I have just finished reading La noche de los tiempos, by Antonio Muñoz Molina. It had the potential to be a great and original novel, but didn’t live up to expectations, at least not mine.
The year is 1936, the place a train heading to Rhineburg, NY. Or really, 1935, the place Madrid. Or really – well, that’s one of the problems with this book.
Ignacio Abel is a successful architect who worked his way up from his humble origins to design a well-received school in a working class neighborhood in Madrid and eventually to supervise the building of the Complutense University. (This in itself is a fascinating subject and I would say, hardly ever documented in fiction, the Golden Age of learning in Spain during the Second Republic that ended much too soon with the outbreak of the Civil War.) Abel is married to Adela, an unsympathetic character from the start: conservative, dull, a “typical” woman of her class whose main concern is her children’s coughs and sneezes. Highlights of her week seem to be lunching with her parents, an uncle who is a priest, and numerous aunts who are never named but always characterized as old maids, twittering and mumbling in the background. There is also the inevitable ne’er-do-well brother, incapable of holding down a job or sticking with anything, until he finds self-importance with the falangistas. Adela’s family is comfortably bourgouis. Her mother is an airhead, her father a kindly but stupid old man. Despite the length of the book (935 pages), we never learn exactly how two such different people – and from different social classes, a real barrier in the early days of the 20th century – manage to meet, or why they fall in love.
However, despite Ignacio’s impatience with his wife and her family, and what we soon discover to be his timid attempts to break away (he goes off to study at the Bauhaus in the early years of his marriage, applying for a scholarship without mentioning anything to his wife and eventually leaving her alone with two small children), closer examination reveals that the couple are very similar in that they share a strong sense of duty; they are people who follow the rules of the times. Were they ever happy together? Did they marry out of duty? Did they even have a couple of years of newly-wed joy before children and responsibilities buried them? Did they ever have anything in common?
Whatever their shared past, their present is arid, awkward and wary. Then Ignacio meets an American woman, Judith Bielsky, in October 1935. Judith is intelligent, attractive, free and, most of all, foreign; she represents the unknown and the free. She and Abel embark on a passionately physical affair. They are completely swept up in what each represents to the other. For Judith, Madrid is a city where she immediately feels at home, drawn to the life in the streets, people’s hospitality, the excitement of the political situation, so meeting an attractive and successful Spaniard is a perfect culmination of events. As for Abel, he is clearly incredulous, almost moved, by the fact that such a young and attractive woman could be interested in him. He moves in intellectual, leftist circles but has no real friends. His home life is smothering him. Judith’s sexual magnetism energizes him, and her fascination with his city permits him to see it in a new light. They grab moments out of their days to meet, phone each other at odd hours, write each other letters daily and of course, eventually neglect other aspects of their lives. Their relationship is so absorbing that it could only be a question of time before they get caught. Which they do but without any real scandal in the sense that no one but Abel’s wife finds out. She finds their letters, photographs, and apparently without thinking twice about it, attempts to commit suicide. However, she confides in no one and, once recovered, never recriminates her husband except with her pained and patient indifference.
All of this drama is set against the backdrop of Spain’s turmoil of the period. From a kind of golden age of learning and openness, the slow but perceptible elimination of class differences, the government’s well-meaning although not always efficient attempts to bring education to everyone, permit women to vote and generally create a more open society, the country plunged into anarchy and barbarism with the election of February 1936. Bombs left in the street, drive-by shootings, people taken from their beds at night and driven to the outskirts of the city to be shot – even the funerals ended in free-for-alls when the mourners of one side were met by attackers from the other. Adela makes her suicide attempt right before the coup. Abel, knowing that he is losing Judith to her growing sense of shame with their forced secrecy and her desire for more, has arranged a last meeting with her on the 19th of July, the day after the war begins. When she doesn’t appear at their usual meeting place, he begins a desperate search through the chaos of the city, trapped in the breakdown of transportation, the burning of churches, confused crowds in the streets, and the sweltering July heat.
All of this is beautifully described, as is Abel’s “downfall”: taking advantage of an offer made to him a few months previously by an American millionaire to design a library at a small private university in Rhineberg, Abel manages to get all the proper papers needed for a US visa and leave the country. Bus to Valencia, then up to the border, days spent in France waiting for his ship to leave, arrival in the United States where he stays in a cheap hotel again waiting, this time for the letter from the university. Completely alone, and with little luggage and funds that get lower and lower, his elegant suits gets ragged, the collars of his once neatly pressed shirts wear out, and his hand-made shoes are scuffed and split. He develops a habit of checking and re-checking his pockets to make sure that he has all his papers. Having suffered the indignity of the refugee – lumped into a faceless mass, made to show his papers again and again – he finds himself in a strange land, facing an uncertain future and struggling with the language. Despite the comfort of the college’s guesthouse and the welcome he receives, he is painfully aware that he is a stranger in a strange land, facing an uncertain future and, in the best of cases, forced to start his life all over again.
The problem is that by this point, the reader is tired. This reader, at least. Muñoz Molina plays with too many precious tricks. Abel and Judith are both constantly referred to, for 935 pages, by both their first and last names. Not only is this irritatingly repetitious but it creates a distance between the reader and the character, a kind of coldness. I found myself sighing in annoyance over the characterizations: all of the working class have nicotine-stained fingers and wear rope-soled shoes. Cigarettes invariably hang from their lips, red and black kerchiefs circle their necks. The sun wounds too many façades; there are too many people described as having “elastic bodies”.
The characters, too, tend to fall into the category of cardboard stereotypes. There doesn’t seem to be anyone in Madrid in 1936 who is not either a grinning night-time assassin, a child (part of a mocking group) who takes unquestioning pleasure in kicking cadavers found in the fields, or a victim smelling of urine and fear. The supporting cast are Manichean; very few seem to be particularly worried about the catastrophe that is war that they are caught up in. Perhaps this was a true picture of the time. As in any war situation, it’s not the moment to stand up and argue. But a character would have doubts in their heart of hearts and express these occasionally; there should be some complexity.
There are problems with style as well. People don’t talk, they declaim, for pages and pages. Paragraphs are nonexistent for anywhere from 3 to 5 pages at a time. The same scenes and situations are referred to time and again, which is an acceptable ploy if one feels that there is ultimately a purpose to it. However, this repetition does not seem to advance the plot in any way but rather drags it back to the same point several times, increasing the reader’s sense of impatience.
And perhaps most mysterious of all: who is the unknown “I” narrating the beginning and the end of the story (the part in the States)? Several thoughts crossed my mind while reading these sections. Ignacio Abel himself, looking back on his life? A son he never knew, borne of his relationship with Judith? His son Miguel’s child, doing research on the lost grandfather? I am sorry to say that, although I was aware and questioning of this character, I failed to find any clue as to his identity.
This is an ambitious book, and a fascinating moment in Spanish history, which I took up eagerly. There aren’t many novels that cover this rich, complex time. Ultimately, I found it extremely frustrating because of authorial quirks, and found myself wishing for a dynamic style.
Post by our guest blogger Clea.