The Washington Post
In Her Absenceby Antonio Munoz Molina
"[A] translucent novel of passion, illusion and social class....slyly witty and luminous."
—Francine Prose in O, The Oprah Magazine
During working hours, Mario is a dutiful bureaucrat, scrupulously earning his paycheck as an employee of the provincial Spanish town where he lives. But when he walks through the door of his apartment, he is transformed… See more details below
"[A] translucent novel of passion, illusion and social class....slyly witty and luminous."
—Francine Prose in O, The Oprah Magazine
During working hours, Mario is a dutiful bureaucrat, scrupulously earning his paycheck as an employee of the provincial Spanish town where he lives. But when he walks through the door of his apartment, he is transformed into the impassioned lover of Blanca, the beautiful, inscrutable wife he saved from the brink of personal crisis. For the love of Blanca, Mario eats sushi and carpaccio, nods in feigned understanding at experimental films, sits patiently through long conversations with her avant-garde friends, and conceals his disgust at shocking art exhibits.
Then, little by little, a strange and ominous threat begins to weigh on the marriage.
How can love survive its own disappearance? The desperate answer that Antonio Muñoz Molina proposes in this short, circular novella is a model of literary strategy and style, a splendid homage to Flaubert.
The Washington Post
Propelled by an ironic sense of foreboding, this clever, circular account of the unraveling of a strained marriage follows Mario, a Spanish civil servant who thrives on routine, after he becomes convinced his wife, Blanca, has deserted him and left in her place an impostor. Mario blames himself for not paying closer attention to his beloved in happier times, but his more pointed regret centers around Lluís Onésimo, a "villainous multimedia artist" whose arrival in their small city of Jaén, Mario believes, doomed his marriage. Blanca, a longtime art lover, became fixated on Lluís and his art, the latest in a long line of Blanca's artists du jour. Indeed, Blanca's many small disappointments-a missed Frida Kahlo exhibition in Madrid, Mario's crude table manners, her boredom with mundane surroundings that she claims only "mental bureaucrats" could tolerate-have their roots in their divergent backgrounds-he grew up poor and has no use for the art scene; she comes from a background of privilege. In spare, well-crafted prose and through subtle suggestions, Molina delivers a taut investigation of romantic attachment that draws readers into an eerie spiral of suspicion where the line between questionable perceptions and reality is never quite clear. (July)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
This is a simple story-Mario and Blanca are married opposites. She's from the art community, while his response to art is physical: Antoni Tàpies "inspired a mixture of weary sorrow and heartburn." Though Mario's devotion to someone he considers his superior can lead nowhere but where it does-an obsessive panic that Blanca is leaving him-Molina is deft in building the anxiety and bookends the novel with a tumbling, lyrical surrealism usually found in shorter pieces. Two of Molina's novels have won his native Spain's Premio Nacional de Literatura, and the English translation of Sepharadwon the 2004 PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize. He has been well served by his current translator, who paraphrases writer Colm Toibín when she comments, "The world's richest language, in economic terms-English-is also one of its most impoverished when it comes to taking in the literary wealth that exists beyond it." This well-written and evocative story is a good way to expand your library's collection of international writers.
"In this gem of a novella, Antonio Muñoz Molina deftly chronicles the trajectory of a failing marriage as a bureaucrat in a small town in south-central Spain struggles continually to win the affections of his discontented wife...In Her Absence is a stylish romance novella whose only enigma is the identity of 'the woman who was not Blanca.' A perfect gateway to Muñoz Molina's other works, In Her Absence will hopefully be the second in a string of English translations."
O, The Oprah Magazine
"[A] translucent novel of passion, illusion and social class...Ultimately, this slyly witty and luminous book (beautifully translated by Esther Allen) reveals itself as an inspired meditation on identity and illusion, culture and social class, and on what it means for a man to love a woman so much that he cannot imagine livingand indeed cannot livewithout her."
"Mario, a bureaucrat in a provincial Spanish town, suspects that his pampered, emotionally unstable wife has been replaced by an impostor, one who is more accommodating and affectionate than his real spouse. The setup is delicious half borscht-belt joke, half Beckett...Mario's contortions to win and keep Blanca feigning interest in avant-garde culture, skipping work to clean and cook for her, and watching his every move offer a wry, fresh take on the games people play in order to keep love alive."
