In Her Absence by Antonio Munoz Molina

inherabsence

  • Paperback: 134 pages
  • Publisher: Other Press; Softcover edition (July 17, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590512537
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590512531

 

With a husband who’s an average workaday bureaucrat, married to a beautiful wife longing to leave their provincial town for the excitement of life in the city, In Her Absence is  at first reminiscent of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. In place of the farmer’s daughter, Emma, anxious to marry the doctor she presumes will take her away to a more exciting life, Molina’s Blanca was raised in a wealthy family, never lifting a finger to support herself. She married Mario not because of his important job or big salary (he had neither), but his kind nature. He came upon her at the lowest point in her life, when, mourning the loss of the artist boyfriend who abandoned her in poverty, she was left drug and alcohol addicted. By the time she was strong and healthy again, she had grown to care for Mario. But did she love him or merely feel she owed him?

Blanca’s life has been filled with a passion for art and rubbing elbows with artists. She loves what’s new and cutting edge, whether it be painting or music or sculpting or writing. At the same time, Molina characterizes her as a devoted wife, in her own way. She loves cooking Mario gourmet meals and is always waiting for him when he comes in from work. Yet, she longs for more, dragging Mario into Madrid when he’s agreeable, when they can afford it on a bureaucrat’s salary. For his part, he understands nothing of art and could live without it very easily. But pleasing Blanca, his lovely and perfect wife, is his highest priority.What rubs him the wrong way are the male artists who make no attempt to hide their lustful thoughts about his beautiful wife. For her part, she doesn’t flirt outright but does fawn over them, which may look similar from a husband’s point of view.

Blanca’s no artist herself, there’s no “room of one’s own” she longs for. Instead, she’s absorbed by beauty. She is a caring wife but often she’s miles away, mentally:

“When she read a book, listened to music, or watched a movie, Blanca had a marvelous ability to sink deep in herself and disappear entirely from the external world. This absolute concentration was something Mario had learned not to interfere with, the proof of a sensibility that was a constant wonder to him but made him feel dull by comparison. Sometimes he felt intimately deserted, wanting to tell Blanca something or ask her a question but knowing it wasn’t worth trying, not because she’d pay no attention but because she literally was not there; she’d taken leave of her senses, as people used to say, in the most literal meaning of the words, taken leave of the reality that so often bored or disgusted her.”

“Disgusted” is the key word and a strong one. Cooking and cleaning and performing regular household work are jobs a person could understandably be bored with, but disgust is another level deeper. It’s much more visceral, far more angry, even hate-filled, indicating just how restless Blanca truly is. But for one yearning to make a life living in the midst of culture and the arts, forced into the role of housewife, disgust may fit. “How can I be here scrubbing his floors and ironing his clothes when I should rightfully be at exhibits and concerts?” The feeling agrees with her personality, however it makes it difficult not to see Blanca as a rather spoiled woman, too used to privilege. Despite how he tries to justify her behavior, convincing himself she loves him more than the excitement in the galleries and soirees of Madrid, even Mario’s all-consuming love can only go so far.

Mario’s position is that of breadwinner, Blanca uninterested in working to help bring money into the household. On the few occasions she does find work she quits shortly thereafter, justifying it with her complaints it was boring or she was unhappy. Mario’s patience was endless, though he’d give anything for her to work, then, a few years later, have a baby, completing the family. Her complete refusal to be a wife more than superficially brands her as a selfish woman, unappreciative of the husband many women would have loved to have, a man who adored her:

“Blanca would often say they led a life from which great experiences were absent. He conceded that she was right, but also thought, on his best days when he’d get home a few minutes before three after a workday devoid of annoyances, that for him there could be no greater experience than simply walking home along the same route as always in the knowledge that unlike all the other men he went by in the street – men in bars and talking about soccer with cigarettes in their mouths, men with hungering faces pivoting to watch a woman walk past – he alone had the privilege of desiring beyond all other women the precise woman he had married, and the absolute certainty that when he opened the door of his house, he would find her there.”

Molina doesn’t judge his characters. He’s much more even-handed, far too skilled. The author of thirteen novels, he’s won Spanish prizes twice, making him one of Spain’s greatest living writers. He knows precisely what he’s doing. It boils down to Blanca and her attitude toward her responsibilities in the marriage. It’s Blanca whose character is the heart of the book, the center around which Mario turns:

“Another man might have thought she was flighty, but for Mario Blanca’s endless sequence of new and different jobs and wildly disparate enthusiasms was proof of her vitality, her audacity, her innate rebelliousness, qualities he found particularly admirable because he was largely devoid of them.”

A bit tongue in cheek, a little hint to the reader Blanca knows what she has and isn’t inclined to let go of the man. Not that she’s all self-centered. She tells him, at one point, he rebuilt her when she’d come near dying, “as if you’d found a porcelain vase that was smashed into a thousand pieces and you had the skill and patience to reconstruct the whole thing, down to the tiniest shard.” A women lacking a moral compass wouldn’t have been so kind.

What to make of these two? That’s up to the reader.

Antonio Munoz Molina, aside from his excellent characterization skills, writes first class prose. The edition I read, the only English language edition I know of, was translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen. We’re always at the mercy of translators but I can attest to the beautiful writing. It’s a short book, at 134 pages, tightly written. It moves well and offers much food for thought. At times I’m not sure if the author’s being straight or playful; sometimes I have difficulty picking up on this sort of veiled humor, tending to take writers at their word too often.

I think readers should approach In Her Absence with a healthy dose of skepticism, reading between the lines. It’s a sneaky little novel, one I wouldn’t mind dissecting to see what’s inside and how Molina pulls things off. I’d most definitely read more of his work, if I come across it. If this novel is representative of his writing, I’m already a fan.

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