If we deceive a beloved friend, lover, or country to love longer, is it betrayal? That question anchors a novel whose vision is fixed on Spain’s bloody civil war and its cultural history after the death of Francisco Franco whose brutal dictatorship lasted, aided by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, for three decades. As one of the main characters, Eduardo Muriel, says early in the book, “Almost everything has to do with the War.’’
Within that landscape, Javier Maríassets down a tale that is brilliantly muddied so that it can, like the history of nations, be read in many ways. In doing so, he has perhaps written the book that defines his oeuvre as one of Spain’s most celebrated contemporary writers and translators, giving us a work that is fundamentally about interpretation: of overheard words, witnessed actions, and received history.
“Thus Bad Begins’’ takes place in 1980. The young narrator, Juan de Vere, is assistant to Muriel, a once successful film director who is actively hostile to his wife, the voluptuous Beatriz. De Vere hears and sees all in the house. And eventually he is dispatched to investigate a Muriel family friend, Dr. Van Vechten, who may have unsavory Franco-era secrets.
That synopsis is deceptively linear, however. Marías’s elliptical saga could be, equally, depending on vantage, a family drama complete with a triumvirate of passions: fidelity, treachery, revenge; the story of Muriel and Beatriz’s marriage; an account of the life of a frustrated filmmaker and the risqué preoccupations of his young assistant; or a tale of political intrigue and corruption.
Marías complicates matters further with a narrator who digresses in Herodotean fashion, and we are treated — and it is a treat — to declamations from Shakespeare (“Henry IV’’), reports of scandal (think Mariella Novotny, JFK, John Profumo), meditations on writing, and innumerable, frequently humorous, parenthetical observations that could launch several novellas of their own. The three pages devoted to the precipitous contemplation that must accompany the hours prior to a suicide raise the bar on what an aside in literary fiction ought to accomplish.
Out of this seeming cacophony, Marías creates a symphony, stylistically uniting his themes with repeated images: our taste for certain stories (“the cold sentinel moon”); the need to disinter the past, which is inevitably about regret, and wrong-doing (a painting by Francesco Casanova, “Cavalrymen on a Bluff”); and time, which continuously resets memory (a metronome).
Otherwise simple narrative bones — a forsaken wife befriended by the manher husband enlists to investigate another’s suspected acts of depravity — come to stand in for the political history of Spain. Beatriz, excoriated by her husband, sits center stage in Rubenesque abundance. It is easy to make the connection between her and Spain itself, to see the men who abuse her as representatives of types: the Franco loyalists, the obsequious survivors, the youth swept up in the post-1975 hedonism of la movida madrileña, all determined to leave the past behind. Night after night Beatriz returns to her “woeful bed,” wanting only the life she’d had. By day she pretends it is hers — a plight shared by those forced, in the new Spain, to behave as though there was no rift that left an estimated 400,000 dead.
In a plot where words matter, those spoken, written, read, and remembered, some are repeated as whole paragraphs while others are silenced. Beatriz herself, no less than her country in better times, is destined to exit memory with nobody held accountable. There will be no justice for, as Muriel says with scorn, “Justice is always terrified by the magnitude of those [collective or national] crimes.”
In the end, the choice set up in the title taken from “Hamlet’’ (“Thus bad begins, and worse remains behind”) may be no choice at all, for the worse that is left behind cannot be contained, but permanently stains the lives of perpetrator and witness alike. Like the soldier on his horse in the Casanova painting, they linger forever beside their unconscionable acts.
The central mystery and resolution could be told in a short story. In placing it at the end of the long reach of an older man’s memory, one imbued with sobriety, Marías allows himself the breadth required to examine the way individuals mirror the upheavals of their milieu. Young, impressionable, star-struck Juan cannot escape being sullied by history, that of a single household or of a nation, in which he played no central part. Neither, under similar circumstances, Marías seems to warn, would we.
THUS BAD BEGINS
By Javier Marías
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa
Knopf, 444 pp., $27.95
Ru Freeman is the author of the novels “A Disobedient Girl’’ and “On Sal Mal Lane,’’ and the editor of “Extraordinary Rendition: American Writers on Palestine.’’