Mario Lopez, an official in the regional council of a remote province in Spain, comes home one day, only to discover that his beautiful, beloved wife, Blanca, has vanished. In her place, he finds another woman who looks like Blanca. Mario is able to discern the subtle differences because he is madly in love with his wife; he knows that this other woman is an impostor. The "new" woman has a warm voice that is devoid of the sharp sting of distance and coldness.
In Antonio Munoz Molina's novel "En ausencia de Blanca," just published in Israel (by Keter; English version, "In Her Absence," available from Other Press, translated by Esther Allen ), Mario tries to reconstruct his life with Blanca. The reader attempts to understand what precisely is going on: Did Blanca really leave him, is this a metaphor, or has Mario simply gone out of his mind?
In a phone conversation from Madrid, where he lives today, Munoz Molina relates that, although the novel was first published in Spain in 2001, it is still easy for him to talk about it a decade later because, over the years, readers have continued to ask him about Blanca and Mario.
"Many people keep asking me things about the book," he tells me. "Last week I got an e-mail from a reader here in Spain asking me about the ending."
Molina was born in 1956 in the small town of Ubeda in Andalusia. He studied art history and journalism and for many years he has written a column for El Pais. In 1986, he was awarded the Icaro Prize for his first novel, "Beatus ille" ("A Manuscript of Ashes," in its English publication ). For his "El invierno en Lisboa" (1987 ) he was awarded two major Spanish literary awards, Premio de la Critica and Premio Nacional de Literatura. He subsequently published a collection of short stories and a number of other novels, and today he is considered one of his country's leading writers. He and his wife, Spanish journalist and writer Elvira Lindo, divide their time between Madrid and New York.
Munoz Molina says that the idea for "In Her Absence" came to him from a short story by Italian writer Giovanni Papini that he read when he was young: "He pretended to have found an unknown manuscript by Kafka with a very short story about someone who goes back home and meets his wife; the man starts to suspect that his wife is pretending to be his wife, but is not really her. The story troubled me because it was such a weird idea. I kept it in the back of my mind for many years and, when I was asked to write a six-chapter story for El Pais in the late '90s, this idea came to me and I started to develop it."
Blanca is from a relatively wealthy family, is interested in art and wants to be thought of as an artist. Her marriage to Mario does not quite fit with her self-image. About artists, he says, "It is very easy to despise them because they pretend so much. Very often I write about art in my weekly column for El Pais, so the book is also sort of a chronicle of the '80s in Spain. The '80s was the time for the great so-called modernization in Spain. It was a moment when it seemed that everything was breaking up and moving fast into modernity." It was also, he notes, the decade of the country's first socialist government, and of Pedro Almodovar's earliest films. "The country was changing very fast."
Munoz Molina relates that, during the time he wrote "In Her Absence," he lived in the southern city of Granada, which he describes as "provincial."
"In my story I made it even more provincial. I don't know if you can appreciate it but Jaen, the capital city [of Jaen province], where the action takes place, is sort of the ultimate provincial city. It's so provincial that people dream about going to the next province; they don't even dream about going to Madrid. In the '80s people were obsessed with being in the right place, with being where the action was. And this was especially the case for people living in the provinces, because they always felt that they were missing something."
Money plays a major role in the story's marital relationship.
Munoz Molina: "Money makes people bold and cosmopolitan; if you are poor, you are naturally conservative. It's not easy to be a bohemian when you have to worry about what is going to happen with you and with your next paycheck.
"That's the contrast between Mario, the protagonist, and Blanca. I think this is, in a sense, connected to this time in Spain in the '80s. But I think that it's also timeless, in that you find these feelings of provincials pretending to be something more - of people wanting to live someplace else, a Madame Bovary thing. You live somewhere, but are desperate to live somewhere else. You think, as Rimbaud said, that life is happening someplace else. It's the natural melancholy of the provincial."
Is this why you have chosen to live part of the year in New York?
"No, I live there because of mere chance. Maybe this is the end of a chain. In the '80s I was living in Granada, and I wanted to move to Madrid in order to be where the action was. So I moved to Madrid; in Madrid you realize that there are a lot of places that are more modern or more real. Then you move to places like New York, and the funny thing is that the most interesting thing about New York is how many provincials are drawn there. Because the provincials are those who make all the difference. The New Yorkers themselves are rather provincial.
"I like New York, but not because I think it's the real place to be. I think the lesson to be learned, if you have to learn a lesson from a book, is that you have to pay attention to the things you actually have, to the people that you actually love, to the people that love you. People think that dreams are better than reality but this is not always the case; sometimes, because you dream too much, you are unable to see what you have in front of your very eyes."
I asked Munoz Molina whether he thought that Blanca finally understood the nature of her life with Mario and whether, with that knowledge, she underwent a total change. The author was not prepared to accept a metaphorical interpretation; he insists on talking about the mysterious side of the novel and on the possibility that Blanca really left and was replaced by a double.
