The 17 chapters in Antonio Muñoz Molina’s epic 2001 novel Sepharad tell 17 different stories about the Holocaust, Stalin’s reign, and the rest of the 20th century’s totalitarian midnight, with each character seeming to symbolize millions of others. But in 1986’s A Manuscript of Ashes, now in its first English translation, Molina takes just one of those grand, awful events—the Spanish Civil War—and tells just one story, about characters so specific they rebuff all attempts at metaphor.
In 1969, Minaya, a Madrid student-rebel, retreats to his uncle Manuel’s country house to escape government persecution and research Jacinto Solana, a dead poet and friend of Manuel’s who published only one piece. (Any similarity to The Savage Detectives ends there.) Minaya quickly discovers a past love triangle involving Manuel, Solana, and Manuel’s wife, Mariana, as well as a mystery surrounding her shooting death on the night of their wedding in 1937, before the dictatorship set in. The novel’s readers, meanwhile, encounter a mystery of their own: Who is the unnamed narrator?
Parallels between characters past and present abound in the memory-haunted house. Yet Molina refuses to open the magical-realist toolbag and obliterate the boundaries of time. Instead, in dreamy, run-on prose rendered by A-team translator Edith Grossman, he transcribes feelings and recollections, always conscious of what, speaking of Minaya, he calls “the fog-bound area beyond the final reaches of his memory.”
Frenchmen of a certain generation are said to classify themselves by how they respond to the challenge: What did you do during the Occupation? Molina’s characters all wrestle with the Spanish version of this question, but their answers to it are not the only things that define them. Solana is driven by both his republicanism and a yearning to escape his well-meaning, pathetic father; Minaya leaves Madrid out of fear and stays away out of love. These and other portraits of the characters’ inner lives allow us to understand why these men and women have chosen to act as they’ve done—and to wonder what we would do in their place.