Antonio Muñoz Molina: “Days without Cecilia”. Literature from Spain. – Culture

Antonio Muñoz Molina: “Days without Cecilia”.  Literature from Spain.  – Culture

This isn’t a love story. She only pretends that a man is waiting for his wife to arrive in his new apartment. He has traveled ahead to Lisbon and is building the temple of his love for her, replicating everything exactly on the ancient site of shared happiness in New York. But the woman doesn’t come.

What could herald the plot of a psycho thriller by Joy Fielding is staged by Antonio Muñoz Molina in his novel “Days Without Cecilia” ostensibly as a melancholic relationship drama from a single perspective. The drama of the story, which Willi Zurbrüggen has translated with a keen sense of the nuances of tone, is conveyed indirectly: while the narrator sets the stage for his relationship, Muñoz Molina sets signs from the outset that undermine the character’s monologue.

Even with the first sentence, Bruno evokes the apocalypse, although he is imagining an idyll: “I have settled in this city to wait for the end of the world.” As a reader, you only notice the finer interference signals in the course of reading. For example, playing with tenses. In this novel, the future only exists in a suspicious retrospective: “It will be dark, we will have finished our dinner and, full and satisfied, we will talk in the light falling from the kitchen as if we were sitting at a last or penultimate Glass of wine in a summer garden.”

The Europe that has just been built is already being looked down upon

Antonio Muñoz Molina, also one of the keynote speakers for the guest country Spain at the Frankfurt Book Fair, started writing in the 1980s. To understand what “Days without Cecilia” might be about, you have to take a look at the literary work of this author, who himself worked in New York and now lives in Madrid and Lisbon. Muñoz Molina touchingly tells where he comes from in his novel “El viento de la Luna” (2006). It is about a young man in an Andalusian village in the year of the moon mission “Apollo 11” and how this boy dreams of the future.

In an interview, Muñoz Molina once talked about the turning point that this time meant for Spain when Franco opened the closed economic system in the early 1960s: “The paradox of my generation is that we have memories that seem to be older than ourselves. Me remember the first foreign tourist I saw. The first adult in shorts!” Born in 1956, he grew up in rural Andalusia. At that time, people worked there like they did in the 19th century: “In particular, the people of my social class and my generation were born in a world that no longer exists.”

When asked about his essay “Córdoba de los omeyas” (1991), in which he depicts Spain as a country that had to deal with immense political and cultural upheavals, he quotes another author, the British Keith Lowe and his book “Savage Continent”. , which talks about how all of Europe was shaken by civil wars after the Second World War: “It was so difficult to rebuild,” says Molina: “When you see how today what was built back then is looked down upon , my blood freezes in my veins. We come out of the disaster. Imagine that!”

Antonio Muñoz Molina: "Days without Cecilia": Antonio Muñoz Molina: Days without Cecilia.  Novel.  Translated from the Spanish by Willi Zurbrüggen.  Penguin, Munich 2022. 266 pages, 25 euros.

Antonio Muñoz Molina: Days without Cecilia. Novel. Translated from the Spanish by Willi Zurbrüggen. Penguin, Munich 2022. 266 pages, 25 euros.

(Photo: penguin/sz)

What does all this have to do with “Days Without Cecilia”, the novel that takes place in the ahistorical space of a single consciousness that may be suffering from dementia, but maybe just capitulate to the terror, the noise, the ruthlessness of the 21st century? Strange that an author like Muñoz Molina creates such an emptiness, such a historically forgotten character, as in the current novel. His narrator, Bruno, constantly refers to historical events, but in a strangely pointillistic way compared to the precise historical panoramas of earlier novels such as “The Night of Memories”, set in Madrid in 1935/36.

For Bruno and Cecilia, the trauma of “9/11” causes the “fragile wheels of normality” to collapse. In Lisbon, Bruno wants to start things up again as if nothing had happened. Its author seems to be interested in the mechanism of the human brain, which allows the incorporation of the extreme into the everyday and thus also the dissonance of the novel: “Recognition is much faster than consciousness, says Cecilia,” Bruno recalls in the present tense. A thought as formulated by Roger Willemsen in his future speech “Who we were” in 2015 about a humanity that is rich in knowledge but lean in experience: “So we went, not stopped by ourselves,” said Willemsen. So who is preventing Muñoz Molina’s consciousness from becoming?

Neurons, says Cecilia, are like the fungal communities of trees, there is a constant murmuring in the brain. Above all, fear remains present in the neuron connections. And fear blocks. She investigates how these connections of fear can be dissolved. The military is particularly interested in this. What Bruno is more interested in: The amygdala, the fear center in the brain, activates the same synapses for memory and imagination, says Cecilia.

Muñoz Molina says nostalgia is always a lie

In this novel, a man speaks for whom “the ice of reality has grown too thin”, who feels no fear, does not want to remember and has no future because he only lives for the future, which, according to Cecilia, can only be imagined looking backwards . Like the rats in Cecilia’s laboratory, which Muñoz Molina makes tangible with just a few strokes as a cold place of absolute horror, Bruno’s unreasonableness becomes the antithesis of a terrifying rationality that must be something other than the consciousness that Muñoz Molina is concerned with: Cecilia stands for the rational language of science. Bruno says: “She says in the literature What she likes best is Darwin’s prose and, in art, Ramón y Cajal’s drawings of neurons.” This is exactly where the link to the previous work of the author Muñoz Molina, who is aesthetically rather inconspicuous and socially analytically so complex, is to be found.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal was not only a neuroscientist and in 1906 Spain’s first Nobel Prize winner. In 1910 he co-founded the “Residencia des Estudiantes” to enable development in Spain through the exchange of knowledge. “This place is at the heart of our country’s best possible vision,” says Muñoz Molina, whose 2009 novel Night of Remembrance begins there. One critic called it an “elegy for the future,” and Bruno in the new novel is now the embodiment of this elegy in a twisted form: stuck, as if his amygdala had been removed. Is that what the present is struggling with?

Consider that Antonio Muñoz Molina wrote this novel before 2019, i.e. before the pandemic, the Ukraine war and “Fridays for Future”. One might mistake him for a nostalgic. Someone escaping the noise of the world in a retrospective aesthetic. He himself says nostalgia is always a lie. Contrary to what Marx, Hegel and Christianity claim, history has no direction: “History cannot be influenced. That is the heart of my literary consciousness and my political worldview.”

None of the figures is suitable as a role model if you don’t want to imagine the future alone

So perhaps Days Without Cecilia pleads for unifying the positions of Cecilia and Bruno, however that may be imaginable. Because neither of the two figures is suitable as a role model, both attitudes lead to a dead end if you want to imagine the future as something else than destructive, lonely and terrible. What Bruno says about one of the crises with Cecilia can hardly be read otherwise as a prognosis for the current world situation, at least in Western societies: “We had built the invisible walls ourselves. We felt instinctively that we could save ourselves just as easily as lose each other, that the effort we put into our quiet misery could just as easily be put into happiness.”

Sounds like truism, and aesthetically other, younger authors are finding new ways of responding to our time. But it cannot be denied that with “Days Without Cecilia” Antonio Muñoz Molina brought the contemporary and socially critical thoughts of his generation into a story that never ends and thus does what is important to Santiago Ramón y Cajal was: to show connections and functionalities in order to let consciousness follow knowledge in a very classic way.

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