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Antonio Muñoz Molina: Sefarad (Sepharad)

This novel falls into the same category as the works of W G Sebald – a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, with the boundaries unclear, and expiation of the guilt of what happened in the war. This is not to say that this book is Sebaldian. On the contrary, it is very much the work of Muñoz Molina and in his style. In sixteen chapters he tells the stories of primarily twentieth century people who are the victims of brutal and arbitrary repression. Most of these victims are either Jews, who are victims of the Nazis, or those who were victims of Stalinist repression and cruelty. Many of them are real people, including the famous, such as Kafka and his beloved Milena Jesenska, who died at Ravensbrück and Primo Levi, who was imprisoned in Auschwitz but survived, as well as the less well-known, such as Margarete Buber-Neumann, who was imprisoned both by Stalin and by the Nazis, who befriended Milena Jesenska in Ravensbrück and wrote about her and whose husband, Heinz Neumann, was a Stalin victim, and Willi Münzenberg who fled both the Nazis and Stalin and was found mysteriously hanged in a French forest in 1940.

Of course, this could all have been very well-meaning but very boring but Muñoz Molina’s gift is to make it very much alive and very real. He mixes the stories, switches from first to third person so you are never really sure who is narrating the story and, of course, fudges the lines between what is real and what is invented by him. Indeed, the narrator, when the narrator is not clearly, one of the characters, seems a man unsure of himself and, by his own admission, not necessarily a good man. And it is not all Nazis and Soviets. The first chapter is about the loss of what was once a childhood home while the second chapter is about train travel, switching between Tolstoy and Conrad, and Kafka’s brief encounters by train with Milena and the horrible train journeys to concentration camps. But his very great gift is to tell us a vivid story, while showing us in a very clear and forceful way what exile and fear and torture mean, well beyond the words they represent on the page.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 2001 by Seix Barral
First English translation by Harcourt 2003
Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden