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The Spanish Tragedy

Sepharad

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

1.

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 can be difficult to grasp. When the book (which was published in Spain, as Sefarad, in 2001) came out in a fine English translation in 2003, it was greeted, when it was greeted at all, with a kind of bemused but constrained admiration. Because the tales that make up the book are related in a muted, even affectless voice, and many are set in totalitarian Germany and Russia (for instance, a fleeting tale of a chance meeting in Estonia between a pro-German Spanish officer and the beautiful Jewish mistress of a Nazi official), it was inevitably compared, unfavorably, to the work of W.G. Sebald. “‘Sepharad’ lacks the German’s stunning calculus of implication and association, far-ranging and centered, and the sculptured music of his writing,” the reviewer for the daily New York Times wrote.1

And yet, because some of the stories Sepharad seems so self-consciously to anthologize—the Spanish subtitle is Una novela de novelas, “a novel of novels”—have nothing to do with that Sebaldian theme and tone, other critics accused it of being too diffuse. One story, for instance, is about the death in an Andalusian town of the aunt of the narrator’s wife; another recalls the love affair between a provincial cobbler and a sexually voracious nun. “There is much that is loose, some that is repetitious and a little that is self-indulgent,” the critic in the daily Times complained, while his counterpart in the Sunday Book Review wrote of the presence of “cliché” and jarringly “Da-Glo” elements (the beautiful Jewish mistress, the cobbler and the nymphomaniac nun) and ended by suggesting darkly that “a few lapses are enough to turn such a fine piece of literary mosaic into a quite commonplace book.”2

It is true that, at first glance, the novel seems diffuse. Sepharad consists of a series of seventeen ostensibly discrete narratives of between approximately twenty and thirty pages each, the fragmentary, allusive titles of which, always provided in lower-case letters, convey a sense of the tone of the book as a whole: “wherever the man goes”; “you are…”; “those who wait”; “oh you, who knew so well.” Many of these are clearly being narrated by a character whom you are invited to identify with the author himself—he is a youngish Spaniard from the provinces, now a successful writer—although the elaborate artfulness with which the ostensibly real-life stories gathered here come together suggests that the line between fact and fiction has been intentionally blurred.

Indeed, the first of the stories is set in Spain, and the last in America, a progress that seems intended to remind us of at least one of the trajectories in which the year 1492 resulted—just as other elements seem designed to remind us of others of those trajectories. The first tale, for instance, entitled “sacristan”—the nickname given to the narrator as a boy by a beloved local figure—is a childhood memory of the Holy Week float in his provincial boyhood town, and of how the local artisan who constructed the float used a mean-spirited, money-grubbing tailor as the model for his Judas, while the tall, good-looking, well-liked cobbler served as the model for “the noble Saint Matthew.” We are told that this reviled tailor, the first of many characters in the book who are vilified and rejected by their neighbors, had a “Semitic nose,” but this oblique reference to the exiled Jews of Spain, that absent presence, is passed over; our desire to grasp at an animating theme, at this early point, is frustrated. (Not that you care: this story, like all the others, is related with such hypnotizing beauty that it is possible to savor each of these “novels” without feeling the need to think ahead to larger connections. It’s no surprise that one of them is called “scheherazade.”)

This narrator reappears in many stories, often speaking in the first person to a “you,” who is his beloved wife. Bit by bit, we get to know more about him. There is the provincial childhood peopled with colorful characters like Mateo Zapatón, the cobbler, whom at the end of the first tale the narrator, now an adult living in Madrid, encounters on a busy city street, distracted and made unrecognizable by time—one of many instances in which we feel that the Spain of the present cannot, somehow, be connected to the Spain of even the recent past. There is the touching scene in which the aunt of the narrator’s wife dies; there is a hushed visit to a doctor’s office during which the narrator learns that he has a potentially mortal illness. There is the unnerving trip to Germany the narrator takes when he is an established author, during which he sits at a tea parlor wondering what the well-dressed, well-coiffed old Germans around him were doing during World War II.

