La Noche de los Tiempos, by Antonio Muñoz Molina – a review

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.

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14 Responses to La Noche de los Tiempos, by Antonio Muñoz Molina – a review

  1. pursewarden says:

    Excellent review, Clea – a book I can skip. My old Spanish literature teacher just gave me a similar review on Sunday.

    However, there’s one comment I don’t agree with, and that is the myth that the 2nd Republic was a golden age of anything. No matter who was in power – left or right – violence was rampant. Anarchy and barbarism didn’t start in 1936, but in 1934 with the uprisings in Asturias and Cataluña which the army had to put an end to. Or even before that: between the 10th and 15th of May 1931, just a month after the Republic was proclaimed, 100 religious buildings (including the Jesuit school in c/ Flor, then considered the second most important library in all of Spain) were burnt by Socialists, Communists and Anarchists. Indeed, in the few years that the Republic lasted, more libraries and religious buildings and art were lost in Spain than in any other time in history, except for the rampages in leftist areas of the country during the Spanish Civil War. Unsuprisingly, most of the intellectuals who had supported the Republic – Ortega y Gasset, Marañón, Pérez de Ayala – welcomed its demise.

    In conclusion: just because what came afterwards was terrible doesn’t mean the Republic was any less bad. The 20th Century truly was Spain’s dark age.

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  3. clea says:

    Pursewarden, I agree with you entirely as to the outcome of the Republic. But the basis was a solid, and very idealistic, one, addressing a lot of issues that were pending in (Spanish) society at the time. For example, women’s rights, education/literacy, and breaking down class differences. At least these ideas were considered; the reality is always very different from the theory. Apart from the fact that society cannot be changed at the drop of a hat, as we all know.

  4. pursewarden says:

    The road to hell is paved with good intentions, they say, although I’m not sure even that all intentions were good. Firstly, we can’t speak of Republicans as a unified force. For example, women’s rights were only supported by right wing Republicans (the left voted against female right to vote) and breaking down of class differences (through taking land from its owners, mostly the church and rich landowners) was supported by left wing Republicans. Both sides were divided in people who believed in democracy, and those who didn’t. The Socialist party is a perfect example, with moderate Besteiro having to fight against Largo Caballero, “el Lenin español”, as his supporters called him, who supported a Soviet-style dictatorship. Also, better education wasn’t a Republican ideal: it was a goal of regimes before and after the 2nd Republic (children in school went to 58 to 68% during the Republic, and from 53% after the war to 71% in 1948 and 85% in 1978).

    You say the basis was solid, yet the burning of libraries and churches started happening just a month after the Republic was proclaimed. Who had the good intentions? Maybe a few Republicans, but I’m sure it depends on what you consider the good of society. The left and right wing revolutionaries had great intentions from their point of view, but not mine. Let’s not forget that General Mola, in the 18th of July coup, waved a Republican flag and yelled: “¡Salvemos la República!”. His intentions (peace, stability, order) were also good, but that wouldn’t lead os to justify the regime he helped put in place.

    Sorry, but I don’t agree with your point of view on the people that put the Republic in place. Their fight against the Church, against freedom of expression and in favor of Soviet-style laws against landowners make the Republic not only terrible in its outcome, but also in its genesis.

  5. Javi says:

    Hello

    If I comment on the book (and on your review) will anyone read it? If not, I will not waste my time

    Just let me know

  6. pursewarden says:

    Sure Javi, your comments will be welcome (as long as they’re respectful, of course).

  7. Javi says:

    Thnaks!!

    I believe that Muñoz Molina’s intention when he keeps referring to both Judith and Ignacio by their names and surnames is precisely to create a sense of distance between the reader and the characters to emphasize that the story is happening more than 70 years ago. In my opinion they is the technique he has chosen to convey that fascination with the passage of time that impregnates most of Muñoz Molina’s works. In terms of the characterizations, I actually agree with you that sometimes the repetition of certain features like cigarettes hanging from the lips of the milicianos might get annoying, but again, I would say that Muñoz Molina is trying to underline those features that would outstand if seen from our perspective: the fact that most people smoked in those days, peasantry faces tanned and wrinkled by the sun….It is true, on the other hand that Muñoz Molina’s is not particularly good at creating conversational situations: I agree that some of the “declamations” are not believable, that normal people rarely talk like that as if knowing exactly what they are going to say from beginning to end.

    There are a few more remarks I wanted to make but I don’t have much time so, let’s say “to be continued…”

    • sheila ingrisano says:

      Hi Javi,

      Thanks for your contribution. I completely agree with you that these are literary “tics”, and I’m absolutely sure that Muñoz Molina consciously made use of them. As an avid reader, which you probably are too, I see that some things work and some don’t. And of course it’s totally subjective! My complaint about his style in this book is that the reader does get the point. Even if you don’t know anything about the period, you eventually will by reading this book. Yet these stereotypes distanced me from a story that could have been very moving. In my opinion, Muñoz Molina fails to bring a fascinating period alive to the reader.

      I’ll be looking forward to your own further remarks when you have more time.

