A Thousand Sharp Edges

Adam Mars-Jones

As seen by the English-speaking world, the Spanish Civil War was a screen on which certain images could be projected, images of harsh sunlight, moral clarity and sacrifice. It was an emblematic, almost allegorical war and a test case for conscience, a political crisis so thoroughly appropriated that the Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse hardly needed to point out that its contributors were overwhelmingly outsiders: it was the war that was Spanish, not the poetic response. The same appropriation, however laced with self-criticism, continues through novels like David Leavitt’s While England Sleeps and films like Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom. Franco’s rule had the effect of marginalising the country culturally, in a sort of mutual boycott punctuated by skirmishes and scandal (Buñuel, for instance, tentatively welcomed back from exile, promptly made Viridiana, and was anathematised all over again), and after his death the war seemed to recede rather rapidly into ancient history, though it has served recently as the backdrop for genre projects in the cinema like Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). It’s time we got over our obsession with the International Brigades, with those who could choose whether to choose or not.

The war is viewed much more directly, though with great literary sophistication, in Antonio Muñoz Molina’s prodigious In the Night of Time, first published in Spanish in 2009. Unseductive in its early stages but cumulatively overwhelming in depth and detail, it’s a rich attempt to examine the foundational wound of modern Spain. On the first page the architect Ignacio Abel, exhausted and unkempt, arrives in New York’s Penn Station in October 1936 on his way upstate to Rhineberg College, where he’s been awarded a visiting professorship. He has been commissioned to design a new library for the college and can expect to be welcomed as a minor celebrity and honoured guest. But Abel is deeply damaged by the circumstances in which he left Spain, a refugee with a veneer of respectability overlaying guilt and regret. He has left behind his wife and two children, as well as his American mistress, and has had no recent news of any of them.

On page 17 he boards the train. When it stops at Rhineberg, two hours or so later, we’re on page 385. It takes him another seventy pages to step onto the platform. From that point onwards the pace picks up, though it never becomes exactly brisk. Abel’s journey is filled with memories of Spain, but this isn’t flashback – the framework of the American journey is too solidly evoked and maintained. In cinematic terms it’s more like a series of dissolves alternating between the two realities, even if Abel’s mind is constantly drawn back to the past. In America he lacks the ‘spider webs of relationships’ that give people’s lives shape and meaning, but in Spain he was held fast by those sticky threads, helplessly trapped in professional compromise and the hypocrisies of adulterous intrigue. The only concession to tension in the construction of the book is the early revelation that, in his last days before leaving Madrid, Abel turned away an unnamed person who knocked at his door and made desperate appeals. The uncertainty about this person’s identity is a basic but effective mechanism of suspense, like the high sustained string note on a film soundtrack.

If the book doesn’t cast an immediate spell it may be partly a matter of page layout. Its paragraphs are substantial and sometimes enormous, occasionally passing the five-page mark though never the ten. The withholding of a pause on the page, a symbolic breathing space, is an indispensable aspect of some writers’ rhetorical equipment, part of the way they impose their vision. In novels by Bolaño (By Night in Chile) or Bernhard (Correction, say, or Extinction) the paragraph virtually usurps the novel. The relentless blocks of text leave the reader clinging to a cliff face of prose by the fingernails, denied the foothold of indentation. Nevertheless Bolaño and Bernhard create a momentum, however oppressive. Molina’s procedure is more moderate but comes across as even less friendly, since it seems arbitrary rather than integral to the workings of the book. In a typical paragraph the trajectory of thought remains unfinished, and though this refusal of completion is very much part of the design of the book it’s hard to see that breaking down the paragraphs would interfere with it. As it is, the look of the text is almost geologically hostile, a vast plain strewn with rugged blocks. The tone of the book is different, sombre but not heavy-going.

There’s also a first-person who appears on the first page (‘I see him first at a distance in the rush-hour crowd’) and at intervals thereafter, a latent narrator, never going away but only defined late in the book. In a traditional narrative this might be (for instance) a descendant of Abel’s, reconstructing a traumatic rupture in the life of the family, though it’s just as likely to be a more postmodern presence with a strange right of access (‘I feel through his mind just as I feel through his pockets or the inside of his suitcase’). This thread, though, has been spun too fine and stretched too far to make a difference to the experience of reading.

