Reviewed by Michael Kern Johnson
At the beginning of Antonio Muñoz Molina's In Her Absence, Mario Lopez, a provincial bureaucrat in 1980's Spain, returns home from work to receive a passionate kiss from the young, sophisticated wife he thought had left him for good just a few days before. Little is said about the incident, and all seems well between them, except he no longer recognizes the woman who has returned. Blanca seems to have become the wife he thought he wanted: more attentive and agreeable, and less insistent on attending the gallery openings, foreign films and performance art that Mario has endured for her sake but neither understood nor enjoyed. She looks like Blanca, but Mario is convinced that the woman who returned is "not Blanca" and that the real Blanca is miles away, still trying to escape.
In this beautifully crafted, evocative novella, Molina examines the shifting relationship between an unlikely couple, and the fear and discomfort, and sometimes humor, that comes with the disappearance of the familiar. Though In Her Absence is not a mere re-telling of Madame Bovary, Flaubert's novel certainly haunts the fringes. Like Flaubert's Emma, Blanca felt stifled by provincial domestic life and her culturally unadventurous husband. She still yearned for the bright lights of modern Madrid and her former life as a groupie and helpmate to the taboo-breaking artists of post-Franco Spain, even though her first foray into that world had led to self-destruction and a temporary disenchantment with the bohemian set. In her darkest period, when she was emaciated and frail, abandoned by her artist boyfriend and deeply depressed, Mario rescued her and nursed her back to health and sanity. Partly in gratitude and partly in renunciation of the life that had spit her out, she married Mario and tried to settle herself into the imagined warmth of small town home life. Then almost immediately Blanca began to strain against her own reining in. As bland and absent of color as her name suggests, Blanca needed the reflective light of colorful and exciting people to feel alive and Mario's colors were simply too drab. But why has she returned? And what's happened to the real Blanca, the one he fell in love with?
In trying to love and understand Blanca, her interests and desires, Mario is also trying to understand modern post-Franco Spain, a country he no longer recognizes. By the time of the novel, Spain has thrown off the heavy cloak of four decades of fascist dictatorship and begun a radical transformation from a socially conservative and economically poor country into a colorful, dynamic society, enjoying new wealth, intellectual freedom and a re-connection with the cultural and artistic mainstream of Western Europe. For Blanca, the new Spain is a land of opportunity and excitement, but for Mario, Spain has become as unrecognizable as his returned spouse. In an assured translation from Esther Allen that captures beautifully the shifting subtleties of tone and mood, In Her Absence is often satirical, and even very funny about Blanca's faddish new ways, but the misunderstandings and misalignments, as we watch them unfold in Molina's unblinking close-up, are touching and painful. The reader senses the novella's qualified nostalgia for an imagined easier, simpler time, but unlike in Madame Bovary, no one has to die trying to escape. Instead, we have a puzzling disappearance and an equally puzzling reappearance, and for Molina's couple, unlike for Emma, a resolution that is not imminent.
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