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by Bamber Gascoigne

Antonio Muñoz Molina (b. 1956)


Spanish novelist, short story writer, and essayist. Muñoz Molina often incorporates elements of popular culture into his works, which combine modernist and postmodernist narrative strategies. In his novels, such as El invierno en Lisboa (1987), Beltenebros (1989), and El jinete polaco (1991), Muñoz Molina has reevaluated Spain's recent history, the Civil War, and the decades of dictatorship under Generalísimo Francisco Franco.

"Unconscious memory is the yeast of imagination." (in Sepharad by Antonio Muñoz Molina, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, 2001)

Antonio Muñoz Molina was born in the southern provincial city of Úbeda in Jaén. His parents Muñoz Molina has once described as members of "an unlucky generation." At the age of eight, his father had dropped out of school to help with the family's small farm. Muñoz Molina's mother never had the opportunity for any education in her childhood. "My grandfather's farm could be better called a vegetable and fruit orchard, one of the many fertile huertas which surrounded the outskirts of town, irrigated by a centuries old system of reservoir and ditches dating from the times of the Arabic civilization in Spain." (in 'Memories of a Distant War', The Volunteer, Vol. XXVII, No. 4, December, 2005)

Muñoz Molina was the first of his family to obtain a formal education. His primary education he received at a Jesuit school. At about the age of eleven or twelve, he started reading works by Jules Verne, Mark Twain, R.L. Stevenson, Agatha Christie, and Alexandre Dumas. He studied journalism in Madrid and then art history at the University of Granada, where he lived between 1974 and 1991. While in Madrid, he took part in a demonstration and was arrested. Many of his friends active in the underground Communist Party. Until 1988, Muñoz Molina worked in Granada as a municipal employee. Since 1995, he has been a full member of the Royal Spanish Academy.

Muñoz Molina began writing in the 1980s, publishing his first articles in the Diario de Granada. Later they were collected in El Robinson Urbano (1984) and Diario del Nautilus (1986). Muñoz Molina has also written articles for such major newspapers as El País, ABC, and Die Welt. His first novel, Beatus Ille (1986, A Manuscript of Ashes), received the Icaro Prize. Muñoz Molina started Beatus Ille after Franco's death, but it took ten years before the work was completed. Superficially a detective story, it tells of the attempts of a young college student, Minaya, to reveal the murderer of his uncle's wife in 1937, during the Civil War. However, there is also another mystery, the identity of the narrator, Jacinto Solana, who turns out to be a supposedly dead, forgotten poet of the Generation of 1927. Unlike in the work of authors like Eduardo Mendoza, who has also exploited the conventions of the detective novel, Muñoz Molina's focus is on existential and moral issues, not political or social criticism. Bertrand de Muñoz has argued that Muñoz Molina "transforms the Civil War of 1936 into a myth, frees it from ideologies and makes it possible for art to flourish." (The Persistence of Memory: The Spanish Civil War in Contemporary Spanish Narrative by Matthew John O‘Neill, 2011, p. 38) The title of the novel is a quote from Horace: "Beatus ille, qui procul negotiis, / ut prisca gens mortalium, / paterna rura bubus exercet suis" (A man is blessed who, free from any business deals, / As were the mortal race of old, / With his own oxen works among ancestral fields).Muñoz Molina uses it ironically: Jacinto Solana is dissatisfied with agricultural life and tries to escape to the city. ('Literature and the Dictatorship. Historiographic Metafiction in Antonio Muñoz Molina's A Manuscript of Ashes' by Katarzyna Barbara Parys, 2017, p. 111) 

El invierno en Lisboa (Winter in Lisbon), which was awarded the 1988 Premio de la Crítica, and the Premio Nacional de Narrativa, was made into a stylishly photographed film by the director José A. Zorrilla in 1991, starring Christian Vadim, Hélène de Saint-Père, Dizzy Gillespie, and Eusebio Poncela. El invierno en Lisboa has been called "the quintessential Spanish novel of the 1980s. Not other novel of this decade, and no other novel by Muñoz Molina, has received more scholarly attention." (The Discourse of Flanerie in Antonio Muñoz Molina's Texts by Richard Sperber, 2015, p. 45) The episodic story, filled with the atmosphere of a film noir, revolves around a jazz pianist, Santiago Biralbo, whose life is turned upside down by an art smuggler called Malcolm. In an interview Muñoz Molina has acknowledged, that the anonymous narrator, Biralbo's friend, was modeled after the narrator in Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