Ignacio Abel, who we are told was responsible for the design of a building in Madrid’s University City, is a fictional character, but he rubs shoulders in the novel with a number of historical figures, including José Moreno Villa and Juan Negrín, temperamental opposites vividly characterised. Villa is a writer and painter resigned to being eclipsed by flashier talents, and he continues to live in the Residencia de Estudiantes (not really a student residence but an influential cultural centre) even when it has become an under-equipped field hospital. Negrín is a dynamo of organisation and decision-making as finance minister (exchanging gold reserves for arms from the Soviet Union, for instance), though nostalgic for his old life as a medical researcher.

Moreno Villa says of Negrín, rather awkwardly: ‘He’s always in motion, like one of those particles he talks about so much, because aside from everything else, he’s always reading German scientific journals, just as he did when he was dedicated only to the laboratory. You can know at any given moment where Dr Negrín is, or his trajectory, but not both things at the same time.’ The awkwardness lies only partly in the unlikeliness of the uncertainty principle being so widely diffused at the time. The book’s universe is governed by laws much closer to Newtonian ones – particularly the third law of motion, stipulating the operation of equal and opposite forces – than anything described by Heisenberg.

Abel, trained at the Bauhaus, may be aspiring to impose modernism on a culture where it can’t root itself. The parallel with the precarious political position of the Republic would risk being glib if Abel’s architectural aesthetic wasn’t modelled with such exquisite sophistication. On one level he loves models and plans, the perfection of the project before it even starts to exist. On another he understands that the completion of a building is when its life begins: ‘What had recently been completed achieved true nobility only with use and a constant resistance to the elements, the wear caused by wind and rain, the passage of humans, the voices that at first resound with too-raw echoes in spaces still permeated by the smell of plaster and paint, wood, fresh varnish.’ He shows a slide during a lecture of a lintel detail in a Spanish vernacular building: ‘With the pointer he indicated the diagonal of the joint of two ashlars that formed the corner, where two contrary forces balanced with a mathematical precision that was even more astonishing given that the men who conceived and built the structure probably didn’t know how to read or write.’ In their ageing, buildings come to show beauty of a different sort: ‘It was time that completed the work; the passage of time, heat and cold, constant use; time that revealed and consumed the beauty of a brick wall eroded by weather, or flights of stairs worn by footsteps, or a wooden railing burnished by the constant slide of hands.’ These widely separated passages create an unusually dynamic portrait of a sensibility and a vocation.

Abel can see that some of his preferences are based on a reaction against the banalities of national taste. At one point there’s a sharply entertaining list of his pet hates, evidence of ‘a kind of national depravity that offended his sense of beauty more deeply than his convictions regarding justice’:

the stuffed heads of bulls over the bars in taverns; the paprika red and saffron-substitute yellow of bullfight posters; folding chairs and carved desks that imitated the Spanish Renaissance; dolls in flamenco dresses, a curl on their forehead, which closed their eyes when leaned back and opened them as if resuscitated when they were upright again; rings with cubic stones; gold teeth in the brutal mouths of tycoons; the newspaper obituaries of dead children – he rose to heaven, he joined the angels – and their tragic white coffins; baroque mouldings; excrescences carved in granite on the vulgar façades of banks; coat and hat racks made with the horns and hooves of deer or mountain goats; coats of arms for common last names made of glazed ceramic from Talavera.

The cadences of Edith Grossman’s English version (despite a few smudges, perhaps inevitable in long and elaborately structured sentences) can lay claim to full adoptive citizenship rather than the second-class identity papers of translationese, the Nansen passport that is so often the best that displaced literary language can hope for.

Abel isn’t an aristocrat looking down in dismay at all this pretentious clutter but a product of the artisanal lower class (his father was a stonemason who died young) looking up with as much determination to rise as respect for the upper levels. The evolution of his architectural aesthetic takes him back to the past, and makes his love of beauty and desire for social justice seem like aspects of the same thing:

What real life imposed on his desire and the project were not only limitations but also possibilities, the gifts of risk and the unforeseen. The anonymous masters of architecture had worked with what they had closest to hand, not with materials they’d selected but with those provided by chance, stone or wood or clay for adobe bricks. His father would touch a dressed stone of granite with his large open palm as if he were stroking an animal’s back.

