Sepharad
Antonio Muñoz Molina,
Margaret S. Peden,
Translator

(Harcourt)
Sepharad is made up of seventeen tales, all having to do with war, separation, political violence, exile, alienation, human cruelty, murder, sacrifice, expulsion, torture, and death --- the usual normal day-to-day interaction between humans.

The form of the book is somewhat distray, for these are stories as told to or read by the author, so they become stories not only about stories, but also stories about story-tellers. One might be reminded of --- not so much in art, but in form --- of The Canterbury Tales or, better, The Decameron.

The tale-tellers in Sepharad have certain things in common. All involved have been forced to leave one place, go to another, often unwillingly, often in grave danger. The very title comes from the Sephardic Jews, those who were forced from Spain in 1492 (the word "sepharadh" is the Hebrew word for "Spain.") As Emile Roman tells the author --- another story told by a story-teller to the writer --- that time of expulsion has never been forgotten by the Jews, even five-hundred years after the fact:

    the incontrovertible decree of expulsion, the goods and homes hastily sold to meet the time period of two months granted the expelled, two months to depart from a country in which your people lived for more than a thousand years, almost since the beginning of that other diaspora...

And for those who stayed on, converted to Catholicism: "now it was their blood that condemned them, and not just them but their children and grandchildren after them,"

    so that those who stayed behind ended up as alien in their homeland as those who left, perhaps even more so, for they were scorned not only by those who should have been their brothers in their new religion but also by those who remained loyal to the abandoned faith.

Thus the book is filled with alienation, exiles, or even those who live on in country who should be in exile. Victor Klemperer stayed on in Dresden after the coming of the Nazis. He described his travails meticulously in his journal, I Will Bear Witness. He reveals how gradually even the most simple pleasures were taken from him: going to the park, going out at night, buying books --- and a most strange cruelty --- depriving him of the right to have pets.

There was Hans Meyer who escaped from Vienna in 1938, ended up in Antwerp, where, five years later "the same boots and armored cars and martial music that invaded Vienna were echoing through the streets of this city in which he had never ceased being a foreigner."

Then there is Leon Trotsky in Mexico who, Muñoz says, will never cease waiting "for the arrival of Stalin's emissary." Jean Améry and Primo Levi who both were incarcerated at Auschwitz, and, after miraculously surviving, both ended up taking their own lives. Heinz Neumann, leader of the German Communist Party, once personal guest of Stalin at his dacha on the Black Sea; five years later, taken prisoner at the Lux Hotel in Moscow. (When an official examines his books, a letter from Stalin drops out onto the floor and the guard says, "Worse and worse.")

§     §     §

Exiles and prisoners and those on the run and those who can never go home again. Some, like Neumann or Trotsky or Klemperer, were well-known; many of the others described here are anonymous --- now only known because Muñoz has retold their stories here. Such as Señor Isaac Salama whose father brought him to Tangier just before WWII. He grew weary of the stories of his mother and two sisters who had perished at an unnamed, tiny, little-known camp in Poland. When he is fourteen, he finally escapes by boat from Tangier to Spain:

    You can't imagine the weight that was lifted from my shoulders --- free of father and his shop and his mourning and all the Jews killed by Hitler, all the lists of names in the synagogue...

And then, at the age of twenty-two, Isaac Salama is paralyzed in an automobile accident in Spain. He compares his disability to being a Jew,

    At that time in my life [during his childhood], being a Jew gave me the same sense of shame and the same rage I felt after I was paralyzed, crippled --- none of this 'impaired' or 'disabled' drivel, which is what those imbeciles say now, as if changing the world could erase the stigma and give me back the use of my legs. When I was nine or ten, in Budapest, what I wanted was not for us Jews to be saved from the Nazis, I say it now, to my shame: what I wanted was not to be a Jew.

Amidst all these stories of pain and isolation and loss of home, there is one which is not only the most gripping, but like a jewel buried in the coal mine, is the most merry. It is the one that put us most in mind of Boccaccio. It's Mateo the shoemaker's memory of his seduction.

It was no simple seduction: he was given a whispered invitation to go to the nunnery not far from his shoe shop, the Convent of Santa Clara. The invitation came from Sister María del Gólgota.

She told him that at midnight, he would see the lights flash in the tower, and he would go to a small door in the base, and push on it, and when he entered, and climbed the steps, he would find her.

He did so, and there in the dark, he found himself "licked, bitten, instructed, crushed by a naked body that became so entangled with his that he couldn't tell, in the daze of his excitement and the darkness, what he was touching or what was touching him."

    He was shaken like a rag doll, shoved against a wall that chilled and scraped his shoulder, muzzled by a sweaty hand when his breathing became too loud, tossed as if by a powerful wave, then held as he fell to the floor.

This story, "America," shows Muñoz' excellent, driving narrative power. As they say in the Michelin guides, it is "vaut le voyage."

§     §     §

Hitler, Stalin, the disaparicidos, war, sickness, violence, cattle cars, enforced exile: these are what make up the seventeen stories told here. However, at times the author tells us about his own travels, where he "luxuriated in the intoxication of being no one." He meditates on his own alienation, even wanting to be alone at literary conferences that pay his rent. At these times, the narrative turns soft, not a little self-indulgent.

But mostly, Muñoz knows how to put a story together, and he feels obvious kinship with the writers on alienation. Kafka pops up again and again. The healthy flee from the ill, but the ill also flee from the healthy. But Muñoz is at his best when he is telling someone else's story ---- speaking for them, through them. Thus it is in the shoemaker's tale above, or the gripping "Scheherazade."

Scheherazade lived years of exile in Russia, and now, back in Spain, says:

    In Moscow I remembered Madrid, and now in Madrid I remember Moscow, what can I do? If I carry Spain in my heart, the Soviet Union is my country too, why wouldn't it be when you consider that I lived there more than fifty years.

There is, too, the unnamed woman from Muñoz's own village in Spain who runs the Hispanic Society's Museum in New York City, a museum that itself has become alienated, located as it is on 155th Street in the Bronx, amidst the burnt-out homes and vacant lots. The curator of that museum is now in her sixties, is far away from Spain, and is in love, in love with a painting by Velázquez --- one of a little girl, no one knows who, done in 1640, that hangs there in the museum, unknown, itself in exile.

Finally, there are the certainties, the ones that eventually come into our lives. That humans can be so astonishingly cruel to each other. That in stories, the stories of others, we can often find a rich and precious light. That we are all aliens in some way, most of all from the world that existed back then when we were children.

And most striking of all --- as the Sephardim of the 15th century and their kin from the 20th century have made so very clear --- all is fragile, very very fragile: "I am frightened by the fragility of things; the order and quiet of our lives always hangs from a thread that can snap so easily; our everyday, secure, familiar reality can suddenly shatter in a cataclysm."

--- Ignacio Schwartz