Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marias
We’re in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War which was won, even without the benefit of hindsight, by the wrong side. By 1970, before Franco’s death in 1975, his regime is in the process of being interred. And now, it’s 1980 in Thus Bad Begins; people are reinventing themselves to put distance between their biographies and the newly unsavory past.
There’s the pediatrician who owes the successful launch of his career to his solidarity with the Franco government. He got an automatic pass on his medical exam because he wore his fascist uniform during the test. Since then, always covering himself, he has made it a practice to provide free medical care to the children of families who ruined themselves by supporting the Republic. He has aided the oppressed for so long, that these grateful families are forgetting that he is a franquista, an ally of the Franco regime. And he’s not going to remind them.
The worst will be forgotten in time, right? Only it’s 1980 and many of the participants in the Spanish Civil War are still alive.
In 1980 Spain you can’t be sure who you are dealing with, can you? The society has agreed to put aside the past to facilitate a step into a more democratic future. When people write their biographies, they can be great liars. That is true everywhere, but the specific history of 20th century Spain provides a sharper frame of reference. Where were you in the Civil War? In a different city than you said you were in, doing different things than what you were really doing? So many people in retrospect claimed that they were for the Republic that it’s amazing that it fell.
Muriel is a film director whose reputation is beginning to tarnish. He reminds me of real-life director Almodóvar in his love of classic Hollywood. There’s an inventory in Thus Bad Begins of overweight character actors including Sidney Greenstreet and Eugene Pallette. I’d be charmed; I love classic studio Hollywood; except that Muriel is comparing his wife, Beatriz, to them. Can you imagine telling your wife that she looks like Charles Laughton?
This is what young Juan de Vere, 23, overhears from his cubbyhole bedroom in the servant’s quarters. “Young de Vere”, as he is often called, has been hired as Muriel’s personal assistant. Beatriz and Muriel have separate bedrooms, and right now, Beatriz is humbly knocking a single knuckle on her husband’s door, hoping to be admitted. Dressed in a spare nightdress that reveals her statuesque body, she asks to be comforted, to be held, only for a moment. Her husband finally opens the door with insults while he gropes her like she’s meat. He calls her “lard”.
Why? Beatriz has done something, something so horrible that her husband can never forgive her. And in a sense, it is Beatriz’s “fault” because, years ago, in a careless slip, she told him her secret, that he never would have discovered on his own. Revealing that secret destroys the marriage.
Young De Vere, who hero-worships his boss as only a twenty-something can, also obsesses about Beatriz. Muriel asks De Vere to investigate the suspicious doctor mentioned above, who is Muriel’s closest friend. Muriel wants to find out if his friend has really treated women despicably, that’s the rumor. But Young De Vere also decides to stalk Beatriz. De Vere invites the doctor, about forty years his senior, out clubbing so he can spy on him. De Vere sometimes trails Beatriz when she leaves her old Madrid apartment, only not when she borrows her husband’s motorcycle; then he loses her.
Muriel’s double standard makes the reader feel like they are being slapped. The director is suspicious of his friend’s treatment of women but feels justified in harshly disrespecting his wife. There’s a Vertigo-like (Hitchcock, of course) obsession with Beatriz. especially by Young De Vere. Beatriz’s anatomy comes in for a lot of attention. The narrative is pleasantly complicated by De Vere telling the story as a much older man, looking back on 1980 as the distant past, while Muriel, Beatriz and the doctor in 1980 are haunted by their histories.
Javier Marais is fond of laying out all the possibilities: of what might have happened in the past, of what might be going on now, not in general, but line-per-line as the story unfolds. The novel is a sequence of short chapters, interspersed with occasional longer flights. The writing is very rich. You might think that makes for a slower reading tempo, but I read it faster, to keep in mind all density of the text..
This is what I love, a novel springing from the center of old-style European humanism, with a title that quotes Shakespeare and a novelist in Javier Marias that I’m thinking of as an updated Spanish Dickens. But as much as I love classic humanism, I still see its limitations. For example, it doesn’t seem to have done Beatriz any good.
The full Shakespeare quote that relates to the title is:
“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.” – Hamlet Act 3 Scene 4