Ignacio made an unexpected love match with Adela, a little older than he is, the daughter of a prosperous family whose contacts made his rise in his profession much easier, something he would prefer not to think about. In the dynastic fantasies of his wife’s family he sees the same ridiculous affectations:

From the time they were born, the children … were picked up by their grandfather, the maiden aunts, Abel’s brother-in-law Victor, and the uncle who was a priest, and scrutinised as they discussed to which of the two lines a nose or a type of hair or dimples belonged, from which Ponce or Cañizares or Salcedo the baby had inherited the tendency to cry so loudly – those strong Cañizares lungs! … In the heat of these gratifying diatribes they tended to forget the inevitable genetic contribution of the children’s father, unless they could relate it to the hint of a defect.

Molina disregards the Jamesian unities of point of view, constantly supplementing Abel’s subjectivity (and Judith’s, and Adela’s) with the impressions of other people. It’s hard to control such effects without incoherence, to have tributaries flow smoothly into the main streams of a book, but the rewards can be great. Within five pages of these passages so scathing of ancestor-worshipping kitsch, we see Abel from the perspective of his father-in-law, who shows a tenderness of which Abel has no suspicion:

Don Francisco de Asís, as he himself said, would have put his hand in fire for his son-in-law, who didn’t smoke, barely drank more than a glass of wine at meals, never raised his voice, not even when discussing politics … He was a Socialist but thanks to his work had been able to buy a car and a spacious apartment with an elevator in the most elegant section of Calle Príncipe de Vergara, between Goya and Lista no less.

Abel, ‘his son-in-law, almost his other son’, sends the children to the Institute School to get a secular education, and doesn’t let them wear scapulars, but doesn’t oppose their taking communion or being taught prayers by their mother. These are Don Francisco’s only grandchildren, ‘who sadly wouldn’t carry to the next generation the family name of Ponce-Cañizares’ – and at this point the theme of dynastic pride returns, warmed by fondness and melancholy.

When Adela’s brother, Víctor, starts turning up in the shirt and leather straps of Falangist uniform the book seems to skirt its own sort of kitsch, the recapitulation of civil war within a family, a formula beloved of films made for TV, but again it is rescued by the strength of its details and the subtle deployment of point of view. It’s a small but definite shock, after the consistency of Adela’s displays of loyalty to her brother’s choices and opinions, to discover that she privately considers him ‘a great fool’. Abel’s antipathy has to be modified by his awareness of the love his children have for their uncle.

Adela, wife and mother, occupying the least glamorous corner of the romantic triangle, stands in need of a compensatory supply of sympathetic insight. It’s poured down on her in some remarkable passages in the middle of the book: ‘Since she had an honourable spirit and a passive character, Adela liked things to be what they seemed.’ Her social predicament as a young woman is summed up in a sentence whose brilliance owes something to Proust: ‘Her inadequate education as a Spanish señorita had left her with a feeling of intellectual inferiority, made more pronounced because her sharp intelligence allowed her to understand the extent of what she hadn’t learned.’ It would technically have been possible for her to go to university, but this was a time when female students had to be separated from males in lecture halls by a screen. As a young woman without definite marital prospects it counted against Adela that (according to rumour) she wore glasses at home in order to read newspapers and modern novels. It was also known that ‘on more than one occasion she’d missed a novena or a charity raffle not because she was home attending to her parents or caring for her younger brother but because she’d gone to a lecture or a theatrical performance with suspect women friends.’

Molina’s particular mastery shows itself most powerfully in extended passages, not primarily lyrical, in which petals of detail unfold along the whole length of a sentence. One Sunday before an election Adela’s parish priest approaches her after church with a handful of envelopes. He’s sure she will vote as she should, but perhaps her maids will be swayed by ‘demagogic propaganda, the charm of impious forces’, or not vote at all:

Adela extended her right hand, and the priest extended his, thinking she was going to take the envelopes with electoral ballots, but what Adela did was to gently push the hand offering them to her, barely touching it, leaning forward slightly, smiling before turning away, saying with all the good breeding her voice could hold, ‘Don’t worry, Father. We’ll all know how to vote the dictates of our conscience, with the help of God.’

She is characterised to her fingertips, to the tips of her gloves. ‘What would her priest think if he knew she’d voted for a candidate of the Popular Front, and a Socialist besides, Julián Besteiro, not telling anyone, not her parents or her brother or Ignacio, who hadn’t asked her; he probably considered it a foregone conclusion that she’d vote for the right.’ If Abel is dragged into the past during his journey into the New World, back to what is by definition a closed set of memories and emotions, then the reader is also being shown aspects of his past that Abel never noticed – something that does a lot to admit some air into the world of the book.

