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.

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