Muñoz Molina's third novel, Beltenebros (Prince of Shadows), set in Madrid in the 1960s and constructed as a spy thriller, inspired Pilar Miró's film of the same title, starring Terence Stamp, Patsy Kensit, José Luis Gómez, and Geraldine James. The novel was partly inspired by factual events, the assassination of Gabriel León Trilla, one of the founders of the Spanish Communist party. The narrator, Darman, is an executioner, who is called to Madrid to "eliminate" a man he has never met, Andrade, a presumed security risk. While on his mission in the world of shadows, Darman recalls events in the 1940s, when he executed another presumed traitor. El jinete polaco, in which Muñoz Molina retuns to his fictional town of Mágina created in Beatus Ille, was awarded the prestigious Planeta Prize and the Premio Nacional de Narrativa. Mágina, a re-creation of the author's Andalusian birthplace, is a city where history has been forgotten. This imaginary setting has been compared to Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha and García Márquez's Macondo.

Like Don Quijote, the protagonist of El jineto polaco, Manuel, sets out on an existential journey; he leaves Mágina to escape from the dreary prospects of his life. With his lover Nadia, they try to make sense of their lives in a rented New York apartment. The past is present through memory and a chest full of photographs, given them by Ramiro, the Mágina photographer. In his speech accepting the Planeta Prize Muñoz Molina said, that "this is what I have been trying to do for years, to tell the story of memory and desire". Both Beatus Ille and El jineto polaco portray protagonists, who have been too young to witness the civil war, but its tragic events have had an impact on their minds. 

A central theme in Muñoz Molina's work is that to know the past is to understand the present. The memoir-history Sefarad ( Sepharad), which maps the mental changes of the 20th-century Europe, took its title from the Hebrew word for the biblical Sepharad (Spain). A kind of reference book on refugees, Sefarad consists of 17 seemingly separate tales portraying fictional and true-life characters – Primo Levi, Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Victor Klemperer, Yevgenia Ginzburg, and others – and their occasionally intertwining paths. "Muñoz Molina quotes everyone and everything", said Michael Pyn in his review. (The New York Times, December 21, 2003) "When there's a story without sources, ''Sepharad'' is like a memoir." The connecting link between the characters is the experience of homelessness and exile, in one or another way, metaphorically referring to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century. 

The exile theme was also present in La noche de los tiempos (2009, In the Night of Time), in which the Spanish Civil war provides the background for a story of conflicting loyalties, memories and the passing of time. The protagonist is an architecht, who must choose between his personal desires and  dreams to fight for a greater cause. Like in many of his novels, reality and the imaginaire are intertwined in  Como la sombra que se va (2014, Like a Fading Shadow). One storyline deals with James Earl Ray's 10-day visit to Lisbon, after he had assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. and then fled from authorities. Another is a fictionalized autobiography taking place on different time levels, mostly in 1987, when the young Muñoz Molina was writing his first novel. "The Lisbon that belonged to the real world was being distilled into an abstract city, a model made to the dimensions of the plot unfolding within it, like the sets of Rimini or Rome built by Fellini in Cinecittà, or the gloomy New York of black-and-white thrillers filmed in Hollywood. The anonymous narrator had never been to Lisbon, so this was an imaginary city." (Ibid., translated by Camilo A. Ramirez, p. 164)

Andar solitario entre la gente  (2018, To Walk Alone in the Crowd), which was was awarded France's 2020 Medici Prize for Foreign Novel, begins with the lines: "Listen to the sounds of life. I am all ears. I listen with my eyes. I hear what I see on advertisements, headlines, posters, signs. I move through a city of voices and words." The narrator wanders in New York and Madrid, recording the noises of the urban environment. He is not totally alone, but walks with a backpack filled with a lot of names:  Christopher Isherwood, Bosch, Carmen Calvo, and Ramón Gómez de la Sernaare mentioned just in the first page. 

In 1991 Muñoz Molina was appointed member of the Real Academia Española de la Lengua. From 2004 to 2006 he served as Director of the Instituto Cervantes in New York City. In 2007 Muñoz Molina received an honorary doctorate from the University of Jaén. Muñoz Molina is married to the Spanish journalist, writer and actress Elvira Lindo. They co-wrote the screenplay for the film Plenilunio (1999), based on Muñoz Molina's novel of the same title. Although Muñoz Molina has acknowledged the influence of Jorge Luis Borges, William Faulkner, Juan Carlos Onetti, Julio Cortázar and Mario Vargas Llosa, his work is deeply rooted in the European historical experience. At home while writing he listens to classical music and jazz. His favorites include Bach, Debussy, Jean Sibelius, Shostakovich, and the jazz trumpeter and composer Dizzy Gillespie.

