Thus Bad Begins

Aug 24, 2016 | Art & Chronicles

Book Chronicle
by Ainara Mantellini

Javier Marías
Alfaguara Editorial
528 pp

Once more, Marías provide us a novel anchored in a line, in a brief thought of a Shakespeare’s character. “Thus bad begins and worse remains behind” is the trigger, the anchor thought of this novel. This is about the wall that separates knowing the truth about something or somebody from knowing nothing. Whether it is intentional or unintentional knowledge, unwanted; knowledge makes a difference in our relationship with people and the world.

In “Thus bad begins” Juan De Vere, we intuit him aged, with a high-level reflection, tell us about how in his twenties he was hired as an assistant by Muriel, a filmmaker friend of his father. This story takes place in Madrid while the Transition: an era of changes in Spain after Franco’s death. Among the specific duties of a filmmaker assistant, Juan De Vere is given the task of “investigating” Muriel’s friend, Doctor Van Vechten, since the filmmaker has heard rumors about his friend’s behavior. Rumors that threaten his vision about his morality and, therefore their relationship. Juan de Vere, not only takes the task, but also perceives the unpleasant relationship between Muriel and his wife while living in their house. So, he decides to act on its own and to follow her.

So, the novel seems to take us through a stream of lies, double lives, secrets and appearances, typical features of a romance novel. However, it soon exposes the psychological and sociological aspects of building relationships based on the establishment of certain truth (de facto or imposed).

Muriel had a slightly happy marriage based on specific conditions. Once those conditions reveal as faked, Muriel’s judgment change and so his marriage relationship. He fears that the same could happen to the friendship with the Doctor. That’s why he relieved De Vere of the task halfway through the novel. He doesn’t want to judge his friend and change their relationship. But, it is too late for De Vere. He has already established personal judgments, not about Van Vechten, but about Beatriz and even Muriel. Because what is known, can not be ignored. It marks the beginning of bad, although the worst (ignorance, intrigue) is left behind.

Javier Marías

This maze of knowing the truth or pretending to ignore it, naively unknowing it or deciding to unknow it, occurs, as said, in the Transition era, in a Spain that had decided to forget everyone’s past to rebuild itself after the Civil War and Franco dictatorship.That nobody knew, that nobody cared about sides, misdeeds, or crimes committed in the defense of each side or surviving the regime. Not being white or black, but nuances of gray, in which nobody was going to deepen.

Masterfully, this novel moves through concentric circles, from the intimate and particular to the social, rather national. We were accustomed to immersing ourselves in the philosophical, personal thoughts of the characters while reading Marías’s work. However, in “Thus bad begins”, we go deep into a society’s thinking, in the decision they made of not knowing and preferring to ignore before judging and acting following those judgments.

The Muriel’s blind eye, according to Marías, is the symbol of this phenomenon. We don’t see everything we should. Even worst, We decide to see only partially, because, to see everything would cause us further pain and would claim us to take unwanted attitudes.

Marías takes many pages to develop stories indirectly related to the main argument. Some of his readers would say: quite snobbish, showing everything he knows about the cinema of that era and bringing to literary life some friends, relatives, and acquaintances (Francisco Rico is again a character in a Marías’s novel, longer this time). It seems that we get distracted from the main topic, that action (in case it is an action novel) is relegated to the decision of the author of finishing his discourse.

It’s also true that these additional stories provide a lot of ground to cover to the main topic, the truth. Those who like Marías’s work would not mind getting lost in those chapters for a while. The readers slightly familiar with the writer will find it close to pedantry.

We are pleased to have read a novel structured in the world of the ideas, able to open a discussion or personal reflection about the intimate psychology of the characters and the psyche of a particular moment in Spain history as a developing nation.