I must be cruel only to remain kind. Thus bad begins, and worse remains behind.
Javier Marías’s latest novel, Thus Bad Begins, takes its title from a line in Shakespeare. More specifically, it’s from Act III of Hamlet, during a precipitous scene in which the beleaguered prince accidentally kills Polonius, ushering the play to its tragic end. Marías’s book similarly traffics in deception and stalks secrets from their dubious points of origin to their unforeseeable repercussions. Murder, betrayal, seduction, political intrigue: The veteran Spanish novelist has plumbed these depths before, both in his bestselling trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, and in his breakout hit, A Heart So White. Now on his sixteenth book and still writing in his signature discursive style, Marías revisits his favored subject once more: toxic deceit in the shadow of the Spanish Civil War.
On the surface, the novel is part detective caper and part domestic drama, told through its tormented narrator, Juan de Vere. Now a middle-aged man, de Vere unfurls the story of what happened in 1980, when he was 23 and employed by an aging film director, Eduardo Muriel. The reader senses that de Vere has secrets of his own to confess — the lengthy soliloquies that punctuate each climactic scene suggest a reluctance, an inexpressible guilt — but the story at the forefront concerns a mystery surrounding Muriel and his neglected wife, Beatriz Noguera.
Muriel, who has hired de Vere to assist with his film scripts, soon tells him to spy on an old friend, Jorge Van Vechten, a former Francoist turned respectable pediatrician whom Muriel suspects may have “behaved in an indecent manner towards women.” De Vere is to masquerade as a playboy, goading Van Vechten to take part. Halfway through the job, Muriel suddenly retracts his
assignment, but the young de Vere can’t relinquish the mystery after all that he’s uncovered. Pursuing the matter to the end, he becomes entangled in his own web of deceit.
The deeper question that seems to preoccupy these pages is whether a life built on a lie can be rebuilt, or whether it must necessarily speed toward doom. “Once you start a deception, the only thing you can do is to continue it,” Muriel says. Thus Bad Begins isn’t merely a novel about specific characters and their specific scandals; rather, they are stand-ins for the universal, deployed to uncover a greater mechanism at work. “We can only really enjoy one drama or one story, albeit with infinite variations that disguise both drama and story as either ancient or modern, but always essentially the same,” de Vere says. “There is nothing original about me.”
Indeed, Marías’s characterizations invite this reading: Muriel wears a conspicuous eye patch and suffers from “halved vision,” literally turning a blind eye to the truth; Beatriz (whose name
recalls Dante’s beatific vision of immortal salvation) locks herself in a room with a perpetually ticking metronome, a not-so-subtle reminder of her mortality. Even Juan’s surname, an obvious nod to Latinate words for “truth,” points to the conflict between his good intentions and his human nature.
Running underneath all of this is the ghost of the civil war. The years immediately after Franco’s death, from 1975 to the early 1980s, formed a pivotal period known as La Movida, when Spain experienced a countercultural revolution that undid many of the policies implemented by the extreme right wing. Huge swaths of society became more permissive; divorce was legalized in 1981, a blow to the powerful Catholic Church. But this progress came at a cost. During those febrile years, Spain had to make a decision about how to confront its blighted past. Rather than doing so directly, the country effectively entered collectively into a pact of silence, choosing to forget rather than to dwell on the crimes perpetrated by both winners and losers. As a result, ex-Francoists such as Van Vechten reintegrated into society without suffering serious repercussions.
There is an etymological link between amnesty and amnesia; the words share a root, amnestia, for “forgetting.” In his famous taxonomy of forgetting, the anthropologist Paul Connerton calls this type of state-led forgetting “prescriptive forgetting,” which he considers one of the “most malign features” of the 21st century. Marías seems to agree. “A war like that is a stigma that takes one or even two centuries to disappear,” Muriel says to de Vere. “It contains everything and affects and debases everything.” By not fully acknowledging this traumatic history, Spain has built a myth on shaky foundations. And, as the historian Tony Judt argues in “The Past Is Another Country: Myth and Memory in Postwar Europe,” while this kind of postwar fable-making restores cohesion and re-establishes the legitimacy of the state, it is a potentially dangerous intermediary measure, a “beautiful lie” built on shifting historical sands.
Can lies be rectified once they are laid down, or be undone simply by revealing the truth? The final revelation about the troubled Muriels and the sinister Van Vechten, when we finally arrive at it, is both shocking and utterly disappointing. The crime seems not only predictable but unforgivably banal, especially after four hundred pages of buildup. One wonders if the blunt impact of the
revelations is a result of our own jaded, scandal-saturated present. Or, perhaps, Marías is simply demonstrating the nature of secrets: “Once told, they’re present in the air and there’s no way you can stop them from floating or flying,” says De Vere in one of his many asides. “They travel through space and time disfigured by the many echoes, worn thin by repetition.”
The novelist Álvaro Enrigue has written that Marías’s work is a “call for political responsibility in everyday civil life.” Perhaps this is true. If novels can be calls to action, then this one is a clarion for open dialogue. Brought to light, the unspeakable immediately becomes banal. Perhaps this is Marías’s hope for Spain — that one day it will confess all its secrets, and in doing so, let them go.
Thus Bad Begins
By Javier Marías
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
464 pp., Knopf