The character of Abel’s mistress, the free-spirited New Yorker Judith Biely, isn’t skimped either; she is ‘the great American enthusiast’, ‘even more American because her parents are Russian Jews who speak English with a terrible accent’. Judith was brought up in a poverty without realism, her father a hectoring dreamer unable to acknowledge the weakness of his business judgment, her mother frustrated by lack of space and by motherhood itself, having to wait until her children fell asleep before reading the Russian novels she loved, poring over piano scores without benefit of an instrument, moving her fingers on the tabletop (by the time she has access to a piano again, arthritis has intervened). Judith abandoned her studies to marry a politically engaged writer, extracts from whose dense, rambling novel about New York were published in small magazines, very likely influencing the rhythm and general outline of Manhattan Transfer – certainly Dos Passos looked the other way if their paths crossed at literary parties. By the time she realised that her husband’s radical ideas were no more than an echo chamber of slogans, delivered with a voice full of displaced anger in a crowded smoky room that she would be expected to tidy and air the next morning, she had forfeited the very moderately liberating prospect of teaching literature at some women’s college. Travelling in Europe using money from her dying mother, she is greedy for experience but has no illusions about freedom’s tendency to evaporate.

*

By so greatly enlarging each corner and side of the romantic triangle, Molina produces the effect of an epic novelette, a category that sounds demeaning until you realise that it can accommodate Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina and ‘Swann in Love’. What this means strategically is that the political background, the slow collapse of living conditions in Madrid as the rebel forces come closer, can be fully dramatised even though it’s mainly glimpsed in the characters’ peripheral vision. It’s an illusion that people living through a crisis are fully, continuously aware of what is happening around them. All the characters in the book are like the blind violinist outside the church where Adela worships: ‘When young girls passed, their high heels clicking rapidly, the blind man played tunes from operettas or the music hall; when he heard the slower steps of a mature woman and smelled her perfume, he put on an expression of religious ecstasy and lengthened the notes of Schubert’s or Gounod’s “Ave Maria”.’ Gradually, certain tunes become unwelcome and other, unfamiliar ones are demanded. Desperate improvisation or reliance on old repertoire? Neither is a safe option.

Some of the rhetorical passages would be much less powerful if they didn’t crystallise a predicament meticulously built up over hundreds of pages:

Madrid a turbulent glass bubble of shouted or printed words and music and dry bursts of gunfire, a clouded bubble that didn’t let you see what lay beyond it, what had become inaccessible, a conjectural country of cities subdued by rebels, reconquered by loyal forces, then lost again but about to fall before the advance of our heroic militias; and he, from one day to the next, torn by blows, Adela and his children in the Sierra, Judith he didn’t know where, construction at University City suspended and the offices empty, the wind blowing through the windows shattered by explosions and gunfire, covering the desks with dust, scattering blueprints and documents across the floor.

Late in the book the unforthcoming ‘I’ finally reveals itself as the writer, or some stand-in for him: ‘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.’ This self-advertising but disembodied narrator is a researcher:

I touch the pages of a newspaper – a bound volume of the daily Ahora from July 1936 – and it seems I’m touching something that belongs to the substance of that time, but the paper leaves the feel of dust, like dry pollen, on my fingertips, and the pages break at the corners if I don’t turn them with the necessary care. It isn’t hard for me to conjecture that Ignacio Abel would read that Republican, politically moderate newspaper, with excellent graphics, an abundance of articles in tiny print that after three-quarters of a century continue to emit, like the buzz of a honeycomb, a powerful, distant drone of lost words, voices extinguished long ago. He bought the paper on Sunday, July 12, when he got off the train in the station at nightfall, back from the Sierra.

