Thus Bad Begins
by Javier Marías (Así empieza lo malo, 2014)
translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (2016)
Knopf (2016)
444 pp


Act 3, Scene 4 of Hamlet takes place in Gertrude’s bed chamber. There, the Queen and the royal adviser Polonius wait for Hamlet to arrive, Polonius planning to hide behind the tapestry to eavesdrop on Hamlet’s conversation with Gertrude. What follows is one of the most horrific scenes in the play. Hamlet bursts in to his mother’s bedroom and assails her with insults and taunts, telling her that he is aware of just how profoundly she has sinned against him and his dead father. As Hamlet’s violence increases, to the point where he might have strangled his mother — we don’t know! — Polonius shouts for help from behind the tapestry. In an uncharacteristically brash moment of action, Hamlet stabs through the tapestry, killing Polonius, the “intruding fool.” For his part, Hamlet does feel some regret for having killed Polonius, and with that we get a fascinating speech, and the line that serves as the basis for Javier Marías’s latest novel to appear in English:

. . . For this same lord,
I do repent. But heaven hath pleased it so,
To punish me with this and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.
I will bestow him, and will answer well
The death I gave him. So, again, good night.
I must be cruel, only to be kind.
Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.

Marías has used Shakespeare as the basis for his titles, and therefore his themes, before, multiple times. The title of his novel A Heart So White comes from Macbeth[1]Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me and When I Was Mortal from Richard III[2]The Dark Back of Time from The Tempest[3]Your Face Tomorrow from Henry IV, Part 2[4]. With Thus Bad Begins, though, Marías loads the Shakespearean allusions as our young protagonist spies and hides behind the arras, a kind of intruding fool, seeking, philosophizing, as Hamlet, for the ever-elusive truth. For starters, our young protagonist, the one who will be seeking to uncover the truth, is named Juan de Vere. De Vere calls to mind a search for truth; its root, “ver,” means “truth” and is the same as verity, veracity, verify, verdict, veritable. But Marías is having fun here. De Vere is a name famous now to those who work in Shakespeare because some think that Edward De Vere, the Duke of Oxford, was the real author behind the works of Shakespeare. This allusion is directly addressed in the novel, Edward De Vere standing in as a tantalizing thought that even centuries-old truths, with loads of evidence, can be questioned.

The futile quest for truth is at the heart of this novel, with accompanying explorations of why we want to know the truth, why we hide the truth, the consequences for uncovering the truth, how this can become a national tragedy. The novel’s action takes place in Spain in 1980. Our narrator, Juan de Vere, is twenty-three years old, and is a personal assistant to a relatively well-known Spanish film director named Eduardo Muriel. Muriel, being a part of the older generation who lived through the Spanish Civil War and the ensuing years under Franco’s regime, has a life of secrets that are held on to for survival.

Toward the beginning of the novel, we learn that Muriel would like Juan to investigate the past of an old friend, Dr. Jorge Van Vechten. Dr. Van Vechten is a well-respected, though womanizing and rather flagrant, member of society. Known for his care of all people during the fractured days of the Civil War, most are willing to overlook his weaknesses, and maybe even consider them part of his charm, or at least his right.

At first, Muriel isn’t sure he wants to investigate. For one thing, he knows he will never know for sure if it is the truth. When trying to garner the will to send de Vere on this chase, he says:

“The truth is a category that remains in suspension while we’re alive.” He pondered this phrase for a few seconds, gazing up at the ceiling, as though expecting to see it appear there, like the words and names that teachers of old used to write so painstakingly on the blackboard. “While we’re alive,” he repeated. “Yes, it’s illusory to go in pursuit of the truth, a waste of time and a source of conflict, sheer folly. And yet we can’t not do it. Or, rather, we can’t help wondering about it, knowing that it does exist and is to be found in a place and time to which we have no access. I realize that I’ll probably never know for sure if that friend did or didn’t do what I’ve been told he did. [. . .] The worst thing is that, by this stage, even the person concerned may not know what the truth is.”

Yet Muriel cannot just drop it, much as he’d like to. What he thinks Van Vechten may have done is too egregious:

What stops me simply dropping the matter, rejecting it as frankly unbelievable and not even worth considering, is that, according to what I’ve been told, the Doctor behaved in an indecent manner towards a woman or possibly more than one. Call me old-fashioned or whatever you like, but that, to me, is unforgivable, the lowest of the low.

