With his belt in his pocket and his shoelaces in his hand because they had been confiscated when they took him to the cell, perhaps to keep him from dismally hanging himself and were returned only a few minutes before he was released. But they said the other one had committed suicide, that he took advantage of a moment’s carelessness on the part of the guards who were interrogating him to throw himself down into the courtyard and die in handcuffs.
This beautifully written temporally disjointed novel by Muñoz Molina, read for “Spanish and Portuguese lit Months” is set in three main time periods, in the last of these periods, 1969, the young student Minaya, after a brief imprisonment by Franquist police, is released although the man he was arrested with dies, as illustrated in the opening quote. With no money and knowing that once the police have had their hands on him it is only time before they return, Minaya, on the pretext of studying the revolutionary poet Jacinto Solana, goes to lay low in his uncle’s house, and the description as he arrives, of Mágina is an example of Muñoz Molina’s prose:
Mágina on winter afternoons becomes a Castilian city of closed shutters and gloomy shops, with polished wood counters and faded manekins in the display windows, a city of cheerless doorways and plazas that are too large and empty, where the statues endure winter alone and the churches seem like tall ships run aground, it’s light was of a different sort, Golden, cold, it’s blue stretching from the ramparts of the city wall in an undulating descent of orchards and curved irrigation ditches and small white houses amongt the pomegranate trees extending in the south to the endless olive groves and blue or violet fertile lowlands of the Guadalquivir and that landscape was the one he would recognise later in the manuscripts of Jacinta Solana.
Mineya soon discovers that his uncle’s house is frozen in time, frozen in the civil war, in 1937, a war leading to the police state in which he now lives. He is welcomed by his uncle Manuel who is rather pleased that anyone should remember his friend and revolutionary poet in the light of Franco’s thirty year dictatorship. Whilst researching Solana in Manuel’s house he discovers the love triangle linking Solana, Manuel and the beautiful Marianna who Solana had first known as a model for the artist Orlando before she met and was to marry Manuel. Solana was torn between his friendship for Manuel and his desire for Marianna:
Mariana came over and before I saw her I knew she was coming because I recognised her step and the way her presence made the air tremble, to bring me coffee and a lit cigarette and she remained crouching at my side facing the city and the wind from the river that lifted the hair on her forehead as if she had come to an appointment that only for the two of us was not invisible when she gave me the cup she placed a hand on my shoulder and her hair covered one side of her face, exactly like Orlando’s sketch not a face but the pure shape of a desire and that night, back at the house when he gave me the drawing he was offering me the sign of a temptation too undeniable for my cowardice.
In a parallel to the story of Solana and Marianna and the events which were to take place in the house, Mineya and the maid Ines are drawn together as Ines helps Mineya to discover Solana’s lost manuscript in the house (Franco’s troops destroyed writings, books and the very proof of existence of their enemies), going as far sleeping together in the matrimonial bed, unused for the past thirty years, as Mineya thus discovers the secret to the house frozen in time, the death by gunshot of Marianna at the house on her wedding night, thought to be by a stray bullet from outside. Who actually killed Marianna? This then becomes the question Mineya seeks to resolve, Marianna was a complex person, a revolutionary, about to marry into a landowning family fast losing their riches, as Doña Elvira, Manuel’s mother relates to Mineya, first talking of Manuel her son:
He went voluntarily into that army of the hungry who had taken half our land to divide it among themselves and he almost lost his life fighting against those who were really his people and as if that was not enough he married that woman who was already used goods, you understand me? And even wanted to go to France with her but I’m sure you’re not entirely like them, like my husband and my son and that madman your father or like your great grandfather Don Apolonio who infected them all with his deceptions and madness but not with his ability to make money, all of them liars , all of them reckless or useless or both things at the same time like my husband, may god have mercy on his soul, but if he had taken a few more years to die he would have left us in poverty with that mania he developed to collect first thoroughbred horses and then women and cars.
The second time period in the story concerns the release of Solana from a military jail in 1947 and his coming back to Manuel’s house, a parallel with Mineya’s own story, Solana’s frantic writing and his death at the hands of the Franquist police.
Living in the house for thirty years, apart from Manuel and his mother, is Utrera, a one time sculpter, who lived their with no income and it is not clear if it is Manuel or Elvira that has invited him to stay, but Muñoz-Molina’s description of him is a precise portrait that encapsulates his ability to sketch a person:
He spoke very quickly, leaning his body forward to be closer to Mineya with a smile greedy for responses that he didn’t wait for and as he sipped his soup the air whistled through his false teeth which at times, when he adjusted them, emitted a sound like bones knocking together. He had large blunt hands that seemed to belong to another man and on his left ring finger he wore a green stone as extravagant as his smile, a testimony, just like his smile, of the time when he reached and lost his brief glory. He smiled and spoke as if sustained by the same spring about to break that kept his figure of an anachronistic galant standing. And only his eyes and his hands did not participate in the will of the whisp of his gesticulations for he could not hide the fever in his eyes sharpened every morning and every night in the mirror of old age and failure , or the ruin of his useless hand that in another time had sculpted the marble and granite of official statues and modelled clay and now lay still and dull in an immobility driven by arthritis.
Does Mineya solve the shooting of Marianna? How have the manuscripts been saved?Who is actually writing the story in 1967 and are we sure Solana wrote the manuscript?.
You will have understood by now that I very much enjoyed this story and her way it was told, the time periods mixed up and the many parallels leaving me guessing at times as Tom which story is the subject.
First Published in spanish as “Beatus Ille” in 1986 by Seix Barral.
Translated into English by Edith Grossman and published as “A Manuscript of Ashes” by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2008
Translated into French by Jean-Marie Saint-Lu and published as “Beatus Ille” in 1993 by Actes Sud