friend, Doctor Jorge van Vechten.  Rumours have reached Muriel’s ears of certain indiscretions, sordid behaviour, even, committed by his friend, and before deciding what to do, he wants Juan to somehow draw the good doctor out to see if there’s any truth in the stories.  However, in an era of conciliation and progress, delving into old stories might not be such a great idea – perhaps the two men should just leave the past in the past…

Thus Bad Begins is very clearly set in 1980, and with good reason.  Marías has placed his story in a country moving on, but not yet completely free of the influence of the right (and of the church).  As a result, divorce is as yet unavailable, meaning Muriel is unable to free himself completely from his onerous marriage.  This is also a time of sexual freedom after the restrictions of the previous decades, as Juan (who is narrating looking back from the present day) explains several times, also stressing the permissive atmosphere prevailing in a pre-AIDS era.  The reader senses that this information may become important at some point, but as always in Marías’ work, we’re not quite sure how.

Juan starts to delve into the past, wanting to know more about the two secrets he has become aware of: Van Vechten’s offences and Beatriz’s betrayal of her husband.  As he goes about this task, two themes, both familiar to Marías readers, emerge from the confusion.  The first is concerned with the ghosts of the Spanish Civil War and the way in which abuses have been covered up; the other is sexual power, with the writer fascinated by the allure of aggressive men.  The two combine, and we’re never quite sure which is going to be the main focus of the novel.

It all makes for an interesting story, and yet any reader with more than a passing acquaintance with Marías’ work will be a little disappointed with Thus Bad Begins.  Yes, there’s still lots to like (the usual languid pace, long conversations and a palpable sense of abuse of position), but there’s a feeling we’ve been here before.  Perhaps having read Your Face Tomorrow recently adds to this feeling as the themes are certainly similar.  In the trilogy, Marías also wove the abuses of the civil war into his story, showing how those who brutally eliminated their opponents later pretended they were the good guys.  There was this same fascination with sexual power, women caught up in a spell, hypnotised by the naked aggression, unable to free themselves.

You can’t help but have the feeling, though, that this is a pale imitation, Marías by numbers – the question, of course, is why.  While the writing is excellent in parts, it’s not always up to the standard we’ve come to expect; at times, it appears cheesy and clichéd (perhaps partly due to the youth of the narrator at the time of the story).  Perhaps the subject matter adds to this feeling, with much of the book being rather obvious and crude (on occasion downright creepy).  As always, there’s a hope (perhaps even an expectation) that the ending will tie everything together, but in truth, this time it comes as a bit of a let down with no real surprises.  The book gently meanders towards its conclusion, in a style less Marías than that of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels.

Thus Bad Begins is also slightly different from the writer’s earlier work in another way.  We, of course, get the usual Shakespeare quotation (the title comes from Hamlet), but the underlying focus here is less on literature than on film.  The main introduction to this world is Muriel, but there’s also something in the way Juan narrates the novel, lending the story a cinematic, almost noir air:

…when you see yourself as a character out of a novel or a comic or a film and try to emulate them; perhaps 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. (pp.178/9)

This sense extends to the novel as a whole – with Juan tailing Beatriz, stories of dinner parties full of dashing men and statuesque women and a heart-stopping race against time to a hotel room, you almost feel you should have some popcorn handy…

Of course, this is judging Marías by Marías’ standards, not by those of most writers, and there’s still much to enjoy in Thus Bad Begins.  There are many excellent conversations and extended scenes; one which has lodged itself in my memory is from the start of the book, where Juan spies on Beatriz in the corridor as she pleads with her husband for an embrace.  As the young man crouches uncomfortably in the shadows, Muriel rejects his wife’s advances in the most brutal of fashions:

‘You just don’t get it, do you?  You never will.  You’ll never understand what it was that you did, it’s of no importance to you, it wasn’t then and it never will be for as long as you live, which I hope won’t be much longer, yes, let’s hope you die soon…
p.81 (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)

Another aspect of the book I found successful was the sinister characterisation of Van Vechten.  Marías successfully sketches out his main antagonist, a true wolf in sheep’s clothing, leaving us in no doubt as to the doctor’s capacity for the evil Juan suspects him of.  While the good (?) doctor is certainly larger than life (with teeth suitable for a big, bad wolf), he never slips into parody, remaining a fascinating individual.

This evil, though, belongs to a bygone era, and Muriel (and perhaps Marías too) firmly believes that in a new age these wrongs should be left behind.  Juan’s young idealistic belief that wrongs must be punished contrast with the pragmatism of the older generations – in effect, there’s a national contract of forgetting the past:

The promise of living in a normal country – with elections every four years, the legalization of all political parties, a new constitution approved by the majority, no censorship – and, one imagined, the rapid implementation of a new divorce bill – with trade unions, freedom of expression and freedom of the press, and no bishops meddling with the law of the land – all of that was far more alluring than the old quest for an apology or the desire for reparation. (p.34)

The price for peace is silence, allowing everyone to move on, yet while that’s true in general, the exception occurs when you are personally affected by these events.  This is shown in the interesting contrast between Muriel’s views about actions which don’t directly affect him (e.g. the doctor’s behaviour) and those of his wife, which most certainly do…

Overall, Thus Bad Begins is an interesting enough read, but it’s certainly not one of Marías’ best moments; of the eight I’ve read, this is clearly the weakest.  Marías fans will read it regardless, but if you’re wanting an introduction to his work, I’d start elsewhere (e.g. A Heart So White).  The question I was left with on finishing the book was whether this is just a blip or a continuation of a downward trend (not everyone was that keen on his previous novel, The Infatuations, either).  Thus bad (writing) begins?  Let’s hope not…

4 thoughts on “‘Thus Bad Begins’ by Javier Marías (Review)

  1. My copy arrived a short while back, so I’ll put off reading your piece until I’ve read it myself. Looking forward to it

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  2. Anything like the use of Balzac in The Infatuations? That was the only part I truly enjoyed. Well, that and the comedy about publishing. And the scene with Professor Francisco Rico, obviously. Is he in this one?

    I wonder what game Marías is playing with those names – Juan de Vere? Jorge van Vechten?

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    1. Tom – Not really, not to that extent, anyway (unless, as is eminently possible, I completely missed it). The names are all to do with foreigners, people whose ancestors came to Spain – whether that means anything is another matter entirely. As for the Professor, yes, he’s quite a prominent figure -having read ‘The Infatuations’ about four years ago, I’d entirely forgotten that this was the same man!

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