“Thus Bad Begins” by Javier Marías [Why This Book Should Win]
Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!
The entry below is by Lori Feathers, co-founder of Interabang Books in Dallas, TX.
Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Spain, Knopf)
Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 38%
Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 6%
In this dispiriting era of fake “news” it feels ironic to praise Javier Marías’s Thus Bad Begins, a novel centered around the idea that it is better to have been deceived and never know it than to learn that you are the victim of a deception.
Set in Madrid in 1980, Thus Bad Begins is narrated by Juan, twenty-three and the only child of absented diplomats who secure a job for him as personal assistant to Eduardo Muriel, a respected Spanish filmmaker. Most days Juan works at the Muriel’s home where it quickly becomes apparent that Eduardo deeply resents Beatriz, his wife. As Juan’s curiosity about the reasons for Eduardo’s animosity intensifies so too does his pity and desire for Beatriz. He begins eavesdropping on the couple’s conversations to discover what lies behind Eduardo’s inability to reciprocate his wife’s affection. At the same time, Eduardo tasks Juan to uncover a different secret—one related to a family friend’s rumored blackmail and political exploitation. In uncovering truths about the Muriel family and their circle Juan is confronted with moral ambiguities and for the first time his conviction in the infallible demarcation between wronged and wrongdoer is compromised.
A master storyteller, Marías braids Juan’s and Eduardo’s narratives into a taut loop in which Eduardo’s loves, hopes, heartbreaks, and disillusionments intersect and redouble Juan’s. Yet it is the brilliance of Marías’s writing and Margaret Jull Costa’s translation that makes this novel truly exceptional. And it is why Thus Bad Begins deserves this year’s Best Translated Book Award. Marías may be our only living author worthy to be called a successor to Henry James. His prose digs deeper than his character’s impressions, placing us inside Juan’s mind as his thoughts are formed and reformed by experience and emotion. This is writing that is nuanced and introspective yet somehow retains an ample lightness and natural feeling so that it never risks collapsing under its own weight. Marías’s sentences demand to be reread and savored.
For the title of his novel Marías took a quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.” It is an admonition to leave the ugly truths about the past, in the past; to not seek the truth because once known it can never be unknown. And it is the knowing that irrevocably changes everything.