Though his work is largely unknown in the English speaking world, Antonia Munoz Molina is a well-established and valued writer in his native Spain, a journalist and commentator as well as a novelist with over twenty books to his name. His latest work, an expansively epic exploration of one man’s inner turmoil and infidelity against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, has received an English translation and has been much feted in the US press, with reviewers including ‘Tolstoyan’ amidst other adulatory epithets. Does it deserve such plaudits?
In the Night of Time follows the thoughts and trials of Ignacio Abel, born to the slums of Madrid, who has scrabbled his way from proletarian origins to become one of Spain’s leading architects, his rise coinciding with the great and bitter political schisms rending the country in the 1930s. The same faultline finds itself within his own family, his wife Adela hailing from a high-born bourgeois family of impeccable conservative and Catholic credentials, while Ignacio cleaves to the moderate republicanism and socialism of his background and youth. This however is the least of the rifts between them; their marriage is calcified, going through the motions, and on Ignacio’s part at least, loveless. Ignacio is a man who looks older than his 48 years and “supposes with a mixture of melancholy and relief that no great changes in his life await him” when he discovers a woman he does love – Judith Bieley – a Jewish American student in his faculty, idealistic and effervescent, brilliant in all senses. They embark on a furtive affair, finding bliss in the back bedrooms of the capital whilst violent upheaval slowly segues into civil war around them. Their time however, is curtailed. The story is told in hindsight from the point of view of Ignacio a few months down the line, fleeing from Spain to the US, escaping not just the advancing fascist army but the infighting and random persecution of the panicking Republican ranks as well. Not only has he left his wife and two children behind, but he is without his love as well. How this came to be is the unfolding drama of the narrative.
In the Night of Time is a fearless book, one which does not flinch from its sense of ambition in capturing an era of history just as fully as the individual minds at work within it. Deep and dense, over 600 pages long, the prose glides for pages without a paragraph break, intense, mellifluous descriptions of both individual character meditation and the vividly charged panoramic scope of the Spanish and US landscape. Most British or American writers would lack the confidence to let their prose stretch on for many lines at a time. Molina does this not as an exercise in stream-of-conscious modernism, but in terms of pure naturalism. They would fear the accusations of affectation, of ponderousness. Molina never comes near to either. Rolling meditations on the nature of time and perception sally forth exquisitely and beautifully. There is a deeply sensual mystery be found in the quotidian, as in the objects in Iganacio’s pockets which awaken the dormancy of his memories. “People’s souls are not in photographs but in the small things they touched, in the ones that bore the warmth of their hands.” Once gone, Judith’s presence haunts him with a suddenness, “as if by a clap of hands or a voice revealing the dimensions of a great area of darkness.” The novel takes its name from and finds some of its most affecting musings on the nature of time itself; “Time like a solid block of calendar pages, each day an imperceptible sheet of paper, a number in red or black, the name of a weekday…. Time will tell. Time heals. The time has come to save Spain from her ancestral enemies. The time of glory will return.” Another ever-present theme – the way the individual mind itself unravels into the meaninglessness of battle cries and the slogans of the violent collective.
Characters are captured with a quiet perfection. Ignacio’s wife Adela; cruelly thwarted by sexist expectation into the very same dullness which Ignacio comes to despise. His children Lita and Miguel; the former blessed with a confidence unknown to her mother, the latter with a sensitivity which sets him apart from his family. The doomed German Jewish exile professor Rossman, fleeing from the Nazis only to be persecuted by Spanish Stalinists. The flashy provost Van Doren, cynically scheming, (but to what end?) There are walk-on parts for certain real-life figures as well, the most appealing of whom is Spanish President Manuel Azana, an acquaintance of Iganacio’s who wryly warns him to get out when the chaos begins to bubble over. All are sympathetically realised, even Ignacio’s Falangist (and fantasist) brother-in-law Victor. It is a further tribute to Molina’s skill that one could imagine a further book written about any one of them. Ignacio himself is a greatly flawed figure; vain, treacherous, imperious to his children, and yet all the more human and empathetic for this.
Like other great works inspired by the Spanish Civil War; For Whom The Bell Tolls, Homage to Catalonia, this novel takes the obscene wickedness of Franco and the Falange as granted, while concentrating its main ire on the injustices and imbecilities within the Republican side. It could be argued that in its depictions of the vindictive terror of the communist-controlled police and the arbitrary brutality of the anarchist militias the author may make his bias towards the liberal-socialist moderation of its main player a little too obvious. And indeed, the only time Molina’s otherwise excellent skills in characterisation fail him, and descend into caricature, are in the depiction of writers’ union placeman and communist apparatchik Bergamin, who parrots off Stalinist ‘ends-justify-means’ cliches just a little too readily to convince. Nonetheless, the dehumanising poverty and squalor which leads the people into bloody retribution is so well rendered we are never in doubt about the social kindling which leads to the grand destructive pyre.
While Molina achieves a remarkable sympathy with all his characters, we spend the most time with Abel, and so his view predominates. But it is the view of a loser. In Ignacio Abel we have a character wedded to the concept of ‘progress’ in its purest form, the belief that humanity’s wellbeing and happiness will advance just as science advances, that a superstructure of justice can be built with the same order and care as Abel’s own building projects. The vicious and wanton reality of war, the explosive collision of revolution and reaction put paid to Abel’s dreams, as fragile, breakable and unworkable as his plans for a future with Judith Bieley. As Abel muses, “Common sense was the most discredited of utopias”. As elsewhere in this masterful book, the didactic is avoided, but a fundamental truth revealed.
Any cop? So, does it stand comparison with War and Peace? At this point the reviewer must admit his ignorance – I haven’t read Tolstoy’s masterwork and so cannot appreciate the collation. I will say that if such a comparison can conceivably be drawn I must finally get round to reading War and Peace sooner rather than later, such is Molina’s fabulous achievement here.