Interestingly enough, on the weekend, I read an article which quoted Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s long term collaborator and English translator Edith Grossman. “Translating means expressing an idea or concept in a way that’s entirely different from the original, since each language is a different system. And so, in fact, when I translate a book written in Spanish, I’m actually writing another book in English.” (To see the full interview go to The Washington Post here)
Edith Grossman is the translator of Antonio Munoz Molina’s “In The Night Of Time” and it’s not often that you have the cover spruiking the translator in similar sized font to the author. For this work she would have needed the patience of a saint, this is one serious tome of a novel, besides running to 641 pages it is large in shape, the paragraphs run for pages on end and therefore each page is wall to wall text. So if you’re not into a long slow challenge then this is not a novel for you.
Our story starts with an unknown narrator observing Ignacio Abel at Pennsylvania Station in 1936. He is about to board a train to take him to upstate New York where he has been asked to design a new library. The train journey begins and Juan Ignacio drifts back to Spain and the reasons behind his move here. This is the story of the Spanish Civil War:
Professor Rossman no longer had to wait for anything. He’d been buried with several dozen other corpses and hurriedly covered in lime in a common grave in Madrid, infected without reason or fault by the great medieval plague of Spanish death, spread indiscriminately by the most modern and most primitive means alike, everything from Mauser rifles, machine guns, and incendiary bombs to crude ancestral weapons: pocketknives, harquebuses, hunting shotguns, cattle prods, even animal jawbones if necessary, death that descended with the roar of airplane engines and the neighing of mules, with scapulars and crosses and red flags, with rosary prayers and the shouting of anthems on the radio.
This slow train journey takes over 500 pages of the novel and the flashbacks aren’t primarily about the Civil War, it is a crescendo in the novel becoming increasingly prominent and all consuming. In the early sections we learn about Ignacio Abel’s training to become an architect, from a working class family, his success, marriage, fatherhood and then his falling in love with an American tourist Judith. The early sections being all consuming with his love affair, with the Civil War as merely a backdrop, a Spain rotten to the core:
But he wouldn’t have been able to explain to his wife that the antagonism he felt toward her family was due not to ideological but to esthetic differences, the same silent antagonism he felt towards the inexhaustible Spanish ugliness of so many common place things, a kind of national depravity that offended his sense of beauty more deeply than his convictions regarding justice: the stuffed heads of bulls over 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 moldings; excrescences carved in granite on the vulgar facades 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; funeral announcements in the ABC or El Debate; photographs of King Alfonso XIII hunting, just a few days before he left the country, indifferent or blind to what was happening around him, leaning on his rifle beside the head of a dead deer, or erect and jovial next to a sacrifice of partridges or pheasants or hares, surrounded by gentlemen in hunting outfits and gaiters and servants in poor men’s berets and espadrilles and smiles diminished by toothless mouths.
The quotes I have chosen here show the undercurrent of Antonio Munoz Molina’s theme, a Spain in decay, a place where all reason has disappeared, but by doing so I’ve left out the substantial part of the plot. This is also a romance, a love story, a revelation as our protagonist slowly learns about himself, slowly evolves into a passionate man, as a n architect he’s slowly designing a new future for himself, one that is based on solid and rational foundations, a future that needs to be certain, that will withstand the test of time.
Words are nothing, the delirium of desires and phantasmagoria whirling in vain inside the hard, impenetrable concavity of the skull; only physical contact counts, the touch of another hand, the warmth of a body, the mysterious beat of a pulse. How long has it been since someone touched him, a figure folding in on himself on the train seat, as hard and mineral-like as a thick, closed seashell.
To be honest I think this book needed some severe editing, some of the encounters with his lover seemed to repeat endlessly similar thoughts and even at time replicated the same scenes but from a different viewpoint. A two hour train journey that took me probably ten times as long to complete:
…physically he’s reached his destination, but his body holds the tension of the journey, the instinct to distrust, to keep vigilant.
That is exactly how I felt once I read that quote with over 100 pages still to go, c’mon Antonio Munoz Molina, I’ve reached my destination, I’m tired, give it up!
Another real distraction for me was the novel commencing in the first person narrative style with somebody observing Ignacio Abel, it quickly slipped to the third person, and took a further 380 odd pages before the “I’ Returned – very distracting. The positive is that the length gives each of the main players here a real depth of character and as they are slowly revealed to us, the horrors of the Civil War take up only a sentence here or there, as we move towards the end and we have compassion for our characters the War becomes more of a central theme. And always niggling at the edges is a secret, somebody who knocks on his door at night and asks for help, who was it, what did Ignacio Abel do? You need to read on to find out.
I also must admit there was one time where I nearly threw the book away in disgust, 409 pages in Ignacio Abel’s lover Judith is described as “she wasn’t afraid of anything” this is after a full 30 pages of description earlier in the novel about her fear when being followed in the lower class areas of Madrid and needing rescue by her married lover.
A worthwhile read, too long, a worthy inclusion on the Best Translated Book Award longlist, personally I’m happy it didn’t make the shortlist.