Award-winning author Javier Marías examines a household living in unhappy the shadow of history, and explores the cruel, tender punishments we exact on those we love
As a young man, Juan de Vere takes a job that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Eduardo Muriel is a famous film director – urbane, discreet, irreproachable – an irresistible idol to a young man. Muriel’s wife Beatriz is a soft, ripe woman who slips through her husband’s home like an unwanted ghost, finding solace in other beds. And on the periphery of all their lives stands Dr Jorge Van Vechten, a shadowy family friend implicated in unsavoury rumours that Muriel cannot bear to pursue himself – rumours he asks Juan to investigate instead. But as Juan draws closer to the truth, he uncovers more questions, ones his employer has not asked and would rather not answer. Why does Muriel hate Beatriz? How did Beatriz meet Van Vechten? And what happened during the war?
As Juan learns more about his employers, he begins to understand the conflicting pulls of desire, power and guilt that govern their lives – and his own. Marias presents a study of the infinitely permeable boundaries between private and public selves, between observer and participant, between the deceptions we suffer from others and those we enact upon ourselves.
As always, it is hard to give a review on the Javier Marías novel, since there is so much to cover. Thus Bad Begins is actually a line from Shakespeare, quite apt since I read it in the spare minutes/seconds I had at the Pop-up Globe. Few authors can tackle the civil war and Franco regime like Marías, his own family victims of the awfulness. The scariest part is that a book doesn’t have to be set too far in the past to show how far the Franco poison spread.
The book tells a story set in 1980 through the eyes of a man named Juan de Vere. Juan is the assistant of a movie director named Eduardo Muriel. Eduardo is married to Beatriz, but the pair are the worst type of couple – one tied to one another, their lives and hearts far apart. Eduardo is sure that the whole damn world and all its issues can be traced back to Francoism, even when it comes to the disaster of his marriage. All of this is told through the eyes of Juan, as if recounting a tale, in the wordy, comma-less style that Marías loves so much. Juan has the not-great position of always being in Eduardo and Beatriz’s home, where he can see how much Eduardo hates his wife, and loves abusing her for an unnamed past crime, a dead child haunting the pair.
Franco has been dead five years and Spain is starting to open up to the world, where people are now free to try new things after years of being trapped in a conservative landscape. Art, culture, drug use, sex, freedom of speech are all going around, but the one thing not quite yet available is divorce, which would eliminate drama from the lives of Juan’s bosses. As part of his rather random assistant job, Eduardo asks Juan to investigate a man named Jorge Van Vechten, a doctor who moves in their social circle. Juan befriends the older Jorge, in an attempt to get him to open up about his shady life under Franco.