By Antonio Muñoz Molina,
translated from the Spanish
by Margaret Sayers Peden
Harcourt, 384 pages, $27.
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There is something utterly annoying, even infuriating, about “Sepharad,” the second novel by Antonio Muñoz Molina — a Spaniard born in 1956 — to be translated into English. Originally written in Madrid in 2000, “Sepharad” is subtitled in Spanish “una novela de novelas” — a novel of novels. The statement is accurate; it is a lyrical meditation on other people’s books. But “Sepharad” is more: a meditation on other people’s pasts.
Its centrifugal structure reminds me of the oeuvre of W.G. Sebald, in particular “The Emigrants,” in which the author showered us with a phantasmagorical prose juxtaposed with strange, at times macabre, photographs found in antiques stores. A German who came of age after World War II, Sebald was on a quest to explore the interstices of silence and abjuration in his native country after the Holocaust. Less than a decade younger than Sebald, Muñoz Molina comes from an altogether different landscape. He was only 20 years old when Generalísimo Francisco Franco died and la España dogmática finally embarked on a journey that made it one of the liveliest, most dynamic partners in the European Union today: la España democrática. Yet “Sepharad” is also about loss, although a less tangible, more metaphorical one. Actually, the engine that moves the narrative is not only loss, but also memory and exile.
Divided into 17 thematically interconnected sections, Muñoz Molina’s book explores the dilemmas of desplazados, artists and thinkers on the verge of an abyss. The Holocaust is one of his concerns, as are Stalinism and Franquismo itself. One chapter places Kafka and his mistress Milena Jesenka in a protagonist role. Another one deals with the purported plot by Jewish physicians to murder Stalin. Other chapters discuss the plight of suffering creatures like Primo Levi, Willi Münzenberg and Jean Améry, née Hans Mayer (who, by the way, was also eulogized by Sebald in “On the Natural History of Destruction”). The location shifts from Moscow to Madrid, from Copenhagen to New York.
Margaret Sayers Peden’s English-language translation is superb, although it is conspicuous that the original version has 599 pages, while its English counterpart only has 384. I trust it’s all in the font, though; a superficial check doesn’t acknowledge any editorial casualties.
So what makes “Sepharad” exasperating? The title, of course, is a reference to the eviction in 1492 by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of approximately 200,000 Jews from Spanish soil. But the novel is only marginally about the Sephardim, who by my own estimates appear in some 5 percent of the overall content. Instead, Muñoz Molina creates a multinational, ahistorical gallery of refugees, mostly 20th-century dwellers whose plight, in his eyes, resembles that of the Sephardim. Yes, each and every one of these desplazados is for him un sefardí — an evicted soul, itinerant, homeless, permanently on the run. “To be Jewish was unpardonable, to stop being Jewish was impossible,” the author quotes an interlocutor, Emile Roman, a desplazado himself who discusses with Muñoz Molina the infamous “Edict of Expulsion,” then points in the direction of Levi and Améry. Jewishness, Roman states, is simultaneously “an illness and a strangeness.” He recounts how the Nazis forced the yellow Star on David on him and his family. “And if for an instant I forgot I was a Jew and couldn’t be anything but, the looks of people I met in the street or on a streetcar platform… reminded me of it.”
An illness and a strangeness — that, exactly, is how Muñoz Molina approaches his circus of anguished Jews and other literary freaks. He turns the term “Sepharad” into an allegory. Needless to say, Sephardic culture isn’t about victimhood any more than it is about fortitude. To focus on loneliness and banishment and not on stamina and reconstruction is foolish. A number of the approximately 200,000 Jews who left Spain moved first to Portugal and from there to the Netherlands, Italy, Turkey, the Balkans and other geographies that became part of the Ottoman Empire. Departure gave place to arrival, and arrival to renewal.
More than half a millennium after 1492, Spain is still in denial. Of the canon of Iberian novels, I could count while standing on a single foot and in less than a minute the total number of works eager to discuss Jewish themes without bias. Miguel de Unamuno’s poem on Ladino, Federico García Lorca’s eulogy to a Jewish cemetery in New York, Jorge Semprún’s memoir “The Long Voyage”…. Of course, to recite the plethora of antisemitic texts from Spain, I’ll need the strong support of my two feet and at least an hour.
Why a non-Jewish Spaniard like Muñoz Molina would choose to write a novel about Jews, call it “Sepharad” and almost refuse to address the topic in a balanced, convincing fashion baffles me. Ironically, the same week I got my set of uncorrected proofs I also received as a gift a copy of Noah Gordon’s 2000 book “The Last Jew,” a story about the life of the conversos from 1489 onward that has become a huge bestseller in Spain. To compare Gordon’s fluffy style with that of Muñoz Molina might be seen as an insult: The former is an entertainer, the latter a litterateur. Still, it strikes me as symptomatic that an exploration — a recrimination, really — of the Iberian expulsion should be left to an American Jew like Gordon. Apparently, no Spaniard, no matter how talented, is ready to discuss the issue head-on.
All of which makes me think of “Sepharad” not only as an affront, but also as a waste. Who needs yet another book about exile and memory, especially after Sebald perfected the genre? No, Muñoz Molina doesn’t need to meditate on why Jews have become transient when his own country is in desperate need of a soul-searching voyage to recognize the trauma of the past. Why not give us una novela de novelas on why and how la España católica became amnesiac?
Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. The University of Wisconsin Press will publish “Ilan Stavans: Eight Conversations” by Neal Sokol in April.