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the complete review - fiction
Thus Bad Begins
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- Spanish title: Así empieza lo malo
- Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
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A- : agreeably languid, and pulled together beautifully
See our review for fuller assessment.
Typical for the author, and most quite impressed -- though generally feel it falls a bit short of his best
From the Reviews:
- "In Thus Bad Begins, Javier Maríasís game of espionage gives away its secrets all too easily -- and they are disappointing when they arrive. But thereís always the next mission." - Benjamin Anastas, Bookforum
- "The noirish plot detail provides a satisfying framework and counterpoint for a different type of novel, one full of philosophical speculation and digression. (...) The direct treatment here makes for one of Maríasís most enjoyable and accessible novels. The trademark digressions, fascinating reflections on the psychological effects of civil war, are harmoniously balanced with the events of the narrative." - Luke Brown, Financial Times
- "The cumulative effect of the novel, as Juan is drawn away from the relatively simple pleasures of his twentysomething world into the secrets of older men and women, is a fusion of a coming-of-age story with something like a conspiracy thriller. As ever, with Marías, it is an arch and sophisticated entertainment animated by a probing moral intelligence, a demonstration of what fiction at its best can achieve." - Hari Kunzru, The Guardian
- "(T)he novel has lots to say about the political and social changes that have shaped Maríasís outlook. Itís also a kind of tragedy in comic form, or perhaps the other way round. (...) With immense adroitness, he makes sure that Eduardo isnít simply a wronged husband or a vengeful sadist and keeps Beatriz from turning into a doormat, a hysteric, or a vamp, and thereby maintains the readerís sympathy for both even as the narrative requires them to step into those roles." - Christopher Tayler, Harper's
- "The novel self-referentially plays with the reader throughout, withholding and revealing information in a manner that occasionally misfires. (...) There is also something dated in the kind of heterosexual voyeurism that Marías's novels abound in (.....) Still, in spite of these shortcomings, the skill and magic that make up a Javier Marías novel are here, all in place." - Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi The Independent
- "Two brilliantly odd situations; two powerful secrets. The result is a ferociously addictive, troubling, seductive read whose title, Thus Bad Begins, fits right into the literary worldís latest trending category, Grip Lit." - Emma Townshend, Independent on Sunday
- "(E)rudite, strange, hypnotic and beautiful, frustrating (.....) I found myself most loving the book for its pages, brilliant observations, its musings and its suspenseful elegant voice, rather than the overarching story. And I could not put it down." - Scott Cheshire, The Los Angeles Times
- "Es ist wirklich atemraubend, mit welcher Eleganz Marías all die locker geknüpften Erzählfäden aufnimmt und in der Manier eines Thrillers zum privaten und politischen Finale furioso zusammenführt, dabei rhythmussicher veritable Action-Szenen mit überraschenden Wendungen oder pointierten Dialogen kreuzt." - Albrecht Buschmann, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "To disclose more of the plot here would undermine the suspense that Marías so carefully creates, although it should be stressed that this suspense is not only dramatic and psychological but also existential. Besides, there is so much else to enjoy here" - John Burnside, New Statesman
- "Thus Bad Begins is one of Maríasís most straightforward books. (...) Unfortunately, Marías squanders most of his firepower by circling the mystery of Van Vechtenís crime and shaking it down for meaning (.....) Sound interesting ? Itís actually extremely tedious (.....) Marías has a problem, which critics have seemed too reticent to discuss: that of lapsing into universal-sounding banalities, almost as a tic." - Karan Mahajan, The New York Times Book Review
- "Marías makes a reckoning with his own past that will mean a lot to his Spanish readers but which, from an Anglo-Saxon perspective, might seem underwhelming and predictable, unredeemed by Maríasís virtuoso prose. So what went wrong ? The problem is simple: Thus Bad Begins is far too long." - Robert McCrum, The Observer
- "Lo que redime esta dimensión sumisa es el tejido verbal de la novela, su arquitectura desveladora y la conformidad del narrador en ser espía e interlocutor reflexivo de otros, sobre todo de Muriel. (...) La novela desafía así el ardor juvenil por la verdad a toda costa para cavilar sobre episodios que pueden merecer el olvido, al menos cuando desempolvarlos comporta tantas dosis de venganza o de rencor como de consuelo pacificador." - Jordi Gracia, El País
- "Itís 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." - Miranda France, Prospect
- "As always, the stakes are not so much in what occurs but in the things people find out about each other, and themselves. (...) Marías knows what he is doing: The endemic rumor and wrongdoing during Francoís dictatorship, combined with the sudden freedom unleashed by his death, is a perfect setup. He canít possibly fail. Indeed, the bookís construction is ingenious, and although it could probably shed about one-fifth of its words, Maríasí mercurial style is generally enjoyable. But strong as this book is, it does not, in my opinion, reach the level of MarŪasí best work." - Scott Espositom San Francisco Chronicle
