In Jerusalem (The City of Books), a Spaniard Is Crowned

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Jerusalem is surely the only city in the world where one finds so many homes in which the residents have chosen to forfeit large swaths of their living space in order to house their books.

Sometimes these are holy books, sometimes works of great literature, and sometimes, I wonder why we even need to distinguish between the two. I once tried to have a balance on my shelves – Israeli and Palestinian books, books from elsewhere in the Middle East, books from around the world, but then decided to just read what I like. I noticed that my more religious friends only put sforim – as religious books are known – in their living rooms, hiding their collections of contemporary, secular literature in a back room, out of view.

This is a city obsessed with what books to put on display. And in Jerusalem, everyone is reading something.

But most well-read Jerusalemites, myself included, are feeling a little ashamed of what they haven’t been reading: books by the man who just won the Jerusalem Prize.

Go on, admit it. You haven’t heard of Antonio Munoz Molina. Or maybe you have. Didn’t he write…? No, you’re thinking of Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez, who’s now 85. And don’t confuse him with one of my personal favorites, Junot Díaz, who’s Dominican-American. Molina, from, rural Andalusia in southern Spain, is 57, and the author of 23 books which “expresses and promote” the idea of “the freedom of the individual in society” according to the judges’ guidelines offered on the website of the Jerusalem International Book Fair. Perhaps Molina not being a household name – even among many of the publishers attending the book fair – can be attributed to the fact that only three of his books have been translated into English. A more respectable five books have already made it into Hebrew, providing some window into why he is well-known enough in Israel to have been awarded the respected prize at the fair, which gets underway in earnest on Monday and continues throughout the week.

One of his most celebrated books is “Sepharad,” which a New York Times review called “a wonderfully alarming book…a net of images and horrors.” In it, Molina writes about Sephardic Jewish families – “the journeys made by those who were expelled from Spain in 1492, but also the journeys made to Auschwitz centuries later.” Or, as A.B. Yehoshua put it in an article relating to the book, Molina uses the Hebrew name for Spain in the book’s title “as a metaphor for loss and longing.” A reviewer in the The Forward, on the other hand, said that “there is something utterly annoying, even infuriating” about the book, because it is “a meditation on other people’s pasts.”

In a lunchtime talk with a few journalists on Sunday, Molina acknowledged that he feels a kind of affinity for the Jewish narrative and to Israel, which he says comes from having grown up in Spain’s peasant class and then experiencing the sense of being an outsider when he broke into educated society.

“One of the threads that runs throughout my work is of exile and displacement,” he said. “Either you expel people or you accept them. Either you send them out or you bring them in. It became natural to identify with those that have been expelled.

If you come from a working-class peasant family and go to high school where others haven’t, and you are the first person in your family to go to university, you naturally find yourself a bit of an outsider.”

Could one also tie the theme of exile to the Palestinian experience? “Of course,” he replies. “It’s part of the same narrative.” He’s read a few Palestinian poets, he adds, but the writers he most connects to in this part of the world are Israeli writers. He’s a fan of David Grossman, and during Molina’s four-day visit here, he took dinner with “my good friend Aharon Appelfeld.”

Some luminaries in the international artistic community have bristled at this closeness to Israel; others outright pressured him to refuse to accept the prize, awarded to him Sunday night by President Shimon Peres. The Electronic Intifada outlined the authors and artists, such as Alice Walker and Roger Waters, who urged Molina not to “cross the picket” line, as the website’s headline put it, and to participate in an academic and cultural boycott of Israel in protest of its policies.

Molina flatly rejected the pressure to back out, and quoted Martin Amis’ “The War Against Cliché,” suggesting that attitudes among some of the boycotters were a bit hackneyed and thoughtless.

“The war against cliché – that’s what we writers do,” he said. “So when you receive a letter full of clichés, you begin to doubt its literary value. Writing is about nuances. Writing is about the real, rather than the stereotype, so I try not to deal with stereotype in my own writings.

“It doesn’t mean that by accepting the prize, I become an accomplice to anything horrible or undesirable that has happened in this country,” he added. In New York, where he now lives for at least half the year, he had just seen “The Gatekeepers,” the award-winning documentary featuring interviews with all surviving former heads of the Shin Bet. “In Israel, this complexity, this fierce level of public debate, this is something that appeals to me. Would it be possible, a film like this in the US? In Spain? The heads of the security service discussing the most sensitive issue of national security in the country?” His doubtful expression answered his own question.

Molina was saddened by the viciousness of some of the letters he received. “Your hands will be drenched in blood,” one read. Another accused him of being the “putrid benefactor of Jewish money.” (The award comes with at $10,000 prize, considered a symbolic sum in the world of great literary prizes.)

“I find myself wondering,” he posed, “how come you’re so interested in justice but you use a language so full of hatred?”

But the hate mail should not be blown out of proportion, he said. The vast majority of the letters were congratulatory and supportive.

And so Jerusalem’s bookshelves will have to make a little more room for Molina. Having won the prize, given out every two years for the last half-century, puts him in the company of Bertrand Russell, Simone de Beauvoir, Sir Isaiah Berlin, Graham Green, V. S. Naipaul, Don DeLillo, Susan Sontag, Arthur Miller, Haruki Murakami, and most recently, Ian McEwan. Five of the 25 authors who have won the prize have gone on to win the Nobel Prize for literature.

“I would like to be as good as some of them,” he said of his predecessors with humility. “But a writer, if you’re honest with yourself, you’re never sure of the worth of anything that you do. When you try to write you’re absolutely alone in a room, and you have absolutely no guarantee that what you do will be any good.”

Spanish writer Antonio Munoz Molina speaks at the Jerusalem International Book Fair in Jerusalem, Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013.Credit: AP

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