Monday, September 03, 2007

Antonio Muñoz Molina - In Her Absence

Three reviews of Antonio Muñoz Molina's In Her Absence.
Several years ago Antonio Muñoz Molina was described as "a Spanish writer laden with prizes and so far scandalously unknown in English." His awards include not one but two Spanish National Narrative Prizes, and he is the youngest-ever member of the Royal Spanish Academy. Despite these honors from his native country and 13 books published in Spanish, not much has happened to bring him American readers. Sepharad won the 2004 PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club translation award for Margaret Sayers Peden, but since then nothing else by him had appeared for us Anglophones. Now, we are getting another chance. He is back with a new translator and a short novel published in 1999 as En Ausencia de Blanca.

Molina is a fearless writer. He is not afraid of making demands on his reader's imagination. In Her Absence is no passive entertainment. This elegant, precise and inimitable novel focuses intensely and solely on Mario López, a not-quite-middle-aged civil servant working as a draftsman in the small city of Jaén, and his passionate yet painful relationship with Blanca, his wife of six years.
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You'd have to be pretty jaded not to get hooked by a book with these opening lines:

"The woman who was not Blanca came down the hall toward Mario wearing Blanca's green silk blouse, Blanca's jeans, and Blanca's ballet flats, her eyes narrowing into a smile as she reached him - eyes the same color and shape as Blanca's, but not Blanca's eyes."

What is going on here?

Mario Lopez is a civil servant in a provincial town in southern Spain. His wife, Blanca, is a sometime translator and convention hostess with artistic aspirations. In this marriage of opposites, he is from a working-class background, she from a wealthy family; he is plodding and meticulous, she is mercurial and reckless; he wants to start a family, she doesn't.

Still, having rescued Blanca from a life of druggy dissolution, Mario remains besotted with her. "Six years after meeting her, he was still moved each time he re-entered her presence."

But when Blanca falls under the sway of an artsy crowd that hangs out in places with names like the "Center for New Theatrical Tendencies," Mario senses that his life is slipping away from him, "that someone had assigned him a biography that wasn't really his." He plunges into despair and isolation, obsessing over the tiniest of details, fearing that Blanca has left him for good.

Has she? Or has she killed herself? Has an impostor actually taken her place? Or is Mario just hallucinating?

Antonio Munoz Molina leaves enough hints for us to figure out who has lost a grip on reality here. But it is the nature of that loss, haunting and obsessional, that makes this slim novella compelling.
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