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.

11 thoughts on “Sepharad

  1. I remember seeing this old synagogue when I lived in Spain, “El Transito” synagogue:

    Here’s a snippet from the website above:

    “The style of the El Transito synagogue as well as other surviving Jewish medieval monuments in Spain served as source of inspiration for numerous synagogues that were built in Europe during the 19th century. The richness of the decoration was considered by the post-emancipation Jews of Europe as a proof of the high social status that the Jews of Spain enjoyed prior to their expulsion.

  2. I’d imagine that this book would bring about a new emotion with each set of sentences.
    I had heard of the Sephardic Jews briefly. I would like to get to know more about them. This sounds like a good read.

  3. I’ve not heard of this book, but then I’m never very up-to-date with what I read. I don’t know if I’d like this, but if I see it on the shelf I’ll look it over.

    And what a great idea to post about little known treasures. Now you’ve got me thinking: what book can I post about?

  4. This one is certainly not beach reading! I’m glad you found it thought-provoking — which is what good (and great) fiction ought to do, right?

  5. Hey, J! This actually sounds right up my alley; it’s a great find. I’ll get to work on prizes today… I hope…

    Thanks for playing along! I hope you’ll join us for Debut a Debut in the winter!!!

  6. Hello, J! I’m stopping by (a bit later than I’d planned to; sorry about that!) to thank you again for playing in the Summer’s Hidden Treasures contest and to congratulate you — you’ve won a prize!

    If you’d be so kind as to e-mail me at susan at west of mars dot com (no spaces and all that jazz), I’ll get things in motion to have your prize sent out.

    Congratulations and thanks again for the support and participation! Hope you’ll join us again for Debut a Debut in the winter.

  7. I read Sepharad too just a couple months ago. Like you, I had read Daniel Mendelson’s capsule review in New York magazine, and was intrigued. Yes, it’s a treasure, a beautiful, compassionate book about exiles. It’s also surprisingly suspenseful, because the way the stories are told, you’re forced to ask yourself: what would I have done in this situation?
    I should be writing to Daniel Mendelson, to thank him for the recommendation! Or perhaps I should be pestering publishers to find out why more of Molina’s works haven’t been translated into English and made available in the US.

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