Sepharad
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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

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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 heading toward a Nazi concentration camp; from a shoemaker and a nun who become lovers in a small Spanish town to Primo Levi bound for Auschwitz. From the well known to the virtually unknown—all of Molina's characters are 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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
PRAISE FOR SEPHARAD

"Moving and often astonishing."—Richard Eder, The New York Times
 
"An amazing book. The Margaret Sayers Peden translation is excellent.  Read it."—The Washington Post Book World

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780156034746
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
08/01/2008
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
400
Sales rank:
660,290
Product dimensions:
5.42(w) x 10.88(h) x 0.96(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 has twice been awarded the Premio Nacional de Literatura in Spain in addition to winning the Prix Femina in France. He lives in Madrid and New York.

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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