The Rubio Institute in Madrid is reduced to shambles by shellfire on Feb. 18, 1937. (AP)

Somewhere toward the end of this gargantuan, labyrinthine and altogether spellbinding novel of love and war, a man confesses to his lover that if not for war’s ravages, their affair might never have been consummated. The mounting horror afforded a kind of unspeakable liberation, a sense that the rules had already been broken. What is an act of marital infidelity, after all, in the face of wanton barbarism? Why not snatch what one can from the cruel altar of war?

The logic is obvious, hardly fresh ground for a story. Since time immemorial — from Homer to Hemingway — writers have conjured forbidden love in faraway fields of war. What distinguishes “In the Night of Time” — what makes it eye-openingly new — is its meticulous reconstruction of Spain in 1936, its attention to detail, its fusion of history and imagination, its tension between love’s surrender and war’s stiff resolve. Let me put it this way: Antonio Muñoz Molina’s novel is one of the most eloquent monuments to the Spanish Civil War ever to be raised in fiction.

Fittingly, its hero is an architect. In a time of impending doom, Ignacio Abel is a master builder, celebrated artist, an heir to Bauhaus greats Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. Although he was born the son of a humble bricklayer, he has risen high in Madrid society, married into a distinguished family. He moves as comfortably among presidents as among masons and poets. When we meet him, Ignacio is a highly sought-after expert, about to complete the construction of a bold, visionary University City. But at 47, he is also a divided soul: an elegant urbanite with deep proletarian sympathies, a loving father who cannot remember ever having loved his wife.

His wife, Adela, is hardly a glamorous counterpart. “Widened by motherhood and the neglect of age, her hair waved in a style that had become out-of-date,” she is unremarkable in every way, an unlikely consort to her dapper and famous husband. Like other matrons of her class, she is a creature of routine, “fond of midafternoon teas, artistic and literary talks for ladies at the Lyceum Club.” Their children, Lita and Miguel, are welcome exceptions to the numbing inertia of their marriage, the sunniest part of Ignacio’s otherwise workaday life.

Into that airless conjugal chamber blow the first gusts of World War II. By September of 1935, just as Hitler installs race laws that will deprive Jews of German citizenship, Spanish reactionaries, in thrall to the Führer and Mussolini, hatch an insurgency that will upend Spain’s fragile socialist government. It is now that Judith Biely appears, “her face and hair lit by the late afternoon sun.” She is young — but not as young as she looks from a distance — blond, American, Jewish, her features sharp, as if they’d been drawn with an architect’s pencil. Ignacio is introduced to Judith by a mutual friend, an avant-garde poet, and he is struck by the New Yorker’s verve and beauty. When he sees her again days later, he is even more captivated: “the exact color of her eyes, the brightness of her ironic and alert intelligence, the way her thick, curly hair was cut at a right angle at her cheeks, the luminous timbre of her voice in Spanish. Enthusiasm made her beautiful. She’d been in Madrid for a month and felt all the ardor of an unexpected love affair with the city.”

“In the Night of Time” by Antonio Muñoz Molina, translated by Edith Grossman (HMH)

For all his sophistication, Ignacio is something of a sexual naif — his only romantic escapade a series of hungry couplings with a lascivious demimondaine during his student days in Berlin. His affair with Judith is something else: immediate, addictive, haunting; and it topples the tidy contours of his universe. “Where had Judith come from, bringing with her a different world, bursting into his life like someone who abruptly enters a room, someone unexpected who opens the door and is followed by cold outside air. . . . He’d forgotten the sensation of novelty, the thrill of desiring a woman so intensely it was the pure magnetism of her female presence that made him tremble, more than her physical beauty or the slightly exotic elegance of her dress.”

By the time Ignacio and Judith have fallen into regular, hurried trysts in Madame Mathilde’s rented rooms, the war in Spain has begun its inexorable ascent to its savage climax. When was it exactly, Ignacio wonders, that “the disaster became inevitable, when the monstrous began to seem normal, as invisible as the most ordinary acts in life”? Was it when pistols gradually became real, “without his paying attention, without his noticing how to notice them”? Suddenly Adela’s brother, a rebel in Gen. Francisco Franco’s insurgency, is putting a gun into Miguel’s tiny hands.

Ignacio had always thought of wars as misfortunes that befell other people — wars that played out in history books or on the international pages of newspapers, not in your own house with your brother-in-law teaching your son how to hold an instrument of murder, or on your own street, when an unimaginable atrocity looms into view.

But, suddenly, there it is. The obscene dance of death, a hideous frenzy of killing. Even as Ignacio is being lured to a lucrative project in America, even as Adela is discovering the sordid betrayal under her own roof, the rockets are exploding, the crowds are swaying like wheat fields in the wind. Soon churches are in flames, heavy artillery is pounding the sleek, new University City, and Madrid becomes the mythic Saturn, devouring its own sons.

This is not an easy book. It is a long, elaborate, complicated maze, peppered with historical facts and faces. But, like the best of literature, it changes the world you live in. Tolstoyan, Joycean, DeLillo-an in its ambition, “In the Night of Time” abounds with cityscapes, landscapes, architectural details, telltale portents, meditative asides, unnerving tense shifts, paragraphs that go on for seven pages, scenes that are cut short only to be rewound again. Could the novel have been shorter? Perhaps. Could some of its intricacies have been chiseled away? Probably, though I suspect to the book’s detriment. By Page 200, this reader was savoring the minutiae. By Page 500, she was wishing the book would never end.

But end it will, and not in Spain, but on the shores of the Hudson River. I’m not divulging anything here: Muñoz Molina tells us as much on the very first page. But in the course of this heartbreaking, chastening story — in the hands of Edith Grossman’s remarkably vivid translation — you will feel you have followed Ignacio Abel through every circle of his man-made hell. Like him, you won’t be who you were when you started.

Arana is a novelist, essayist and the former editor in chief of Book World. Her newest book is the biography “BolÍvar: American Liberator.”


By Antonio Muñoz Molina

Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 656 pp. $30