Review: Thus Bad Begins by Javier MARÍAS

The problem with searching for the truth is sometimes you find it, as is the case in Spanish author Javier Marías’ new novel, “Thus Bad Begins.” It’s 1980 in Spain, and the citizens of this newly democratic country are eagerly looking toward the future — while turning a blind eye to the atrocities of the past. During this time of transition film director Eduardo Muriel hires a young assistant, Juan de Vere, to help with a bit more than office work: he is to investigate one of Muriel’s family friends and uncover the truth behind a crippling rumor. “No one bothers to trace the steps or origins of someone they admire and respect,” the narrator discovers. “Still less if they own them a debt of gratitude.”

But just when his investigation is about to begin, an overheard conversation between the director and his wife leads de Vere in a different direction. Muriel’s wife has apparently done something unforgivable, and de Vere feels the need to find out what.

Marías’ voyeuristic novel takes a clear nod from Hitchcock with both its narration techniques and slow boiling plot. But Marías, whose name is often tossed about on the short list for the Nobel, deviates from the crisp suspense writing style in favor of beautifully constructed, paragraph-long sentences, resulting in passages that read more like monologues — or poems, even — than mystery fodder. While these stylings can be marvelous, the sheer number of deviations makes immediate connection with the characters and plot particularly challenging — and makes the novel feel, at times, like it’s losing momentum.

But “Thus Bad Begins” isn’t a traditional novel, so it’s difficult to judge it as such. In many ways it’s a thought piece on larger themes: hypocrisy, truth, loyalty, and how “the past has a future we never expect.” Exploration of such monumental ideas — to do it well — takes time, and Marias moves with methodical care through each twist and turn, resulting in a work that is surprising, thoughtful and filled with truth.