Sepharad

Sepharad

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by Antonio Munoz Molina
     
 

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From one of Spain's most celebrated writers, an extraordinary, inspired book-at once fiction, history, and memoir-that draws on the Sephardic diaspora, the Holocaust, and Stalin's purges to tell a twentieth-century story.
Shifting seamlessly from the past to the present and following the routes of escape across countries and continents, Muñoz Molina

Overview

From one of Spain's most celebrated writers, an extraordinary, inspired book-at once fiction, history, and memoir-that draws on the Sephardic diaspora, the Holocaust, and Stalin's purges to tell a twentieth-century story.
Shifting seamlessly from the past to the present and following the routes of escape across countries and continents, Muñoz Molina evokes people real and imagined who come together in a richly allusive pattern-from Eugenia Ginsburg to Grete Buber-Neumann, the one on a train to the gulag, the other to a Nazi concentration camp; from a shoemaker and a nun who become lovers in a small town in Spain to Primo Levi bound for Auschwitz. And others-some well known, others unknown-all voices of separation, nostalgia, love, and endless waiting.
Written with clarity of vision and passion, in a style both lyrical and accessible, Sepharad makes the experience our own.
A brilliant achievement.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review
This book is no boneless 'meditation'; it has all the onward rush and effortfulness of an epic, and it's studded with the terrible stories you hear from acquaintances in 'the insomniac world of travelers.'

—Michael Pye

Book World
One might argue against such a literary appropriation of the Holocaust, yet Munoz Molina's urgent desire to bear witness to it, even though at a remove, and his very sensitive ability to evoke the humiliations of its victims makes Sepharad an amazing book. The Margaret Sayers Peden translation is excellent. Read it.

—Barbara Probst Solomon

The New York Sun
"A brilliant, fearful, and unforgettable book."

Tennessean
"Now that American readers have the opportunity to encounter Molina, we may want to adopt him as our own...Together his sketches comprise a harrowing sketch of private life in the 20th century."

San Antonio Express News
"Obsessive in its detail, inspiring in its scope and monumental in its ambitions...smart and insightful...intellectually demanding..."

The Los Angeles Times
Munoz Molina writes the novels of the people he's met and imagined, gleaning from the names he encounters stories that vibrate beneath the burden of history, that lift with the breath of human life.

—Bernadette Murphy

The New York Times
Moving and often astonishing.

—Richard Eder

Booklist
"Elegiacally beautiful...Calling on such inspiring figures as Franz Kafka and Primo Levi for guidance. Munoz Molina creates astute, deeply felt, and exquisitely expressive testimony to love, suffering, and the astonishing fecundity of human consciousness."

Richmond Times Dispatch
"Will intrigue and enthrall determined readers willing to let this thoughtful writer lead them through history into the hearts of exiles at home and abroad."

Boston Globe
"This is the land of the marked, the fated, the terminally ill, and we should be grateful that Munoz Molina is our brave guide in this world."

From the Publisher
PRAISE FOR SEPHARAD
"A magnificent novel about the iniquity and horror of fanaticism, and especially the human being's indestructible spirit."-Mario Vargas Llosa

"If Balzac wrote The Human Comedy, Muñoz Molina has written the adventure of exile, solitude, and memory."-Arturo Pérez-Reverte

Book World - Barbara Probst Solomon
"One might argue against such a literary appropriation of the Holocaust, yet Munoz Molina's urgent desire to bear witness to it, even though at a remove, and his very sensitive ability to evoke the humiliations of its victims makes Sepharad an amazing book. The Margaret Sayers Peden translation is excellent. Read it."

The Los Angeles Times - Bernadette Murphy
"Munoz Molina writes the novels of the people he's met and imagined, gleaning from the names he encounters stories that vibrate beneath the burden of history, that lift with the breath of human life."

The New York Times - Richard Eder
"Moving and often astonishing."

