Listening In

Early on in Javier Marías’s reputation-galvanizing novel A Heart So White (1992), the narrator, Juan, lies awake on his honeymoon in Havana listening to a couple argue in the hotel room next door. The man on the other side of the wall is a Spaniard, like Juan, and he has a wife back in Madrid; the woman is his tough-talking Cuban mistress. They seem to be hashing out a plot to murder the Spaniard’s wife. Juan’s new bride, Luisa, is also eavesdropping from bed, but she pretends to be asleep. Both Juan and Luisa work as translators at diplomatic congresses and cultural events—a typical profession in Marías World—and listening is their art. They are diviners of unstable meanings, witnesses to the alchemy of truth and persuasion that makes up human speech. So when Juan sees that Luisa is only pretending to be asleep while she listens to the couple fighting, he immediately understands why—or at least he posits a theory:

It wasn’t out of dishonesty or lack of comradeship nor out of a desire for concealment. It was simply a matter of accepting the belief or superstition that what one doesn’t say doesn’t exist. And it’s true that the only things never translated are those things never spoken or expressed.

In an ordinary literary novel, this insight of Juan’s would be a grace note, a moment of philosophical complexity—almost a koan—to deepen our understanding of the fiction’s events as they unfold. But in Marías World, where the traditional rules of narrative construction are always contested, this insight is a plot point. It sends Juan into a deeper exploration of “those things never spoken or expressed,” starting with his distant father, Ranz, and rumors of a secret marriage in his past. It sends Luisa into stealth-detective mode to try and untangle Ranz’s complicated marital history and lure him into talking about his wives. To Luisa’s surprise, she uncovers Ranz’s own involvement in a murder plot. When Luisa stages Ranz’s confession of the crime so that Juan can hear it from their bedroom, listening becomes an act of belated intimacy, translation a performance of communion. Here is how Marías describes the transaction, employing the surge and tumble of thought fragments that have become his signature:

Listening is the most dangerous thing of all, listening means knowing, finding out about something and knowing what’s going on, our ears don’t have lids that can instinctively close against the words uttered, they can’t hide from what they sense they’re about to hear, it’s always too late.

Twenty-four years, seven novels, and a litany of prestigious international literary prizes later, Javier Marías is still experimentalism’s most ruthless double agent in the West, and the high digressive style he first introduced with his 1986 novel, The Man of Feeling—and the lexicon of heady, intellectual concerns he has been toying with since his Oxford novel All Souls (1989)—has, if anything, grown looser and more improvisatory with time and repetition. Marías’s new novel, Thus Bad Begins, has one stable “reality” that defies invention: 1980, the year in which it’s set. Or make that two: It’s 1980 in Madrid. Franco has been dead for five years, and Falangist Spain has already faded into “anachronism.” General amnesty has created a “social pact” that blankets the country in a conspiracy of silence; everyone in Madrid, both young and old, heads out all night to test their newfound liberties in bars and discotheques.

“It was a time when almost no one slept in Madrid,” Marías writes, “because after a night on the town, with the exception of students and artists and professional layabouts, every night owl . . . could be found at his or her desk the following morning.” Juan De Vere, the novel’s backward-looking narrator, is twenty-three at the time and working as an amanuensis (i.e., designated listener) for Eduardo Muriel, a frenetic and reasonably well-known film director with a patch over his right eye, a habit of delivering dictations while lying on the floor, and a voluptuous wife, Beatriz Noguera, whom Muriel alternately neglects and verbally abuses. Muriel shares affinities with Marías’s real-life uncle Jesús “Jess” Franco (1930–2013), a wildly prolific director of B movies and exploitation films during the Franco years and after, including Vampyros Lesbos (1971) and Mondo Cannibale (1980). Muriel’s days are filled with fruitless meetings with would-be investors for his slapped-together projects (“dull producers of milk products,” “excitable shoemakers from Elda,” “loud-mouthed presidents of football clubs,” etc.), and the regular actors from his film troupe, like Jack Palance and Herbert Lom, stop in for cameos when it suits Marías’s cheerily subversive whims.

A still from Jesús Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos, 1971. Fénix Films, CCC Telecine Film.
A still from Jesús Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos, 1971. Fénix Films, CCC Telecine Film.

