Set in 1980, two years after the end of Franco’s dictatorship, Javier Marías’s fourteenth novel unfolds when the country’s wounds are still raw. If the Francoists are going to be prosecuted for their evil deeds, now is the time. But would investigating the past help the present? Is “disinterested justice” on a national scale even possible? Taking its title from Hamlet, Thus Bad Begins (Knopf, $27.95) explores questions of revenge, accountability, and deception, putting these timeless philosophical debates in the context of both a political and a personal framework. The latter proves the more difficult to resolve, and the heart of Marías’s deft, well-paced narrative is an unhappy marriage. His narrator, employed as a personal assistant to a renowned, one-eyed filmmaker, is appalled at how badly his boss treats his wife. His curiosity turns to intrigue. He eavesdrops. He spies. He witnesses. He wonders what mystery he’s piecing together—and why. Recounting these scenes years later, he asks what difference it makes to tell the story; since time “is turning everything into fiction” anyway, who cares about this couple? Unfolding in long graceful sentences, this discursive work is as playful as it is thought-provoking. Marías teases with Shakespeare allusions (his main characters, Juan de Vere and Eduardo Muriel, together seem to stand in for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, perennial candidate for the Bard), as well as references to Hitchcock films, making this both a visual and an intellectual experience, a novel to savor as much for its rich games as for its language and ideas.
Thus Bad Begins - Javier Marias, Margaret Jull Costa