Antonio Muñoz Molina: Narrative Across Time
The handy metaphor for time is a river: the swollen rapid that hurls us forward, or the placid current that rolls along, barely noticed until we find ourselves deposited far downstream. The comparison serves a few purposes. It captures our sense of time as continuous. It assures us of the present’s connection to both past and future, and therefore of our current selves’ connection to the people we have been and the people we will become. Above all, the metaphor confers a teleology upon time, makes a narrative of it. And narrative, of course, implies logic.
By virtue of his vocation, the Spanish author Antonio Muñoz Molina relies on narrative. But in the latest of his novels to appear in English, In the Night of Time (beautifully translated by Edith Grossman), Muñoz Molina is interested not in time’s flow but in its rupture. In the Night of Time fixates on time not as an organizing principle, but rather as a partition that cordons off one period of a life from another with cruel suddenness.
It is clear that temporal fault lines fascinate Muñoz Molina, who has returned often to motifs of exile, unexpected love, and historical trauma. The characters in his fiction often find themselves confronting the irruption of personal and public events into the narratives in which they have carefully encased their lives, narratives that Muñoz Molina regards as at once indispensable and fragile. He described that fragility in an introduction to his entry in an anthology of Spanish literature:
In history you don’t have to identify with the other, and you don’t have to accept the possibility that your destiny might be similar to the other person’s because you tend to feel safe. You read a story about the Holocaust, or about how people suffered in the thirties, and this is something that happened to people very far from you, remote from you, things that appear to be completely absent from your life. But the fact is that many people find out that their lives change very quickly and you can easily become the other. Either because you are forced into exile, or because there is suddenly a new border in your country, or because you become sick, or you fall in love and you decide to change your whole life forever.
Ignacio Abel, the protagonist of In the Night of Time, finds his life changed in exactly this fashion. The novel skips back and forth between two epochs in Ignacio’s life. Chronologically, these narratives are consecutive, but, because they are divided by the intrusion of the war and the collapse of Abel’s comfortable life, they are separated as if by a chasm, one that Abel struggles to comprehend as he gropes his way toward an uncertain future. Alternating between the Ignacio of the present—an exile—and the Ignacio of the past—a prominent bourgeois architect who feels insulated from the civil war that will soon engulf Spain—In the Night of Time dramatizes the speed and ease with which identity can give way to anonymity, security can evaporate into vulnerability, and civilization can succumb to barbarity. It is, above all, a narrative about the tenuousness of narratives, but with little of the metafictional trickery that formulation implies. Instead, Muñoz Molina opts to focus closely on Ignacio Abel’s struggle to reconcile the two halves of his life, so recently sundered. And because Muñoz Molina presents that struggle so movingly, this tale about the collapse of narrative is also a potent reminder of narrative’s durability.
We meet the exiled Ignacio Abel first. He arrives in Penn Station after weeks of travel, worn by the ordeal of hostile border guards and interchangeable hotel rooms. Alone and far from home, Ignacio is conspicuous among the purposeful crowds:
. . . tall, foreign, thin by comparison with his passport photo, taken only at the beginning of June and yet at another time, before the bloody, deluded summer in Madrid . . .; his movements are hesitant, frightened among all those people who know their exact destinations and advance toward him with an unyielding energy.
Only weeks earlier, Ignacio had been one of these energetically striding people, the chief architect of University City, a district under construction outside of Madrid. The fond but aloof father of two children, husband to a woman he does not love, an atheist and a tepid Republican, Ignacio is engaged only by architecture. It is his religion. Or, to use the rubric of the novel: the story he tells himself to make sense of the world.
Fundamentally, that story is one of progress, which Ignacio, a disciple of the Bauhaus, believes to flow from the tip of a draftsman’s pencil. Lecturing on his philosophy, Ignacio presents a slide of a poor peasant family:
The architecture of a new time had to be a tool in the great task of improving people’s lives, alleviating suffering, bringing justice, or better yet . . . making accessible what the family in the slide had never seen and didn’t know existed: running water, airy spaces, a school. . . .
It is a noble aspiration, and also a blinding one. “Architecture,” Ignacio thinks, “was an effort of the imagination to see what doesn’t exist more clearly than what you have before your eyes.” It is the ideal, not the real, that inspires Ignacio.
The same might be said of the array of factions dragging Spain toward civil war: the Socialists and Communists and Fascists and anarchists intent on remaking the world. Ignacio scorns them as ignorant dreamers, but for all of his intelligence, he fails to realize that he has more in common with them than he thinks. When the narrator describes Spain’s warring revolutionaries as pursuing “a vision of purity incompatible with the real world,” he might be describing Ignacio’s dream of a world made orderly by architecture. Both Ignacio and the ideologues believe that the story they tell themselves about the world is the correct one, to the exclusion of all others.
