Spanish writer Javier Marías is perennially mentioned as a future Nobel laureate; just this fall betting markets had pegged him as a contender until a certain Minnesotan swooped in for the prize. Marías’ new novel reveals why his name is always in the mix. A major work from a global talent, “Thus Bad Begins” knits Hitchcockian suspense into a hypnotic tale crackling with erotic tension and political strife.

The narrator, a contemporary middle-aged Spaniard named Juan de Vere, recalls a pivotal year when, as a 23-year-old, he worked as an assistant to a famous auteur, Eduardo Muriel, tracking paperwork and running errands as Muriel made films. Marías sets the bulk of his story in 1980, during a period known as La Movida, when Spain was emerging from the shadow of the Franco regime, democratic institutions were taking root, and yet the Catholic Church had not lifted its ban on divorce (which it would do the following year).

Marías portrays a Madrid blossoming into a garden of pleasure, raucous nightlife for which los Madrileños are still well known: “No one could entirely avoid the nocturnal ferment of those anomalous years. … It was not unusual to find traffic jams in various parts of the city in the early hours of a Wednesday or a Monday or even a dull Tuesday. On some nights, our cold, sentinel moon must have blinked its one somnolent eye in disbelief.”

“Thus Bad Begins” is dense yet evocative, its textures and rhythms beautifully rendered in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation. Juan caters to Muriel’s every whim, staying over in his boss’ lavish Madrid apartment to help manage the director’s family and the cast of hangers-on. He feels an embarrassing attraction to Muriel’s troubled wife, Beatriz; there are rumors of mysterious betrayals in the past as well as current liaisons.

Thus Juan is intrigued when Muriel sends him on a fact-finding mission: to cultivate a Dr. Van Vechten, an old friend of Muriel’s whom the director suspects of atrocious deeds and duplicity. Marías allows himself some fun, weaving in an array of cinematic allusions — “Vertigo” and “Chinatown,” for instance, as well as the notorious Roman Polanski rape case — and offering up cameos of real-life B-movie figures, such as Jack Palance, Herbert Lom and an alleged JFK mistress, Mariella Novotny.

But Marías’ themes are dead serious, as Juan becomes increasingly entangled in the secrets that haunt Muriel’s marriage and friendships, the skulduggery that fueled the waning years of the Cold War.

Marías skillfully crafts his real story — Europe, and particularly Spain, struggling with the last century’s terrors and triumphs — as a backdrop, even as he keeps our eyes on the foreground noir, one young man’s coming of age in a heated moment of hedonism. The personal is political, as Marías’ powerful, wide-ranging, yet curiously intimate novel attests.

 

Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing.” He lives in Brooklyn.

Thus Bad Begins
By: Javier Marias, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 444 pages, $27.95.