Madrid never sleeps: When Franco died the city came to life. ©Francisco Ubeda Llorente/Valentina Rios Moreno Instagram @lefreakschic

Javier Marias's game of mirrors in Madrid

The playful fiction of Javier Marias is brilliantly funny
February 18, 2016
Read The Infatuations by Javier Marias

Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marias, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, Hamish Hamilton, £18.99 

Sometime towards the end of the 1980s, I remember sitting with a group of friends in a bar in Madrid. As dawn broke, one of us said that he really ought to get some sleep. “I’m an eye surgeon,” he explained, “and in three hours I’ve got to do an operation.” The rest of us gulped, raised a glass to the patient and ordered a final round before having breakfast and going to bed.

Javier Marías’s new novel is set during that first, upside-down decade of Spain’s new democracy, an era of sleeplessness, parties and sexual freedom Madrileños call La Movida (the movement). It’s easy to forget, from this distance, the speed at which Spanish society changed after Francisco Franco’s death in 1975. One character in Thus Bad Begins can’t fathom the capital’s burgeoning transvestite community: “Don’t talk nonsense, they’re clearly women and pretty spectacular ones at that. The race has improved over the years, that’s why they’re tall.”

The narrator of Thus Bad Begins is Juan de Vere, now in his fifties and looking back on a time spent working as an assistant to film director Eduardo Muriel in 1980. By this time, Franco has been dead for five years and social change is under way both in the streets and on the statute books. A new divorce law is set to liberate thousands, perhaps including Muriel, whose hateful treatment of his wife baffles the young de Vere. “Pure lard” he calls her, when anyone can see Beatriz is a gorgeous woman who looks particularly good astride her Harley-Davidson. To de Vere, it seems that his boss has embarked “on a revenge that would never end, never be sated.” What can Beatriz have done to deserve this punishment? And where does she go in the afternoons?

Muriel won’t be drawn on that, instead asking his assistant to investigate the antics of an old friend, Dr Van Vechten, a paediatrician of about 60, much admired in Madrid. Van Vechten fought with Franco in the Civil War, but afterwards showed legendary compassion towards the losing side, often treating for free the children of Republicans barred from work by vindictive officials. Now he is suspected of some mysterious impropriety. Muriel instructs de Vere to take Van Vechten out on a series of wild nights in Madrid. He should pretend to be a womaniser and see if that prompts the older man to divulge his own indiscretions. De Vere does as he’s told, because he worships his boss: “All this was unknown territory to me or went against my nature, but I forced myself to do it, as if I were an actor in a film Muriel was directing blind and at a distance... Soon, I was blithely boasting about supposed exploits that had never happened and talking about women as if they were objects.” Van Vechten falls for the bait and so begins a chilling exposé of abuse and deception.

Born in 1951, Javier Marías started writing in his teens. He was a translator of William Shakespeare, Laurence Sterne, Vladimir Nabokov and John Updike before he was a well-known novelist. His father Julián was a famous philosopher, briefly imprisoned under Franco and forbidden to teach. For a time the family escaped to the United States, where Julián taught at Yale and Harvard. Those outside influences may have led to an idea in Spain that the author is, in his words, “an English writer in camouflage.”

It’s an idea supported by the fact that his themes and titles so often come from Shakespeare, in this case from Hamlet’s words to his mother: “So, again, good night. I must be cruel only to be kind. Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.” Marías’s subject is truth and its relation to time; how time bends truth, how impossible it is to know the truth about past iniquities. People lie when they shouldn’t and tell the truth when it would be better to lie. This has been his theme, more or less, since 1986 and the novel All Souls, a comic disquisition on his two years teaching Spanish translation at Oxford.

De Vere sums it up nicely here: “Notice that expression ‘to take place,’ which we use as a synonym of ‘happen’ and ‘occur.’ It’s curiously appropriate and exact, because that is precisely what happens with the truth, it has a place and there it stays; and it has a time and it stays there too. It remains locked up inside that time and place and there’s no way we can undo that lock, we can’t travel back to either time or place in order to get a glimpse of their contents. All we’re left with are guesses and approximations, it becomes a matter of encircling the truth and trying to make out its shape in the distance or through veils and mists, but we never can, it’s just a ridiculous waste of time...”

