That’s the trouble with secrets, one can never ask for forgiveness.
In the highly refined world of Javier Marías, where any emotion, action, or statement can be surgically probed for pages in order to reveal every nuance and possible interpretation, the bar for what counts as an affront to the system is set frightfully low. At the outset of Thus Bad Begins, Marías’s narrator, twenty-three year old Juan De Vere, is told by his new boss, the filmmaker Eduardo Muriel, that a friend of Muriel’s, a certain Dr. Van Vechten, has possibly committed some sort of heinous act in the past. It’s Madrid, 1980, five years after the death of Franco. Spaniards are tasting new freedoms, illicit drugs flow freely, the discos are packed until dawn, and unhappy couples await the legalization of divorce. “Is it something to do with the Civil War,” De Vere breathlessly asks? “Did he participate in a massacre? Did he carry out summary executions?” No, Muriel answers. His friend is believed to have “behaved in an indecent manner towards a woman or possibly more than one.” And with that bizarrely unexciting revelation, Marías sets in motion this fascinating, but overlong novel of lies and secrets.
Eventually, a second and somewhat more meaty mystery arises. Why does Muriel, a man deeply offended because his friend might have “behaved in an indecent manner toward a woman,” verbally abuse his own wife night after night? For a dozen years or so, he and Beatriz have had separate bedrooms and separate lives. But on multiple occasions, De Vere has overheard them arguing bitterly, during which Muriel maliciously insults his wife. Apparently, Beatriz once lied to Muriel in a manner that estranged the couple. But this tragic secret has somehow only managed to strengthen the force field that keeps the two clinging to each other despite their almost nightly bursts of anger. What is this terrible lie that Beatriz has told?
...[Muriel’s] was not, to put it in pedantic terms, a quotidian or perfunctory aggression. There was on his part a deep-seated antagonism, vital and pulsating and far from ordinary, and a kind of strangely inconstant desire to inflict frequent punishments. It was as if he had to force himself to remember (once the right ice-cold button had been pressed) that he must behave towards her with a complete lack of consideration, with revulsion and scorn, to make it clear to her what a curse and a burden it was to endure her presence; to mistreat and even abuse her, and certainly to undermine her and make her feel insecure and even hopeless about her personality, her work, her body, and he was doubtless successful; after all, anyone can do that, even the most stupid of us, it’s the easiest thing in the world to destroy and wound, you don’t have to be especially wily or astute, still less intelligent, a fool can easily crush someone cleverer, and Muriel was a clever man.
So far, all of this is standard operating procedure for Marías, who is a master at promising a big reveal and then diving into the minutiae of daily life for hundreds of pages. At one point, De Vere even seems to speak on behalf of Marías’s readers, as he listens to one of Muriel’s particularly long-winded tales :
I had a sense that he was enjoying keeping me hanging on: now that he had agreed to tell me the story, he would do so at his own pace and in his own way. That is the prerogative of the one doing the telling, and the person listening has none at all, or only that of giving up and leaving.
It will take Marías 400 pages before the answer to the initial mystery is finally laid bare, and the revelation of why Muriel’s friend “behaved in an indecent manner” is shockingly anticlimactic. Next, he discloses the secret to the second mystery, and, fortunately, the backstory to the ongoing arguments between Muriel and Beatriz is considerably more interesting than the first disclosure. But even then, Marías takes a leisurely and digressive thirty pages to slowly unwind the surprise.
So, with over 500 pages behind me and just a handful of pages left to go in Thus Bad Begins (the title comes from Hamlet), I found myself thinking that these revelations did not seem worthy of the promise held out at the beginning of the novel. And then, without warning, Marías dropped two bombshells that changed everything. And instantly I began to recognize and track some of the little breadcrumbs that he had dropped along the way and which I had overlooked, thinking they were insignificant. Like a great magician, Marías had me looking in the wrong direction all along.
Lying just beneath the surface of this novel of a marriage and its secrets is the troubling ethos and guilty conscience of post-Franco Spain. On several occasions, Marías’s characters speak about the almost Faustian bargain that Spain made to exit the four-decade era marked by the Spanish Civil War and the rule of Francisco Franco. “One of the conditions for granting us democracy and for that astonishing act of hara-kiri had been an agreement that, to put it bluntly, no one would call anyone else to account,” the narrator tells us. How one was likely to feel about this bargain, depends on which side of the Franco divide one was on. Regardless, “something strange happened.”
The social pact became so internalized that we ended up fulfilling the condition almost too scrupulously, especially when it came to talking about the past. It made good sense for us not to get embroiled in the courts and for the courts not to get clogged up with painful lawsuits that would have made it impossible for us to continue to live together and would have ended very badly. Preferring not to know and not to talk about it was another matter entirely. And yet most people chose that route, chose to remain silent, certainly in public, but often in private too.
There are two images in Thus Bad Begins. The first reproduces an 18th century painting owned by Muriel that depicts a cavalier on horseback. The painter is identified as “Casanova’s brother,” which is to say, Francesco Casanova, the brother of the more famous Giacomo. Muriel often stares at this painting during his often lengthy talks with De Vere. The cavalier looks back over his shoulder in the direction of the viewer, “as if,” Muriel muses dramatically, “wishing to retain, before he rode off, the image of the deaths he had caused.”
The other image is a press photograph of Mariella Novotny, a woman who appears as an extremely minor figure in Marías’s novel. The photograph shows her “wearing a ridiculous and yet very modest hat,” at the moment she is bring arrested by a thug-like FBI agent from the era of J. Edgar Hoover. Novotny was involved in several 1960s sex scandals (including a rumored fling with President John F. Kennedy). She was later associated with the notorious Christine Keeler, the woman at the heart of the Profumo Affair, which brought down the government of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. (If only it were so easy today.) For De Vere, this image demonstrates the “effect passing time has on reality, turning everything into fiction, and when we ourselves are long gone, any photograph of us will suffer the same fate and we, too, will look like invented people who never existed.”
Javier Marías. Thus Bad Begins. London: Penguin, 2016. Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa.