Although he's an esteemed author in his native Spain and received critical praise here for his 2001 novel Sepharad, Antonio Munoz Molina remains largely unknown in the U.S. The publication of A Manuscript of Ashes, his prize-winning first novel originally published in 1986, in a translation by the eminent Edith Grossman, is likely to introduce Munoz Molina to a broader American audience.
In the winter of 1969, a young student named Minaya travels to the home of his uncle Manuel in the small town of Mágina. Minaya, who was imprisoned briefly during the waning years of the Franco regime, is there to research his doctoral dissertation on the life of Jacinto Solana, a poet and political activist of the 1930s and '40s.
Minaya's scholarly task quickly takes on a new and darker cast. He finds himself drawn inexorably into the story of a tragedy that occurred at his uncle's home in the early morning hours of May 22, 1937, when Mariana Rios, a former model who had been introduced to Manuel by his friend Solana and who had wed Manuel the previous day, dies from a gunshot wound to the head. Thirty-two years later, her killer's identity remains unknown.
Shortly after Minaya arrives in Mágina, he discovers a diary-like manuscript entitled "Beatus Ille," written by Solana in early 1947, after he was released from an eight-year imprisonment and returned to the town. Through that manuscript and with the help of Ines, a beautiful young housekeeper who becomes Minaya's lover, the young man tries to piece together the mystery of Mariana's death. In the process he unravels the story of a love triangle acted out against the political turmoil of the Franco era, leading him to a startling discovery that upends his, and our, perceptions of all that has gone before.
Munoz Molina's novel is a dense, at times devilishly complex tale that yields its secrets slowly, all the way up to its astonishing final pages. It's a challenging metafictional work that demands close reading, but one that in the end will gratify those willing to make that commitment.
Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.