Sepharad

Susan over at West of Mars has an interesting reading challenge…find a book that you would consider a ‘Hidden Treasure’, that has never been on any best seller list, read it, and let the world know about it. That sounded pretty good to me, because so often I see the same books popping up on people’s lists, over and over again…and while I love the feeling of community that comes from reading a book that other people know about, and can talk about together, it sounded like a great idea to search out something new. So I started looking around, and found a list at New York Magazine, The best books you’ve never read. The book I chose from the list is Antonio Munoz Molina’s novel, Sepharad. The little blurb on NYMag’s list had this to say:

A true masterpiece of late-twentieth-century fiction, wrestling with the five centuries of Continental trauma from the Inquisition to the Holocaust in a way that is truly novel (in every sense of that word).
—Daniel Mendelsohn

I found Sepharad to be dense at times, a quick read at others. It is made up of 17 different stories, many having to do with World War II, and the anguish and displacement felt by people trying to escape persecution from the Nazis and the Soviets. Molina tells these stories so that they might not be forgotten…as more and more survivors of World War II age and die, we lose our first hand accounts of what happened there. The stories mix and meld and sometimes intertwine. The focus of who is speaking sometimes changes in mid sentence, so he may start with “the boy leaned out the window” and end with, “the view down to the street made me dizzy”. (NOT a quote from the book…just my lame attempt to give an example.)

The title, Sepharad, comes from the Sephardic Jews, who were forced to leave their homes in Spain, with only a few days notice, in 1492. “Sepharadh” is Hebrew for “Spain”. Many of the stories in the book take place in Spain, mainly in Milan, though not all of them. Some have to do with current day problems, like drug addiction and AIDS in the barrio. Others are more lighthearted, like the story of a shoemaker who has a torrid affair with a nun.

Of course, the tales that touched me most deeply were those of persecution…the similarity to Kafka’s Joseph K, who was arrested, tried, and executed, while never learning what he was accused of having done, or perhaps, having been. That is how it must have been to be Jewish in Germany…to read in the newspaper one day that you had to wear a gold star, and then a few days later, that you could not go certain places, etc., as your rights and your dignity were stripped away. And what of the non-Jewish Germans who left Germany, fled to France because they didn’t like what was happening in their country. When Germany came in, they were considered traitors.

Although the vulnerability of human, the cruelty of man to man, in this book were anguishing, somehow I can still say that I enjoyed this book a lot. It’s not the kind of book that makes you say, “Wow, what a fun, light summer read!”, but it was very well told, and made me think a bit more than I had before about what true dislocation would be like, about what it would be like to be betrayed by your neighbors, your friends, your heritage. Amazing.

To check out some of the other ‘hidden treasure’ reviews, check today’s post at West of Mars.