Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Antonio Muñoz Molina: A Manuscript of Ashes

Tim Rutten reviews Antonio Muñoz Molina's A Manuscript of Ashes.
"A Manuscript of Ashes" was Muñoz 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 Muñoz 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 Muñoz Molina's novel "Winter in Lisbon," which borrows fruitfully from film noir and jazz: "On the Gran Vía, by the cold gleaming windows of the Telefónica 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 Muñoz 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."
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