The difficulty of that exercise is symbolised by the fact that Marías’s narrators are always translators or interpreters, often under the sway of a forceful personality. His novels are thrillers in which philosophy takes the place of action and—oddly—heightens the suspense rather than killing it. Plots develop through conversations that can stretch over pages and sound more like lectures than chit-chat. In All Souls the narrator even gets distracted by metaphysics during oral sex.

Arguably, Jorge Luis Borges started this particularly Hispanic game of truth and lies (though you could look back further to Miguel de Cervantes). If Borges gave his stories “authenticity” with invented sources in footnotes, Marías does it by putting real people, including friends and family, into his cast of characters. Professor Francisco Rico, Spain’s most famous Cervantes scholar, gets a pasting in every book; in this one he’s lecherous, greasy and pompous. In Dark Back of Time (1998) real Oxford people who were disappointed not to figure in All Souls clamour to be fictionalised some other way.

We may begin to suspect that fiction is a game to Marías, as we watch him shoving every B-movie cliché going into his plots, from skimpy nighties to creaking floorboards and doors left enticingly ajar. Some references are more obvious than others. No prizes for guessing that Muriel’s eye patch suggests he is half-blind to the truth or that the relentless beat of Beatriz’s metronome points to an anxiety about time. Juan’s surname is almost “de veras,” Spanish for “truthfully”—but also echoes Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford and regarded by some as the true author of Shakespeare’s plays. The flat itself is on Calle Velázquez, calling to mind that artist’s painting, Las Meninas, in which mirrors and doorways provide different reference points on the same scene.

Marías has made a game of mirrors of his life, too. He rents two flats off Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, one furnished with dark furniture and one with light. He is famously the king—in title only—of Redonda, a small Caribbean island of which AS Byatt and William Boyd have been conferred dukedoms. He declines all literary prizes from the Spanish state, but he has won the IMPAC and is a contender for the Nobel.

Why is such a playful writer taken so seriously? Marías himself marvels that “people haven’t got bored of me.” But if his subject matter has changed so little over the decades it’s because he makes it both endlessly interesting and brilliantly funny. The ideas are slippery but they are held within a fast-paced, confident style. We are lucky that his novels come to us via one of the world’s greatest translators, Margaret Jull Costa. In her hands, Marías doesn’t feel translated. Alfred Hitchcock would be at home with Marías (they share a fascination with women’s legs), but so too might Harold Pinter. There is an echo of those toxic sitting room scenes, of barely contained aggression and odd dynamics; Muriel issues his orders while lying stretched out on the floor. As with Pinter, there is often a third person in the scene, an observer or an eavesdropper.

And the characters themselves are strange, so oddly out of time they seem more like puppets enacting ideas than real people. “There must always have been Van Vechtens and they won’t suddenly stop existing,” says de Vere, “because the nature of the characters never changes.”

Recently I stood with a Spanish friend looking out across the Andalusian village where he lives from a vantage point high above the houses. “I can tell you which side every family was on in the war,” he said, pointing out the rooftops, “though we never talk about it now.”

That silence, a breeding ground for villainy in Thus Bad Begins, is the product of an agreement made in 1970s Spain to prevent any prosecutions for abuses carried out after the Civil War. The consequences of the “Pact of Forgetting” are a source of unease in modern Spain though Marías—who writes a weekly newspaper column—believes it enabled Spain to operate “like a normal country.” The accompanying silence has been more dangerous, allowing too many people to hush up their Fascist pasts and reinvent themselves as socialists. Never was there such a “mass display of turncoatery” as in the decades following the war, says de Vere.

There’s a palpable anger about the iniquity of those “turncoats” in Thus Bad Begins that seems to come directly from the author, and sometimes sits awkwardly with the thriller-like tone of the novel. That space in which Marías carries out his experiments in human behaviour so rarely admits the intrusion of real historical events. Then again, those “real-life” examples of deception, villainy and intrigue perfectly fit the author’s thesis—that history is untrustworthy, that “the past has a future we never expect.”

It’s a rare trick to pull off, this combination of suspense, analysis and metaphysics that aims both high at the brow and low at the gut—and a gift to his publishers. They get to market this literary, Nobel-mooted, translated fiction under the tagline “SEX, SECRETS AND LIES IN MODERN MADRID” without the merest suspicion of duplicity—if such a thing is ever really possible.

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