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.
With its dominating tone of dislocation and the overarching structure of fragmentation, Sepharad is, then, in many ways the natural heir to its predecessors in both tone and execution. With a postmodern self-consciousness, the narrator of the novel draws his readers’ attention to the nature of the narrative they are reading:
For two or three years I have flirted with the idea of writing a novel, imagined situations and places, like snapshots, or like those posters displayed on large billboards at the entrance to a movie theater…. When I didn’t have the money to go inside, I would spend hours looking at the photographs outside the theater, not needing to invent a story to fit them together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Each became a mystery, illuminating the others, creating multiple links that I could break or modify at my whim, patterns in which no image nullified the others or gained precedence or lost its uniqueness within the whole.
Only when we keep in mind the implications of the book’s title—the implications of 1492—does it become clear that in Sepharad, he has succeeded brilliantly well.
There is, to begin with, the ideological oppression that results in terrible conditions of exile, and worse. As many reviewers were quick to notice, the destruction, by totalitarian regimes in Europe and elsewhere, of culture itself and the people who create it—artists, writers, intellectuals, impresarios, politicians, and political activists—is a central theme here, although to be sure it apparently has nothing to do with the private lives of its Spanish characters. The most striking of the “novels” that weave their way through this “novel of novels” are, it turns out, not fiction at all, but rather the true stories of a handful of characters who, between them, lived out their lives during the harrowing middle years of the last century—stories that, as Muñoz Molina describes in an author’s note at the end of his novel, he culled, with little or no further elaboration, from memoirs and biographies.
There is the story of the flamboyant Willi Münzenberg, Stalin’s German-born “impresario of the Comintern” who, with his wife, Babette, eventually fell from favor and was pursued to his death by his former Communist colleagues, who hanged him in a remote wood during the mass flight from France in 1940. There is the bizarre and wrenching tale of Babette’s sister, Margarete Buber-Neumann, the wife of the director of Germany’s Communist Party in the Thirties, who after first fleeing from Hitler into the welcoming arms of Stalin, and then falling from Stalin’s grace along with her husband, Heinz, had the peculiar distinction, in the year 1939, of becoming victim to not one but two regimes, as the characteristically laconic narration in the story called “copenhagen” relates:
It took Margarete Buber-Neumann three weeks to travel from Moscow to the Siberian camp where she had been sentenced to serve ten years. When only three had passed, they ordered her onto a train back to Moscow, and she thought she would be set free; the train, however, did not stop in Moscow, it continued west. When finally it stopped at the border station of Brest-Litovsk, the Russian guards told Buber-Neumann to hurry and get her belongings together, because they were in German territory…. [She] understood with horror and infinite fatigue that because she was German, Stalin’s guard were handing her over to Hitler’s guard, fulfilling an infamous clause in the German-Soviet pact.
In the death camp of Ravensbrück, Buber-Neumann met and befriended the doomed Milena Jesenska, who would sometimes tell her new friend about her dead lover and the bizarre tales he wrote.
The allusion to Jesenska is one of those tenuous threads that connects this true story of twentieth-century oppression to the ostensibly private, Spanish world of the narrator’s life story: we recall him, as a young man, in the act of reading the Letters to Milena in the Spanish cultural bureau. This moment and others like it begin to suggest that none of the seemingly discrete narratives gathered here, the stories of small-town Spain and the stories of refugee or deported Central Europeans, is unconnected to the others. There are, to be sure, a number of stories that patently link Spain to the horrors of the mid-twentieth century, for instance stories from the Spanish Civil War—one about the ruined family of a Spanish Communist who ends up in Moscow, another about an idealistic, Germanophile Spaniard who joins Spain’s Blue Division to fight along with the Nazis on the Russian front. But these more obvious links between Spain and the European disaster of the 1930s and 1940s aren’t the ones of greatest interest in revealing the author’s subtle unifying strategies.
For what ultimately connects all of the “novels” here is the spirit of Kafka, the author who more than any of the many other authorial voices that hover over this remarkable book—Proust, Herodotus, John le Carré—presides over it in its multifaceted entirety. Pace those who beat Sepharad over the head with Sebald, there is indeed a “stunning calculus of implication and association, far-ranging and centered” that courses through Muñoz Molina’s novel. These implications and associations, admittedly so far-ranging at times as to escape easy detection, derive, ultimately, from an experience shared by all of the book’s characters—the dread Kafkaesque experience characterized by the narrator in a passage that, typically, is addressed to an unidentified “you”:
And you, what would you do if you knew that at any moment they could come for you, that your name may already be on a typed list of prisoners or future dead, or suspects, or traitors?… They notified Josef K. of his trial, but no one arrested him….