“There’s nothing original about me,” Juan announces at the opening of the novel (we can almost hear Marías chuckling at this apostasy as he lights another cigarette at his writing desk), and the same can be said for almost every character in Thus Bad Begins: Muriel has “Jess” Franco as a self-conscious antecedent; Beatriz is a collection of neurotic tendencies and secondary sex characteristics rather than a full-blown female character; Jorge Van Vechten, the blond and impossibly smooth pediatrician whom Juan investigates, at Muriel’s request, for sexual misconduct with politically compromised women, has a double in the equally nefarious franquista Dr. Carlos Arranz; Professor Rico—a philologist who holds forth charmingly on the Real Academia Española and fringe theories about Shakespeare’s authorship for Juan and his friends—seems to be the fictional alter ego of a well-known philologist in Barcelona. Marías has often destabilized his fictions by appropriating people, photographs, paintings, film, and other artifacts of the “real,” and by incorporating source texts (Shakespeare, Balzac, Ian Fleming’s From Russia, with Love) that dissolve the borders that the covers of a book normally represent. It takes no passport or copyright agreement to travel freely in Marías World. The author is a listener in the aisles of a vast global library, and he can hear the Great Books whispering. But with Thus Bad Begins, Marías’s method seems more scattershot, the narration windy, the means of construction strangely hackneyed. There’s a fine line between adhering to manner and just mailing it in; creative unoriginality, even when it’s intentional, still risks familiarity and its deflations. Has Javier Marías, with his thirteenth translated novel, entered his Jeff Koons period?

As in A Heart So White, the three-volume trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, and so many of Marías’s other books, a kind of espionage mission lies at the center of Thus Bad Begins and propels the novel’s plot—at least what there is of a plot. Actually, Juan accepts two missions: In addition to cultivating Dr. Van Vechten as a “friend” and trying to learn more about his career as a sexual predator, Juan begins following Beatriz on her furtive trips around Madrid and spending time with her at home when Muriel is off filming. Juan’s youth and inexperience, for once in his life, turn out to be useful commodities: “I have no resonance,” he observes, “I bring no consequences.” This makes Juan the perfect spy in the world of his more corrupt superiors—and a predator in his own right, abusing confidences freely offered for the sake of his mission.

Along with the novel’s depiction of “those febrile days” in the Madrid of 1980, “full of brief entrances and continual exits,” some of the strongest passages here deal with the generational collision of the time as roles and the underlying power structure shifted. In one of the novel’s running jokes, Juan always addresses Muriel in conversation as “Don Eduardo, I mean, Eduardo . . . ” The honorific “Don” comes from another time, the anachronistic world of the Franco regime, and by continually falling into old habit, Juan is enacting the difficulty of imagining that Spain is a new, more “normal” country. In the new Spain, a phrase like darle a uno el paseo (“to take someone out for a stroll”) carries only its harmless surface meaning, and is no longer a euphemism for a political execution that makes the blood chill. And a bad marriage like the Muriels’ could end in divorce, instead of bringing misery to both partners for years and ending in suicide, or murder. It’s a situation captured by another phrase in Spanish: Quedarse uno tuerto por dejar al otro ciego, or “to put out your own eye while trying to make another man blind.” Muriel’s marriage to Beatriz seems engineered to be the living embodiment of the cultural archetype. You could also just call it a cliché.

Even as the book teeters to a close, and the parallels start to pile up like they would in a much more traditional novel—something by Dickens, or Balzac—Juan maintains the exquisite control of a typical Marías narrator. Of course Juan and Beatriz end up sleeping together (“No, no kisses,” she tells him). Of course this violation of Juan’s employment as an amanuensis doesn’t go unnoticed. But he’s not discovered by who you’d think, and the consequences don’t arrive until the novel’s final chapter, a kind of postscript. Juan’s opinion of himself (“There’s nothing original about me”) doesn’t change—but then again, he’s always been an eloquent defender of his theoretical position:

What was remarkable for me as long as it remained secret and unknown becomes commonplace once revealed and tossed into the bag along with all the other stories heard and mixed up and forgotten . . . because once told, they’re present in the air and there’s no way you can stop them floating or flying if they get caught up in the mist or the wind pushes them along, and they travel through space and time disfigured by all the many echoes, worn thin by repetition.

A narrator without any secrets, he seems to be saying, isn’t worth the paper his life is printed on, or the book his confessions are bound in. The trick, then, is to be a spy and evade the reader’s every expectation. In Thus Bad Begins, Javier Marías’s game of espionage gives away its secrets all too easily—and they are disappointing when they arrive. But there’s always the next mission.

Benjamin Anastas’s memoir Too Good to Be True will be published in paperback this October by Little A.