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THUS BAD BEGINS by Javier Marías Kirkus Star


by Javier Marías ; translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-101-94608-4
Publisher: Knopf

The eternally fraught question of whether it is better to punish or forgive takes both personal and political forms in the celebrated Spanish novelist’s latest (The Infatuations, 2013, etc.).

Just finishing up his degree in English, 23-year-old Juan de Vere goes to work for Eduardo Muriel, a past-his-prime film director who needs Juan’s help pitching projects to low-rent English-speaking producers like Harry Alan Towers (a historical figure whose real-life antics are deftly employed to underscore Marías’ central argument). Moving into a spare room in Muriel’s Madrid apartment, Juan witnesses the director’s brutally disdainful treatment of his wife, Beatriz, including a late-night confrontation during which he bitterly blames her for a youthful deception disclosed many years later. Excavating the past is not a popular activity in Spain in 1980. Franco has been dead for nearly five years, and the country has its first elected government in four decades. With the promise of legalized divorce and other liberating measures in the air, “denouncing someone for what they had done during the dictatorship or during the [Civil] War was unthinkable” Juan says; exculpatory silence is “the price we have to pay for a return to normality.” Even though it is Muriel who asks Juan to investigate an ugly rumor about his longtime friend Jorge Van Vechten, a prominent doctor generally considered to have mitigated his loyalty to the fascist regime by treating persecuted Loyalist families free of charge, the director soon decides he doesn’t want to know. His explanation, “It doesn’t matter if what I was told is true,” could stand as a motto for post-Franco Spain. Marías neither condemns nor excuses this deliberate amnesia, preferring to focus on the mutability of truth and the mysteries of human behavior—themes as familiar to his readers as the marvelously idiosyncratic sentences in which he winds through subordinate clauses and piles one idea on top of another to achieve a dazzling textual equivalent of life’s endless complexity.

Another challenging, boundary-stretching work from Marías, complete with a jaw-dropping last-chapter revelation.