There is, years before, a story about the narrator’s stint, as a young man, working as a booking agent of some kind in a dreary office of a cultural promotion agency, where, embarrassed by always having to reject the entreaties of desperate artistes, he takes refuge in the books he obsessively reads and which, he informs us, are for him more real than his life. (Among these is a volume of Kafka’s letters to his mistress, Milena Jesenska, of which the narrator says that they “nourished my love for the absent beloved, and for the failed or impossible loves I had learned of through films and books.”)

Such offices, along with other haunted institutions meant to promote or preserve Spanish culture—museums, in particular—are a recurrent motif in many of the stories, although here again, it is difficult at first to see a connection between them all. There is, in that first tale, a brief mention of a museum in rural Andalusia, where an obscure “regional association” meets primarily, it seems, to swap old stories; a longer tale concerns a Spanish cultural agency in Tangier that’s run by an expatriate Hungarian Jew; there is the musty Madrid office where the young narrator books (or doesn’t book) second-rate Bulgarian pianists and South American puppeteers; and, finally, there is a visit to the vast, architecturally overwrought building of the Hispanic Society of America, located in a sad neighborhood of New York City that is all but deserted when the narrator visits it at the end of the book.

It must be said that certain concrete elements that pointedly reappear throughout these rather languidly narrated tales can seem designed to frustrate rather than create connections. A description of a seashell invites us to make a connection—but how?—between a scene in a darkened examination room, where a patient gets some bad news about his health from a doctor who’s been fondling the seashell, to a strange seaside vacation that ends in a dream-like encounter between the doctor and an aging, desperately ill Nazi. (While hiking in the hills, the doctor strays close to the perimeter of a fenced-off property and is suddenly accosted by a domestic who begs him to save her employer; once inside the house, the doctor sees that it’s full of mementoes of the owner’s Nazi past.)

A recurrent character—a cousin of the narrator’s wife, a beautiful, high-spirited, chestnut-haired, green-eyed young woman who eventually married and had a child, and died of a drug overdose—reappears fleetingly, never clearly identified but always recognizable, in several of the stories, a ghostly figure who hovers over narratives involving railway travel, wasting illness, addiction, and premature death. The motif of premature death and illness—ostensibly unconnected to the many other premature deaths, in the millions, to which the novel alludes—also persists throughout, particularly in the recurrent glimpses we get of that prematurely dead, perennially ill author, Kafka.

The pervasive aura of ennui and a disjointedness that competes with persistent but ultimately fleeting leitmotifs is nothing new to Muñoz Molina’s work. Although relatively young (he was born in Andalusia in 1950), he has achieved considerable prominence in Spain: he has twice won the National Literary Prize there, along with a number of other distinctions. This hasn’t translated into recognition here in the US. As far as I can tell, only two of his many novels have appeared in English: Winter in Lisbon, a memory-novel that links disconnected motifs—jazz, the names of cities, a love affair; and Prince of Shadows, in which a professional assassin who is weary of the trade tracks down his target during the iciest years of the cold war. Partly this author’s relative obscurity here has to do with a by-now notorious indifference to foreign literature on the part of American readers (and publishers); partly it has to do with the fact that much of his previous output, while taking the ostensibly popular forms of detective and spy novels, is dominated by that atmosphere of benumbed angst, and marked by the presence of unusual technical features (among which are strange oscillations between first- and third-person narrators, a device that recurs in Sepharad). The presence of that tone and those technical features has been attributed to the fact that Muñoz Molina is an author of el desencanto (“disillusionment”), a term used to describe the widespread feeling, following the death of Franco in 1975 and the failure of the Socialists elected in 1982 to fulfill their electoral call for Cambio, change, of crucial opportunities lost.3 Such influences are unlikely to render his works hugely appealing to a reading public accustomed to the more straightforward satisfactions of John Grisham.

  1. 1

    Richard Eder, “Journeys That Defined a Century,” The New York Times, January 1, 2004.

  2. 2

    Michael Pye, “I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” The New York Times Book Review, December 21, 2003.

  3. 3

    I am indebted to Lawrence Rich’s The Narrative of Antonio Muñoz Molina: Self-Conscious Realism and “El Desencanto” (Peter Lang, 1999) for background on this writer’s career.

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