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BOOK REVIEW

Brutal truths, elegant intrigue

A Manuscript of Ashes; A Novel; Antonio Munoz Molina Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman; Harcourt: 306 pp., $25

August 27, 2008|Tim Rutten | Times Staff Writer

Five years ago, the English language publication of an astonishing novel, "Sepharad," announced to American readers that Spanish letters had given rise to a previously overlooked European master, Antonio Munoz Molina.

Munoz Molina, now 52, had hardly escaped notice in his native land, where his novels and journalism already had made him one of the most honored writers of his generation and the youngest to be elected to the Royal Spanish Academy. In the English-speaking world, "Sepharad" was widely -- and favorably -- compared to the German-born W.G. Sebald's meta-fictions with their intricate blend of fact and imagination, of obscure individual lives and sweeping historic events, all building to a meditation on the moral horror that was the 20th century. Borrowing the ancient Ladino name for Spain as the novel's title, Munoz Molina intertwined the expulsion of the Jews at the conclusion of the Reconquista in 1492 with the deportations to Auschwitz, tales of the Spanish Civil War with the real lives of Franz Kafka, Primo Levi and the Comintern agent Willi Munzenberg. In this intricate, 17-chapter construction, time and identity became mutable; only memory was held sacred as the state of ultimate moral recourse.

"A Manuscript of Ashes" was Munoz Molina's first novel, published in Spain in 1986, although he reportedly began it shortly after the death of Franco, more than a decade earlier. It's now clear that his preoccupation with the civil war and its aftermath -- a heritage of violence and betrayal, of loyalty and accommodation -- has been with Munoz Molina from the start. So too a fearless willingness to let the influences of popular culture work their way through his novels -- a characteristic of so much of Spain's superb contemporary literary fiction. (It's interesting that the best Spanish writers avoid the obvious temptations to respond to history as their Latin American colleagues have with the cinematic impulse into magic realism. One suspects the Spaniards' deep and authentic sense of tragedy forecloses that option.)

Take this passage from Munoz Molina's novel "Winter in Lisbon," which borrows fruitfully from film noir and jazz: "On the Gran Via, by the cold gleaming windows of the Telefonica building, he went over to a kiosk to buy cigarettes. As I watched him walk back, tall, swaying, hands sunk in the pockets of his large open overcoat with the collar turned up, I realized that he had that strong air of character one always finds in people who carry a past, as in those who carry a gun. These aren't vague literary comparisons: he did have a past, and he kept a gun."

On one level, "A Manuscript of Ashes" follows the conventions of a detective story, though less those of the hard-boiled Raymond Chandler -- whom Munoz Molina admires -- than the older, more ruminative and atmospheric Wilkie Collins. The novel's callow protagonist is Minaya, a university student arrested for political activism in the waning years of Franco's sclerotic dictatorship. He is released from jail through family connections after a rough interrogation and finds himself beset by an emotional condition common to those who believe they have no choice but to accommodate themselves to tyranny: "An unpleasant sensation of impotence and helpless solitude . . . forever denied the right to salvation, rebelliousness, or pride."

A spark of something like hope ignites when Minaya decides to do his thesis on a brilliant but obscure radical poet, Jacinto Solana, who fought for the Republicans during the civil war. Solana's reputation rests on a handful of poems that appeared in newspapers before his capture in 1939. Released from prison in 1947, the poet, still an unreconstructed leftist, was hunted down and executed by Franco's troops. Minaya sees in Solana an ideal of resistance and an opportunity: The poet spent his last years living with his best friend, Manuel, who happens to be the young man's uncle, in Manuel's mansion in Magina. (The imaginary city figures in several of Munoz Molina's subsequent books.)

Minaya decides to move in with his uncle -- many of his happiest childhood memories center on Manuel's provincial home and on his nearby farm, referred to as "The Island of Cuba," where Solana also was given refuge. Manuel has lived as a virtual recluse, since his friend's death, in a domestic establishment that has become increasingly gothic. There is the terrifying Dona Elvira, Manuel's mother, who still dresses in the fashion of the 1930s and never leaves her rooms, as well as a sculptor, Utrera, who is drinking himself to death out of guilt for having sold his talent to the Francoists.

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