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Antonio Muñoz Molina: La noche de los tiempos (UK: The Depths of Time; US: In the Night of Time)

I must admit to enjoying well-written, very long novels (this one, in the Spanish text, is 958 pages). I also admit to enjoying books about the Spanish Civil War, though much of this book is about the period immediately before the Spanish Civil War and the very beginning of it, rather than the main events of the war itself. Of course, it has some of the standard themes – poor boy makes good, illicit love in a time of war, exile, the society that you know falling down around you, a failed marriage. In other hands, these could leave us with a cliché-ridden book but Muñoz Molina is such a fine writer that we get a superb novel that is both epic sweep, while telling the story of an individual and the people he knows. The obvious comparison is with Doctor Zhivago (as regards the theme; I consider Doctor Zhivago the finer novel.)

Ignacio Abel is a man from a poor background but has become an architect. He studied in the Bauhaus (entonces nadie imaginaba que aquello fuera a durar o que tuviera mucha importancia [At that time, no-one imagined that it was going to last or that it was very important] (note that English translations of the text are mine from the Spanish and not the published ones.) He has come back to Spain and made a successful career. While still maintaining his left-wing leanings, he has married Adela, the consummate bourgeois. He is very grateful that her family has accepted him, despite the fact that her uncle is a priest (con mucho apetito pero con la cara sombría, contando noticias de impiedades o de atentados contra la Iglesia [with a large appetite but a sombre face, telling stories of impieties or attacks on the Church]), her brother, Victor, is a layabout who joins the Falange which makes him feel important and her parents dull and very bourgeois. It is possible that Ignacio loved his wife once but he certainly does not now and they have little in common. He is not even a good father to their two children.

While Ignacio has colleagues and acquaintances, he does not seem to have many close friends. There are no friends from university, for example, except for Professor Rossman, whom he has met at the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition and who turns up in Spain, his pro-Soviet views being less accepted in Germany. It will be Ignacio who identifies Rossman’s body when he is killed in Madrid. However, he does meet one other person, Judith Biely, a piano-playing American who has come to Madrid and loves it there. They start an affair, with surreptitious meetings. Though Adela eventually finds out, she more or less accepts it, with a certain world-weariness. It is Judith who will introduce Ignacio to Philip van Doren. Van Doren, as he says, comes from a family that has been more discreet than the Roosevelts, Vanderbilts and other well-known US families of Dutch origin, but have still done well for themselves. It is Philip who offers Ignacio a visiting professorship in the Department of Fine Arts and Architecture of Burton College, an offer that Ignacio accepts. However, it does not go as well as he planned. It is not easy to leave Spain and get to the United States, though he does manage. He arrives in New York, broke, with threadbare clothes, lost in a strange country, wondering what is happening in Madrid, with two letters, a reproachful one from Adela and a strangely formal one from Judith. While he is made welcome, he still feels alone, unhappy and something of a deserter.

But this book is about the Spanish Civil War. Ignacio has no doubt whose side he is on – the Republicans – but he feels that he is betraying his country when he leaves, feels, in fact, as he says, that he is a deserter. But, during the whole book (which starts with his arrival in New York and jumps back and forth in time) the shadow of the war/impending war hangs over the book as, indeed, it hangs over many Spanish novels. We are left in no doubt where both Ignacio’s and Muñoz Molina’s sympathies lie. However, Ignacio is not of the rough Madrid revolutionaries and they do not recognise him as such, which leaves him in a difficult position. He has returned to Madrid but it is not the Madrid he knew and loved. The violence has increased – there are brutal killings, arrests, bodies in the street and the lights have gone out, a symbol Muñoz Molina stresses at the end, in comparing Madrid to New York.

Muñoz Molina really is a superb writer and, despite the length of the book, I was never bored for a moment, even if we had a pretty good idea from early on of the general direction the book was going to take. Yes, it is (more or less) partisan and yes, the forbidden love affair is a hackneyed plot line (thank you, Ernest Hemingway). But the wonderfully portrayed threat and then reality of the Civil War, the left-wing intellectual who thinks he knows which side he is on but then is not so sure, the man who essentially betrays both his wife and children (abandoning them during the war) but for whom we still feel sympathy and – another hackneyed theme – the man who wants his life and his love and not a war, are all masterfully written by Muñoz Molina.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 2009 by Seix Barral
First English translation by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2013
Translated by Edith Grossman