We all have secrets we would never divulge and secrets we wish had never been revealed. That we cannot fully know another is axiomatic, that we deny our own history and the histories of others, commonplace. Where, then, is the place for truth? —Frank Richardson
We all have secrets. We all have secrets we would never divulge and secrets we wish had never been revealed. That we cannot fully know another is axiomatic, that we deny our own history and the histories of others, commonplace. Where, then, is the place for truth? We live in a time when the Oxford Dictionaries awarded “post-truth” word of year. Javier Marías’s new novel, Thus Bad Begins, tells the perfect story for an age of relativism, for it is filled with characters who deny their pasts, who conspire to create glowing public images despite their crimes, who distort the truth for their own agendas, and who flatly reject known facts to preserve their peace of mind and their illusion of a stable, happy present.
Born in Madrid in 1951, twelve years after the Spanish Civil War, Javier Marías grew up in a society of secrecy, a country where secrets meant life or death. Javier Marías published his first novel in 1971, at the precocious age of nineteen. Since then he has published thirteen novels, two short story collections, a book of literary biographies, and writes a regular column for the Madrid newspaper El País. His books, with sales in the millions, have been translated into over forty languages and have won numerous prizes. Quickly following the commercial and critical success of his 2013 novel The Infatuations (reviewed by Numéro Cinq’s Laura K. Warrell), in a brilliant translation by Margaret Jull Costa, Thus Bad Begins examines our relationships with those closest to us—our spouses, our lovers, our friends—and asks how much we can know about them and, more disturbingly, how much we want to know.
Set in Madrid in 1980, Thus Bad Begins is the first-person recollection of Juan de Vere, now ostensibly a writer living in contemporary times. Covering about a year of his young life, when he was 23, Juan de Vere—a quintessential Marías narrator given to meditative digression—reflects on the time he spent working for the almost famous film director Eduardo Muriel, his intimacy with his employer’s family, and his mission to investigate the lecherous and enigmatic Dr. Jorge Van Vechten.
The 448-page novel is divided into eleven numbered chapters, each with between four and eight subchapters of approximately equal length. The first subchapter of chapter one begins like many others, with Juan’s contemplations, which serve as thematic passages. Juan’s style is discursive, speculative, analytical. He explores his past through his prose and often loses himself in extended, lyrical observations. Here especially Marías employs his signature complex sentences, some stretching to a page in length. For readers familiar with Marías’s fiction, this will come as little surprise, and in this novel he once again creates a dense psychological representation of the narrator through the intricate syntax of his long sentences.
“Young de Vere,” as his employer calls him, is hired as a personal assistant whose duties range from translation to taking dictation to organizing Muriel’s library. Juan has an almost eidetic memory and quotes people verbatim. An effective conceit, Juan’s quotes serve two purposes: first, they move conversations forward in unexpected ways, and second, the repetition helps link the chapters and serves as a thematic refrain.
Marías’s first-person narrators often sound like third-person objective observers, and Juan’s chronicle subtly switches point of view and tense as he segues between his thoughts in the present, what he imagines he thought in the past, and what he suspects were the thoughts and feelings of others. Juan’s tone, while earnest and sincere, tends to be conspiratorial and occasionally evasive. A self-effacing Marías protagonist, Juan claims “there is nothing original about me” on the first page and near the end he states “there is nothing original about my character,” by which he means, in a suspiciously metafictional sentence, his character in the novel. As much an epistemological mystery as a plotted mystery, the problem of truth is a major theme of the novel, and Marías’s blending of fact with fiction finds in Young de Vere a perfect narrator.
When Juan’s duties become so time consuming that he spends nights in the Muriels’ guest room, he soon gains his first insight into the couple’s marriage—one of the principal mysteries of the novel. Juan, a sensitive, compassionate young man who admires his employer, is unnerved by the jarring contrast between Muriel’s normally charming and ingenuous behavior and his inexplicably cruel verbal abuse of his wife, Beatriz, abuse which she appears to absorb with a calm, long-suffering resignation.
Muriel and Beatriz sleep in separate bedrooms and one night she comes to her husband’s bedroom door. In classic Marías fashion, the narrator becomes voyeur and Juan watches while Beatriz pleads with Muriel, declaring he is the only one she loves and reiterating what she must have said many times, that she can’t believe he has broken off their relationship “over some stupid thing that happened ages ago.” But what she calls a “stupid thing” Eduardo finds unforgivable, and he brutally rebukes her. After witnessing the exchange, Juan concludes:
There are some things about which it’s best just to have your suspicions, as long as these are not pressing or unbearable, rather than pursue some disappointing or painful certainty that, as Muriel had more or less said, would oblige you to go on living, meanwhile having to tell yourself a different story from the one you had lived with up until then, always supposing it was possible to cancel out or replace what you had already lived. Or even cancel out or replace what you had believed, if you had believed it for a long time.