The New York Times Book Review - Michael Pye
"This book is no boneless 'meditation'; it has all the onward rush and effortfulness of an epic, and it's studded with the terrible stories you hear from acquaintances in 'the insomniac world of travelers.'"

The Washington Post
Antonio Mu�oz Molina is one of the most impressive of the contemporary crop of Spanish writers in their late late thirties and forties (the list includes Julian Marias and Manuel Rivas) who are intent on understanding a past they have no direct access to. In Sepharad, Mu�oz Molina seeks to reimagine the tragic aspects of recent history, summoning up an onrush of voices, narrators and journals that bear witness to the violence of the 20th century. He means to compensate for Spain's almost phobic refusal to remember what happened yesterday. — Barbara Probst Solomon
Publishers Weekly
Award-winning Spanish author Mu oz Molina explores themes of memory and exile in this dense, ardent volume, his second to be translated into English (after Winter in Lisbon). "I have invented very little in the stories and voices that weave through this book," he writes in his author's note; in 17 chapters linked by theme and subject, readers meet men and women-both real and imagined-in the shadow of the Holocaust and the regimes of Stalin and Franco. In "Copenhagen," Mu oz Molina reflects on the relationship between narrative and travel: on Franz Kafka's affair with Milena Jesenka, which was "crisscrossed with letters and trains," and a Jewish acquaintance's memory of a trip to Paris in 1944, when a jammed hotel door sparked the terror of a captivity narrowly avoided. In "Silencing Everything," a man from Madrid recalls his experiences as a soldier in Russia during WWII, and in "Sacristan," a man who left his small village for the city mourns the changes in his childhood home. The author himself appears as a character, a man in exile from his own life, drowning in his search for stories: "I have flirted," he says, "with the idea of writing a novel, imagined situations and places, like snapshots...." Mu oz Molina's stories are intensely engrossing, but his prose can be tricky: he might switch mid-paragraph, for instance, from first-person to third-person narration, and his descriptions of physical details can take on the tone of an incantatory recitation. But patient readers will be richly rewarded by a nuanced view into a foreign world. (Dec.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
"Beautifully constructed and very rich."

Library Journal
Munoz Molina's second novel to be translated into English (after Prince of Shadows) is a brilliant series of literary meditations on the nature of memory and evil. Franz Kafka wanders like a phantasm throughout, and many other writers who have explored the persistence of the past serve as individual touchstones, Marcel Proust, Primo Levi, and Joseph Conrad among them. The chapters are individual tales of travel through time and space, during which the narrator meets someone who tells him a story of horror related to the major holocausts of the 20th century, in particular those perpetrated by Hitler and Stalin. Though Spanish Jews often did not suffer directly from such persecution, they are effectively linked through such devices as cultural or political ties, a disillusioned Communist, a displaced Hungarian shopkeeper now in Tangiers, and the author himself. A sad and perhaps unintended irony is that this book, originally published in Spain in 2001, ends in New York with a view of the World Trade Center. The richness of Munoz Molina's writing emerges from Peden's exemplary translation, and the book should take its place alongside such Holocaust-related works as Aharon Appelfeld's The Iron Tracks. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 8/03.]-Harold Augenbraum, Mercantile Lib. of New York Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780151009015
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
12/08/2003
Pages:
400
Product dimensions:
6.27(w) x 9.34(h) x 1.32(d)

