THUS BAD BEGINS
By Javier Marias
Alfred A. Knopf, $27.95, 444 pages
Javier Marias’ 14th novel “Thus Bad Begins” broods on Spain in the years after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.
The novel is set in 1980. Franco’s repressive rule had lasted 36 years, so by that time the country buzzes with excitement at new possibilities. Franquistas rewrite their personal histories to gloss over their past. Young and old alike wander from bar to bar until dawn. Everyone ignores the old patriarchal rules. Even so, the Civil War that Franco waged between 1936 and to 1939 suffuses this hectic era. “Almost everything has to do with the War” says film director Eduardo Muriel to his young assistant Juan de Vere. Muriel predicts that people will highjack its tragedies “to give meaning to their existence … to imagine hardships and sufferings no one could possibly understand even if they heard about them first-hand.”
Indeed, Muriel believes that we cannot know anything that we have not personally experienced. Everything else, including eyewitness accounts, is “pure rumour.” This is an odd belief for a film director, and odd too that he asks Juan to discover the truth of rumors about his friend Dr. Van Vechten. He would not pursue this, he says, except that he has heard that “the Doctor behaved in an indecent manner towards a woman.” It’s odder still that though he describes such behavior is “unforgivable, the lowest of the low,” he himself behaves horribly to his wife Beatriz. She is forbidden to enter his bedroom. He subjects her to frequent scorn and abuse. “Your backside’s the size of a bus!” he scoffs.
Juan demurs. He finds Beatriz attractive, and as much as he admires Muriel, he likes Beatriz equally. Of course, he cannot — initially at least — ask Eduardo why he makes such a “woeful bed” for Beatriz, but his questions nag away as he tries to discover the truth about Van Vechten. He becomes a spy. Once he stations himself up a tree in front of a convent window; more often he peers from his cubbyhole of a bedroom, watching Beatriz tap at Eduardo’s bedroom door, hoping to be admitted.
Juan’s descriptions of his discoveries and his late-night exploits in Madrid act like exempla, prompting examinations about history, about betrayals, about how we can know about what has happened, or what is in anyone else’s heart or mind. What his record of events does not do is make a plot that requires 444 pages to unravel.
Mr. Marias does the heavy lifting by his style rather than by plotting. Often he starts his long investigatory sentences with an obiter dicta, then he piles up clauses with reservations, other possibilities, illustrations, counter-arguments. These sentences poke around social or intellectual territory, turning up shards, bits of easily overlooked material. For example, when Juan, conjectures that the story of Beatriz’s life would be boring, he immediately reconsiders its possibilities:
“We writers … (even if we only write private memoirs or diaries or letters, not intending them to be read by anyone or perhaps just by one person), may occasionally take a long hard look at those who will never go beyond their own bounds, those who one knows early on will leave no trace or track and will be barely remembered once they disappear (they will be like falling snow that does not settle, like a lizard climbing up a sunny wall in summer, like the words all those years ago, that a teacher painstakingly wrote on the blackboard only to erase them herself at the end of the class, or leave them to be erased by the next teacher to occupy the room) and about whom not even their nearest and dearest will have any anecdotes to recount.”
It’s hard not to be reminded of Shakespeare’s words on the fickleness of time that eventually wastes us all. Indeed, the shade of Shakespeare wanders through this novel. It peeks out in Juan’s surname: de Vere, the same as the Earl of Oxford, Shakespeare’s patron (supposed by some to be the author of the plays). Shakespeare’s shade trails by with evocations of the history plays — the record of another brutal civil war. Most obviously, he provides the title. “Thus bad begins, and worse remains behind,” says Hamlet says after berating his mother for marrying his uncle. Muriel quotes the line to endorse the importance of not trying “to know what you cannot know.” This may be the beginning of “bad,” he notes, but it’s justified because it leaves “worse behind.” Years later Juan recalls this commentary, and thinks about looking back, mourning personal or national tragedies or evoking what might have been. “Only once we have nodded and shrugged our shoulders does worse remain behind, because at least it’s over. And thus, only bad begins, the bad that has not yet happened.”
As a writer of formidable skills and achievement, Javier Marias — still not very well-known in this country — is regularly tipped to win the Nobel prize. His work is dense, rich, enticing, and absolutely addictive.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.