And so Juan begins to explore the idea of denying the truth, of avoiding reality and hiding in the comfort of ignorance.
Paralleling the mystery of the Muriel’s relationship, a second mystery grounds the primary plot: Juan’s investigation of his boss’s good friend, Dr. Jorge Van Vechten. Soon after he hires Juan, Muriel informs him that he has been told a disquieting story about his friend, a story that, if true, would mean the doctor had “behaved in an indecent manner towards a woman or possibly more than one.” Deeply troubled by the hearsay, at first Muriel denies the possibility of it being true, but eventually his curiosity wins out and he charges his young assistant with an unusual directive. He asks Juan to invite Van Vechten when he and his friends go nightclubbing. Muriel wants Juan to gain Van Vechten’s confidence, to “draw him out” by boasting of his sexual exploits, and if Juan doesn’t have any, no problem, he should invent some. Muriel knows his friend well enough that such company and conversation might, coupled with a generous amount of alcohol, loosen his tongue enough for him to divulge his secrets.
Although Juan’s morals are at odds with his assignment—he finds it odious to pretend to be someone he’s not with the deliberate aim of betrayal—he doesn’t want to disappoint Muriel, and in an ironic twist, a voyeur becomes a reluctant hired spy. As Muriel predicted, it doesn’t take long for Juan to confirm his suspicions about Van Vechten’s true nature.
Juan’s description of the doctor, however, is not confined to reporting his words and actions. Marías exquisite portraits are a distinguishing quality of all his novels. Muriel, Beatriz, and Van Vechten are all drawn in the finest, most purposeful detail. Marías’s portraits begin with physical features (coupled with commentary) and then broaden to include the character’s character:
Van Vechten did indeed have very blue eyes and the kind of blond hair which is still memorable in a country where such hair color is much more common than people think and admit . . . . [his] features suggested a triumphant, expansive nature, as did the way he behaved in public: with enormous confidence, perennial good humor, too perennial not to seem somewhat false . . . . Alongside that good humor, one sensed something voracious and troubling, as if nothing ever entirely pleased him, as if he were one of those people for whom nothing is ever enough, who always want more . . .
The portrait moves from the concrete to the abstract to the general. Once he has shifted to describing “one of those people,” Marías’s narrator now tangentially reflects on who “those people” are, generalizing the particular and extending the theme beyond the story and the specific details of character and plot.
Fact and Fiction
From the first page, Marías blurs the boundary between fact and fiction, and one device he uses is having his narrator address the reader. Juan isn’t a passive observer, a disinterested narrator; his fate becomes entwined with those he observes. Midway through the novel, Juan confesses he has his own secret, one he promises to reveal later: “And when I tell that secret here (except that here is not reality), you will all have to keep my secret . . .” Such coy pronouncements about the reality of his text are not uncommon for Juan, and his reticence evokes the impression of a man riddled with guilt who, although he wants to confess, cannot bring himself to accept the truth.
Like Shakespeare’s use of a play within a play in Hamlet (from which the title Thus Bad Begins is derived) Marías employs the literary device of a story within a story as another means to blend fiction and reality, and he does so using real people. During the scene where Juan delivers his first Van Vechten report to Muriel, the actor Herbert Lom is present. Lom is perhaps best remembered for playing the insane Dreyfus opposite Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther films. Inspired by Juan’s report, Lom tells the true story of producer Harry Alan Towers (with whom Muriel is also working), principal culprit in a sex-scandal in the 1960s involving Mariella Novotny and John F. Kennedy (before he was elected President). And Lom and Towers aren’t the only real people in the novel: Marías’s own uncle, the B-movie director Jesús (Jess) Franco is important to the plot and actor Jack Palance is featured in a scene. While Lom’s story may appear extravagantly digressive, the details cleverly parallel plot elements and expand image patterns; furthermore, the use of real people and historical details adds verisimilitude and is another way Marías generalizes the particular. Marías weaves fact with fiction so seamlessly it is impossible to tell them apart; indeed, this is thematically important since the narrator is often reflecting on the nature of reality verses fiction; thus, this intersection of the real with fiction becomes a thematic mimesis.
The story Lom tells is reminiscent of the anecdotes that W. G. Sebald used in his narratives. Marías admires Sebald’s writing and corresponded with the late author. Another thing they have in common is their use of photos. Thus Bad Begins contains two photos, one of Mariella Novotny and one of a painting by Francesco Casanova (brother of the infamous Giacomo). The latter is significant for the dominant image pattern of observation, particularly with a single eye. The painting features a mounted cavalryman looking over his right shoulder; you can only see one of his eyes. Muriel, blinded in one eye, wears an eyepatch. Being a film director, he is always looking through a camera, a single lens. And Juan, as if calling upon a muse, makes numerous references to the “sentinel moon” observing “with just one eye open.”
