The Spanish Tragedy

Sepharad

by Antonio Muñoz Molina, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden
Harcourt, 385 pp., $27.00

For a Spanish writer to give the name Sepharad to a novel that is largely, if not exclusively, about Spain is a subtle, complicated, and rather fraught gesture. Sepharad, after all, is the Hebrew word for Spain. The origins of the term are unclear. Although it occurs (once) as a place-name in the Hebrew Bible, it’s unlikely that it refers there to the Spain we know—indeed, it is uncertain whether it refers there to an actual geography at all, or is merely a poetic or symbolic name. Some scholars have argued that the name suggests the colonization of Spain by Jews from Sardis, in Asia Minor; a likelier derivation is from the Aramaic sephar, connoting a distant limit or seacoast—an apt enough characterization of the Iberian peninsula in the eyes of the Levantine Jews who are said to have migrated there as early as the sixth century BC.

What is both clear and certain is that whatever Jews inhabited Spain twenty centuries after that first migration—perhaps 200,000 souls altogether, nearly a tenth of the total population at the end of the fifteenth century AD—were by law expelled from it by the infamous 1492 decree of the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. And yet while to all appearances the edict resulted in a remarkably successful ethnic cleansing—today there are about 14,000 Jews in Spain, all arrivals in the past century or so—we also know that it created not only those real exiles but what we might call internal exiles: secret Jews, marranos, who to all appearances had accepted their forced conversion to Catholicism, but practiced their native religion secretly.

Either way, the cruelty, intolerance, violence, and shame that the 1492 expulsion is likely to suggest to the minds of certain readers today—perhaps European, likely but not necessarily Jewish—could not be any further from the associations which that year has for most Americans, for whom 1492 is nothing more than the celebrated year in which Columbus “discovered” America: a year associated in the national consciousness with pride rather than shame, exploration rather than flight, the possibility of limitless freedoms rather than obliterating ideological oppressions.

Hence to call a novel that is much preoccupied with Spain Sepharad—to call a country by the name given to it by the citizens it has rejected and cast out—is to invoke, simultaneously and with considerable deftness, the many linked but often opposite connotations of the year 1492. And indeed, shame and guilt, homelands and exile, ceaseless wanderings and bitter alienations both internal and external, metaphorical and real, are persistent motifs of Muñoz Molina’s remarkable novel—one that turns out to be about a territory far vaster than “Sepharad” itself: Europe, perhaps even the world.

It is useful to mention these thematic considerations early on because Sepharad, although intensely pleasurable to read, is an extremely difficult book to describe; without the two organizing rubrics so subtly implied by its ostensibly innocuous title, its coherence …

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