In the Madrid of 1980, the setting for “Thus Bad Begins,” the new novel by Javier Marías, an entire country finds itself at a crossroads. After more than three decades under the repressive dictatorship of Francisco Franco, Madrid is torn between the long-lasting trauma of violence and the lingering desire for freedom. For Juan de Vere, the narrator and young assistant to prolific film director Eduardo Muriel, Spain feels ready to burst at the seams during this tenuous transition toward democracy.
Everyone seems to be harboring some ill-fated decision made in the face of fascist demands, and de Vere finds himself uncertain of what to make of these ancient and terrible revelations: “There was a desire to confine such events to the realm of nightmares,” he says, “to relegate them to the bearable fog of what may or may not have happened.” Each of Marías’s characters must decide how much is worth forgiving and how much might be worth forgetting. At Muriel’s suggestion, de Vere finds himself investigating a well-regarded doctor, Jorge Van Vechten, who might be hiding a secret held since the end of the civil war.
With its burgeoning nightlife, Madrid becomes a hedonistic playground for de Vere’s newly liberated generation, and the novel covers his many attempted and successful seductions of women. Here, for instance, Marías captures the thrilling uncertainty that de Vere feels as he carefully inches his hand onto his date’s leg while riding home in a cab: “She didn’t move her thigh, not a millimeter, she didn’t avoid or evade that new contact and she could easily have done so, there was room to her left; now it was flesh against flesh, still cautious, almost motionless, still wearing the mask of chance.”
While Margaret Jull Costa’s translation is at once loose, colloquial and quite eloquent, she is still able to bring across Marías’s style, notably full of distinctively digressive and complex sentences, often looping around on several tangents before finally completing the character’s original thought.
As film buffs, these characters cannot seem to help but see each other in terms of movie stars, and as de Vere investigates the doctor’s life, he feels as if he has been cast in one of Muriel’s films. Marías’s Madrid is one recently plunged into the greater world of pop culture and avarice, and as a result everyone finds himself playing the part of a newly liberated European socialite. Even Juan’s last name, de Vere, is an allusion to the British nobleman Edward de Vere, who some believe to have been the true author of Shakespeare’s plays.
Perhaps no character is more trapped by the past than Muriel. Despite being a film director, he is blind in one eye, the result of collateral damage from sniper fire while playing outside during the civil war. Muriel takes on the physical embodiment of a country caught in the throes of change. He is at once blind and filled with sight, unable to decide whether the terrible past of oppression is worth confronting. He is paralyzed by the strange hedonistic world ahead. It is Muriel who utters the title phrase, borrowed from Hamlet shortly after he has killed Polonius:
“We can’t spend our lives listening to rumours, still less acting in accordance with their many fluctuations. When you give that up, when you give up trying to know what you cannot know, perhaps, to paraphrase Shakespeare, perhaps that is when bad begins, but, on the other hand, worse remains behind.”
In that melancholy admission, Muriel encapsulates a civilization that has become morally fractured. As Juan de Vere discovers, this discovery of trauma — and the choice of what to leave behind — is one with little recourse.
Mike Broida is a writer living in Baltimore.
By Javier Marías
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa
Knopf. 444 pp. $27.95