Laurence Sterne, one of Marías’s influences, wrote in Tristram Shandy “Now there is nothing in this world I abominate worse, than to be interrupted in a story.” How ironic, considering Marías has been criticized for his discursive style. His famous tangents might indeed appear, upon cursory reading, to interrupt the momentum and create suspense artificially through simple postponement. However, Marías continues in a long tradition—including Sterne and Proust—in his use of such digressions; he said in an interview “I’m going to make time that doesn’t have the time to exist, exist” (The White Review). Marías endeavors to create time as we experience it in memory, slowed to the speed of dwelling on signature moments, the ones we return to obsessively—as Juan does. Marías does use scene and summary in a conventional sense—scene for a slower pace with critical detail and summary for skipping quickly over moments of less importance—but he creates the Proustian time he spoke about through Juan’s meditations.
Part of Marías’s secret to creating time is his exceptional use of thematic passages. Ranging from a paragraph to several pages, the thematic passages are Juan’s attempts to understand his past; through his reflections he explores his thoughts and actions and seeks to make sense of the world. For example, when remembering an afternoon he spied on Beatriz, Juan muses:
“Hers is such a woeful bed,” I thought, “that she has to visit other beds . . . she looks for substitutes, as almost everyone does, very few of us ever find what we yearn for, or if we do, we don’t hang on to it for very long, and who knows how long she managed to hang on to her happiness.” We strive to conquer things, never thinking, in our eagerness, that they will never definitely be ours, that they rarely last and are always susceptible to loss, nothing is ever for ever [sic] . . .
Marías often uses such shifts from direct internal monologue of Juan’s thoughts of the moment to a timeless present rich in aphorism when Juan’s voice is subsumed by a broader, universal voice. The shift in voice is often paired with shifts in point of view, as here where he shifts from first-person singular to first-person plural. Adding depth of these thematic passages, Juan asks many rhetorical questions, as in this example where he ponders about love:
Why should we be loved by the person we have chosen with our tremulous finger? Why that one person, as if he were obliged to obey us? Why should the person who troubles or arouses us and for whose flesh and bones we yearn, why should he desire us? Why should we believe in such coincidences? And when they do happen, why should they last?
Juan’s rhetorical questions not only generalize the themes, but they link scenes in image patterns and serve as prompts that propel the narrative forward.
Another dimension of the thematic passages is that they often contain long, lyrical sentences, another Marías hallmark. He strives to create a musicality with his sentences, to carry readers as if they were “on the top of a wave” (Literary Hub). In his excellent introduction to A Heart So White, Jonathan Coe notes Marías’s spare use of punctuation, often relying solely on commas to separate independent clauses. However, unlike that novel from 1992, in Thus Bad Begins Marías uses a variety of punctuation to create the musical cadence he desires. For example, here Juan’s speculations about himself segue into second-person aphoristic generalization and then third person supposition in a stream of consciousness:
Or perhaps that isn’t what I thought, but only how I remember it now that I’m no longer young and am more or less the same age as Muriel was then or perhaps older; it’s impossible to recover the inexperience of your inexperienced youth once you’ve moved on considerably; once you’ve understood something, it’s impossible to not understand what you once didn’t understand, ignorance doesn’t return, not even when you want to describe a time during which you either basked in or were the victim of ignorance, and never trust anyone who tells you something with a falsely innocent look on his face, feigning the lost innocence of childhood or adolescence or youth, or who adopts the gaze—the icy, frozen gaze—of the child he no longer is, and the same is true of the old man who speaks out of the years of his maturity rather than out of the old age that now dominates his entire vision of the world . . .
Although he does use semicolons, without the full stop of a period this sentence mimics thought in so far as our thoughts are also an uninterrupted stream.
Thus Bad Begins offers a new perspective on the expanding universe of Javier Marías’s Madrid, his own Yoknapatawpha County, where familiar but always fresh characters struggle with the vagaries of life.
Marías describes his writing process as working without a map, but with a compass, a talisman Muriel carries and rubs between his fingers whenever he is “filled by doubts.” In the last major scene, Muriel worries the compass as he explains to Juan his behavior toward Beatriz in exchange for Juan keeping silent about Van Vechten. Muriel tells Juan:
We lose far too many people in a lifetime, they either drift away or die, and it doesn’t make sense to get rid of those who are left. So what if he committed some vile deed in the past or took advantage of someone or other? Here, during a very long dictatorship, almost everyone did at some point. So what?
We all have secrets, but Muriel’s denial raises difficult questions. Which secrets can be kept and which must be told? Should we always admit the truth, or only when it is convenient, when it won’t be painful? Juan, replete with his own secrets, learns caution, for his experience shows him the price of denial and the price of honesty. Marías’s novel doesn’t offer easy solutions but reminds us that one of the most perilous decisions we can make is to practice deceit, for thus bad begins.
Frank Richardson lives in Houston and received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His poetry has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, The Montucky Review, and Do Not Look At The Sun.