This quintessentially twentieth- century experience of sudden, seemingly arbitrary selection and expulsion is, we begin to see, the link that binds together the novel’s Spaniards, Germans, Communists, and Fascists. It is the experience typified by the life of a blond, blue-eyed, fully Austrian (or so he thought), half-Jewish youth called Hans Meyer, who, after being persecuted as a Jew, became the writer Jean Améry after the war. It is the tie that binds Spanish Republican soldiers, desparecidos in Uruguay, leukemia-afflicted writers to, indeed, Kafka himself, as an extraordinary summarizing passage suggests:
You look at your watch, cross your legs, open a newspaper in the doctor’s office or in a café in Vienna in November 1935, when a news article will drive you out of your routine and out of your country and make you a stranger forever. A guest in a hotel, you woke up one night with a fit of coughing and spat blood. The newspaper tells of the laws of racial purity newly promulgated in Nuremberg, and you read that you are a Jew and destined to extermination. The smiling nurse appears in the doorway of the waiting room and tells you that the doctor is ready to see you. Gregor Samsa awoke one morning and found himself transformed…. The healthy, blond man reading his newspaper in a café in Vienna one Sunday morning, dressed in lederhosen and kneesocks and Tyrolean suspenders, in the eyes of the waiter who has served him so often will soon be as repulsive as the poor Orthodox Jew whom men in brown shirts and red armbands humiliate for sport….
The unifying experience, then, is what it means to be “excluded, expelled, from the community of the normal,” as the narrator puts it.
There were critics who appreciated this important motif but were nonetheless leery of its moral implications. “But what can such an equation mean when its terms are so different?” Michael Pye asked in The New York Times Book Review; and he then went on to suggest that “without morality all these dark stories are just sensations.” But it seems to me that Muñoz Molina’s multiplex, honeycombed attempt to depict the very root of evil, to create a picture of the fundamental impulse to exclude and oppress that goes beyond the particularities of this or that ideology, should be seen as a profound grappling with a very fundamental moral issue indeed. And his insistence on assimilating to the vignettes of political oppression the experience of the suffering sick, particularly those who to all appearances are normal but who are doomed to pain and likely death (both AIDS and leukemia are invoked), is to my mind an effective means of reminding his readers, by means of an analogy, a suggestive narrative metaphor, of that other class of exiles, not the literal but the metaphorical exiles created by political oppressions, as 1492 taught us: the marranos, the internal exiles, cut off from the community of the normal to which they bear the most superficial of resemblances. stigmatized by the presence of an invisible trait for which they can bear no responsibility.
But then, to appreciate the large moral vision of Muñoz Molina’s novel, you must return, as he does, to the awkward question raised by its disturbingly allusive title. Sepharad ends with a grand and tragic gesture that suggests that willed acts of selection and expulsion (or worse) doom nations, as they do people, to a kind of metaphorical exile, an exile from themselves: the ultimate internal exile. This moving point is made in a finale that links the themes of illness, exile, internal exile, of museums and cultural survivals and nationalisms, and in so doing climactically unites the unsettling multiple significances of the fateful year of 1492.
The final section of the novel is called “sepharad.” In it, the narrator finds himself living in what he describes as a pleasant, self-imposed “exile” in New York City for a brief time. His prolonged visit from Spain to the New World puts us in mind, of course, of Columbus, of “discovery” and the horizons of new worlds and possibilities; yet the same pleasant visit inevitably brings with it reminders of that other result of 1492. (While in New York, the narrator stumbles across an ancient Sephardic cemetery off Fifth Avenue.) As an expression, perhaps, of both aspects of 1492, the last thing the narrator does is to visit what may well be described as a symbol of Spain itself, of its great imperial culture—a culture that is, now, just another exile abroad: the enormous and neglected Hispanic Society, located in uptown Manhattan—a place to which the bus journey takes so much time that it feels like a voyage of discovery itself.
