THUS BAD BEGINS
By Javier Marias
444 pages, $27.95
Hamlet says after stabbing Polonius in Act 3, scene 4, “I must be cruel to be kind. Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.” And therein lies the iceberg-like symbolic import of the three-word title of this latest novel by lauded Spanish fiction writer and essayist Javier Marias, translated from Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa. A translation of the Shakespeare of the title might be: You thought things were bad before -- well, don’t unfasten your seatbelt.
There is much below the surface of the 1st person-present in this novel, which looks back from today at narrator Juan De Vere’s world as the-then 23-year-old secretary to a 50-ish Spanish filmmaker named Edward Muriel in the early 1980s.
That looming, implicit, impact is set up by two things. One is Spain’s 20th century from the Civil War to the end of the Franco dictatorship and the long radioactive half-life of both the Spanish Republic and the subsequent 40 years of authoritarian rule under Francisco Franco. The other is good old-fashioned domestic romantic intrigue: love and death or death and love; the eternal verities and eternal subjects. Here they play out in a literally and metaphorically discursive 400-plus pages of deliberate, slow-burn prose that echoes both Hitchcock and novelistic conventions going back to the 19th century.
The resulting work is absorbing and well rendered, but, arguably, might leave a reader wanting more from this microscopic memory play by the young and old De Vere concerning the marriage of filmmaker Muriel and his passionate, sad wife Beatriz. Beatriz is the engine turning things, and she and Muriel and De Vere and their entanglements and a central tragedy and its aftermath are what play out here over decades, although the story focuses on only a year in the '80s, and a post-script in the narrator’s contemporary present, in which he’s married to Beatriz and Edward’s oldest child and father to three children.
Marias chose to tell this story via literal “telling”— it’s all reflections, observations, witnessings, and conversations reported by the narrator. There’s a deliberate, languid deeply reflexive pace to this world of artists and academics and the moneyed people among whom they move. Muriel is an accomplished enough filmmaker that major mid-century movie presences such as Herbert Lom and Jack Palance make appearances here as admirers of his work eager to be in his movies. However, he’s never broken beyond the picture-to-picture scramble to find financial backing and by the period of the story here, his film career’s at a stage where projects are stillborn or shelved in mid-production. Muriel is a courtly, enigmatic figure who wears an eye patch (for a reason not revealed until late in the book, but one tying in with major theme of the Civil War) and his beautiful wife Beatriz is also an enigma but a fraught and fragile one.
The young narrator puzzles over these two and their world in a narrative of rising tension that, when things are revealed, breaks in catastrophic ways. Other major characters carry forward the legacy of dictatorship and national memory and wrestling with the past similar to that of post-war Germany—how does a culture understand a totalitarian past from a democratic present? It’s a big and good question wrestled with here, and maybe one of the reasons the book was named Spain’s “Best Book of the Year” by the Madrid newspaper El Pais.
Ed Taylor is a novelist, a freelance Buffalo critic and a teacher.