Read an Excerpt

sacristan

WE HAVE MADE OUR LIVES far away from our small city, but we just can't get used to being away from it, and we like to nurture our nostalgia when it has been a while since we've been back, so sometimes we exaggerate our accent when talking among ourselves, and use the common words and expressions that we've been storing up over the years and that our children can vaguely understand from having heard them so often. Godino, the secretary of our regional association-which has been rescued from its dismal lethargy thanks to his enthusiasm and dynamism-regularly organizes meals where we enjoy the food and recipes of our homeland, and if we are disgruntled that our gastronomy is as little known by foreigners as our monumental architecture or our Holy Week, we like having dishes that no one knows about, and giving them names that have meaning only to us. Oh, there's nothing like our gordal and cornezuelo olives! Godino exclaims, the plump ones and the long, pointed ones! Our rolls, our borrachuelos-we dream of those sugar-sprinkled pastries with a light touch of brandy-our layered pasta, our Easter cakes, our morcilla-our sausage has rice, not onion-our typical gazpacho, which is nothing at all like Andalusian gazpacho, and our wild-artichoke salad...In the private room of the Museo del Jamón, where those of us on the directors' council often meet, Godino gluttonously hacks off a piece of bread and before dipping it into the bowl of steaming morcilla makes a gesture like a benediction and recites these lines:

Morcilla, blessed lady,

worthy of our veneration.

The owner of the Museo is a countryman of ours who, as Godino says, often personally oversees the catering of our feasts, in which there isn't a single ingredient that hasn't come from our city, not even the bread, which is baked in La Trini's oven, the very oven that to this day produces the mouthwatering madeleines and the Holy Week cakes with a hard-boiled egg in the center that we loved so much when we were kids. Now, to tell the truth, we realize that the oily dough sits a little heavy on our stomachs, and though in our conversations we keep praising the savor of those hornazos, which are absolutely unique in the world and no one but us knows the name of, if we start eating one, we quit before we're through, even though it's painful to waste food-something our mothers always taught us. We remember the early days in Madrid, when we used to go to the bus station to pick up a food package sent from home: cardboard boxes carefully sealed with tape and tightly tied with cord, bringing from across all that distance the undiluted aroma of the family kitchen, the delicious abundance of all the things we have missed and yearned for in Madrid: butifarros and chorizos, sausages from the recent butchering, borrachuelos sparkling with sugar, even a glass jar filled with boiled red pepper salad seasoned with olive oil, the greatest delicacy you can ask for in a lifetime. For a while the dim interior of the armoire in our boardinghouse room would take on the succulent and mysterious penumbra of those cupboards where we kept food in the days before the advent of refrigerators. (Now when I tell my children that back when I was their age there was no refrigerator or television in my house, they don't believe it, or worse yet, they look at me as if I were a caveman.)

We had been away from our homes and our city for long, long months, but the smell and taste of them offered the same consolation as a letter, the same profound happiness and melancholy we felt after talking on the phone with our mothers or sweethearts. Our children, who spend the whole day glued to the telephone, talking for hours with someone they've seen only a short while before, can't believe that for us, not only in our childhood but our early teens as well, the telephone was still a novelty, at least in ordinary families, and because the system wasn't as yet automated, calling from one city to another-ringing someone up, as we said then-was a rather difficult undertaking that often meant standing in line for hours, waiting your turn in a public telephone office crammed with people. I'm not exactly an old man (although at times my wife says I seem ancient enough), but I remember when I had to call my mother at a neighbor's house and wait until they went to get her, all the while hearing footsteps in the wooden booth at the telephone company on the Gran Vía. Finally I would hear her voice and be overcome by an anguish I have felt only rarely since, a sensation of being far away and of having left my mother to grow old alone. We both would be nearly tongue-tied, because we used that exotic instrument so seldom that it made us very nervous, and we were consumed by the thought of how much we were paying for a conversation in which we barely managed to exchange a few formalities as trite as those in our letters: Are you well? Have you been behaving? Don't forget to wear your overcoat when you go out in the morning, it's getting cold. You had to swallow hard to work up the nerve to ask the person you were talking with to send a food package, or a money order. You hung up the telephone and suddenly all that distance was real again, and with that, besides the desolation of going outside on a Sunday evening, there was the contemptible relief of having put behind you an uncomfortable conversation in which you had nothing to say.

