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Thus Bad Begins [BTBA 2017]

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Mark Haber of Brazos Bookstore. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.

Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marias, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Knopf)

Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías and translated by Margaret Jull Costa is probably my favorite book of the year. Anyone who has read a novel by Marías will see all the familiar hallmarks: circular, philosophical writing that hits a theme, retreats and then returns, over and over, almost obsessively, to try and “figure it out.” The themes themselves are also characteristic to Marías’s body of work: history, morality, secrets, betrayal, how much can we ever know another person and when is it dangerous to know too much? Through all of this lies an unspoken sense of danger and, of course, the writing. The writing.

The themes that figure in Thus Bad Begins are also prevalent in Marías’s masterful trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow. The Franco regime is, if not in the forefront, always present, to remind the reader that the past is never quite through with us. The novel takes place in 1980 and focuses on the Muriels, an unhappy couple living in Madrid. Eduardo, the husband, is a B-movie filmmaker and the story is told by his then-young assistant, Juan. The unhappiness of the Muriel marriage is one of the great unknowns of the novel, for Juan has firsthand access to the family and witnesses a strange and abusive relationship between Eduardo and his wife Beatriz. Eduardo is somehow punishing Beatriz and she not only accepts the abuse but behaves in a way that appears she’s deserving. Juan’s youth gives him the advantage of seeming innocence, of being easily ignored and yet, in one brief passage Marías describes that:

Someone only has to notice you—cast an indolent glance in your direction—and there’s no withdrawing, even if you hide away or stay very still and quiet and take no initiative or do anything. Even if you try to erase yourself, you have been spotted, like a distant shape on the ocean that you can’t ignore, that you must either avoid or approach.

Soon the young narrator is tasked by Juan with an indelicate favor, to befriend a close associate, a prestigious doctor and find out if certain, unscrupulous rumors about the doctor are true. Juan’s innocence, and his curiosity about the state of the Muriel marriage, lead him into a Madrid just waking up from fascist rule. Besides a wonderful lesson in contemporary Spanish history, Thus Bad Begins takes the reader into the psychology of civil war: how people (and sides) who have wronged one another—often neighbors and friends—are suddenly expected to forgive each other, or at the very least, remain silent, in the face of a new government. Reading this now, the book has an almost immediate relevance.

Thus Bad Begins contains strands of similar DNA, found in earlier novels, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me and A Heart So White. But a reader going into a Javier Marías novel knows what to expect. There is eavesdropping. There is tailing, or following. There are conversations overheard. There is a sensual and palpable sense of danger. Yet Marías uses these tropes to his advantage, telling a sophisticated story, with grand eloquence, about universal truths. One always feels they are in the hands of a master when reading a book by Marías. The translation by Margaret Jull Costa is graceful and natural and I couldn’t recommend this wonderful book any more highly. Additionally, it’s a great starting-point for anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of reading Javier Marías before. They will see a Spain awakening from dictatorship and may, in different ways, see a not-so-distant future for America.



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