Javier Marías on secrets and betrayal — in politics and fiction

Eleanor Wachtel travelled to Spain to interview the celebrated author about his book Thus Bad Begins, a psychological, erotic and political thriller.
Javier Marías, author of novel Thus Bad Begins, is one of Spain's most celebrated novelists. (Eleanor Wachtel)
Listen to the full episode52:11

Javier Marías is Spain's most celebrated contemporary writer. He has been described as "a literary and cultural sensation" — a modern-day Cervantes. His latest novel, Thus Bad Begins, is a psychological, erotic and political thriller that draws on both his country's dark past and his own family history.

Born in Madrid in 1951, Marias has published more than a dozen novels, and has a long-running column in the national Spanish newspaper El Pais. His fictional trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow — about a Spanish academic recruited to work in British intelligence — was called "the first authentic literary masterpiece of the 21st century" by the Guardian. Widely translated, his books have won numerous honours, including the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and he's regularly tipped for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Eleanor spoke with Javier Marías at his book-filled apartment in the historical centre of Madrid.

Post-dictatorship Spain: a promising time and place 

"It was a period of great hope, great enthusiasm and great fear. It was still only five years after military dictator Francisco Franco's death and the country had its very first democratic election in decades. So of course everyone was very excited about that. We felt as if a great burden had been finally taken off our shoulders.

"The extraordinary thing was that, after 40 years of dictatorship, a mere six months after Franco's death the population in general had the feeling that all that long period had taken place ages ago. As if time had expanded. Of course there was violence and there were fears of a coup d'etat from the army, but we were extremely hopeful.

"It was as if the lid of a box had been opened and everything in it started to come out. There was a real enthusiasm in the people — it was a very promising period in Spain at that time."

Spanish society after the restoration of democracy 

"It wasn't a small price, but I think it was worthwhile to forget the crimes of Spain's historical past and life under the rule of Francisco Franco. Today's generations who didn't live it or understand the time tend to complain that the peaceful transition after the dictatorial regime was a surrender and those in power at the time got away with their crimes. But what they tend to forget is that there was nothing that could be done about it.

"The only ones with the weapons in Spain were the army, which was still Francoist. It took some time to democratize the military and make them understand that things have changed and they should recognize the democratic and elected parliament. It's not that Franco was vanquished — he died while still in power. There was a price to pay to have goodwill from all sides — including the heirs of Franco and national political forces such as the communist, socialist and democratic parties  — to avoid bloodshed and become a normal country again, with elections, political parties and freedom of speech." 

A historic square in Madrid, near the home of author Javier Marías. (Eleanor Wachtel)

Why Thus Bad Begins focuses on uncovering the truth

"The search for truth should be a main preoccupation for everyone in society. But of course, it's not; it's less than ever before nowadays. I'm very aware of the consequences of what one says, and what one reveals. I miss the times when people were a little more careful, discreet and thoughtful.

"What worries me is that I don't know the best thing to do when one knows a horrible thing has happened. On the one hand, to mention or reveal it can be dangerous. But, on the other hand, remaining silent can be dangerous and unfair to the victims as well. I'm never sure about that. Of course, there's a real world example in Spain, with what happened after Franco's death and I explore it in the novel." 

Javier Marías' interview has been edited and condensed. 

Music to close the broadcast interview: "Prelude No 1, Mi Min" composed by Heitor Villa-Lobos, performed by Alfred Erick Street