From the award-winning author of the Man Booker Prize finalist Like a Fading Shadow, Antonio Muñoz Molina presents a flâneur-novel tracing the path of a nameless wanderer as he walks the length of Manhattan, and his mind.
Mr. Muñoz Molina is not after answers, or even definition; all that he has seen and read swirls within his memory like the bits of colored glass in a kaleidoscope. In that sense, his novel represents a psychogeography of the imagination, in which streets, encounters and scraps of history fold back upon themselves in astonishing, unpredictable, ways ... Burroughs-like cut-ups reveal how our inner lives have been outsourced, colonized by the marketplace ... The novel appropriates such bits and pieces and regurgitates them as lists and news bulletins. We re-experience Brexit and the 2016 presidential election, yet each comes off as equally consequential and inconsequential: events over which we have neither agency nor control. This floating quality extends to place and person, offering a porousness To Walk Alone in the Crowd gleefully exploits ... All these strands come together in the closing section of the novel, which traces a long meander from southern Manhattan to the Bronx cottage where Poe once lived. It’s a stirring attempt at reconciliation, although in a world of displacement, Mr. Muñoz Molina understands that this is not enough ... But walking, throughout, offers its own small consolations, not least the presence observation requires.
There are many excellent passages, insightful biographical sketches about the lives of his favorite writers or tender reflections on his beloved wife. And Guillermo Bleichmar’s translation is consistently graceful. But there are too many paragraphs describing his pencils and his favorite cafe, too many environmental catastrophes listed off as if we don’t know about them. Too much simply pointing at realities all of us already see. Where Benjamin’s writing is energized by his erudition Baudelaire’s by passion and invention, and Pessoa’s by his immersive voice, Muñoz Molina’s narrator seems content to catalog, as if writing things down is enough to make them interesting ... It is an increasingly pressing project, as the refuse keeps piling up, but also increasing is the need for imagination in transforming the refuse into something that will move us.
What appears at first as cacophony transforms into, in the words of one of the characters, 'an implicit and spontaneous order of the kind that occurs in nature.' In this sense, the translation from Spanish by Guillermo Bleichmar should be celebrated for being consistent, transparent, nearly imperceptible as a translation, meaning that there’s no sense of interference or clumsy misplacement by another hand. The narrative voice comes through as European, sophisticated, in an English that is neither distinctively American nor British, and also entirely fluid. This is especially impressive in the passages riffing on advertising, which are hard to imagine as originating in another language, considering there’s an entire industry dedicated to 'localization' of ad copy to local markets ... The effect is one of bracing poetry. By this I’m not referring to the common misperception of poetry as a sentimental form or to 'lyrical language,' but rather the facility poetry has of turning a trite phrase inside out and making it glow with new meaning ... While the sheer mass of text and its sometimes repetitive episodes requires readerly fortitude, the novel’s sprawling excess, its playful unwillingness to be any one thing, are its greatest strength and the source of its splendor. I wouldn’t call the sensibility exuberant, but rather curious, open, if with a tinge of world-weariness ... The investigation is in the realm not of the literary scholar but of the alchemist who seeks to know what combination of streets, boots, and perambulations influence the creative process, and by implication, what forces transform a reader into a writer.