Now that distances have become much shorter, we feel farther and farther apart. Who doesn't remember those endless hours on the midnight express, in the second-class coaches that brought us to Madrid for the first time and deposited us, done in from fatigue and lack of sleep, in the unwelcoming dawn of Atocha Station, the old one, which our children never knew, although some of them, just kids, or still in their mama's womb, spent arduous nights on those trains that carried us south during the Christmas vacations we looked forward to so much, or during the short but cherished days of Holy Week, or of our strange late fair that falls at the end of September, when the men of our parents' generation picked the most delicious grapes and pomegranates and figs and allowed themselves the luxury of attending the two bullfights of the fair: the one on Saint Michael's day, which opened the fair, and the one on the day of Saint Francis, which was the most splendid, the "big day," our parents called it, but also the saddest because it was the last, and because the autumn rain often spoiled the corrida and forced the mournful closing of the few carousels we had in those days, completely covered over with wet canvas.

TIME LASTED LONGER THEN, and the kilometers were longer. Not many people had a car, and if you didn't want to spend the whole night on the train, you got on the bus we called the Pava, which took seven hours, first, because of all the twists and turns on the highway toward the north of our province, and also because of the cliffs and tunnels of Depeñaperros, which were like the entrance into another world, the frontier, where our part of the world was left behind on the last undulating hillsides of olive trees, and then the endless plains of La Mancha, so monotonous that sleep seemed to bleed into exhaustion and prevail over discomfort and you fell fast asleep and with a little luck didn't open your eyes again until the bus was approaching the lights of Madrid. What a thrill it was to see the capital from afar, the red tile roofs and, high above them, the tall buildings that impressed us so strongly: the Telephone Building, the Edificio España, the Torre de Madrid!

But it was another emotion that moved us most, especially when our illusions about the new life awaiting us in the capital began to wane, or when we simply began to get used to that life, the way you get used to everything and, as you do, lose your taste for it, the way liking turns into boredom, tedium, hidden irritation. We preferred the emotion of that other arrival, the slow approach to our home country, the signs that announced it to us, not kilometer markers on the highway but certain familiar indications seen from the small window of the train or bus: a roadside inn, the red color of the soil along the banks of the Guadalimar River, and then the first houses, the isolated street lamps on the corners, if we arrived at night, the sensation of already being there and the impatience of not quite having arrived, the sweet feeling of all the days that lay ahead, of vacations begun and yet still intact.

There was in those days one last house, I remember now, where the city ended on the north, the last one you left behind as you traveled toward Madrid and the first you saw on the return, an ancient little hotel with a garden, called La Casa Cristina, which was often the meeting place for the crews of olive pickers and also the place where we bade the Virgin farewell when at the beginning of September her image was returned to the sanctuary of the village from which she would be brought the following year, at the time of the busy pilgrimage in May, the Virgin to whom, as children, we came to pray on late-summer afternoons.

Maybe the limits of things were drawn more clearly then, like the lines and colors and names of countries on the maps that hung on the schoolhouse walls: that small hotel with its tiny garden and its yellow street lamp on the corner was precisely where our city ended. One step farther and the country began, especially at night when the lamp glowed at the edge of the darkness, not lighting it but revealing it in all its depth. A few years ago, when I was on a trip with my children, who were still small-I remember that the second one was holding my hand-I tried to take them to see La Casa Cristina, and along the way I was telling them that it was near that hotel that the owner of the olive groves would hire my mother and me to work as pickers. I told them how icy cold it was as we walked through the dark city in heavy wraps: I wearing my father's corduroy cap and wool gloves, my mother in a shawl that completely enveloped her and covered her head. It was so cold that my ears and hands were frozen, and my mother had to rub my hands with hers, which were warmer and rougher, and blow her warm breath on my fingertips. I would get choked up when I told them about those times, and about my mother, whom they had scarcely known. I made them see how much life had changed in such a short time, because it was nearly unimaginable for them to think that children their age had to spend the Christmas vacations earning a daily wage in the olive groves. Then I realized that I had been talking for a long time and wandering around without finding La Casa Cristina, and I thought I'd lost my way because of all the talking I was doing, but no, I was right at the place I'd been looking for: what wasn't there was the house. A man I asked told me it had been torn down several years before, when they widened the old Madrid highway. Whatever the case, even if La Casa Cristina had still been on that corner, the city wouldn't have ended there: new neighborhoods had grown up, monotonous block after brick block, and there was a multisports complex and a new commercial center the man showed me with pride, as if pointing out impressive monuments to a foreigner. Only those of us who have left know what the city used to be like and are aware of how much it has changed; it's the people who stayed who can't remember, who seeing it day after day have been losing that memory, allowing it to be distorted, although they think they're the ones who remained faithful and that we, in a sense, are deserters.

