A Manuscript of Ashes

Written by Antonio Muñoz Molina (trans. Edith Grossman)
Review by Adelaida Lower

Resolving to flee the tumult of the university in the late 1960s, Minaya, a young student, decides to leave Madrid and write his doctoral dissertation on Jacinto Solana, a Republican poet who was killed by the Civil Guard after the Spanish Civil War. It so happens that Solana was a friend of his uncle Manuel and that the poet lived in his uncle’s country estate some time before his death. Minaya travels to Mágina, a small town in the south. Although his uncle assures him there is nothing left of Solana’s work, Minaya, with the help of Inés, a young maid, soon discovers that this is not true. His research into Solana’s last days leads him to the poet’s masterpiece, Beatus Ille, and to another unfortunate event that also took place in his uncle’s house—the death of Mariana Rios, the beautiful model who married his uncle, was loved by Solana, and was accidentally shot the day after her wedding.

First published in 1986 under the evocative title Beatus Ille, this was an early novel of Antonio Muñoz Molina, the renowned author of Sepharad and a member of the Royal Spanish Academy since 1995. Muñoz Molina’s style calls to mind a musical fugue, the writer going back to a word, or a sentence, or a scene, repeating it with a slight variation that gives it an entirely different character. Introspective, moody, structurally adventurous, symmetrical in theme, A Manuscript of Ashes is an unusual detective story, a novel about unfulfilled desire, uncompleted flights, and lost manuscripts. Muñoz Molina delves as well into the creative impulse, the need to write and rewrite. Readers might be startled by his long paragraphs, meandering points of view, and voices that mingled, but, no doubt, they will also be absolutely dazzled.