Writers & Company

Remembering Javier Marías: Spain's most celebrated contemporary writer

Javier Marías, Spain's most prestigious novelist of the past half century, died on Sept. 11, 2022. In this 2017 interview, Eleanor Wachtel spoke with Marías about his psychological thriller novel, Thus Bad Begins.
Javier Marías, author of novel Thus Bad Begins, was one of Spain's most celebrated novelists. (Eleanor Wachtel)

Javier Marías — considered by many to be the greatest living Spanish novelist — died on Sept. 11, 2022 in Madrid.  A perennial favourite to win the Nobel Prize, he was described as "a literary and cultural sensation" by the Paris Review — a modern-day Cervantes. 

Born in Madrid in 1951, Marías published 16 novels, plus several books of short stories and dozens of essay collections. He had 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 praised as "the first authentic literary masterpiece of the 21st century" by the Guardian. Widely translated, his books won numerous honours, including the 100,000 Euro International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Eleanor interviewed Marías in 1992 and again in 2017, in his book-filled apartment in Madrid. On the more recent occasion, they spoke about his novel Thus Bad Begins — a psychological, erotic and political thriller that drew on both his country's dark past and his own family history. 

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.

"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."

Dictators Francisco Franco of Spain and Benito Mussolini of Italy in 1941. (Miguel Cortes/EFE/EPA)

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.

"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.

"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.

The search for truth should be a main preoccupation for everyone in society.

"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' comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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