This most recent novel by Javier Marías is set around 1980, four or five years after the death of Franco. Taking this period, la transición, as one of its themes, it depicts a nation coming up for air after nearly 40 years of oppression. The novel explores the implications of confronting individual behaviour during the Civil War through a story about unearthing family secrets, and with this touches some profound questions about how we deal with the past and move on from it.
The story is narrated by Juan de Vere, a young graduate who has come to work as a secretary/ assistant to the film director Eduardo Muriel. Based in his home, de Vere is well positioned to observe Muriel’s family life and it’s clear that Muriel’s marriage has broken down. He is verbally abusive, scornful and cruel towards his wife, Beatriz, and while eavesdropping de Vere gleans that his hatred was triggered by some event in the past. At the same time, Muriel tasks de Vere with following a friend of his, Van Vechten, asking him to report back on his attitudes and behaviour. Muriel has learned something about Van Vechten’s past concerning his treatment of a woman which has shocked him and wants to see if any of it could be true.
So our narrator sets off to entrap the 60 year old Van Vechten by befriending him and inviting him out night after night to dance and party with his young friends- and there was some frenetic partying going on in the clubs and bars of Madrid at that time, with the lid lifted from the repressive facist regime. Our suspicions about Van Vechten grow as he shows an excessive interest in Juan’s sexual exploits and sleazy behaviour around Juan’s young female friends. They go through the roof when he admits to excitement when a woman is cooerced and we are imagining some truly horrific behaviour in his past.
Now, Juan’s role slides interestingly between that of narrator, spy and voyeur: at times he chooses to follow Beatriz and is excited to find her, improbably, having sex at a window. Another facet of his gaze is that of film maker and cameraman. The world of film is a theme of the novel and several scenes are depicted as if a film still, or even, as with Beatriz as part fantasy. But the narrative perspective of Juan is often a highly sexualised one: there are several long intense scenes of watching Beatriz in her diaphanous nightie as well as the skirts of most female characters riding up over their thighs, which frankly bored me and surely must be written for male titillation. Marías may have been deliberately overdoing the male gaze to underline the sexual prowess of young men- also a theme- but these were times when I felt like throwing the book across the room.
And the voyeurism/ spying trope is just one of several favourites of Marías revisited here. As in A Heart so White and Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, the plot involves reaching back into the past, long intense conversations between two people in claustrophobic interiors, with another character eavesdropping. He delights again in word play, returning again and again to examining the Shakespearean quote of the title, (here, thus bad begins and worse remains behind from Hamlet). There is a wonderful pleasure in the playfulness and infinite creativity of language in the florid character of Professor Rico who invents his own onomatopoaeic exclamations and idioms as well as in the writer’s choice of the names de Vere and Van Vechten and the multiple associations they provoke- the English de Vere who some allege was behind Shakespeare’s plays, the origins in the Netherlands of the name Van Vechten, and Spain’s imperial past. Words, meanings and associations ricochet back and forth in some sections, adding to the rich and ambiguous texture of the narrative.
It is not only the manic partying which gives the book its historical context. Early on in the book we learn in a discussion between Beatriz and her women friends that divorce is not yet legal in Spain and that both women and men throughout the land are stuck in loveless marriages as a result- unthinkable to us now. We are also told early on that at that time- just 4 or 5 years after the collapse of the regime- there was a quiet agreement not to delve into the past activities of individuals either during the Civil War or later during Franco’s rule. This was a condition on the part of the ‘Nationalists’ for granting a democracy-that there should be no calling to account- and this didn’t only mean no court cases but no discussions in private either. As the plot develops, the past unravels and we are asked to consider the implications of this silence for Spain and its people.
I very much enjoyed the evocation of this period and the length and scope of this long novel allowed it to drip through the pages and get under your skin. That this is a masculine novel can be seen by the overlong erotic gaze and the fact that there is only one female character, Beatriz, whose voice we rarely hear. This is important because it means I would recommend this book to women friends who are interested in Spain, but not necessarily to others, who may become as impatient with the male gaze as I did. Still, and to my surprise, my attention was drawn back to the plot and I was riveted in the last 50 pages when we finally find out what happened between Beatriz and Eduardo- a story as human and moving as it was unexpected.
And what is also well done and similarly dripped through the book is the awareness of time and generational difference. Our young narrator has a male erotic gaze but the suggestion is that relationships between young people in the Spain of 1980 are different and more equal than before. When it comes to confronting a nation’s past and individual misdeeds within that past it is suggested that time, the demise of the protagonists and the appearance of a new generation will inevitably lead to those deeds sliding into oblivion. The novel concludes with a brief fast forward to the future relationship between de Vere and the Muriel family, which for all its brevity, left me with a feeling of optimism- that the younger generation will manage things better than their parents. We should look to them.