6 April 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

14 November 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

26 October 16 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Kristel Thornell on Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías, and out at the beginning of next month from Knopf.

Here’s the beginning of Kristel’s review:

Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his customary ethical tangles and astute mulling over human behavior. At its most fluid, the reader drifts through the familiar density and detours in something like an intrigued torpor.

The focal point is the uneasy marriage of Eduardo Muriel and Beatriz Noguera. Juan de Vere, the narrator, is looking back on the period when, in his first job as an assistant to Eduardo, a well-known film director, he lived in the former maid’s quarters of the couple’s apartment. He was drawn to them, they relied on him, and this configuration made him a privileged voyeur. Provoked by rambling conversations with Eduardo and the titillating episodes of spying and eavesdropping Marías luxuriates in, de Vere wrestled to understand their union that was marred by unkindness and physical rejection on the part of Eduardo. This puzzling lack of intimacy appeared to stem from a perceived betrayal. Furthermore, Eduardo had entrusted de Vere with the mission of getting close to the shady, lecherous Van Vechten, family doctor and friend, to evaluate whether he could have behaved in an “indecent manner” toward women. To say more of the plot might spoil its teasingly deferred revelations, and in Marías seductive teasing is much of the point.


For the rest of the review, go here.

26 October 16 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his customary ethical tangles and astute mulling over human behavior. At its most fluid, the reader drifts through the familiar density and detours in something like an intrigued torpor.

The focal point is the uneasy marriage of Eduardo Muriel and Beatriz Noguera. Juan de Vere, the narrator, is looking back on the period when, in his first job as an assistant to Eduardo, a well-known film director, he lived in the former maid’s quarters of the couple’s apartment. He was drawn to them, they relied on him, and this configuration made him a privileged voyeur. Provoked by rambling conversations with Eduardo and the titillating episodes of spying and eavesdropping Marías luxuriates in, de Vere wrestled to understand their union that was marred by unkindness and physical rejection on the part of Eduardo. This puzzling lack of intimacy appeared to stem from a perceived betrayal. Furthermore, Eduardo had entrusted de Vere with the mission of getting close to the shady, lecherous Van Vechten, family doctor and friend, to evaluate whether he could have behaved in an “indecent manner” toward women. To say more of the plot might spoil its teasingly deferred revelations, and in Marías seductive teasing is much of the point.

This is one of his most overtly “Spanish” books, its “tenuous . . . story” of a marriage set insistently within the frame of Madrid circa 1980. This was the time of the Movida, a countercultural movement and scene that emerged energetically in the capital in the wake of Franco’s rule of almost forty years—though it had been brewing and starting to manifest even before the dictator’s death in 1975. The city was heady with “permissiveness and freedoms,” vigorous nightlife (“no one slept in those years,” an impression you might still have there today), supposed sexual liberation, and the playful anarchic energy of artists such as Pedro Almodóvar. However, as Marías emphasizes, shadows lingered. Crimes and suspicions were being silenced, personal histories rewritten, cleansed of collusion with the old repressive regime. The new democracy was accompanied by a political decision (“the pact of forgetting”) reflecting a controversial but broadly upheld general conviction that it was better to avoid seeking retribution for wrongs perpetrated under the regime, as this would have caused chaos. Legal divorce was impending but not yet an option, and this is stressed, with the implications for both genders empathically considered. The novel feels both soaked with patriarchy and—at least intermittently—concerned with its particular oppression of women.

Marías’s fiction has invoked Shakespeare on several occasions and Thus Bad Begins lifts its title from Hamlet. The extended quote from Act III, scene iv, “Thus bad begins and worse remains behind” is interpreted for de Vere by Muriel as describing the need to renounce at knowing what cannot really be known and thereby move on. (He seems to take the line against the common reading, to mean that the worst is in the past—rather than yet in store.) We are left wondering about the implications of Muriel’s philosophy both for history and personal relationships. Marías returns repeatedly to the phrase, a technique he favors for building cumulative resonance and suggesting shifting shades of meaning. He is engagingly preoccupied with the rhythmic and chameleonic properties of language.

Musing on Hitchcock’s films, de Vere reflects that only a gaze is required to produce suspense; watching itself is dramatic. Perhaps, but especially when the watching is piquantly colored with mystery, desire and death. Marías is as exquisitely conscious of this as Hitchcock was, yet plentiful doses of all three don’t prove as consistently absorbing here as they did in novels such as Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me. Marías’s prose often has a hypothetical aura, a sense of the exercise of modeling a possible reality. This is of course inherent to fiction, and can effectively be latent or more explicit. While in Thus Bad Begins Marías brings his usual virtuosic meticulousness to the exercise, I found my awareness of it a little distancing, the protracted conjecture and penchant for aphorisms sometimes cumbersome and emotionally flat. The use of _Hamlet_—though the works do both brood on hard-to-credit mortality via characters enmeshed in their own psychological webs—seemed a somewhat mechanical device for injecting passion.

This said, emotional distance or a certain flatness of affect is frequently apposite and subtly explored in Marías’s novels, which are very impressively substantial with ideas and moody mood. Alienation snakes through them, accompaniment to the recurring perception that reality is unreal. More broadly, he is fascinated by the potential for art and life to intersect, and the impossible task of cleanly demarcating the two. And always emerging persuasively from his prose is the haunting notion that consciousness is a roundabout, cryptic story we tell ourselves.

....
The Odyssey
The Odyssey by Homer
Reviewed by Peter Constantine

Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.

–(The Odyssey, Book I, line 10. Emily Wilson)

In literary translation of works from other eras, there are always two basic tasks that a translator needs. . .

Read More >

I Remember Nightfall
I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio
Reviewed by Talia Franks

I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio (trans. From the Spanish by Jeannine Marie Pitas) is a bilingual poetry volume in four parts, consisting of the poems “The History of Violets,” “Magnolia,” “The War of the Orchards,” and “The Native. . .

Read More >

Joyce y las gallinas
Joyce y las gallinas by Anna Ballbona
Reviewed by Brendan Riley

This review was originally published as a report on the book at New Spanish Books, and has been reprinted here with permission of the reviewer. The book was originally published in the Catalan by Anagrama as Joyce i les. . .

Read More >

Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World
Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders
Reviewed by Kaija Straumanis

Hello and greetings in the 2017 holiday season!

For those of you still looking for something to gift a friend or family member this winter season, or if you’re on the lookout for something to gift in the. . .

Read More >

The Size of the World
The Size of the World by Branko Anđić
Reviewed by Jaimie Lau

Three generations of men—a storyteller, his father and his son—encompass this book’s world. . . . it is a world of historical confusion, illusion, and hope of three generations of Belgraders.

The first and last sentences of the first. . .

Read More >

Island of Point Nemo
Island of Point Nemo by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès
Reviewed by Katherine Rucker

The Island of Point Nemo is a novel tour by plane, train, automobile, blimp, horse, and submarine through a world that I can only hope is what Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès’s psyche looks like, giant squids and all.

What. . .

Read More >

The Truce
The Truce by Mario Benedetti
Reviewed by Adrianne Aron

Mario Benedetti (1920-2009), Uruguay’s most beloved writer, was a man who loved to bend the rules. He gave his haikus as many syllables as fit his mood, and wrote a play divided into sections instead of acts. In his country,. . .

Read More >