Thus Bad Begins

Javier Marias

Hamish Hamilton, £18.99

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Review by Rosemary Goring

This is not the first of Marias’s novels with a less than arresting

title. I do not know how it reads in Spanish, but in Margaret Jull

Costa’s otherwise invisible translation, it does little to entice a

reader unaware of the pleasure Marias’s work offers. Taken from

Hamlet, “Thus bad begins, and worse remains behind,” it is

nevertheless an almost perfect summation of the contents of this

typically labyrinthine, sensuous, languorous and satisfying book.

The confidence with which Marias, one of Europe’s most gifted

novelists, approaches his tale is striking. As this and previous of

his books suggest, he feels no need to capture an audience with a

meretricious or ingratiating opener. Instead, he begins in pensive

mood, this being the recollections of a man now in late middle age,

looking back on himself when, in his early twenties, he worked in

Madrid as a researcher and secretary for an art house film director.

Juan de Vere is captivated by Eduardo Muriel, whose black eye patch,

hauteur and artistic credentials are magnetic. So, also, is his

household, where he works, in which Muriel’s three daughters live with

their beautiful if blowsy mother, Beatriz.

It is commonplace to say that Marias’s fiction always revolves around

secrets, but no less true for that. The layers of deceit, subterfuge

and hidden histories from which this particularly closely-knit novel

is composed are perhaps the finest example yet of his fascination with

the often concealed, unknowable elements that distort or shape a life.

Initially, the premise of the novel is simple. Muriel has a lifelong

friend, a renowned doctor called Jorge Van Vechten, who was on the

Francoist side of the civil war, and about whom he has learned

something shocking. Not sure whether to

believe it, he sets Juan the task of befriending a man so conceited he

will not be suspicious when he is invited into far younger company, to

find out if there is any truth to the rumours. Set in the early 1980s, Thus Bad Begins lies in that uncomfortable,

self-consciously blinkered period in which Spain tried to pretend it

had not been riven by a bitter civil war. For the moment, for fear of

opening Pandora’s Box, old enmities are smoothed over, and dangerous

allegiances disowned as if they had never existed.

As often before, Marias shows himself almost creepily at home in the

morally dubious terrain between the observer and the watched. For

Juan, snooping comes easily, although at some cost to his conscience.

“I realised how uncomfortable it is being a spy...There is something

base, something grubby about passing yourself off as someone else,

about behaving in an underhand manner, gaining the confidence of

someone in order to betray him, even if that person is a villain, an

enemy, a murderer.”

Marias is too subtle and original for this plot to become just another

fashionable unearthing of misdeeds from this grim bygone era. There is

an element of that as Van Vechten’s past is brought into the light,

but what brings the novel fully alive is not the

search for the doctor’s nefarious acts but for the origins of the

chilling rift that exists between Muriel and his wife.

In a scene that is strikingly painterly and filmic, Marias describes

the evening when, staying overnight, Juan sees on Beatriz knocking at

her husband’s bedroom door, begging to be let in, just for a hug. In

the weeks preceding this, he had been shocked by how unkind Muriel is

to his wife, calling her “a fat cow” and far worse. This night he is

witness to an astonishing exchange, one that has clearly been repeated

on countless previous occasions. Seductively dressed, Beatriz almost abases

herself in her need for affection, while Muriel is by turns weary,

kind, cold and harsh. In the course of this unhappy encounter it is

revealed that Beatriz had many years earlier told Muriel a secret she

would have been wiser keeping to herself, from which the poison

between them flows. Thereafter, Juan is as keen to find out what that

secret is as to unmask Van Vechten.

A contradictory, fascinating individual, Beatrix makes no secret of

her misery:

“When she was at her lowest ebb... she would take refuge in her part

of the apartment and could be heard playing the piano badly,

practising so very lazily or reluctantly that what we mainly heard was

the metronome, which ticked away for long period without a single note

or chord being played, as if it were a perpetual threat or a

representation of the tempo of her thoughts or the insistent beat of

her sufferings, perhaps it was a way of telling Muriel that her life

was passing by without his company and without her regaining his

affection, of making him notice her absence second by second, or at

the very least, I would think, forty times a minute.”

Marias’s style always has been and if possible is becoming even more

digressive and interior, though never less than

seamlessly elegant. Everything we learn is reached by tantalisingly

indirect degrees, through a process of observation and interpretation

that, for those keener on events than style or mood, might be

infuriating. Occasionally it is almost parodic in its orotund

technique, and at times sententious, the author taking his own

pronouncements a little too seriously. But the depth of insight into

his characters, and their motives, redeems these venal slips. As much

about the most powerful, primitive urges of passion, lust and physical

love as about the intellect, morality or politics, Thus Bad Begins

ought to be smoulderingly erotic as Marias describes couplings and

fantasies in some detail. In his hands, however, it is the opposite of

arousing, the sex it depicts soaked in sorrow, regret, power and shame.

In this winningly complete, rich and mature novel, the artistic

control Marias exerts never falters, and is rarely intrusive, with the

result that the growing complexity and repercussions of his story

become almost otherworldly in their mesmerising effect. Moving from

the domestic to the political, from the individual to the collective,

Thus Bad Begins is as brilliantly well conceived and emotionally

profound as one has come to expect from this master.