This week’s Friday Reads is Thus Bad Begins, by Javier Marias, an acclaimed Spanish writer. And I know my Friday Reads posts have slipped – this should have been posted last Friday but I hadn’t quite finished the book yet and wanted to blog about this one rather than one I read longer ago!
It has only recently been translated into English and firstly I have to say that the translation, by Margaret Jull Costa, is absolutely brilliant. Language, the voice of his characters, is one of the most important elements in Marias’s novels and it is always interesting to see whether that skill is kept, diminished or enhanced, by the act of translation. Here, I haven’t read the Spanish, but the English voice of the character is fantastic, using so many different synonyms to change the tone, from lyrical, observant, studied, to sharp, coarse, rude. She uses so many idioms and their use is so important for characterization – for example, when someone says “in a right pickle” it does give you a good suggestion of what that character might be like!
It’s set after the fall of Franco in Spain, when a new generation of Spanish are growing up with no memories of the Civil War, shaped by the liberation and freedom of the post-war era. Juan de Vere is one such young person, working as an assistant for an older film director, Eduardo Muriel and spending his evenings in the numerous bars and clubs of Madrid.
At the beginning of Thus Bad Begins, Eduardo asks Juan to keep an eye on one of his friends, a doctor called Jorge van Vechten. Eduardo has heard disturbing rumours about his friend, particularly in relation to his friend’s treatment of women during the Franco era. Juan begins to befriend Jorge van Vechten but his investigation, like the novel, goes off to seemingly unconnected tangents and diversions – as the reader gets drawn deeper into the book she realises that there are threads drawing together all these tangents, not so disparate as they may at first appear. Juan tells the reader of his nights out with van Vechten, enjoying Madrid’s nightlife and introducing the older man to the freedoms of post-Franco Spain, and of Juan’s own lusts and desires……..
She obviously hasn’t come to light a candle, although someone might be dipping his wick. I was surprised by this coarse thought, this bad play on words, it’s not my style and it wasn’t then…
This is a book that, although driven by the plot of investigation van Vechten, is absolutely filled with sex. Sex is incredibly important to Marias’s characters, fundamental to understanding them as human beings. The way they react sexually to each other and the way they think sexually about each other is absolutely key to Marias’ depictions.
She wasn’t wearing a dressing gown, just a brief, thigh-length nightdress that revealed her strong legs, and at first I thought she was barefoot … her flesh was so abundant and firm when seen from behind – the only view available to the persistent pursuer – that no fabric could entirely conceal or suppress it, I had the sense that I was admiring not only her visible, vigorous calves, but also her naked thighs and buttocks …
This did have one downside though – the protagonist of this novel is a young man, and most of the other key characters (with one exception) are men. And as it is told in the first person, from the point of view of Juan de Vere, all the sexuality is directed at women. Women in this book are primarily sexual creatures, this seems to be their reason for being in the book. Even the main female character, Beatriz, is almost voiceless in the novel, generally described in relation to body parts, incredibly sexualised. There’s a moment which really sums this up – Juan de Vere is having a discussion with Beatriz, who is telling him something he has been trying to investigate over the last few chapters, something he really wants to know. But as Beatriz talks, Juan completely loses interest in staring at her body and losing himself in sexual thoughts, unable to concentrate on a word she is saying. These moments are throughout the book and I have to admit I found them slightly grating at times!
Aside from that, I could write about Thus Bad Begins for pages and pages and pages. It’s one of those books that you can see school children being asked to analyse and write essays about. It is firmly set in the aftermath of Franco, with Spain slowly beginning to come to terms with what happened and what people did (both good and bad) in the Civil War and after. It is about truth and deceit and forgiveness – about whether or not things are best not spoken about, not told, forgotten, or whether everything should be out in the open. Those issues are told as part of the very personal plot line, from wife to husband, friend to friend, but of course they are also applicable to Spain’s general reaction to the Civil War – a pact of forgetting.
It’s a really, really fantastic book – and even though I just finished it last week, writing this has made me want to read it all over again!