My wife says that I live in the past, that I feed on dreams like the idle old men who hang around playing dominoes at our social center and attend the lectures and poetry readings that Godino organizes. I tell her that I am like them, more or less, as good as unemployed, almost permanently "between jobs," as they say now, no matter how hard I try to start business deals that don't come to anything, or accept nearly always short-lived, often fraudulent jobs. What I don't tell her is that at this point I would really like to live in the past, to sink into it with the same conviction, the same voluptuousness, that others do, like Godino, who when he eats morcilla stew, or remembers some joke or the nickname of one of our paisanos, or recites a few lines from our most famous poet, Jacob Bustamante, flushes with enthusiasm and happiness, and is always planning what he's going to do when Holy Week comes, and counting the days till Palm Sunday, and especially till the night of Ash Wednesday, when it's time for the procession he participates in as a member of the brotherhood and also as director. "Just like our renowned Mateo Zapatón, who's retired now in La Villa y Corte," says Godino, who knows an unbelievable number of our paisanos by their proper names and nicknames although he has lived his whole life in Madrid, and calls everyone "illustrious," "esteemed," "distinguished," hitting that uished so hard, the way they do in our town, that more than once he's sprayed saliva as he says it.

It's true, many of us would like to live in the immutable past of our memories, a past that seems to live on in the taste of some foods and those dates marked in red on the calendars, but without realizing it we've been letting a remoteness grow inside us that no quick trip can remedy or increasingly infrequent telephone calls ease-forget the letters we stopped writing years ago. Now that we can make the three-hour trip swiftly and comfortably on the expressway, we go back less and less. Everything is much closer, but we're the ones drifting farther away, even though we repeat the old familiar words and stress our accent and though we still get emotional when we hear the marches of our religious association or recite poems by the "distinguished bard who gives meaning to the word," as he is introduced by Godino-who is flattering and admiring him but at the same time pulling his leg-the poet Jacob Bustamante, who apparently paid no attention to the siren song of literary celebrity and chose not to come to Madrid. He's still there, in our city, collecting prizes and accumulating benefits because he's a civil servant, as is another of our local glories, maestro Gregorio E. Puga, a composer of note who also ignored the siren song scorned by Godino in his day. They say (actually, Godino says) that maestro Puga concluded his musical studies in Vienna brilliantly, and that he could have found a position in one of the best orchestras of Europe had the pull of his hometown not been so strong, but he returned instead with all his diplomas for excellence in German, in Gothic lettering, and very quickly and very easily, in a competitive examination, earned the position of band director.

© 2001, Antonio Muñoz Molina
English translation copyright © 2003 by Margaret Sayers Peden

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Meet the Author

ANTONIO MUÑOZ MOLINA is the author of more than a dozen novels, among them Sepharad , A Manuscript of Ashes , and In Her Absence . He has also been awarded the Jerusalem Prize and the Príncipe de Asturias Prize, among many others. He lives in Madrid and New York City.

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Sepharad 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
svend More than 1 year ago
This book open a chapter of history not known by many and a part of history forgotten by most also a unique way of writeing
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
highly recommend