“There’s no limit to the surprising stories you can hear if you listen to the novels in people’s lives,” Antonio Muñoz Molina writes in Sepharad, which takes its title from the Hebrew word for Spain. This hybrid of fiction and history—which weaves together the surprising stories of Kafka’s lover Milena Jesenska, German-born journalist Margarete Buber-Neumann, and many others—rambles through Spain, Germany, Morocco, and Argentina in a 20th-century procession of exile and diaspora. In an interview last month at the Palace Hotel in Madrid, Muñoz Molina, a two-time winner of the Premio Nacional de Literatura, talked about the origins of Sepharad, which appeared in English this fall.
How do you explain your interest in the history of Jews in Spain?
A writer doesn’t write about just anything. He writes about things he has an affinity for. For some reason, I feel that affinity. Don’t ask why. Well, there is a historic reason. There was an extraordinary community that was unjustly expelled. And the disappearance of that community was a tragedy for culture and life and Spain. Because immediately after came the limpieza de sangre of strict Catholicism. Many like me are victims of this strict Catholicism. This rebellion against Catholic orthodoxy lets you feel close to those who have been excluded by the same orthodoxy.
You spent many years collecting the stories that appeared in Sepharad.
For a long time, I was interested almost obsessively in this kind of story: of Primo Levi, Jean Améry, this kind of writer. One story led to another. In Spain there was not a lot of information about this.
About the Holocaust? Both Levi and Améry recounted their experiences at Auschwitz.
About the great tragedies of the 20th century. Spain was very isolated politically, and the Civil War isolated it more. So this consciousness that you find in France or the United States—or, of course, in Germany—about these things is very vague here. Many of the books I read, I had to read them in French, English, or Italian, because they hadn’t been translated into Spanish. I discovered the diaries of Victor Klemperer when they were translated into English, and they had a great impact on me. Later, I started to write a story based on the story that a woman had told me in Copenhagen.
The woman in the book with the intriguing name, Camille Pedersen-Safra?
That’s not her real name, but I had it in my head a long time to write about her. It was very novelistic: the girl who returns to France with her mother after the war, they get locked in a hotel room, and it turns out to have been the Gestapo’s room. Why can’t they open that door? It’s almost like a story by Henry James. And when I was writing, I remembered another story I had heard in Tangiers many years before.
About the Sephardic man from Budapest who escaped with his son to Morocco after the Spanish consul in Hungary gave them citizenship papers.
Yes. And I thought, there was a clear relation between the two things. So I thought of the word Sepharad—that is the name of Spain.
Because these people were Sephardic?
And because they were people in exile, people who were lost in the world. I had also read a lot about the Spanish Jews. I thought that what they had in common, apart from ethnicity and religion, was the experience of loss and exile. And somehow, many stories I had read before came together. I didn’t really have to invent anything. I found the connection between Milena Jesenska, who knew Margarete Buber-Neumann, and Willi Münzenberg, who was married to Margarete Buber-Neumann’s sister. It seemed like the book was writing itself. All the documentation that I had been acquiring suddenly had meaning. I had been preparing to write a book without knowing it.
You talk about how Münzenberg, Buber-Neumann, and several other characters were respected Communists who fell from grace with the Party and suddenly found themselves in a terrifying limbo. How far can you push Sepharad as a metaphor?
It functions in a number of ways. It functions in a literal manner, because Sepharad is a concrete thing: The persecution and expulsion of the Jews from Spain is something historically concrete. And it functions as a metaphor of destruction, expulsion, or loss. As the place one wants to come back to.
The Sephardic longing for Sepharad is quite different from the nostalgia most Ashkenazis might feel for Eastern Europe.
Recently, I was in Paris to receive a literary prize from a center for Jewish studies at the Sorbonne, the Centre Alberto Benveniste. It was amazing how people there spoke an antique Spanish, and the tenderness with which they spoke of Spain. And these people have never lived in Spain. This is the paradox: Those who left preserved what those who remained lost. Spain has been very cruel to democrats, to progressives. So many of them, the best, had to go. Not only in the 15th century when the Jews left, but in the 19th century, in the 20th. I am a grandchild of the generation of García Lorca, of the great writers of the Civil War era. These artists are like the new Sephardim in the sense that they have been expelled from their country. And they have preserved the best of Spanish culture. The Spanish culture that remained after the war, during Franco’s dictatorship, was repulsive.
Aren’t you reducing the idea of Sepharad to a sophisticated culture of exile?
I’m saying that there is a metaphorical parallelism, not an identification. And a kind of historical continuity. I know perfectly that you can’t compare the culture of a person of the 15th century to one from the 20th. But I do know that when the Jews were expelled from Spain in the 15th century and later from Portugal, Spain lost a fundamental thing. This loss led it to obscurantism, to the loss of what is called diversity. In the 20th century, a similar thing happens.
How was the book received?
The reviewers thought it was well-written, a different kind of book, and so on. I didn’t find they established a real dialogue about the deeper meaning. The French reviewers have been much more accurate because they are far more familiar with those issues. In Spain, as elsewhere in Western Europe, there is often a strange kind of anti-Semitism, from many people apparently of the left. And I consider myself of the left. It’s not presented as anti-Semitism, but as opposition to the state of Israel. Often, people who have read my book say, “Why didn’t you write about the Palestinians?”
Aside from the question of Israel, how do you see the image of Jews in Spain today?
It is confused and vague. A neighbor of mine said to me, “What do you know about this? Are the Jews good or bad?” And I said, “There are good ones and bad ones.”
Well, they hardly know Jews in Spain.
Of course. Because there isn’t a real presence. There are only ghosts.
In Sepharad, you often ask direct questions: “What would it be like to arrive at a German or Polish station in a cattle car?”; “What would you do if you knew that at any moment they could come for you?” Are these directed at a Spanish audience that has never considered these questions?
No, they are directed at any reader. There are many examples in history and the present of people to whom this has happened. It happened in Yugoslavia in the nineties; it happened in Uganda; in Argentina in the seventies. In my book there is a story of a woman, granddaughter of a German Jew who lived in Uruguay and then Argentina. And she had to go into exile again. Here in Spain, there are Argentine Jews, children and grandchildren of immigrants of Jews who fled Germany or Austria in the thirties and in the seventies during the dictatorship, they had to go into exile again.
How faithful is the book to your sources? Is there really a house with Stars of David carved on the lintel in your hometown, Ubeda?
There are two types of stories: public and private. The public ones are totally faithful. I didn’t invent anything about Primo Levi or Willi Münzenberg. The house in my native town exists. But yes, I invented things about private people. I didn’t literally recount the story of the woman from Copenhagen or the man from Tangiers.
When I read that the Hungarian family had the key to their ancestral home in Toledo, I also wondered if you had invented that part. Many people make such claims, but they’re often apocryphal.
That’s what the man told me. But I never saw the key.
Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews. She blogs at letmypeopleshow.com. Her Twitter feed is @rcembalest.
Robin Cembalest is executive editor ofARTnews. She blogs at letmypeopleshow.com. Her Twitter feed is @rcembalest.