Is she Blanca, or not?
"Mr. Munoz Molina energizes every bit of every page with telling detail in a manner that recalls Flaubert's "Madame Bovary." Not a single word is wasted, and a reader aches for Mario who, in addition to being a virile, committed and decent man, cannot understand his wife's distance. Blanca's discontent is similar to Emma Bovary's, but it is an unease that has been updated to the 1980s and tweaked to include mystery and metaphysics...Long after the pages of this stunning little book end — much the way it began with Mario again faced with a woman who "looked so much like [Blanca]" — it is hard not to think of what becomes of the couple. Mr. Munoz Molina, twice the winner of Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Literartura prize, skillfully leads the reader to the story's conclusion but does not tip his hand. The pleasure of this deeply felt mystery of a book depends on what cannot be known with certainty. "
Propelled by an ironic sense of foreboding, this clever, circular account of the unraveling of a strained marriage follows Mario, a Spanish civil servant who thrives on routine, after he becomes convinced his wife, Blanca, has deserted him and left in her place an impostor. Mario blames himself for not paying closer attention to his beloved in happier times, but his more pointed regret centers around Lluís Onésimo, a "villainous multimedia artist" whose arrival in their small city of Jaén, Mario believes, doomed his marriage. Blanca, a longtime art lover, became fixated on Lluís and his art, the latest in a long line of Blanca's artists du jour. Indeed, Blanca's many small disappointments—a missed Frida Kahlo exhibition in Madrid, Mario's crude table manners, her boredom with mundane surroundings that she claims only "mental bureaucrats" could tolerate—have their roots in their divergent backgrounds—he grew up poor and has no use for the art scene; she comes from a background of privilege. In spare, well-crafted prose and through subtle suggestions, Molina delivers a taut investigation of romantic attachment that draws readers into an eerie spiral of suspicion where the line between questionable perceptions and reality is never quite clear.
A celebrated Spanish author contemplates identity and desire in this smartly amusing novella...A sly, supremely stylish entertainment.
"Muñoz, who shares some of Flaubert's feel for class distinctions and cultural pretensions, is one of Spain's most admired writers, and Esther Allen's fluid translation serves him well, conveying his deceptively spare style, sly wit and eye for telling details. Just don't expect a resolution of the mystery at the center of this book. It hangs in the air like Blanca's cigarette smoke: persistent, seductive, suffocating"
At its best (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, Angela Carter), magical realism lures in its readers, making the impossible seem merely improbable. Antonio Muñoz Molina’s novella, In Her Absence, is a supreme example of this technique. The mystery of the story—whether Mario’s wife, Blanca, has been replaced by someone identical—seems far-fetched and simultaneously believable. No, his real wife would never paint her toenails, and no, she would never watch soap operas. Flimsy evidence becomes convincing when placed in the thoughts of Mario, the most diligent—if not downright obsessive—husband imaginable.
In Her Absence is an untraditional love story not only because one of the lovers seems to have been replaced by a clone. Despite several years of marriage, Mario woos Blanca with the care of a newly infatuated man. He chews quietly, listens to music he doesn’t like, rushes home from work. Before Blanca’s possible disappearance, he was smug because “he alone had the privilege of desiring beyond all other women the precise woman he had married, and the absolute certainty that when he opened the door of his house, he would find her there.” Of course, this certainty is demolished when he comes home to find Blanca and her suitcase missing. And when someone identical to Blanca comes in several hours later, Mario’s blind love has been replaced by suspicion.
There is a subtlety to Molina’s writing that allows multiple themes to weave in and out without seeming heavy-handed. In Her Absence hints at being a warning against marrying above oneself. Blanca is part of the artistic set, a group that looks down on non-artists in general and bureaucrats particularly. However, Mario, something of a bureaucrat himself, at times looks down on Blanca’s interest in trendy artists. When his rival Onésimo enters the story and Blanca fawns over him, Mario thinks, “If you loved me, I’d make sure you never lost your self-respect.” Indeed, perhaps it is Blanca’s distance, not Mario’s, from the intelligentsia that is the real misfortune. And although Mario misses his fastidious wife, the new one who kisses passionately and smokes a cigarette before washing the dishes, is in many ways an improvement.
