IN HER ABSENCE
By Antonio Muñoz Molina
Translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen
Other Press. 134 pp. Paperback, $13.95
Several years ago Antonio Muñoz Molina was described as "a Spanish writer laden with prizes and so far scandalously unknown in English." His awards include not one but two Spanish National Narrative Prizes, and he is the youngest-ever member of the Royal Spanish Academy. Despite these honors from his native country and 13 books published in Spanish, not much has happened to bring him American readers. Sepharad won the 2004 PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club translation award for Margaret Sayers Peden, but since then nothing else by him had appeared for us Anglophones. Now, we are getting another chance. He is back with a new translator and a short novel published in 1999 as En Ausencia de Blanca.
Molina is a fearless writer. He is not afraid of making demands on his reader's imagination. In Her Absence is no passive entertainment. 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.
Mario is a masterpiece. Molina has created a character with no intellectual pretensions, asking for little except a safe job and a predictable routine. He lives his narrow life thinking only of Blanca. She -- entirely different -- is enamored of avant-garde painters, sculptors and anything culturally trendy. Mario sees himself as a philistine unable to share her enthusiasms. As for her favorite artists, "he couldn't find much more merit in them than in a haircut." He likes to arrive home punctually at 3:10 in the afternoon. His days are measured by the difficult and willful woman he rescued from a life where she "drank six or seven vodkas per day, smoked two packs of Camels, and carried a purse stuffed with . . . pills, both uppers and downers." Mario avoids his fellow workers, has no friends and no passions for life beyond Blanca. "The only greed he could conceive of was greed for time spent with her."
Molina seems intent on making his central character aggressively dull. Mario is an emotional doormat, inviting the imperious Blanca to walk over him. "Six years after meeting her he was still moved each time he reentered her presence." She drags him to gallery openings, to the opera and insists on cooking him French, Italian and Japanese food. Mario doesn't much enjoy the results, but "he loved the way Blanca cooked as unconditionally as he loved the sound of her voice or the way she dressed." He seems steadfastly incapable of self-awareness.
So there we have the foundation of the novel: The patient, uncomplaining Mario is enfolded in an all-consuming worship of Blanca, while she, restless and unemployed, is always looking beyond their narrow life for something artistic or profound. Inevitably, she finds it -- or rather him: Lluís Onésimo is a "dramaturge or dramatist or something like that, multimedia artist, hypnotizer, con man, metteur en scène," as a skeptical Mario describes him. When Lluís invites Blanca to help with his latest exhibition, she swiftly develops a "gigantic new admiration" for him and his art.
One day, our hero returns home at 3:30, 20 minutes after his usual time, to find the apartment quiet and empty. Instantly, he knows that Blanca has left him for Lluís. "Mario López felt that his world was coming to an end. The definitive, silent cataclysm he had so often imagined and foreseen had arrived, nevertheless, with the horrible force of something absolutely novel." In the story's opening paragraph Molina tells the reader that Blanca has returned from her short-lived affair with Lluís, but for Mario the "horrible force" remains. He realizes in his plainspoken way that she who has returned to him is "the woman who was not Blanca."
Is Mario now living with his wife or "the stranger or shadow who had supplanted her"? That ambiguity lies at the heart of the novel. Is this the real Blanca?
There is a hypnotic quality to the spare, always forward-moving rhythm of Molina's prose. Mario's limited yet intensely focused world does not let the reader take a breath for even a paragraph. Perhaps that is why the novel is so short. Neither the writer nor the reader could sustain such a pitch of living inside the head of an increasingly disturbed human being.
But how can a short novel, a mere 134 pages, with little action and a mystery left unsolved, take hold of the reader in this way? 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. *
Brigitte Weeks is a former editor of Book World.