A revolutionary guardsman deems Ignacio Abel, the protagonist of Antonio Muñoz Molina's "In the Night of Time," a gentleman with a union card."
Civil wars often divide countries. Spain's sliced Iberia into a series of mind states, intellectual positions and moral prerogatives that deposited a prismatic understanding of those traumatic events in history's hopper.
How you understand the conflict depends very much on who is telling the story, a devout Catholic or Falangist, a millenarian anarchist, a determined communist, a socialist intellectual with sympathies rooted in a class not their own.
Abel is a working class boy made good by studying hard in preparation, and marrying up to cement his drive for respectability.
His complacency, his thinly veiled boredom with bourgeois Spanish life, mark him as something other than the family he's married into, architectural brilliance and financial success notwithstanding.
As the country lurches toward civil war, circumstances in the family come to something of a boil as his socialist tendencies clash with their own Catholic and evolving fascistic allegiances.
The ebullient Republican milieu and the opening up of Spain in the 1930s, following years of dictatorship, led to outside influences and armies of curious visitors. One of these, Judith Biely, a student, revolutionizes his life, awakens the older man's sexuality and deepens his appreciation for Madrid, the city he grew up in yet has never truly seen.
About the time the affair comes to light in Abel's domestic life (not a spoiler) the civil war has broken out. They go together, this conflict at home and the larger one outside it, to the point where the same things that divide Abel's family, divide the country.
The story opens with the architect running from Spain and his family, floating through New York's Pennsylvania Station. Muñoz Molina's is a backward glance at Abel's family life, his professional milieu and colleagues, "the affair" and other relations with different strata of Spanish society.
Relations that define him.
Because he is shacking up with his lover when the fascist uprising launches, Abel ends up on the wrong side of the front from his family. Or, considering that they, good conservative Catholics, would not have been able to protect him from summary execution, on the right side of the new dividing line.
But his leftist sympathies are not enough to save him from being rousted up by an anarchist patrol and readied for the firing squad, only to be saved by an old friend of his father's.
Although a man of the left, the author's portrait of revolutionary Madrid has much in common with that rendered by right winger Agustin de Foxha in "Madrid: From Royal Court to Checka."
It's a dreary, unromantic and dangerous place where the violence comes from within and without alike. One of those places where death takes root so strongly that it no longer discriminates on the basis of guilt or ideology, but harvests what ever innocent stands in its way.
De Foxha's last-scene departure across the border into southern France is a welcome return to warm bourgeois normalcy, and Abel's arrival in New York's Hudson River valley is much the same.
The revolutionaries in control of Madrid are not the armed and noble yeoman of a certain strain of Spanish Civil War literature. Not for Abel, who has eaten from the tree of knowledge so that he sees things too well to act and lets fate pick his poison for him.
"They're intoxicated by words and anthems," he writes of the red and black hordes lording it over Madrid's streets, "as if they were breathing air too rich in oxygen and didn't know it. But perhaps it was he who was mistaken, his lack of fervor proof not of lucidity, but the mean-spirited hardening of age, favored by privilege and his fear of losing it."
Although they are ostensibly on his "side," the randomness and brutality of the violence the revolutionaries mete out is something the architect simply can not forgive and he grows disheartened with the political experiment in his homeland.
Being about Spain, the story can't help but be about the contrary demands of tradition and the yearnings of the individual heart.
So, sure, he feels guilty about cheating on his wife, but..."Only with [his lover] had he discovered and now regained what he'd never known could be so pleasurable, the habit of conversing, explaining himself to himself, confirming immediate affinities in what until then he'd thought of as solitary sensation and thoughts."
Judith Biely instructs him in that most American of indulgences, the self, while the country outside their lover's lair is enmeshed in an epic and all-inclusive struggle.
So "In the Night of Time," is about many things and as such, deals in ambiguity, ambivalence and irony.
Is Abel a coward to leave his family on the fascist side even though the marriage is shot and he is free? How can he make himself useful to the Republic when the "magnitude of the catastrophe" it faces is so evident, when it doesn't even want his support?
Muñoz Molina is a big prize guy in Spain, a prestige writer, who has earned the right to air out his thoughts. It is a long book and when Igacio Abel's children come up, they will come up for a good four pages minced with flashbacks, epiphanies and confession.
The publisher would have done well to furnish a few footnotes identifying certain of the historical figures Ignacio Abel engages as an architect on one of the nascent Republic's big projects, a new university city.
It helps to know his protector Juan Negrín would rise to the presidency, that Julian Besteiro was a socialist and president of the parliament under leftist coalitions, that Alejandro Lerroux was the long-time leader of the Radical Party.
Without some background, they are just names people are not likely to know much about, unless the Spanish Civil War is their "thing," which may in the end be where this book finds its audience
Even those readers may find the author has managed to add a degree of freshness to a topic they are already familiar with.