Note: This article is under construction. (July 2, 2021)

For further reading: The Discourse of Flanerie in Antonio Muñoz Molina's Texts by Richard Sperber (2015); Antonio Muñoz Molina: la letra pequeña by Justo Serna (2015); Antonio Muñoz Molina: el tiempo en nuestras manos by Justo Serna (2014); El medio fotográfico en la narrativa de Antonio Muñoz Molina by María Luisa Fernández Martínez (2014); Antonio Muñoz Molina: el Robinson en Nueva York by Manuel Ruiz Rico (2011); 'The Shadow of Don Quijote in the Narrative of Antonio Muñoz Molina' by David K. Herzberger, in Tradition and Modernity: Cervantes's Presence in Spanish Contemporary Literature, ed. by Idoya Puig (2009); The Gaze on the Past by Olga López-Valero Colbert (2007); Traces of Contamination: Unearthing the Francoist Legacy in Contemporary Spanish Discourse, edited by Eloy E. Merino and H. Rosi Song (2005); The Narrative of Antonio Munoz Molina by Lawrence Rich (1999); The Use of Film in Postmodern Fiction of Peter Handke, Robert Coover, Carlos Fuentes, and Antonio Munoz Molina by Ana Carlota Larrea (1991) 

Selected works:

  • El Robinsón urbano, 1984
  • Diario del Nautilus, 1986
  • Beatus Ille, 1986 - A Manuscript of Ashes (tr. Edith Grossman, 2008)
  • El invierno en Lisboa, 1987 - Winter in Lisbon (tr. Sonia Soto, 1999) - Talvi Lissabonissa (suom. Tarja Härkönen, 1993) - Film 1991, dir. by José A. Zorrilla, starring Christian Vadim, Hélène de Saint-Père, Dizzy Gillespie, Eusebio Poncela
  • Las otras vidas, 1988
  • Beltenebros 1989 - Prince of Shadows (tr. Peter Bush, 1993) - Film 1991, dir. by Pilar Miró, screenplay by Elvira Lindo, starring Terence Stamp, Patsy Kensit, José Luis Gómez, Geraldine James
  • El jinete polaco, 1991
  • Córdoba de los Omeyas, 1991
  • Los misterios de Madrid, 1992 - Madridin mysteerit (suom. Tarja Härkönen, 1994)
  • La verdad de la ficción, 1992
  • La realidad de la ficción, 1993
  • Nada del otro mundo, 1993
  • El bosque de Diana, 1994 (opera libretto, music by José García Román)
  • El dueño del secreto, 1994
  • Ardor guerrero, 1995
  • Las apariencias, 1995
  • La huerta del Edén, 1996
  • Plenilunio, 1997 - Täysikuu (suom. Tarja Härkönen, 2003) - Film 1999, dir.  Imanol Uribe, screenplay by Elvira Lindo and Antonio Muñoz Molina, starring Miguel Ángel Solá, Adriana Ozores, Juan Diego Botto, Fernando Fernán Gómez
  • Escrito en un instante, 1997
  • La colina de los sacrificios, 1998
  • Carlota Fainberg, 1999
  • Pura alegría, 1999
  • La huella de unas palabras, 1999 (ed. José Manuel Fajardo)
  • En ausencia de Blanca, 1999 - In Her Absence (tr. Esther Allen, 2006)
  • Unas gafas de Pla, 2000
  • Josè Guerrero: el artista que vuelve, 2001
  • Sefarad, 2001 - Sepharad (tr. Margaret Sayers Peden, 2003) - Sefarad (suom. Tarja Härkönen, 2007)
  • El jinete polaco, 2002 (rev.ed.) - Öinen ratsumies (suom. Tarja Härkönen, 2010)
  • La vida por delante, 2002
  • Las ventanas de Manhattan. 2004
  • La poseída, 2005
  • El viento de la Luna, 2006 - Kuun tuuli (suom. 2011)
  • Días de diario, 2007
  • La noche de los tiempos, 2009 - In the Night of Time (tr. Edith Grossman, 2013)
  • Las mañanas lucían: disparate para las tardes de agosto, 2010
  • El atrevimiento de mirar, 2012
  • Todo lo que era sólido, 2013
  • Como la sombra que se va, 2014 - Like a Fading Shadow (translated from the Spanish by Camilo A. Ramirez, 2017)
  • La puerta de la infamia: crónicas del caso Marey, 2015 (prólogo de Bonifacio de la Cuadra)
  • Un andar solitario entre la gente, 2018
  • Andar solitario entre la gente, 2018 - To Walk Alone in the Crowd (translated from the Spanish by Guillermo Bleichmar, 2021)
  • Tus pasos en la escalera, 2019
  • Hasta que nada quede: (poesía reunida 1978-2019), 2019 (prólogo de León Molina)
  • El miedo de los niños, 2020 (ilustraciones de María Rosa Aránega)
  • Volver a dónde, 2021

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