For Juan, Muriel’s statement about mistreating women opens up another, even more interesting, mystery. Muriel may say he honors women, that he demands they be treated with respect, but he certainly doesn’t appear to practice this when dealing with his own wife, “the only one who regularly bore the brunt of those harsh, unpleasant, cold out-bursts, was his poor wife, Beatriz Noguera, or so she seemed to me, a poor, unhappy woman, sad and affectionate. Poor soul, poor wretch.”

I admit, this was the central mystery of the novel to me as well. Beatriz is devoted to Muriel, seems to think he is justified in his actions toward her. But why? For the longest time, we know only that it concerns “the truth,” something we do not yet know. One evening, hiding behind the arras, so to speak, Juan overhears Beatriz pleading for her husband’s love; Muriel will not give it, and says:

“If only you’d never told me,” he went on, “if only you’d kept me in the dark. When you embark on a deception, you should maintain it right until the end. What is the point of setting the record straight, of suddenly telling the truth?”

The wonderful, mysterious drama of the story is underlined nicely by the thing that must be a part of everything, according to Muriel: the Spanish Civil War. Such a dark time fear, when one could tell the truth and be accused of lying, and vice versa. When people witnessed the blackness in another’s soul and had to live by that person in silence for fear of the greatest terror visiting their homes. This novel, taking place forty years after the Civil War nevertheless deals with the secrets from that society that have still not been aired out. But in 1980, five years after Franco’s death, some things were being brought to light, painfully:

In those days, in those years, certain distant events were just beginning to be discussed in private, things that many Spaniards had been obliged to keep quiet about in public for decades and which had only very occasionally been talked about in whispers within the family and with ever-longer intervening silences, as if, quite apart from the forbidden nature of the subject matter, there was a desire to confine such events to the realm of nightmares, to relegate them to the bearable fog of what may or may not have happened.

It makes one think Muriel may be right when he asks why some things need to be said. What good does it do anyone?

Interestingly, this novel is a form of confession, or of revealing a secret. Juan is 23 in 1980, but he’s much older when he’s recounting these events. He has his own secret, that he won’t tell a living soul, he says, and the whole of Thus Bad Begins can book looked at as his own personal struggle to know when to disclose and when to shut up, when to distract from and when to address directly. Marías’s tangential style, with its meandering passages, sometimes going pages before the speaker gets back on track, fits perfectly with the themes, and it’s a beautiful thing to read. Here is a long sentence, filled with diversions.

I don’t know why — perhaps it was that remark of her husband’s, or, if I do know why, I’d rather not say, or not yet, perhaps later — but when Muriel was out, looking for locations or traveling around in search of financial backing or shooting the one film he made during the time I was working for him, a strictly bread-and-butter project for the British producer Harry Alan Towers, when the latter returned to Spain to try his luck again after the 1960s and 70s, when he had made films about or based on Fu Manchu, Dracula, Sumuru and the Marquis de Sade, usually with Jesús Franco aka Jess Frank as director and with Muriel himself occasionally deputizing (although he would always become involved in the project as if the original idea had been his alone, convinced that, thanks to his finer hand and eye, he would produce something that would be both personal and rather artistic); anyway, while he was away for a week here and there, and I had nothing much to do but draw up exhaustive chronological lists of authors, in an attempt to impose some order on his vast library, and other such tasks (I have known few men who were so well read), as I say, when he was absent, I took to following his wife whenever she went out alone.

The main idea here is that he started following Beatriz — you could cut out all but the first four words and the last fifteen — but look at all of that digressive filler! Here is a man who takes the long road to the point — Hamlet, again — who seems to look for any excuse to avoid confessing.

This is vintage Marías, a technique (and themes) he’s utilized time and again, sometimes to greater effect than here, but, for my money, not by much. I’m happy to keep following him as he complicates the seemingly simple.


1. Macbeth, Act II, Scene 2
Lady Macbeth: My hands are of your colour; but I shame
To wear a heart so white.

2. Richard III, Act V, Scene 3
Ghost of Clarence: Let me sit heavy on thy soul to-morrow!
I, that was wash’d to death with fulsome wine,
Poor Clarence, by thy guile betrayed to death!
To-morrow in the battle think on me,
And fall thy edgeless sword: despair, and die!

from a few lines earlier . . .
King Henry VI: When I was mortal, my anointed body
By thee was punched full of deadly holes
Think on the Tower and me: despair and die!
Harry the Sixth bids thee despair and die!

3. The Tempest, Act I, Scene 2
Prospero: But how is it
That this lives in thy mind? What seest thou else
In the dark backward and abysm of time?

4. Henry IV, Part 2, Act II, Scene 2
Prince Henry: What a disgrace is it to me to remember
thy name! or to know thy face to-morrow

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