Sepharad: A Novel by Antonio Muñoz Molina, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2003. 400 pp)

Antonio Muñoz Molina is a Spanish writer and member of the Royal Spanish Academy. He studied art history at the University of Granada. While working as a journalist in Madrid, Molina published a collection of his articles for his first book. As an author, he has won Spain’s National Narrative Prize twice and the Planeta Prize once. Molina currently lives in New York City.

Margaret Sayers Peden is an American translator and professor who received her Ph.D. from the University of Missouri. Currently a Professor Emeritus, she teaches classes on Spanish, Spanish American literature, Translation, and Interpretation. Her English-language translation of Molina’s Sepharad won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize in 2004. She resides in Columbia, Missouri.

Origins

Since as early as the 2nd century, Spanish Jews have labeled the Iberian Peninsula – the land mass of Portugal and Spain – as “Sepharad.” To this day, Modern Hebrew still refers to Spain as “Sepharad.” For many, “Sepharad” is a word that signifies the culture of Spanish Jews.
Photo by Daniel R. Blume
In Antonio Muñoz Molina’s work, Sepharad, the author details the consequences of World War II on this population. Put simply, the holocaust acted not only as a heinous genocide, but also as a divider. In the horror of a fascist-occupied Europe, Sephardi Jews dispersed throughout the world.

The Diaspora

While “novel” hardly conveys the experience of reading Sepharad, Antonio Muñoz Molina utilizes beautiful prose while telling the stories of the Sephardi diaspora.
In other words, each chapter in this tome provides an unconnected look at the life of the Sephardi. Whether depicted during the war, in its aftermath, or in current times, each chapter poetically narrates the story of this broken community.
Speaking on the dispersal of community, Molina writes of the unspeakable connection between the Sephardi,

“You go away and forget the habits and figures of that little enclave in the heart of Madrid, and years later remember, for no reason, a place, a face, a fragment of a story with no beginning or end, a novel we each carry but never tell anyone” (228).

While the Spanish Jews maintain this fragmentary connection, their new communities certainly change them:

“You are not an isolated person and do not have an isolated story, and neither your face no your profession nor the other circumstances of your past or present life are cast in stone. The past shifts and reforms, and mirrors are unpredictable. Every morning you wake up thinking you are the same person you were the night before, recognizing an identical face in the mirror, but sometimes in your sleep you’ve been disoriented by cruel shards of sadness or ancient passions that cast a muddy, somber light on the dawn, and the face is different, changed by time, like a seashell ground by the sand and the pounding and salt of the sea” (288).


The Horrors of World War II

Photo by Za Rodinu
Alongside this sense of connection between the Sephardi, Molina discusses World War II in brutal detail. With stories detailing the holocaust, Russian communists, and interactions between Jews and Nazi sympathizers after the war, Sapharad explores the depths of hatred, violence, and war.
In one poetic passage, Molina writes

“The war was filled with coincidences like that, with chains of random events that dragged you away or saved you; your life could depend not on your heroism or caution or cleverness but on whether you bent down to tighten a boot one second before a bullet or shard of shrapnel passed through the place where your head would have been, whether a comrade took your turn in a scouting patrol from which no one came back” (303).


More Memoir, Less Novel

As I hinted with my quotations earlier, Sapharad is not your common form of a novel. Molina explores many true stories in the book including the love letters of Franz Kafka and many personal interviews with the Sephardi.
At one point, Molina in a memoir-voice mentions,

“On one internet page I found, in white letters on a black background, a list of Sephardim the Germans deported from the Island of Rhodes to Auschwitz. You would have to read them one by one, aloud, as if reciting a strict and impossible prayer, to understand that not one of these names can be reduced to a number in an atrocious statistic. Each had a life unlike any other, just as each face, each voice was unique, and the horror of each death was unrepeatable even though it happened amid so many millions of similar deaths. How, when there are so many lives that deserve to be told, can one attempt to invent a novel for each, in a vast network of interlinking novels and lives” (365)?


Few Adventures in Life Tie Up All the Loose Strings

Ultimately, Sepharad is a difficult read with little narrative direction. For those looking for a story, Seapharad will leave them disappointed. In fact, Molina contends,

“People always want to know how stories end; whether well or badly, they want the resolution to be as neat as the beginning, they want sense and symmetry. But few adventures in life tie up all the loose strings, unless fate steps in, or death, and some stories never develop, they come to nothing or are interrupted just as they are beginning” (285).

But, the people of Sepharad have a long and complicated history worth documenting. In the wake of the holocaust, the Sephardi diaspora have many unique stories, and yet, remain connected through cultural lineage.
Antonio Muñoz Molina writes some beautiful prose and Margaret Sayers Peden deserves recognition for a masterful translation. While I am glad to have read this book, I am unsure if I am able to recommend it. Sepharad is a laborious read that requires every ounce of a reader’s attention. If you can’t handle that, don’t read the book.

Comments

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2 Comments Leave a comment
  • Sam

    This sounds like a powerful read, thank you for the recommendation. When I was at university, I was friends with a Sephardi Jew and she got me interested in their history.

  • Donovan Richards

    It was a very powerful read, Sam. I think knowing someone connected to Sepharad would make the read more special. Molina writes beautifully. If you are OK with an absence of narrative and some long, meandering sections, I think you would enjoy the book!

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