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Javier Marías: Así empieza lo malo (Thus Bad Begins)

The translation of the title is not mine. The Spanish title is, in fact, a translation from Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 4. Thus bad begins and worse remains behind. The narrator of this story, Juan de Vere, is around fifty when he narrates this story. (The real name of the family had been Vera but his grandfather had changed it to Vere and his father to de Vere. Our hero’s father is overjoyed when he learns from someone his son meets in Muriel’s house that there was an Edward de Vere and that some claim that he may have been the author of Shakespeare’s plays.) However, the story he is telling in this book is about a period of his life when he was twenty-three, around 1980. He had recently graduated from university and had got a job as assistant/secretary to Eduardo Muriel, a film director, who had been successful in the past but who has been less successful recently. Muriel is around fifty, i.e. the same age as de Vere is now. Muriel is working on a screenplay and de Vere is helping him. Muriel has a few strange habits. He likes lying on the floor, smoking his pipe, which de Vere finds very odd. Muriel is married to Beatriz Noguera and they have three children and, as we later learn, lost their eldest when he was very young. Initially, De Vere has little to do with Beatriz, even though he works in their house.

One day, while they are working, Muriel poses a tricky question to de Vere, asking him what he would do if he had what he thought was a good friend, who may have betrayed him. De Vere naturally wants more details before replying but Muriel hedges around the issue and declines to give more precision. De Vere suspects various things. He initially suspects that it might have been something to do with the Spanish Civil War, to which Muriel responds Casi todo tiene aún que ver con la Guerra, Juan, de un modo u otro. Ojalá llegara a ver el día en que eso ya no fuera así, me temo que no lo veré. Ni siquiera creo que lo vayas a ver tú [Almost everything still has to do with the War, Juan, in one way or another. I hope that the day will come when this is no longer the case but I am afraid that I will not see that day. Nor do I believe that you will see it.] Indeed, this gives both of them a chance to comment on how most Spanish families had something to hide and, once Franco died, there was a tacit agreement among all Spaniards that everything would be quietly buried. In short, there was no accountability and even victims kept quiet. This was the price to pay for moving on to becoming a fully-fledged democratic state. However, despite this statement and the discussion on it, it seems that Muriel’s story was not going to be about some dirty deed committed by him or a family member in the Civil War. De Vere suspects a lover but Muriel is not forthcoming. However, he does tell de Vere the name of the friend concerned, in case de Vere meets him. The man is Dr Jorge Van Vechten (his name gives Muriel a chance to talk about Spaniards with Dutch names.)

Some time later, as they are working very hard on the script, de Vere is asked to spend a couple of nights in the house, which he does, sleeping in the maid’s room. The first night he sleeps very well but the second night, he looks around and sees what look likes a storage room. However, on entering, he sees that here is a door leading out to a corridor and he peeks around. He is surprised to see Beatriz standing there, wearing only a nightie, smoking a cigarette and, apparently, standing outside her husband’s bedroom (they sleep in separate rooms). When she has finished her cigarette, Beatriz tentatively knocks on Muriel’s bedroom door. There is no reply, though the light is clearly on. She tries again and still no reply. She calls out to him through the door and, eventually, he replies. He is brutal and scathing. All she wants is a goodnight kiss, something, apparently, she has not had for a long time. He firmly rejects her and damns her. She is no longer attractive and overweight. More particularly, he suggests that she turn to one of her lovers (whom he names) for a kiss. She replies that they are not lovers but merely friends. He implies very strongly that at least one of the children is not his. This exchange carries on for a long time, with Muriel being cruel and venomous and Beatriz defending herself and pleading. Eventually, he does come out and gives her a kiss.

De Vere is horrified but decides to investigate. First, he tries to determine whether the three children look like their father. He concludes that they all look like their mother. He overhears Beatriz and her friends asking when he is working and Muriel is away. They ask her why she does not leave her husband. Her response is that she does not want a new husband but the loving husband she used to have. He observes Van Vechten but learns nothing. One day he decides to follow her and does and, eventually, catches her in what seems to be a compromising situation but he keeps quiet about it. However, Muriel eventually decides that he wants to learn more about Van Vechten and asks de Vere to take Van Vechten out on the town with him and observe his behaviour, particularly with women. De Vere reluctantly agrees. Muriel has told de Vere that, under Franco young people were very much restricted but that now they can be free and the older generation are very jealous but also admiring of the freedoms the young have. Van Vechten, though married, seems happy to join de Vere and meet various women. He has an expensive car and this turns out to be very useful as he can take de Vere and his friends back home. However, he always seem to arrange it so that the last person dropped off is the most attractive woman. Indeed, when he asks the women later what happened, they are invariably reluctant to comment. Gradually de Vere learns more about Van Vechten and learns even more from a doctor, a friend of the family, who has known him for some time. However, he is, at least initially, prepared to give Van Vechten the benefit of the doubt. A la vida de las personas siempre llegamos tarde. [We always arrive late to the life of other people], he comments.

However, the issue is why does Muriel behave so badly towards his wife? One day, de Vere is left alone with Beatriz in the house and they have a heart-to-heart chat. She says that it was because of something trivial but will not tell him and tells him to ask her husband. Finally, he does have a long discussion with Muriel and all is revealed.

This is another excellent book by Marías, dealing with several themes. We learn a lot about minor film personalities. Muriel’s producer is the very real Harry Alan Towers and Marías tells us his story and that of Mariella Novotny, friend of Christine Keeler and the Kennedy family. Several actors are discussed in detail and Herbert Lom even plays a key role in the story. Marital relationships, the ever-enduring legacy of the Civil War and its aftermath, family secrets and lies and, as the title implies, how something bad can start in a seemingly trivial way and lead to far greater consequences are all discussed in great detail. Marías keeps us guessing till the end as to the whys and wherefores. However, there is no doubt that for Marías, as for many other Spanish writers, the legacy of the Civil War and Francoism is, as Muriel said, still very much present.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 2014 by Anagrama
First English translation by Penguin in 2016