Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Antonio Muñoz Molina: A Manuscript of Ashes

Adam Kirsch reviews Antonio Muñoz Molina's A Manuscript of Ashes.
Five years ago, Antonio Muñoz Molina's novel "Sepharad" was published in English to rapturous reviews. Not since W.G. Sebald's "The Emigrants" had a new European writer so powerfully seized the imagination of American readers. "Sepharad" was, in fact, a kind of transposition, into Spanish history and language, of Sebald's masterpiece — with its blending of fact and fiction, its obsession with the horrors of the 20th century, and its deeply ethical insistence on retrieving individual stories obliterated by history. In a fluid, even slippery narrative, Mr. Muñoz Molina braided the stories of Sephardic Jews, exiled from Spain in the 15th century, with the experiences of Spaniards during that country's civil war, and the more public lives of figures such as Franz Kafka. I'm not sure how many people read "Sepharad" — it was not the kind of book that makes a best seller — but it helped to give Mr. Muñoz Molina the literary stature in America that he has long enjoyed in Spain, where the 52-year-old is one of the leading writers of his generation.

Now, with the publication of "A Manuscript of Ashes" (Harcourt, 305 pages, $25), we have the chance to read the book that launched Mr. Muñoz Molina's career as a novelist. First published in Spain in 1986 under the title "Beatus ille," now translated into English by Edith Grossman, "A Manuscript of Ashes" shows that some of Mr. Muñoz Molina's central concerns were with him from the very beginning. Once again we find him investigating Spain's damaged past — in particular, the violence and betrayals of the Spanish Civil War, and the fear and tedium of the Franco dictatorship that succeeded it. Again he is tormented by the pastness of the past, which makes it impossible to know reliably, as well as by its continuing presence, which makes our own lives seem like mere sequels to great events that happened long ago. And already in his first novel, we can now see, Mr. Muñoz Molina was experimenting with a narrative technique adequate to these perceptions. "A Manuscript of Ashes" is divided between two narrators and at least three time frames, and the reader must be constantly on the alert for multiple shifts of perspective, sometimes in the space of a single paragraph.
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