- "Like all his novels, Thus Bad Begins benefits from Margaret Jull Costaís superlative translation: she captures the stately, cyclical style, a rhythm that becomes hypnotic. If the book lacks the ferocious wit of the trilogy and the brilliant complexity of the early novels, thereís a slow-building sense of Hitchcock in Vertigo mode that keeps us engaged as Juan peels back the layers that conceal a tragic core." - Lee Langley, The Spectator
- "The interruptive method is central to Maríasís novel writing, on the large scale as well as the small, but those interruptions are far more than scrupulous qualifications and refinements: they are a picture of intellectual serendipity in full flight, of an author riding the breeze of his own thoughts. Consequently, Thus Bad Begins spends a great deal of time not getting to the point. (...) Thus Bad Begins seems always to be reshaping itself as it tries to accommodate the various effects of timeís invisible but all-consuming presence." - Hal Jensen, Times Literary Supplement
- "Mr. Marías draws on Shakespeare for his allusive and labyrinthine inquiries into the themes of justice, honor, love and payback (the title comes from Hamlet). The novelís second reference point is Alfred Hitchcock, whose films Juan imagines heís re-enacting as he covertly observes Beatriz and Van Vechten. These scenes are charged with an aura of imminence and menace." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal
- "Each of Maríasís characters must decide how much is worth forgiving and how much might be worth forgetting. (...) While Margaret Jull Costaís translation is at once loose, colloquial and quite eloquent, she is still able to bring across Maríasís style, notably full of distinctively digressive and complex sentences, often looping around on several tangents before finally completing the characterís original thought." - Mike Broida, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Thus Bad Begins is a retrospective account by Juan de Vere, looking back to 1980, when he was just twenty-three -- not "so very long ago", and yet a lifetime away too.
At the time he worked as a personal assistant for an established and well-known film director, Eduardo Muriel, spending much of his time in Muriel's home.
The Spain of those times was still adjusting to life after Franco (who died in 1975, ending over three decades of dictatorship), with many new-found freedoms -- including sexual ones, especially for the younger generation (conveniently with AIDS an as yet unknown danger) -- and a slow adjustment to the new political and social realities.
It's still a time when, as Muriel puts it: "Almost everything has to do with the War" -- the Civil War, and what people did then and after (including which side they were on), all of which reverberates even after Franco's death, especially since there was no true reckoning for all the crimes committed in those ugly decades.
Significantly, too, divorce was still illegal in 1980 -- as Juan notes almost immediately, in mentioning Muriel's unhappy marriage to Beatriz Noguera.
Juan is a bit in awe of Muriel -- he readily falls back on calling him 'Don Eduardo, even though Muriel asks him to drop the 'Don' -- and a bit mystified by him, too.
But then Muriel isn't a particularly revealing man, and can be both cryptic and mysterious -- though he also takes much for granted, admitting at times that he simply assumes people, or Juan, are aware of some of the events from his past, and forgetting that Juan is of a different generation and has no first-hand experience of much that he went through.
Curious Juan at one point claims: "I realized how uncomfortable it is being a spy, however worthy the cause", but by that time readers have seen him lurking and spying so often that it's clear he practically can't help himself.
And, in a world and society, where much remains unspoken and isn't dealt with, it's not surprising that people resort to it.
Hiding in dark corners of the house, or following Beatriz, he gains considerable disturbing insight into the relationship between the couple, even as many questions remain as to why they act as they do.
Eventually, Muriel also asks him to spy on his behalf -- not on Beatriz, but on a close friend of his, a paediatrician, Dr. Jorge Van Vechten.
Early on already Muriel had broached the subject, asking Juan's advice about a friend who, he had heard, "had not always been what he is today".
(Of course: who has ?)
Muriel has heard unsettling runors about Van Vechten, but doesn't know how to address them -- or whether he should confront his friend about them.
So eventually, he charges Juan to befriend Van Vechten and to see if he can learn the man's unpleasant secrets -- before then backing off again, after a family crisis in which the doctor again proved to be helpful, leading him to ask Juan to stop.
(By this time, however, Juan finds it hard to let go of the secrets he's uncovering.)
The title of the novel comes from Shakespeare, and comes up when Muriel tells Juan to: "Abandon your investigation and leave him in peace":
In fact, everything you're told, anything you don't personally witness, is pure rumour, however wrapped up in oaths it comes, all swearing the story to be true.