By no means does Muñoz Molina believe that being a passionate architect is the same as being a committed Fascist. But In the Night of Time does caution against allowing any single story to become all encompassing. To do so is to invite catastrophe, whether political or personal. The novel suggests that the key to living humanely in both public and private realms is always to keep a story’s edges in view, to recognize it as such.
More than one character tries to help Ignacio recognize his blindness, notably one of his former teachers from the Bauhaus, Professor Rossman, who has survived two totalitarian regimes. Fleeing Germany when Hitler comes to power, he travels to the Soviet Union at the behest of his daughter, a fervent Communist. When she is denounced, they both travel to Spain, where the once-eminent professor ekes out a living by selling fountain pens in cafes. Reminiscing about their days in Weimar, Rossman tries to make Ignacio understand that the philosophies of form and functionality, which they cherish so deeply, are thin bulwarks against the extremism loosed upon Europe:
I didn’t want to know what was happening outside those clean white walls, our beautiful world of large windows and right angles. The beauty of useful things, do you remember? The integrity of the materials, the pure forms conceived to fulfill a specific task. I don’t remember reading in the paper that Hitler had been named Reich Chancellor.
Rossman made the mistake of cocooning himself in his ideas, and he warns Ignacio about making the same error. “Acting honestly, fulfilling our duty, doing our work well,” he says. “And what good is it?” Ignacio—safe, comfortable, prosperous—does not want to ask such a question, and he recoils from the haunted and impoverished Rossman, convinced that if he minds his own business, he won’t be bothered. “If you followed your old routine, the life that had always been connected to that routine would automatically resume,” the narrator says, echoing Ignacio.
The folly of this belief is evident enough, if only because by this point in the novel, we’ve already seen Ignacio as an exile—we know what comes of his plan. But he compounds his blindness by pursuing an affair with a young American named Judith Biely, whom he meets on the evening that he delivers his lecture about the “architecture of a new time.” Judith quickly comes to occupy a corner of Ignacio’s mind as separate and exalted as the one he reserves for that architecture, “an invisible world he could reach instantaneously.” And he is as oblivious to the consequences of this dalliance as he is to the dangers of ignoring the encroaching conflict. “How strange that fear hadn’t intruded yet,” he reflects during his exile, “the presentiment that something unexpected would happen and he wouldn’t be able to see her that day, that she was separated from him by fate.”
Fate does intervene, of course, in the form of exile—an exile that, as Muñoz Molina deftly arranges it, is the direct result not of the public catastrophe of the war but the private calamity of Ignacio’s affair. In seeking to inhabit the idealized realm he has built around Judith, he unwittingly destroys it. Spending a weekend in the suburbs with his wife’s family—Catholic conservatives whom he churlishly loathes—Ignacio decides to return to Madrid on Monday, claiming that he must work, even though construction of University City has halted and the war’s front lines are inching ever nearer. In truth, he is off to see Judith, who fails to show up for their scheduled meeting, leaving Ignacio isolated from both his family and the woman he loves. Thus begins a surreal and frightening interim in a besieged Madrid, which ends only when militiamen drag him to his beloved University City for execution: “They pushed him against a wall, and he recognized it as a wall of the Philosophy Building, the rows of brick peppered with bullet holes and spatters of blood.”
A last-minute intervention saves Ignacio’s life, which he at last understands will not continue as before. Almost killed in University City—the very cradle of his ideals, now an execution ground —Ignacio finds that the political has become quite personal indeed and accepts a commission to build a library at a college in Upstate New York, beginning the second half of his ruptured life.
Aside from a few cameos by García Lorca, Judith is the only writer in the book, though her time in front of a typewriter yields few pages. Rather, the story she works on is the one she lives. Telling Ignacio about her past, “events acquire an order she knows is false, a suggestion of inevitability that conceals but doesn’t extenuate her awareness of its improbability.” Muñoz Molina frequently insists on the distorting effect of hindsight, of knowing what comes next. The narrator tells us that Judith’s “life experiences, when told, took on something of a novel’s rigor and sense of purpose,” but Muñoz Molina wants his readers always to be aware that “narrative rigor” is an artifice. The story can always be interrupted.
The only real story in the novel is time, and as the title suggests, it is here an inscrutable one. Time, in Muñoz Molina’s novel, is “a cataclysm, more efficient and more tenacious than war,” a relentless and pitiless force that no one person can comprehend in total—not even the novelist. Muñoz Molina makes this clear through his only appeal to stylistic legerdemain, his narrative voice. Most of In the Night of Time proceeds in free indirect discourse. Occasionally, however, the third person abruptly becomes the first, a mysterious personage about whom we know little, except that he is writing in roughly the present day. At first, the narrator seems almost intimidatingly omniscient, an embodied version of the dreadful suspicion that descends upon Madrid in the weeks before the war: “I feel through his mind just as I feel through his pockets or the inside of his suitcase”; “With the precision of a police report and a dream, I discover the actual details.”
