In the beginning of Javier Marias' new novel, Thus Bad Begins (translated from Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa), a young man named Juan de Vere gets a job working as an assistant to the prominent (if somewhat fading) film director Eduardo Muriel — a man with odd habits, an eye patch and an absolutely maddening penchant for speaking in half-told stories and half-asked-for requests.
"I have a secret, Juan," is something that Muriel never exactly says. "But I cannot tell it to you. For if I did, this book would only be nine pages long."
So in the beginning, Juan gets this job. It is the greatest job in the world because it appears to require nothing of him except to occasionally be in Muriel's house to overhear vital bits of dialogue or see things he shouldn't see. On his first day of work, he gets involved in a long, strange, cryptic conversation with his new boss (Muriel), who is lying flat on the floor staring at the ceiling, occasionally tapping at his eye-patch, asking Juan to spy on his friend Dr. Van Vechten, but then maybe not to; to remember everything about this conversation, but then to forget it immediately. It is a long talk that unspools over 40 or 50 pages full of digressions and backstory and clumsy psychological waffling by the narrator (Juan, as an older man).
There is an argument — a whispered marital combat, conducted mostly through a closed door, which even Young Juan (who is hiding downstairs, watching) can sense is just the continuation of a war that has been going on for years. There are dinner parties and conversations, histories of friends and acquaintances. And all of them are set-pieces, isolated within the narrative, and none of them seem to go anywhere beyond establishing the backdrop of a society split between those who lived through the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939 (like Muriel and his contemporaries) and those for whom it is just history (like Juan).
The story takes place in 1980. They walk in 1980 and talk in 1980. Juan is a young man in 1980. But the story — the real story — is about the years following the war. About what Muriel, his wife, Beatriz, and all their friends did in the aftermath of the Franco regime. You'll realize this right about the moment that Juan, tailing Beatriz on an afternoon walk, catches her in flagrante with a "friend" of Muriel's.
Which is right about the point at which Thus Bad Begins gets good.
It does this by way of a kind of unusual and sticky conflation — making us (the readers) complicit in Juan's sneaky observations of Muriel's family and friends by telling the story from a tight first person perspective, but also making us want to see more, by allowing the older narrator's voice to lend the weight of consideration to what young Juan witnesses.
At its best, Thus Bad Begins rolls on like a great spy story played for (comparatively) low stakes. Juan becomes Muriel's ears and eyes, investigating the sordid past of Dr. Van Vechten — who Muriel only says has done something unforgivable toward a woman. Or maybe not.
But Juan — being young and dumb, naïve and insanely curious about the lives of these people into whose circle he has been welcomed — can't just leave it at that. He theorizes about Muriel's terrible marriage to Beatriz. About her friends and Muriel's fans. He follows people. He eavesdrops. He is, about halfway through the novel, explicitly told by Muriel to become a spy — to take Van Vechten into his confidence, pretend to be some kind of loathsome womanizer, and to attempt to draw some truth out of him — which Juan does with a mixture of barely disguised relish and a few mopey asides about the dignity of pretending to be something he is not.
But it all plays so well within the constraints of Juan as a character — as a young man not yet sure of himself or his place in the world. Yes, he dithers. Yes, he expounds (at length) on the possibilities or everything he sees and hears, inventing, it sometimes seems, a hundred stories for every glance. And while the whole thing sometimes reads clumsy (and too long), it feels somehow apt. The narrator is trustworthy because everything feels like a massive unburdening. Like Old Juan is finally telling a whole story out loud that he has had in his head for years — the pace of it as familiar as his own heartbeat, the reveals all polished smooth by long, silent practice.
Which is, in a way, unfortunate because for all of Marias' gorgeous, looping, carefully structured sentences — and for all of his tales of sex and death and revolution — what Thus Bad Begins could've really used was a little bit of the bravado and rawness of youth.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.