Review: Thus Bad Begins

Javier Marías takes his novel's title, Thus Bad Begins, from Hamlet's words to his mother ("Thus bad begins and worse remains behind"), setting the story in Madrid in 1980, when Spain hovered on the verge of legalizing divorce.
Eduardo Muriel--a Spanish film director approaching his 50s, with an Errol Flynn moustache and an eye patch--needs a young personal assistant like 23-year-old Juan de Vere to keep him on his frenetic shooting schedule, which he traditionally dictates while lying supine on the floor. Juan is his errand boy, and does a little script doctoring, too. One day Muriel asks Juan what he would do if a lifelong friend were not as he had always believed him to be.

This question launches a plot involving spying, lying, trickery, manipulation, eavesdropping and secret motives that stretch all the way back to the unspeakable crimes of the Spanish Civil War. The mystery surrounds a confounding scene of marital degradation that Juan secretly witnesses--one of sheer malice that Muriel inflicts on his adoring, voluptuous wife, Beatriz, who begs for her husband's embrace. Something is profoundly wrong with this marriage. What has caused Muriel to revile his wife so? 

Marías embeds bristling humor and a wealth of parenthetical insights and wise observations within page-long sentences and extended paragraphs. He playfully manipulates these into a tantalizing plot, one that often slides laterally as it inches toward the next incident, every word or action considered in detail. In his hands, the whole act of reading becomes caught up in sustaining his titanic verbal structures long enough to reach the carefully chosen last word.

Out of dozens of subplots that Marías teases, the ones that actually fuel the novel are well chosen and gripping. The secret behind the Muriels' miserable marriage is suitably horrific, and the 445-page novel's conclusion is graceful, fair and hugely satisfying. As Juan pursues answers, at times deceitfully, a moral maze opens up before the reader, who witnesses in guilty suspense as Juan makes his fateful choices. This is reading at its best, as the past is pieced together enough to understand at last the rumors that whisper through the unhappy Muriel marriage. --Nick DiMartino, Nick's Picks, University Book Store, Seattle, Wash.

Shelf Talker: A Spanish film director's marriage-gone-wrong is examined in detail in Javier Marías's delightfully thoughtful novel about telling the truth in love.
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