Thus Bad Begins, by Javier Marias (Alfred A. Knopf, 444 pages)
Translated from Spanish, in Thus Bad Begins, author Javier Marias tells a dark and strangely captivating mystery tale centered on the volatile relationship between filmmaker Eduardo Muriel and his wife Beatriz.
The meandering and erotic story is told by Juan de Vere, or “young de Vere” as he is frequently referred to by Muriel and his close circle of distinguished friends. De Vere details his efforts to get to the bottom of two separate though related mysteries involving Muriel and his wife and, separately, Muriel’s good friend, the esteemed Dr. Jorge Van Vechten.
De Vere tells his tale as he looks back on his time as a young man working as an assistant to Muriel, though it becomes clear de Vere was hardly a bystander in this story, which is set about five years following Spain’s transition back to democracy after Francisco Franco’s death.
Muriel, an intriguing and father-like figure to de Vere, tasks de Vere with a difficult and sordid assignment. He tells de Vere that he had recently received news that his longtime friend Van Vechten had been “indecent with a woman, possibly more than one,” which Muriel described as “the lowest of the low.” He asks de Vere to “draw-out” Van Vechten in an attempt to gauge the veracity of what he has been told. Muriel asks de Vere to befriend Van Vechten, to bring him out with his friends, despite the multi-generational gap in ages, to essentially egg him on and to encourage Van Vechten to open up about any past (or present) transgressions with women.
On top of that potentially perilous assignment, de Vere, who has his own room at Muriel’s home, bears witness to Muriel’s repeated and wounding verbal attacks on his wife. He listens to him insult her appearance and her intelligence, over and over again. He even watches from his room in secret as Beatriz paces outside Muriel’s room, begging him to let her in, which he ultimately denies.
The abuse is bizarre and uncomfortable, not only because it is so hurtful, but because it appears particularly out of character for the mild-mannered and understanding Muriel — along with the fact that it is entirely unclear why Muriel treats her in this fashion. Beatriz complains about the treatment to her friends and while divorce is apparently soon to be legalized in early 1980s Spain, she will never leave Muriel. De Vere is naturally curious about the cause of the abuse and moves toward solving that mystery as well.
Before de Vere befriends Van Vechten, he notices Beatriz regularly leaves the house on her own. On one such trip, De Vere follows Beatriz, discreetly, to Our Lady of Darmstadt Sanctuary, where he witnesses, from a tree and through a window, Beatriz and Van Vechten alone together in a building on the property, and de Vere’s task of drawing out Van Vechten becomes even more complicated.
Still, de Vere easily persuades Van Vechten and his perfectly “rectangular smile” to come out with him several times per week to bars and clubs. His friends — young women included — seemingly enjoy the doctor’s generous, fatherly and gregarious presence. When alone, De Vere questions the doctor about his sexual prowess and Van Vechten states, ominously after much prodding, “And nothing gives one more satisfaction than when a girl doesn’t want to do it, but can’t say no. And I can assure you most of them do want do do it, once they realize they’re obliged to.”
Marias’ style of writing is long-winded, to say the least, but it does not take away from the story. On the contrary, his beautiful, winding sentences pull the reader in, and right down the rabbit hole. (It certainly didn’t feel like I was reading translated material.)
With the title, and the black cover — with just the image of presumably Beatriz’s face visible — it is clear the novel is taking the reader down a dark road. That said, the novel is at times funny and perfectly ridiculous, especially in scenes involving Muriel’s friend Professor Rico and his appetite for long-winded lectures on seemingly anything and everything.
A strong political vein runs throughout the novel as well, as the wounds from Spain’s transition to democracy have yet to heal.
Thus Bad Begins is a compelling and at times bizarre story about principles, betrayal, friendship, control, and how people justify their own behavior, no matter how vile. B+