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Antonio Muñoz Molina: El jinete polaco [The Polish Rider]

The theme of memory, of recovering memories and of falsifying memories, is a key one of literature of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Antonio Muñoz Molina’s novel on memory garnered several prizes in Spain on release and moved him up to the top level of Spanish novelists, despite its length and complexity. Despite its critical acclaim, it has yet to be translated into English, though is available in seven other languages. It has three sections. The first is called El Reino de las Voces [The Kingdom of Voices], which is a good title for it. It is the most complex and difficult to read, simply because, as the title says, it has a mass of voices telling their tale, mixing up the chronology and, as some of them share names, it can become confusing. The story is basically told by Manuel, a thirty-five year old freelance interpreter. He was born in Mágina, based on Úbeda, Muñoz Molina’s home town. Manuel had left the provincial town to see the wider world and has spent his time, working as an interpreter, travelling the world, living in hotels and airports, with few ties. It has given him the freedom that he wants but, at the same time, it has not made him particularly happy. However, he has met a New Yorker of Spanish origin, called Nadia (the Spanish word nadie means nobody, which may or may not be relevant). They start a relationship and Manuel is ready to settle down. Part of this settling down is to recount his story to Nadia.

Nadia also has a history with Mágina, as her father was from there. She was an illegitimate child, her father being married to someone else at the time, and had little contact with her father as a child. Manuel recounts the complex history of his family, mixing up time and people though, inevitably for a Spaniard of that period, the Civil War is key. There is his grandfather, for example, who was a guard in the town for the Republican side during the War. The Nationalists took the town one evening but, as he had not been informed of this or given contrary instructions, the grandfather turned up for his guard duty. He was immediately taken prisoner and sent off to a concentration camp for two years. Manuel’s great-grandfather was a foundling and, as result, he is known as Pedro Expósito [Pedro the Foundling] and his son, who was not, of course, a foundling was known as Manuel Expósito. There is the hunchback doctor, who is somewhat mistrusted and feared, Ramiro Retratista [Ramiro the Portraitist], the photographer, and Commander Galaz, the father of Nadia. Galaz is famous for dealing with the initial uprising by calmly shooting the lieutenant leading the uprising in the chest, though he will later go the USA, where he will have a relationship which will lead to the birth of Nadia, with whom he will return to Mágina. There is Florencio Pérez, the police inspector who has yet to solve a crime or get a suspect to confess and who spends much of his time writing poetry on the back of official forms, which he can never get published. In his retirement, he writes his memoirs. Nadia has inherited from her father a trunk full of photos, made by Ramiro, which helps stir the memories., which the couple share but were unaware of their shared memories till they met as adults.

The second part is called Jinete en la tormenta which translates as Riders on the Storm, a song by the Doors, which Manuel, who had aspirations to be a musician, quotes from time to time. This section, which is more conventional, tells of the period when both Manuel and Nadia were living in Mágina, without being aware of one another. Manuel is eager to leave and planning to do so. The third part – El jinete polaco [The Polish Rider] – is about the meeting of Manuel and Nadia. In fact, he first has a fling with Allison. When he meets her two months later, she has changed her appearance and her name is now Nadia. She has just buried her father, who has died in New Jersey. They tell each other their stories, where we learn what we have not learned in the previous parts.

What makes this book is partially the way Manuel finds a purpose and a place in life, prompted by his meeting Nadia but also by both discovering and valuing his past, together with Nadia. However, its real achievement is similar to Proust‘s achievement, namely that of triggering memories and then recounting the wonderful stories of all the characters in Mágina, as well as the various things that happened to Manuel (and to Nadia) in his life. Often, these stories can be dull and repetitive but Muñoz Molina is such a fine writer that the stories are lively and fascinating. As he mixes them up in the first part we get a dreamlike quality, as we do in parts of Proust. As I mentioned above, this book helped pushed Muñoz Molina to the forefront of Spanish novelists, a position he has continued to maintain.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 1991 by Planeta
No English translation
Published in Dutch as Ruiter in de storm by Breda De Geus in 1994
Translated by Ester van Buuren
Published in French as Le royaume des voix by Actes Sud in 1994
Translated by Claude Bleton
Published in German as Der polnische Reiter by Rowohlt in 1995
Translated by Willi Zurbrüggen
Also published in Danish, Greek, Hebrew, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian and Russian