"When I write short fiction or novellas," he explains, "I like to leave a hint of the fantastic, of the unreal. If you write a completely fantastic novel with ghosts and everything, the effect is less powerful than if you portray an absolutely realistic situation and, in the middle of this, you put a layer of fantasy, of mystery. What happens? What really happens you don't know. You don't have to always know what happens.
"One of the books I most love, and that much inspired me, is Henry James' 'The Turn of the Screw.' It's the most famous ghost story ever written, but you can't really be sure that it is a ghost story, because you don't know whether or not there are ghosts in it. There is an element of ambiguity. You have to accept that things cannot be explained 100 percent. You have to let the story resonate in you."
Munoz Molina feels that Spain has changed dramatically since the time he grew up. "I was born in the late '50s and, at the time, Spain was isolated, backward, Catholic, and a monolithic dictatorship ... Now, we are modern and rather cosmopolitan, and I mean now we even have gay marriages!"
Munoz Molina acknowledges that this is a theme he often returns to in his writing: "How things change in the course of a lifetime. Mario comes from a very poor family and you might say that he has very little, because he has only this job as a clerk in the provincial administration. But for him it's a lot. Because he comes from poverty. There is a class issue going on here. Blanca belongs to the provincial upper middle class, so she takes life for granted ... Deep down, maybe this is the big difference between these characters, apart from the fact that something I loved to portray in the story is how a man can be absolutely and madly in love with someone else."
It's almost sad to be so in love.
"Yes. But it happens. You can read the book at different levels - as a metaphor or you can also accept the possibility that this other woman, who has come from you don't know where, is really loving Mario back. Why not? When I was finishing the book, I asked my wife what might be a sign that something important has changed at the last moment and she suggested: 'Why doesn't she do something she has never done before, like speaking passionately to him or saying passionate words?' You should be open to the possibility that there is another woman who has taken the place of Blanca and is finally returning Mario's love."
This is a very optimistic idea.
"Because I am not a pessimistic person! On the other hand, you see the story all the time from the point of view of Mario. So maybe he has gone mad, that's also a possibility. You never know."
In "Sepharad" (2001 ), a novel of connected stories, Munoz Molina focuses on Jewish history and on the persecution that the Jews have been subjected to throughout that history. He tells the story of the uprooted and the persecuted, some of whom are nameless and some of whom are well known, like Primo Levi and the philosopher Jean Amery.
"I am very driven to identify with those who are left out, those who are insecure in their position," he notes. "I come from a peasant family. My father had a farm and had a store in the market. We were working class, and I was the first in my family to go to high school, let alone university. So, like many other people in Spain, I was part of this great change that started to take place in Spain in the '60s. A great social change, a great social movement upwards. When I was in high school, or even in university, I always felt insecure because if I lost my scholarship I would have to go back to the farm.
"When I was in university, these were the final years of the dictatorship and many of my fellow students were engaged in the struggle against Franco and were demonstrating. But I didn't dare to do it. You know why? Because if I were arrested I would have lost my scholarship. So the paradox was that people from the upper social classes could afford to be more revolutionary than I was."
Munoz Molina explains that, during childhood and adolescence, he felt like a stranger in his own country: "I was progressive and I was against the dictatorship; the people I identified with were exiles. So it came almost naturally for me to identify with people who didn't take anything for granted, with people who were excluded for no reason. That's why in 'Sepharad' there are stories where the characters are Jews and other stories where the characters are political exiles, or even people who are sick and are exiled by their illness."
As to his connection with Jews, he says: "Maybe there is an element of chance because the fact is that many of the writers I love most are Jews." These include Saul Bellow, about whom Munoz Molina says: "You see that he writes about the immigrant who is trying to find his way in America, where the outsiders try to get inside. This was my place, too. When I was a child, the history of Spain that was taught was the official Catholic history: We were Catholics, we expelled the Jews. I naturally rebelled against all that. If traditional Spain expelled the Jews, I had to identify with the Jews ... I naturally identify with those who are left out. This is something natural for a decent person."
Munoz Molina notes, however, that he is not at all pleased with the political moves Israel makes, and says he identifies with Israeli authors such as David Grossman, Aharon Appelfeld and Amos Oz. His meeting with Appelfeld at a Naples Prize ceremony was an important moment in his life as a writer.
At a young age, Munoz Molin already knew he wanted to become an author, he recalls: "The first writer I encountered was Jules Verne. Before that, I didn't know there was such a thing as writers. I read books and heard stories but, it's like with movies, when there comes a certain moment when you finally realize that every film has a director; the moment I realized that the books I loved so much had authors, I wanted to be the person who wrote them."
Novels by Antonio Munoz Molina available in English translation: "A Manuscript of Ashes" (translated by Edith Grossman ); "Sepharad" (translated by Margaret Sayers Peden ); "In Her Absence" (translated by Esther Allen ).