‘In Her Absence’ by Antonio Muñoz Molina (Review)

IMG_5216As you can imagine, I’m not exactly short of books here in my little corner of (suburban) Melbourne, but when I read something I like, there’s always a temptation to go looking for something else by the same writer – and a fair chance that it might jump the queue.  That was certainly the case with today’s choice, and the fact that it only ran to a rather generous 134 pages didn’t hurt either.  It’s a story of an obsessive love, told by a man who loves his wife – perhaps a little too much…

Antonio Muñoz Molina’s In Her Absence (translated by Esther Allen, review copy courtesy of Other Press) is a novella told in the first person by Mario López, a small-town public offical in the Spanish provinces.  One day, when returning home from work, as usual wasting no time to get back to his apartment, he is met by – well, it should be his wife:

“The woman who was not Blanca came down the hall toward Mario wearing Blanca’s green silk blouse, Blanca’s jeans, and Blanca’s ballet flats, her eyes narrowing into a smile as she reached him – eyes the same color and shape as Blanca’s, but not Blanca’s eyes.  She welcomed him home in a tone so identical to Blanca’s that it was almost as if she really were Blanca, and she stooped a little to kiss him because she was slightly taller than he was, just like Blanca.”
p.1 (Other Press, 2007)

In a rather unnerving start to the novel, Mario’s doubts transmit themselves to the reader, but we soon realise that there’s a lot more to the story than we realise.

Having survived this unusual homecoming, the reader is then treated to Mario’s story, a tale in which he tells of the life he has built with his attractive wife, a younger woman he rescued from the ruins of her previous relationship.  At first, we feel sympathy with the slightly dull office worker, glowing in the reflection of the love he feels for the beautiful Blanca.  However, our feelings quickly change as Mario’s monologue starts to take an unexpected direction, hinting at an obsession that’s far from healthy…

In Her Absence is a great little book, a story I enjoyed immensely, running through it in little over an hour.  The writer creates a man who inspires sympathy and unease in equal measure as the reader is treated to his version of a love affair and a marriage which he fears may one day crumble into nothing.  In many ways, though, it’s Blanca who is the star of the story, rather surprisingly when you consider that she rarely speaks or appears other than in Mario’s eyes.  However, Mario’s intense focus on his wife forces us to look at her closely too, even if the writer rarely gives us enough information to make up our minds on what lies beneath the beautiful exterior.

What’s clear is that the man and wife are two very different creatures indeed.  Mario is a fearful, routine-loving man of the people, drawn up from the quasi-peasant classes by virtue of a good education.  Blanca, by contrast, six years younger than her husband, has a wealthy background, and she’s a young woman with a thirst for matters political and artistic.  While Mario has made a great social leap, he’s still painfully aware of the gulf between his past and that of his wife’s:

“Money, he thought, doesn’t only educate you, it also gives a particular sun-kissed glow to your skin and frees you from fear of uncertainty; money makes you cosmopolitan, teaches you foreign languages and foreign eating utensils, to feel at home and at ease among strangers.” (p.39)

Mario may have won the hand of the fair Blanca, but his insecurities will always have him suspecting that the happiness he feels is temporary and that one day his wife may simply drift away.

It’s this insecurity which leads to his dull life, rushing home from work every day, covering the short distance from his office to his apartment as quickly as possible, not only from the joy of seeing his wife again, but also from the fear that on this occasion she may not be there waiting for him.  Mario knows that she has a yearning for the bohemian life (having rescued her from the depths this existence had brought her to), and their choice of a comfortable home, in a small, dull town, has less to do with money than his desire to (subconsciously, at least) keep Blanca away from bright lights and flighty artistic types.  But you can’t keep a bird caged all the time:

“When he got home, Blanca wasn’t there: a note on the dining-room table told him she’d gone to a job interview and would be back soon.  If only he’d been paying attention, if only he’d noticed the chance repetition of certain names, coincidences that were already conspiring to wreak disaster upon him, while he, vigilant and inept, dazed, blind to what was irremediable, had seen nothing.” (p.53)

It might be time for Mario to face the facts – Blanca isn’t going to put up with small-town life for ever…

I decided to read In Her Absence having recently tried Muñoz Molina’s epic novel In the Night of Time, and while the style is similar in parts, these are two very different books.  In the Night of Time is a slow-burner, using its 650+ pages to full effect, each page slowly adding a further detail to the picture being painstakingly drawn (on a *very* big canvas…).  In Her Absence, though, moves much more quickly and is also, necessarily, a much more intimate piece of writing, with Mario’s first-person monologue drawing us into the story in a way that only occasionally happens in the longer work.

Where the books are similar, however, is in the writing itself, with each page dripping with lengthy, complex sentences with multiple clauses.  The effect here does differ to that of In the Night of Time, with the plot moving on more quickly, the writing describing actions rather than objects, streets and people.  I appreciated Edith Grossman’s translation of the longer book, but in some ways Esther Allen’s work on In Her Absence seemed even more impressive, with the translation bringing across both the vibrancy of Mario’s emotions and the slightly creepy air apparent in certain parts.  One thing’s for sure – In Her Absence is a much quicker read than the writer’s latest translated work, so if you want a quick taste of Señor Muñoz Molina’s style, this is definitely the one to try first 😉

One of the most interesting features of the book is the way in which we come full circle, with the opening scenes continuing on the final pages.  Mario is left with the woman he sees as being like Blanca, but not her, and part of the puzzle of the book is working out what this actually means.  Has Blanca betrayed him?  Has he finally given up on loving her?  Or has the woman he loved for so many years turned out to be just a figment of his imagination?

These are not questions the reader can expect to be fully answered, but you can be sure that things aren’t always as they seem.  It’s no coincidence that Mario’s wife’s name is Blanca – when faced with a blank, white canvas, many people paint their own impressions of what they want the other person to be.  Perhaps it’s time for Blanca’s true colours to shine through…

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