  8. Javier says:

    HI Sheila,

    You are right in the sense that Muñoz Molina is maybe not able to recreate those days as a universe alive on its own (like many ninetieth century writers, like Tolstoy or Eliot, or for that matter Galdos, were able to do). I still believe that he skilfully depicts scenes that may have been a daily reality for many people living in Madrid by 1936: it may true, as you say, that one of the flaws of the book is that those “pictures” work as stills displayed in a gallery (and there is always something stereotypical in any exhibition) but do not manage to work together as in a motion picture. Certanly I did not enjoy the book as much as “El jinete polaco”, maybe because that book was strongly subjective and meant to be clearly about Muñoz Molina himself, whereas La noche de los tiempos is supposed to be a more ambitious enterprise, or at least a different one, flawed by the incapacity of the author to forget about himself (for nme he es clarly the narrator of the history he has imagined). As a consequence he focuses on the details that would have impressed him as a witness: the killings, the dried blood, corpses, smells and the evilness that common people are able to show, but fails, as most human beings do, to see the whole picture stretching in time, its significance, its potential interpretations, the various ways a given event is experienced and the internal contradictions real people are subjected to. I still think that he is a very good writer, but, of course, has his limitations, like we all do (hehe)…have you read any of his other books?

  9. sheila ingrisano says:

    Ah, Galdós! Now there’s a vivid writer, Javier, although he may have had it easy since he was “just” describing what he saw on the streets every day. I very much like your comparison of an exhibit with a movie. Good point. But, in my opinion, rather than being a stereotype, each picture should be a self-contained world, able to stand alone, describing, or hinting at, a whole story with just a few strokes as opposed to a longer telling.
    I just checked my bookshelf to remind myself about the other Muñoz Molina books I’ve read. I do remember enjoying “Beltenebros” (the movie was good too). I got about halfway through “Plenilunio” but didn’t finish it. But I will definitely look for “El jinete polaco” since you say you enjoyed it more.
    As for limitations – you bet we all have them! Unfortunately………. haha. And style is so subjective, don’t you think? Still, we start a book with a certain attitude, generally ready to accept the author’s thoughts, maybe even suspend belief for the duration, and that’s where the writer has to convince us. Are we ready to go along for the ride into their world?
    So, what other Spanish authors do you like?

  10. Javi says:

    Sorry for the very late reply:

    Yes Sheila, reading is a constant conversation between author and reader, even a negotiation?
    Other Spanish writers…umm, to be honest with you, I do not haven’t read so much Spanish literature as I would like to (due lack of time)…in fact, I would say that I am more into Anglo-Saxon literature than I am into Spanish; but don’t get me wrong, I do not mean to imply than Spanish literature is worse, simply that I have not dedicated much time to read Spanish writers over the last few years: I would like to read Javier Marias (at least his early books) and Javier Cercas, also Juan Jose Millas (although I came across a review of one of his books that pictured him life a terrible writer) and, ever since I read a short story called “Sugar daddy” I have keep saying to myself that I must read something by Alvaro Pombo…then you have the “classics”, Cela, for example….I really would like to read more Spanish literature, among some other reasons because, being Spanish as I am, it awakes in me a feeling of “being at home” that, conversely, American or English books cannot provoke….maybe you can recommend me some Spanish writers…hehe

    • clea says:

      That’s a loaded question, Javi! It’s hard to recommend writers. And like you, I’ve been reading more English and Americans lately. Hmmm, let’s see, writers/books I’ve enjoyed. I thought “Soldados de Salamina” was beautiful. Delibes is wonderful; I don’t think you’d go wrong with him. I confess to enjoying Perez Galdós a lot because you really get a “you were there” feeling when reading his books, and he writes very descriptively about Madrid and madrileños of a certain period. “La Calle Valverde” by Max Aub, again about Madrid. I remember loving “Los gozos y las sombras” by Torrente, very atmospheric.

      It is awful, but lack of time does come into it, doesn’t it? There’s so much to read that we find ourselves making sometimes hard choices.

      • Javier Caro says:

        Yes, time is always a problem…I read “Los santos inocentes” ages ago, in school, and I really injoyed it…Some of the books that you mention are in my ever-growing reading list (Los gozos y las sombras, Galdos, of course). I also would like to find time to read some of Alas Clarin and some other 19th century Spanish literature…and, well, you always have the Latin American writers, another world that I have not explored deeply enough (just Garcia Marquez and a bit of Vargas Llosa). By the way, talking about Garcia Marquez I made a big mistake that you probably have never made: I read “El amor en los tiempos del colera” in English; the translation was good, don’t get me wrong, and I really enjoyed the book, but one could picture the translator struggling to transmit Garcia Marquez’s style and character into a foreign language….

        What about literature in English, any preference?

  11. clea says:

    Hi Javi,

    How are you doing with your reading? Have you had any time to start with the 19th century writers? Actually, reading in translation is something we all have to do and luckily, we don’t know the difference usually! Still, I agree with you that it’s better to read books in the original whenever you can. Which makes me think about subtitled vs. dubbed movies………… There’s another argument. What sort of books do you like reading? Hmmm, let me see, some of my favorites: The English Patient, The Tiger’s Wife (Tea Obreht), To the End of the Land (David Grossman) (which was originally written in Hebrew, I think), Jonathan Coe, Robertson Davies, John le Carré. Just the first ones that come to mind. No science fiction or fantasy on my list.
    This could go on for days. What would you recommend?

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