As the novel unfolds, however, the narrator, like everyone else in the novel, begins colliding with the limits of his tale. Describing the fateful moment when Ignacio decides to leave his family and search for Judith in Madrid, the narrator writes: “I want to imagine, with the precision of lived experience, what happened twenty years before I was born and what no one will remember anymore in just a few years . . . [T]o do this I’d need an impossible sixth sense to perceive a past that precedes memory itself: I’d need to be innocent of the future, ignorant of what is imminent in the present, in each of these people’s lives.” He wants, he adds, to “touch things, not merely imagine them.” But time did not grant him the privilege to witness these events, so he must imagine them.
Ignacio, similarly, wants to touch his past—particularly Judith —but he cannot, and he agonizes over the gulf that has opened in his life. During his journey to Burton College, Ignacio wonders how things could have changed so drastically. He was blind to the edges of the tale he told himself before, but no longer: “[W]hat astonished him most was to have been so wrong about everything, especially the things he was surest of; to have trusted the solidity of everything that collapsed overnight, without drama, almost effortlessly. . . .”
Among the things that he takes for granted is the endurance of his family life, even as he betrays it with Judith. When his wife, Adela, discovers that betrayal, she attempts suicide, and though she survives, Judith is sufficiently startled to end the affair. Traveling in America, Ignacio’s thoughts grasp after the memory of Judith, but they also turn to Adela, whose words are present in a letter that Ignacio reads and rereads and which Muñoz Molina slowly parcels out to the reader. In the angry letter that she writes Ignacio after the affair’s discovery, her voice takes on a conviction that it lacks elsewhere, a palpable rage that restores to her some of the dignity she otherwise lacks.
Traveling in the shadow of the past, Ignacio cannot experience America as Muñoz Molina depicts it: as a new world. At a time when so much contemporary fiction portrays America as a fading promise, it is bracing to see America unabashedly cast in its old mythic role as a land of Edenic possibility. Unscarred by war and unburdened by history, America is in this novel a place outside of time, though Ignacio feels no lighter there. He reflects on how remote the Spanish Civil War must seem to one of his new colleagues at Burton College:
And what can Professor Stevens imagine when he reads the paper or listens to the radio while he eats breakfast next to one of those large windows without shutters or curtains, before these landscapes free of sharp edges, the signs of poverty, drought, or scars of dry streams, bathed in a soft light that seems to touch things ever so delicately while the afternoon fades slowly, enduring in the clear blue of the sky and distant mountains, the dusty gold of hills covered with maples and oaks, the west sides of houses painted white?
Like the narrator, Professor Stevens can only imagine these things, while Ignacio has witnessed them: “Having seen or not having seen is the difference: to leave and go on seeing; to squeeze your eyes shut and not have it matter; to go on seeing with closed eyes the face of a dead stranger. . . .” In the land of those who have seen very little, Ignacio has seen too much, and no story is adequate to what he carries within.
While America confers little freedom upon Ignacio, it gives Muñoz Molina the space to arrange an audacious plot twist. He contrives a reunion between Ignacio and Judith that rivals a Shakespearean romance in the strain it places on credulity. And yet—because he has framed America as a land where happy endings can take place, and because he has so often referred to the artifice of his tale (“This is not a novel, Judith,” Ignacio says)—the set piece works. Ignacio, silent for long portions of the book as he travels in solitude, now pours forth the anger and dismay that have pooled within him, especially after he learns of Judith’s naïve plan to return to Spain and join the revolution. Ignacio tries to persuade her otherwise in part by appealing to the implausibility of the story they’re living: “Think of how big the world is, how complicated it is for two people to meet. We’ve been lucky twice—there won’t be another time.”
As far as we know, Ignacio is correct. The novel’s conclusion brings to mind Kafka’s dark joke that there is “an infinite amount of hope—but not for us.” Ignacio’s reunion with Judith is a remarkable instance of a story continuing against all odds. For a moment, Ignacio is like Odysseus, the exile who survives his ordeal to arrive, improbably, where he wanted. But Judith’s insistence on returning to Spain leaves the future of their hard-won reunion in doubt. In the Night of Time, while not exactly a tragedy, is not a comedy, either. Rather, it occupies a twilit ground between the two, the narrator watching sadly as the story escapes his limited powers as Judith prepares to leave: “I see her in profile, more clearly as dawn breaks,” the narrator says:
. . . discovering the first, still uncertain signs of dawn, the first gray light of the first day of her journey, of a tomorrow she can’t make out and I can’t imagine, her future unknown and lost in the great night of time.
The story is far from over, but we will see no more of it. We may be frustrated at this abrupt ending, but Muñoz Molina is intent on reminding us that we have no right to expect otherwise.
IN THE NIGHT OF TIME, by Antonio Muñoz Molina, trans. by Edith Grossman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $28.00.
A THOUSAND FORESTS IN ONE ACORN: An Anthology of Spanish-Language Fiction, ed. by Valerie Miles. Open Letter. $19.95p.