Reviews — From the December 2016 issue

Likely Story

The inventions of Javier Marías

Download Pdf
Read Online

Discussed in this essay:

Thus Bad Begins, by Javier Marías. Knopf. 464 pages. $27.95.

About a third of the way through Thus Bad Begins, the narrator, a young man named Juan de Vere, follows a woman through the streets of Madrid. She is Beatriz Noguera, the wife of his boss, Eduardo Muriel, a movie director who has taken Juan on as a gofer. Eduardo strikes Juan as being an admirable man, intelligent, witty, generous, except when it comes to his treatment of Beatriz. The couple sleep in separate rooms, and at night Juan hears Beatriz beg Eduardo to let her embrace him. (Eduardo’s response: “No, I’ve already given myself an embrace, thank you.”) In moments of irritation, Eduardo calls her a “lump of lard,” or likens her to Oliver Hardy or, more hurtful still, to a cask of amontillado. It’s clear that a secret, a past transgression, lies behind his distaste for her.

HA084__03HK0-1

Madrid, 1982 © Jean Gaumy/Magnum Photos

Juan considers Eduardo’s taunts unfair. To his eye, Beatriz is remarkably attractive, though out of respect for his employer, and for Beatriz’s status as an older woman (she’s in her early forties; Juan is twenty-three), he nurses only “vague or theoretical feelings of sexual admiration for her” — feelings with no bearing, or none that he cares to examine, on his impulsive decision to find out where her melancholy afternoon strolls take her.

Beatriz isn’t difficult to follow. She’s tall, wears high heels, and knows how to walk in them. Juan can “contemplate at my leisure the sway of her skirt.” All the same, he loses sight of her when she slips through the gateway of a German Catholic sanctuary dedicated to Our Lady of Darmstadt. To Juan, the place has “a strong whiff of the far right about it”: it’s 1980, five years after Franco’s death, and everyone still “knew the stench well, it was unmistakable.” As he prowls through the sanctuary’s garden, searching for Beatriz, he finds himself thinking of the Hitchcock movies he has recently watched with Eduardo, and starts to imagine that “the exquisite James Mason or the ominous Martin Landau” might suddenly confront him.

A movement catches Juan’s eye. In the window of an upstairs room, Beatriz’s back appears and disappears. She seems to be thudding against the glass to a rhythm, as though someone is shoving her around. For a moment, Juan thinks he should call for help, but even before she brusquely turns, leans forward, and grips the windowsill, her eyes shut tight, he understands that “someone — a man — was fucking her . . . standing up, with no preliminaries and fully clothed.”

Juan climbs a tree to get a better look. “The man’s certainly got stamina,” he thinks. But now it’s over; the man steps back and draws himself up. Juan recognizes his white coat and his distinctive fair hair, “high and compact, so that from a distance, he looked as though he were balancing a baguette on his head rather than hair, his hair being the same colour as a lightly baked crust.” Yes, it is Dr. Van Vechten, an old friend of Eduardo’s and the subject of several rumors. What strikes Juan most forcefully is the look in the doctor’s “satisfied blue eyes.” They’re filled not with “sexual satisfaction, as would have been logical, but mental satisfaction,” as though Van Vechten is

thinking “Take that” or “Job done” or — even more puerile — “I certainly gave her a good seeing-to” or perhaps something more comprehensive, “I can still wreak havoc when I want to and the list continues to grow”; as if he wasn’t so much pleased with the physical pleasure he had felt as with his awareness of having experienced it in an unseemly place and at an untimely hour, and with a married woman, the wife of a friend, even if that friend didn’t even want to touch her.

A “disagreeable voice” interrupts these reflections: “What are you doing up there, my child?” An elderly nun is standing beneath the tree. Juan climbs down, subjects her to some nonsensical bluster — in spite of being anxious to make a swift getaway, he finds the time to mull over her antiquated turns of phrase — and hurries back to the street before anyone else can spot him.

Previous PageNext Page
1 of 4

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $23.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Share
is a contributing editor of the London Review of Books. His most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “We Was All Bent, Son,” appeared in the December 2015 issue.

More from Christopher Tayler:

Reviews From the September 2019 issue

New Books

Reviews From the July 2019 issue

New Books

Reviews From the March 2019 issue

New Books

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2019

Men at Work

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To Serve Is to Rule

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Bird Angle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The K-12 Takeover

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The $68,000 Fish

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

Close

You’ve read your free article from Harper’s Magazine this month.

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.