Does this undermining of the authority of the text qualify as a postmodernist flourish? It’s hard to make the case for that. Self-referential games depend on context, like any other sort, and it’s too late to think of undermining or complicating a structure so well established. Long novels function differently from short ones, just as long and short sentences do, and long novels are holding their own in the cultural marketplace, with the arrival of the e-reader perhaps playing a part: there have always been people who prefer long books, though no one likes heavy ones, and now it’s possible to have one without the other. A short novel may be a bubble vulnerable to bursting, but the long novel is an ocean with tides, capable of wearing down a thousand sharp edges. A book like Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones can safely include an episode after a few hundred pages that has nothing in common with what surrounds it. An old man, claiming to be over 120, comes to see the Nazi narrator, effectively offering himself up for extermination by referring to Hebrew scripture. The narrator notices that he has no philtrum, the groove between the nose and the upper lip. The old man explains (quoting the Lesser Midrashim) that the angel didn’t seal his lips when he was born so that he remembers everything he knew in the womb. Does this include the place where he will be buried? It does. He offers to show where it is.

This is like a Kafka parable, entirely incompatible with the rest of the book, but its destabilising effect is fleeting. Molina’s insistence on standing in his own light by foregrounding a writer-researcher-narrator is explicitly disruptive but makes even less difference to the working of his book. What he’s really doing is drawing attention to his own discipline: ‘How many people are left who still remember, who preserve a precious image like a fragile relic, one not added to in retrospect, not induced by knowledge of what was about to occur, what no one foresaw in its monstrous scale, its irrationality, lasting so long no one would remember normal life or have the strength to miss it.’ That’s the reality, unprocessed by memory with its tirelessly retouching brush, that he aims to re-create. Here the postmodern paradoxes unravel, since to make good on this promise he must eliminate any event or person later than his chosen period. An existential membrane is installed in October 1936, and though there’s speculation that certain objects might find their way into a later world (names ‘typed in the blank space above the dotted line on an official document, on a carbon copy, the letters gradually fading with the passage of the years’), no mental particles are allowed to travel in the opposite direction, upstream. Molina’s background is in journalism, but nothing could be less journalistic than this refusal of short cuts and principled abstention from distortion by retrospect. The logic prescribes that the ‘I’ inside the narrative, having its existence in the post-1936 world, must be shorn of all attributes and experiences. This is admirably managed, but isn’t it rather perverse to break the frame just to point out how scrupulously you’re observing it?

Dos Passos, plagiarist or not, was more thoroughgoingly ‘postmodernist’ in his USA trilogy, reproducing the honeycomb buzz of headlines and hoardings in its ‘Newsreel’ sections. To supply relevant bits of historical background Molina relies on actual newsreels, seen by Abel and Judith during trysts in cinemas:

In the newsreel, two million men carrying olive branches and tools on their shoulders marched along the avenues of Berlin on May Day to the rhythm of military bands. An equally oceanic and disciplined crowd waved weapons, flowering branches, flags and portraits on Red Square in Moscow … He searched avidly for her hands in the dark, the bare skin of her thighs.

A little more inventively, he shows the way the pervasive slogans begin to colonise individual consciousness:

Time will tell. Time heals. The time has come to save Spain from her ancestral enemies. The time of glory will return. If the government really intended to do it, it would still have time to head off the military conspiracy … The Time Of Our Patience Has Run Out … The time I have lost doing nothing, leaving urgent decisions for another day.

The passing of time democratises information, to the point where anyone can without real effort command a panorama that wasn’t possible for those living at the time. From this position of illusory privilege it’s tempting to assume that our grasp of affairs is inherently superior, and that those struggling in the traps of the past just weren’t that clever.

In a vast fictional structure like In the Night of Time, shrewd placement can inflect or even dictate the functioning of a single element. At one point Juan Negrín, the finance minister, gives Abel a wry lesson in the realities of power:

We’re a government that almost doesn’t exist. We give orders to an army of phantom divisions in which a handful of officers still loyal to the Republic have no troops to command. They’ve made poor Prieto minister of the navy, but the few old warships the Republic has are lost, and we don’t know where they are because the sailors killed the officers and threw them in the ocean and didn’t leave anyone who knows how to read a nautical chart or set a course. We write decrees that no one obeys. We’re unable to control the borders of our own country. Governments that should be our allies want nothing to do with us. We send telegrams to our embassies or set up conference calls, and the ambassadors and secretaries have gone over to the enemy. We’re the legitimate government of a member of the League of Nations, and even our French comrades from the Popular Front treat us as if we had the plague.

It shows fine judgment for Molina to hold back this speech until the 550-page mark, by which time the reader is so fully attuned to the experience of the characters that it explains everything and nothing.