And we can't spend our lives listening to rumours, still less acting in accordance with their many fluctuations.
When you give that up, when you give up trying to know what you cannot know, perhaps, to paraphrase Shakespeare, perhaps that is when bad begins, but, on the other hand, worse remains behind.
We should only be concerned with what we have seen with our own eyes, with what directly affects us.
But the lurking Juan, constantly overhearing things and stealthily following people, has already seen quite a lot, and even as there are blanks that are filled in by guesswork and hearsay he can't help but concern himself with matters that otherwise remain beyond his direct purview.
Yet this is also the account of a man who has, as he recounts this story from the vantage point of many decades later, now lived and experienced a great deal more, and he clearly sees -- and presents -- how naïve his younger self was in many respects (especially in looking into these personal secrets).
While Muriel's suggestion may be taking things too far -- it's very difficult to concern oneself only with that which one has direct experience of -- Thus Bad Begins is very much a novel about our choices, about what we want to know, and what knowledge we can live with.
The overarching theme is of course the unfinished Spanish Civil War, where many were guilty of horrific crimes and behavior, but little was done about it: Spain and the Spanish have not dealt with it, as Marías has his characters repeatedly observe.
The personal secrets of most concern here are relatively minor, in the big (Spanish) picture -- but some are certainly on the uncomfortable periphery of the historically truly horrible (and are, in their own right, heinous).
The two central secrets -- how bad is Dr. Van Vechten, and what the hell did Beatriz do to so completely upset her relationship with Muriel -- are, ultimately, not that shocking.
Creepy Van Vechten turns out to be even creepier than he initially seems, but by the time Juan figures out his secret it doesn't come as much of a surprise.
Beatriz's betrayal is of a very different nature -- and also, perhaps, something different than readers expected, as Marías offers a few feints beforehand -- but fits nicely with Marías' theme (as we already learn long before it is revealed that it is something Muriel would have preferred never knowing about, and that part of what he holds against his wife is the fact that she revealed it to him: "If only you'd never told me", he tells her)).
Marías is at his best in setting its scenes and atmosphere.
The novel is at its weakest in the scenes of confrontation, the annoying young Juan ill-suited in trying to joust with his elders, and much better when Juan finds himself drawn along -- as Marías seems well aware, redeeming a story that threatens to stumble to an end with its clunky exposition with a beautiful conclusion that begins to unfold when Juan finds himself in a scene where: "she took my hand and led me over": the passive Juan, observing and allowing others to determine his actions, is a much greater success than the one who tries to think for himself.
Thus Bad Begins stumbles over its secrets -- Marías has a bit of a hard time with those -- but otherwise is a beautiful retrospective look at a Spain uneasily advancing into a post-Franco age, with a narrator who stands, for the most part, at the proper distance from the younger self that barely understands what he is going through, and what the people around him are dealing with.
It isn't a seamless work, and bogs down as Juan learns the truth about Van Vechten and about Beatriz, but even though the novel's conclusion may seem a bit rushed, Marías ties it up beautifully -- and nowhere more so than in Juan's own fate, revealing undercurrents that had only been hinted at earlier.
Juan's reflections can seem a bit much but Marías' style seems perfectly suited for the perspective on offer here, that of a well-read but in so many ways unworldly young twenty-something.
Some of the character's oddities -- Muriel's penchant for stretching out on the floor, for example -- and some of the incidents can feel a bit forced, too, but on the whole Marías' fiction rings true.
Marías perhaps sees a bit of himself in Muriel, about whom he has Juan observe:
He had a very distinctive style, but he wasn't a mere stylist
Thus Bad Begins is a book full of passive observation and interpretation, Juan often a watcher and listener (and, at significant moments, not the only one who spies and overhears ...).
Typically, hearing noises from his bedroom:
I found it impossible not to listen and interpret her every movement
And much of Thus Bad Begins is a piecing-together and interpreting -- by Juan; by the reader -- of the clues strewn all around (and which only from a distance -- the present, for narrator-Juan; the end, when they have finished the book, for readers -- all fit into place).
Juan compares his own watching, and spying, to the feeling of watching a film or reading a book:
The mere act of watching creates that feeling of anxiety, that sense of intrigue.
This is surely also the effect Marías strives to achieve.
He manages, for the most part, too, as Thus Bad Begins is far more successful in setting that atmosphere than in in resolving its mystery/thriller bits.
- M.A.Orthofer, 7 December 2016
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Thus Bad Begins:
Other books by Javier Marías under review:
Books about Javier Marías under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of Spanish literature under review
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About the Author:
Spanish author Javier Marías lived 1951 to 2022.
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© 2016-2023 the complete review
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