We have by this point been prepared, in a fashion that is typically complex and subtle, for this strange culminating collocation of the two great results of 1492—America as a refuge and Spain as the oppressor, the expeller, the exiler. Earlier on, we learn that the Mateo Zapatón whom the young narrator idolized is not only the dashing swain of their small town but the adulterous lover of many of the small town’s matrons; and indeed the lover of the young nun about whom we heard in a much earlier story. The information is typically disconcerting: hundreds of pages after we first hear about Mateo, whose handsome face, we recall, serves as the model for his namesake, the noble Saint Matthew, in the town’s Holy Week float, we are invited to revise our moral picture of this character, a fornicator whose sins make him far worse morally, after all, than was the loathed tailor with the Jewish-looking nose (a suggestion that he is the descendant of marranos, perhaps) whose face was used for that of Judas. There is a strong implication here that we are meant to think hard about the hypocrisies of the various regimes we’ve encountered in these tales, regimes that are always eager to assign guilt to certain “others,” and then to cut those others out.
The revelation about Mateo Zapatón serves, in fact, to connect the expulsions of 1492 to the exterminations of 1942; this is the climax, in a way, of Muñoz Molina’s moral argument about the human impulse to cut off and expel. Even as he laughingly relates the story of his affair with the bride of Christ, Mateo himself, the shoemaker, seems unaware that his hypocrisy may ultimately be related to a larger crime, to which he almost unwittingly refers in a reverie about lost shoes, which, he muses, are
the saddest things in the world because they always made me think of dead people, especially that time of year, in winter, when everyone is off to the olive harvest and I could spend the whole day without seeing a soul. During the war, when I was a little boy, I saw a lot of dead people’s shoes. They would shoot someone and leave him lying in a ditch or behind the cemetery, and we kids would go look at the corpses, and I noticed how many had lost their shoes, or I’d find a pair of shoes, or a single shoe, and not know which dead man they belonged to. Once in a newsreel I saw mountains of old shoes in those camps they had in Germany.
And indeed we are, I think, meant to think of Mateo, of the moral costs to Spain of its hypocrisies and sins (as the symbolic model, here, of all such regimes and their hypocrisies and sins), in the culminating moments of the book, where the author and his wife wander about the fabulous halls of the Hispanic Society. Here, surrounded by a staggering collection of every conceivable artifact of Spanish culture, in what looks to the narrator like “a flea market where all the testimony and heritage of the past has ended”—artifacts that themselves remind him of the absent presence, of “Sepharad” (“the 1519 Amadìs de Gaula, the Bible translated into Spanish by Yom Tov Arias, the son of Levi Arias, and published in Ferrara in 1513 because it could not be published in Spain”)—the narrator and his wife encounter a female character whom, it suddenly becomes obvious, we have met before. This woman, like the narrator himself, is a voluntary exile from Spain, someone who has followed that other, liberating trajectory of 1492; yet because she has been linked, in an earlier story, to Mateo, a morally compromised character, her presence simultaneously reminds us of what we might call the sinful, sinning Spain, too. Together this woman and the narrator stare at a Velázquez painting of a girl who, you realize, with her raven hair and dark eyes, could be either Spanish or Jewish. Or, of course, both.
That culminating and poignant confusion, coming as the climax of a scene that simultaneously puts the reader in mind of exile, escape, and internal, “hidden” exile, suggests that the price paid for their relentless persecutions of “others” is, ultimately, the oppressors’ own souls. The descriptions of Spain itself, you realize, are all characterized by a sense of loss, of emptiness; it is only here, in a deserted museum on foreign soil, that we encounter what we think of as Spain’s culture and its history. This is why it is, surely, that in the eyes of the haunted, hunted face of that elusive painted figure—the quintessential Spaniard painted by the quintessential Spanish painter—the narrator detects “the melancholy of a long exile”: a term that, by this point, clearly refers to Spain itself as well as her Jews. It is a measure of the meticulous and exacting artistry with which Muñoz Molina has constructed his vast and subtle, dream-like and wrenching book that he has arranged for the word “exile” to be the last, devastating word in a work that is, I think, something of a masterpiece.
May 25, 2006
Richard Eder, “Journeys That Defined a Century,” The New York Times, January 1, 2004. ↩
Michael Pye, “I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” The New York Times Book Review, December 21, 2003. ↩
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. ↩