Molina’s talent for subtlety has had time to develop. The author of thirteen books, Molina is ranked among the most important living writers in Spain. For this novella, he is matched by his translator, Esther Allen, who has translated Javier Marías and Jorge Luis Borges among others. This team brought to life a mystery that is perhaps best left unsolved. It is the absence of answers as much as the absence of the real Blanca that creates such an innovative story.
This elegant, precise and inimitable novel focuses intensely and solely on Mario López, a not-quite-middle-aged civil servant working as a draftsman in the small city of Jaén, and his passionate yet painful relationship with Blanca, his wife of six years... The power is in the writing preserved masterfully in Esther Allen's translation the ability to slice away the exterior of a character like Mario and to offer a simple, naked view of his small joys and great sufferings. To watch a movie of a day in the life of Mario López would be to see only a man who gets up, dresses, goes to the office, returns, eats and sleeps. But Molina offers the reader a field trip into the soul of this ordinary man living his ordinary life. The result is nothing less than extraordinary.
Muñoz Molina layers a subtle satire of artistic hypocrisy with a stirring account of class separation.
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In her ABSENCE
By ANTONIO MUÑOZ MOLINA
Other PressCopyright © 1999 Antonio Muñoz Molina
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE WOMAN WHO was not Blanca came down the hall toward Mario wearing Blanca's green silk blouse, Blanca's jeans, and Blanca's ballet flats, her eyes narrowing into a smile as she reached him-eyes the same color and shape as Blanca's, but not Blanca's eyes. She welcomed him home in a tone so identical to Blanca's that it was almost as if she really were Blanca, and she stooped a little to kiss him because she was slightly taller than he was, just like Blanca. But instead of the daily absentminded brush of her closed lips against his, she opened her mouth to Mario's tongue, and he, startled by this unanticipated ardor, didn't respond in time.
In the warmth of her breath and the brief, carnal softness of her lips he felt as if he'd gone back in time to Blanca's first delicious kisses, now identical, but falsified with a flawless or almost flawless precision that made everything all the more unreal. He was grateful for the touch of those long, soft hands even though they weren't Blanca's hands, the odd way she had of putting her arm around his waist as she led him toward the dining room, as if he, its owner, didn't know his way around the apartment where he'd been living for some time before he met Blanca, or as if the apartment, too, were a precise replica of something that had been lost: the apartment, the pictures in the hallway, the dining room furniture that Blanca objected to, and rightly so-when Mario bought it he'd had pitifully bad taste-the tablecloth embroidered by Mario's mother or grandmother, the dishes, the steaming bowls of a soup just cooked by the impostor or near-double of Blanca who'd taken it off the stove and served it when she looked out from the balcony and saw Mario crossing the street toward the apartment building. (But Blanca, the real Blanca, the one from before, might never have looked out from the balcony to see if he were coming.) The soup smelled better than ever, Mario thought almost remorsefully, noticing for the first time not that he was beginning to give in, but that the possibility of giving in existed, comprehending with melancholy and relief that he wouldn't be able to keep up this suspicious hostility, uncompromising vigilance, and desperate solitude forever. Unlike Blanca, the woman now sitting across from him didn't dab her lips with the corner of her napkin after each spoonful, didn't raise her eyes in silent reproach if he made the slightest noise as he ate his soup, and didn't sit motionless without saying a word until he realized it was time for him to bring the tray with the main course and fresh plates and silverware on it from the kitchen.
