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Brutal truths, elegant intrigue

BOOK REVIEW

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

There is also, as Minaya quickly discovers, a mystery: Manuel and Solana were not only friends but also rivals for the beautiful artist's model Mariana Rios. Ultimately, she chose Manuel, but on the morning following their wedding night, she was accidentally shot dead when a gun fired by troops pursuing a fugitive across nearby rooftops struck her as she stood in her bedroom window. It is that death, rather than the execution of his poet-friend, that sent Manuel into seclusion, and he has maintained Mariana's room unchanged from the moment of her death.

It is while trespassing there that Minaya discovers the manuscript of Solana's last book, a novel, "Beatus Ille," which Franco's troops were thought to have burned after they shot the poet. Much of the second half of "A Manuscript of Ashes" is given over to Solana's story, which is not a novel but a gradual retelling of the tensions that ultimately brought the poet, his friend and the woman who was the object of their desires to disaster. How did Mariana really die and who was her killer? Beyond that is a deeper and far more mysterious betrayal -- or act of survival -- on which the novel's resolution ultimately turns.

Munoz Molina's Spanish prose is deeply admired for its elegant melancholy and unforced social conscience. Edith Grossman, one of the finest American literary translators now working, has done a remarkable job of capturing that quality in a lovely English, by turns elegiac, incantatory and deeply sensual. This is a brilliant novel by an important writer unafraid of ideas, emotions and genuine beauty. "A Manuscript of Ashes" could be pleasurably read out of appreciation for any one of those qualities -- or, perhaps, for the intricately plotted mystery that bears the novel's characters along like travelers on a dark, treacherous river.

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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