Una alegría

Publicado el

En este oficio, en el que hay que estar preparado para todo, más aún en estos tiempos de crisis y de agresividades afiladas, a veces se lleva uno, inesperadamente, una gran alegría: una carta de un lector, una buena reseña. A mí me da pereza y pudor leer lo que se escribe sobre mi trabajo, y, como a todo el mundo, el daño que me hace una mala crítica o un comentario malévolo es superior a la satisfacción de una crítica elogiosa. Quien no pueda vivir con la inseguridad permanente, con la sensación de vulnerabilidad por mostrar en público un trabajo que tiene tanto que ver con su propia vida, quizás debe dedicarse a otra cosa.

Acaba de publicarse en Inglaterra la traducción de La noche de los tiempos que había salido el año pasado aquí. Este fin de semana, mi amigo William Chislett, que está en alerta permanente, me llama por teléfono desde Madrid para darme la noticia: el suplemento de libros y artes publica una reseña espléndida de la novela. Me he puesto tan contento que no me resisto a copiarla aquí:

April 24, 2015 3:59 pm

‘In the Night of Time’, by Antonio Muñoz Molina

Review by Adam Feinstein

A lauded Spanish novel describes a love affair amid the turmoil of civil war
SPAIN. The poet Miguel HERNANDEZ, a rural farmer and adament Republican, went to the front lines to read poetry to soldiers, as did many writers who were members of the l'Alliance des Intellectuels Antifascistes (AIA). HERNANDEZ was arrested by the Phalangists and died in prison. 1936.

©David Seymour/Magnum

Republican poet Miguel Hernández, pictured in 1936


t is fitting that Antonio Muñoz Molina’s latest, exhilarating novel, In the Night of Time, about a successful architect caught up in the twin upheavals of the Spanish Civil War and an overpowering love affair, has a monumental structure all of its own. When the book was first published, to great acclaim, in Spain in 2009, some critics described it as a historical fresco. But it is, in fact, an elegantly three-dimensional work thanks to its complex and beguiling narrative shape.
Told mostly in flashback, it opens with Ignacio Abel’s arrival at Penn Station in New York in October 1936. In accepting an invitation to take up a temporary post at an American university, he has deserted his wife and two children and abandoned war-torn Madrid to “darkness and silence like the bottom of the sea”. But what he feels is less guilt at these desertions than the intoxicating absence of guilt.
Muñoz Molina, one of Spain’s leading novelists (he won the prestigious Príncipe de Asturias Prize in 2013 at the age of 57), has acknowledged Proust as a major influence. And the passage of time and the hallucinatory force of memory are key players here. On a train journey out of New York, Ignacio recalls his own past — his working-class parents, his studies at the Bauhaus in Weimar and, in vivid cinematic and sensory detail, the horrors of the conflict gripping his homeland: stiff bodies resting against a building which had served as a blank wall for a firing-squad the previous night, the sudden thud of rifle butts on doors.
Muñoz Molina brilliantly negotiates the challenge of introducing historical figures alongside fictional characters. His sure-footedness is partly due to meticulous research. But he is also able to ensnare aspects of the real personalities in a single sentence. There is the “sad sarcasm” of Juan Negrín (the physiology professor and last Loyalist prime minister before Spain fell to the fascists), who is in constant motion “like one of those particles he talks about so much” — but in whom Ignacio finds a moral conviction he himself lacks. There are the poets José Bergamín (quietly fulminating against both the Falangists’ savage assassination of Federico García Lorca and against intellectual purity) and José Moreno Villa (making up with bitterness what he lacks in ambition).
Yet it is the invented characters which emerge even more imposingly from Ignacio’s frenzied New York recollections. Professor Karl Ludwig Rossman, Ignacio’s teacher from the Bauhaus, delights his students with new ways of looking at the everyday objects (a match, a spoon) that he pulls from his pockets. Philip van Doren, a cold and charmless pragmatist, and Víctor, Ignacio’s equally unprincipled brother-in-law, could both walk straight off the pages of a novel by Benito Pérez Galdós, the great realist chronicler of Spain in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And then there are Ignacio’s two children — sickly Miguel nursing his leg tremor, Lita reading her Jules Verne fantasies — for whom he would make cardboard cut-outs with his draughtsman’s hands.
Most keenly, Ignacio recalls his first, chance encounter in Madrid with Judith Biely — an American woman born to Russian Jewish parents — and the ease with which he found he could deceive his wife, Adela. The two women are antitheses, yet they are convincingly fleshed out, rather than mere archetypes.
Muñoz Molina has said in interviews that he wanted to portray Ignacio as a pragmatic socialist who married a conservative, law-abiding woman for social advancement. Adela is described as an “intellectually crippled creature, like one of those Chinese women whose feet were bound from the time they were little girls”. In contrast, Judith is a free-spirited reader of Galdós, Henry James and John Dos Passos. Her independence and easy confidence simultaneously stimulate and intimidate Ignacio.
Sexual passion renews his passion for life. But amid the rawness of the political turmoil around them, it is the quieter moments he shares with Judith that stand out, such as their silent, tender walk through the Botanical Garden in Madrid — as magically evocative, in its way, as the wordless Fred Astaire-Cyd Charisse stroll through Central Park in The Band Wagon (not such a fanciful allusion, given Judith’s affection for American musicals).
What makes this book exceptional is the sensitive interweaving of the two disintegrations — the public and the private. Ignacio’s marital detachment and submersion in an all-consuming love affair are symptomatic of his broader alienation from society as a whole. Even though he realises that it will take decades to rebuild shattered Spain, he is astonished by his own error (an architect’s instinct, perhaps?) in trusting “the solidity of everything” in the first place.
This is a necessary novel. Edith Grossman’s translation compellingly captures its depiction of the ugliness of war and the remorselessness of human memory when many in Spain, nearly eight decades on, would like to consign the civil war to oblivion.
In the Night of Time, by Antonio Muñoz Molina, translated by Edith Grossman,Tuskar Rock Press, RRP£16.99/ Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, RRP$30, 656 pages
Adam Feinstein’s biography, ‘Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life’, was reissued in an updated edition by Bloomsbury in 2013