Blanca would never have lit a cigarette before clearing the table, much less settled down on the sofa to watch TV without first straightening up the dining room and cleaning the kitchen until it was spotless. In fact, Blanca hardly ever watched TV, nothing but the news and a strange late-night program with jumpy images and a heavy-metal sound track called Metropolis, which once ran a piece about the painter she'd just broken up with when she met Mario. Sure of herself and fraudulent, dressed in Blanca's own clothes-the silk blouse that had almost exactly the same feel as her skin, the jeans so tight they made her seem taller and more curvaceous-the woman who was not Blanca leaned back on a wide black leather pillow and watched television, her feet now bare, Blanca's flats lying on the floor next to the sofa. She was smoking a cigarette or rather just holding it, having forgotten it so completely that if Mario, with deft and steady fingers, hadn't taken it from her just in time she would have burned herself or spilled ashes all over the rug, perhaps damaging it. Wary, always on the lookout for signs of imposture, Mario studied her feet that, though often a little the worse for wear, were long and delicate with a faint blue tracery of veins in the instep. This time he was surprised to see no sign of chafing or roughness on the heels and as his eyes moved further he discovered that the toenails were adorned with red polish, something he'd never seen on Blanca's toes before. But then immediately he wondered about that. It wasn't the kind of thing he'd ordinarily notice; Blanca herself had sometimes complained that he paid no attention to the clothes she wore or the new touches (nothing too ambitious; they didn't have much money) by which she tried to improve the apartment's somewhat rudimentary decor. Yet he really did think-yes, he was sure-that Blanca had never polished her toenails. But even as he strained his memory to achieve clear certainty he began to doubt and despair, finding, all the while, that Blanca's shiny red toenails and softer and smoother feet were very delectable. He remembered the night before, how she'd wrapped her arms around him from behind after he switched off the bedroom light, warming her cold feet against his legs with a physical complicity that would have been gratifying if it weren't for the obvious imposture, the fact, more bitter now than astonishing, that this woman, so identical to Blanca, was not Blanca, could not be Blanca.
She seemed to be dozing off while Mario cleared the table, but then opened her eyes and held them steadily on him at a moment when he was watching her from the kitchen. He realized that nowadays it was only when she wasn't looking at him that he dared scrutinize her intently, out of a superstitious wariness that was quite futile and frequently embarrassing, for this Blanca-like woman always caught him at it immediately, was always smiling at him in weary tolerance. Right now, for instance, as he washed the dishes, he'd been watching her from the kitchen, trying to see whether her chest was rising and falling, thinking he could make out the placid rhythm of her breathing against the babble of the soap opera, beginning to grow bolder. Little by little, without realizing it, still clutching a damp dishtowel, he'd moved toward the dining room door, stepping out of the corner of the kitchen where she couldn't see him with a ridiculous mixture of caution and recklessness. With every step he took, his face was undoubtedly taking on the particular expression of a person who's watching someone else in the belief that he himself is unobserved. Just then she opened her eyes, with no trace of surprise, and of course no alarm, as if she'd heard his footsteps or had been able to tell, from the sound of his breathing, that he was approaching. He was never sure whether he would actually find Blanca there the next minute or what her mood would be: Blanca could intuit everything about him without needing to open her eyes, but lately that secure knowledge of him no longer seemed to be slipping into disdain or the unthinking, perilous neglect of a woman who's grown used to taking her lover's loyalty for granted.
The eyes from which Blanca did not look out at him lingered for a moment on the damp dishcloth he was still holding, then rose to meet his own evasive gaze and held it. Blanca's hazel eyes, Blanca's straight black hair, her faintly freckled nose, the dark pink of her lips, Blanca's own rings on the same fingers where she wore them, her wedding ring, which he would have liked to examine more closely to see whether the forgery had been so painstaking that this ring, too, was engraved with the date they met rather than the date of their wedding, because both agreed (though the idea originated with Blanca) that what deserves to be remembered isn't the official ceremony but the first meeting, with its rare mixture of chance and destiny.
