A Manuscript of Ashes, Antonio Muñoz Molina’s debut novel (though not his first translated into English), reads as a primer on his work. Published in the author’s native Spain in 1986, it demonstrates his early postmodernist tendencies—particularly a predilection for narratives that shift in time and for shadowy narrators who destabilize the story. It also reveals the moral and philosophical issues that appear in his later novels, including the way in which the present embodies the past.
Minaya, a university student with literary ambitions, has been detained by the police during the terrors of the Franco dictatorship. Preoccupied with “the smell of confined bodies” and “the sirens of police wagons,” he seeks refuge at his uncle Manuel’s country estate in Mágina, “a motionless shipwreck” of a town three centuries old. Minaya arrives under the pretense of writing his dissertation on Jacinto Solana, a “dead, unpublished, renowned, heroic” writer who lived with Manuel during the Spanish Civil War. Solana, it seems, needed a place to finish his novel Beatus Ille—his “one memorable book,” the “justification for his life.” But Minaya soon learns that Solana was in love with Manuel’s wife and may have been involved in her death.
As the novel unfolds, Minaya becomes mixed up with the eccentric residents of his uncle’s house: great-aunt Doña Elvira, who rarely leaves her room; Eugenio Utrera, a sculptor and freeloader who has long since overstayed his welcome; Inés, the stealthy, slim maid who captures the student’s heart; and Uncle Manuel himself, who suffers from a cardiac condition and pines for his late wife. Eventually, Minaya finds Solana’s lost manuscript—which turns out to be a diary cataloguing the writer’s last days—and immerses himself in the mysterious case of Jacinto Solana.
Muñoz Molina’s book, like Solana’s manuscript, employs the first and third persons, as if “to hide the voice that was telling and guessing everything and in this way give the narration the tone of an impassive history.” The novel is divided into three sections, and the chapters in parts 2 and 3 alternate between omniscient narration and entries from Solana’s manuscript. The identity of the narrator remains a secret until the book’s final section. For most of the story, the reader knows only that he or she wants to tell Minaya’s story of “returning and fleeing” and how they are the same.
Although such ambiguity is central to the novel, this is an intimate tale, one that is not well served by a traditionally omniscient point of view. The most piercing moments arrive as the narrative edges toward Minaya’s own voice. It may be that the author was still discovering how to experiment with the limitations and possibilities of third-person narration. Regardless, the release of this first novel not only provides insight into Muñoz Molina’s development as a writer but also ably introduces readers to one of his favorite themes: that the essence of a story lies in the mechanics of its telling.