A Refuge for Himself

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The hero of the book wants to write a romance novel called "Beatus Ille" (Happy is the Man, or "Ashrei Ha'ish" in Hebrew), but who, exactly, is this hero? Is he a young student researching the life history of a forgotten poet in a far-off city, or is he the poet himself? Everything is possible in this garden of divergent paths created by Spanish author Antonio Munoz Molina.

Munoz Molina, 46, is one of the most prominent writers in Spain today. He was born in Ubeda, a small town in Andalusia that most certainly served as the inspiration for Magina, the imaginary city that appears repeatedly in his books. "Ashrei Ha'ish," translated by Tal Nitzan-Keren and published recently by Sifriya La'am, is Munoz Molina's first romance novel. Published in Spain in 1985, when he was only 29, it is an ambitious novel that earned its author literary prizes and even led to Munoz Molina's acceptance into the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, where he became the youngest member.

"Ashrei Ha'ish" deals with the open wound of Spanish society - the civil war that raged in 1936-39 between the Nationalists led by Francisco Franco and the Republicans, and the tyrannical regime that arose after the war and lasted until Franco's death in 1975. As a tribute to the writer Jorge Luis Borges, who spent the last years of his life as director of the National Library in Argentina, Munoz Molina stages many of the significant scenes of the novel in the enormous library of his uncle's house. The plot develops gradually and eventually turns into a tale of suspense, ultimately forcing the reader to reread the book to gain a deeper understanding of it.

Like many of Munoz Molina's ideas, this book was inspired by a moment that was frozen in his memory. "When I was 20," he recalled in a telephone interview from his home in Granada, "I was a guest in a big cold house, and in one of the rooms, there was a large wall clock that didn't work. Back then, I thought about writing a fantasy about a room in which time began to run the moment one entered the room, and stopped the moment one left it. Even more than that, it was important for me to tell the stories of my parents and grandparents, who lived during the Civil War.

Could this kind of book have been written under Franco's rule?

"No. It also would not have been published. The book began to form in my mind in the late 1970s, when I was a student. Then, with Franco's death, there were promising signs for democracy in Spain. Only then did we begin to hope to heal an important part of our history.

"The year 1969, when the main plot unfolds, was a very dark period during Franco's dictatorship. He had already been in for power over 30 years, and it seemed as if it would go on forever. His regime lasted so long that it covered the entire lives of some people."

When a country is in a dark period politically and morally, what can an individual do?

"That is a difficult question. During such a period, man tries to find a refuge for himself, a place that is safe from history. But it is difficult and almost impossible to remain only in one's own private world."

Amazingly, Munoz Molina made a deep emotional connection with the Jewish people. This is particularly surprising considering the fact that Munoz Molina was born and raised in a Catholic environment that was also sometimes anti-Semitic. One has to read almost to the end of the book to understand that Solana, the hero of "Ashrei Ha'ish," is actually a homeless Jew who also has no sense of belonging.

Less than a year ago, Munoz Molina published "Sefarad," which deals with the history of the Jewish people and the persecutions experienced by the Jews throughout history.

"I was always interested in the history of Spain," he explains. "I was also interested in the nature of exile, in the feeling of a lack of clear identity, in people who are away from their own place. Many times I feel as if I am an exile myself. I think that the Jewish exile experience is part of the universal human experience."

Contrary to the fashion among European intellectuals these days, Munoz Molina is pro-Israel. "One can criticize the Israeli government, but it is not fair to judge the people of Israel," he says.

How do you explain your interest in Judaism?

"The education I received was decidedly anti-Semitic. My writing is a reaction to this. The Catholic education I received was terrible - the Catholic Church sided with Franco during the war and after it, so it is clear to me today that I would oppose almost everything it represented."

Munoz Molina's books often deal with the struggle between good and evil. "The fact that evil exists in the world bothers me," says Munoz Molina. "I think that people do terrible things for ideological or political reasons. I think that evil stems from ideology. People are taught to hate.

"It is very efficient to convince people that others are responsible for their suffering. It removes all responsibility from them. What happened in the 1920s and the 1930s in Germany and Austria? Was everyone there evil? No. They were regular people who were taught to hate. Part of the hatred stemmed from fear of the other, and part of it came from avoiding responsibility."

How much faith do you have in the human race?

"I believe that things can change for the better. An idea like equality between men and women, which is now accepted in the West, is quite new. A hundred years ago, no one thought about it. Good things can happen, through good will, wisdom and enlightened values. Nothing good ever happens by itself - it is achieved through striving, though this sometimes bears a high price. I am therefore not completely pessimistic."