Mario went closer and watched her curl up small on the sofa and then stretch out her arms in pleasurable indolence, her hair hanging loose now, her face sleepy and ready to nod off, her blouse almost entirely unbuttoned, the silky fabric of her bra on view, the sweet cleft between the breasts that seemed so much like Blanca's breasts, though he no longer knew for sure whether their shape and the pinkness of the nipples was or was not identical to the breasts he remembered. He heard her saying his name in Blanca's voice, almost more tender now than ever before, without the faint note of cool distance whose existence he had always refused to accept, just as he had refused to see and understand so many things, so many slight untruths, so much silent disloyalty. He took one more step, put the dishcloth down on the table, afraid his hands still smelled of grease or detergent, and knelt down next to the sofa, next to the woman whose breath carried nuances different than Blanca's yearned-for breath or the succulent taste of Blanca's mouth. As he leaned toward her, he was surprised by a renewed excitement, an unexpected liberation from nostalgia, if not from suspicion. It occurred to him that he, too, was learning how to pretend, and he tried to justify this by telling himself, as he pushed the hair away from her face and kissed her eyelids and nibbled an earlobe perhaps slightly fleshier than Blanca's earlobe, that this apprenticeship in simulation would help him root out the lie-and not simply in order to make his peace with it, never that. But the fact is that as he kissed and caressed her and unbuttoned her green silk shirt all the way down, he closed his eyes very tightly so that there would be moments when he was sure he really was kissing and caressing Blanca, recognizing her in that willed darkness with a certainty neither his intelligence nor his emotions could grant him.
Chapter TwoMARIO LÓPEZ ALMOST never went out for a beer after work with his colleagues. He wasn't in any way unsociable and prided himself on getting along well with everyone in the office, but each day at ten minutes to three when the staff left the Provincial Council building and dispersed in eager, noisy groups to various nearby bars, he always invented some excuse or simply waved an energetic good-bye and quickened his steps to get home as soon as possible so that he could open the door and call out to Blanca by no later than five past three or, at the very most, ten past.
The only greed he could conceive of was greed for time spent with her. If he yielded seven hours of his life each day to the civil service, and devoted seven more to sleep, any carelessness in the use of the ten hours that remained for living with Blanca would be a reprehensible squandering, a quotidian amputation of happiness. He had never lost the avid and perpetually unsated need to be with her that he'd first experienced during their early days, when they'd spend an afternoon together or go out to dinner and then not see each other again for a week or two, when he didn't yet dare call her every day from fear of seeming too pushy.
Their years of marriage hadn't diminished his amazement at having her regularly there beside him, for hours and days and weeks and months, a greater wealth of time than he'd ever dreamed of possessing and that might have lasted so long because it could turn out to be inexhaustible. Sometimes all he needed to do was open the door of their apartment to be welcomed by the familiar signs of their domestic life and Blanca's habitual and ever-desirable presence: the smell of something cooking in the kitchen, the sound of Blanca putting plates and silverware on the table, maybe even the theme song that accompanied the opening credits of the afternoon soap opera-but that was only on days when he was exceptionally quick and got home at three o'clock sharp, days when there were no last-minute snags at the office or annoying encounters in the street. Other days, he would open the door and hear nothing, smell nothing, and for a fraction of a second, standing just inside the front door with his keys in his hand, he'd be overwhelmed by a devastating, entirely unfounded panic: Blanca had been obliged to leave very suddenly without having time to let him know, to be with her mother in some health emergency; Blanca had been in an accident; Blanca had left him. But this would last only a second or two: he'd call out to her and hear her voice responding from the far side of the apartment or from behind the closed door of the bathroom, or else the explanation was simply that she was so distracted in her studio, so immersed in a book or classical radio program, that she hadn't heard his key in the lock. He would hear her footsteps, then see her coming down the hall toward him, and he would feel as if Blanca were coming back from somewhere very far away, from a secret cellar or crypt whose existence he was unaware of and where he would never be allowed to follow her. He felt the same way sometimes when he phoned her from work in the morning. After only three or four rings Mario would already be jittery with fear that she wasn't there; then he'd hear her voice and it was the voice of someone who is alone, lost in thoughts or rooms that no one else knows anything about. When she read a book, listened to music, or watched a movie, Blanca had a marvelous ability to sink deep into herself and disappear entirely from the external world. This absolute concentration was something Mario had learned not to interfere with, the proof of a sensibility that was a constant wonder to him but made him feel dull by comparison. Sometimes he felt intimately deserted, wanting to tell Blanca something or ask her a question but knowing it wasn't worth trying, not because she'd pay no attention but because she literally was not there; she'd taken leave of her senses, as people used to say, in the most literal meaning of the words, taken leave of the reality that so often bored or disgusted her.
Excerpted from In her ABSENCE by ANTONIO MUÑOZ MOLINA Copyright © 1999 by Antonio Muñoz Molina. Excerpted by permission.
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