Postmodern Quest and the Role of Distance in Antonio Muñoz Molina’s
El invierno en Lisboa
In Antonio Muñoz Molina’s El invierno en Lisboa, travel and diverse geographic locations reflect an unremitting restlessness marked by continual searching and by flight. Christopher Lasch has argued that both persons and things “have lost their solidity in modern society, their definiteness and continuity” (32). El invierno en Lisboa is a novel immersed in this absence, so that we are reminded constantly of the distance between individuals and the other persons or objects they are seeking. This distance is projected onto the physical landscape of the novel, as the characters are not only separated from one another, but from a sense of belonging or identification with any one place. The primary images of location in the novel, the bars and hotels, are themselves images of transit and of artificial intimacy. As sociologist Mervyn Bendle has observed, there “is a view that identity is both vital and problematic in the period of high modernity,” with “an inherent contradiction between a valuing of identity as so fundamental as to be crucial to personal well-being, and a theorization of ‘identity’ that sees it as something constructed, fluid, multiple, impermanent, and fragmentary” (1). Through constant mobility and the malleability of identities, the lonely, uprooted characters in El invierno en Lisboa trace this problematic feature of contemporary reality.
Both a popular and a
success, El invierno en Lisboa
received the Critics’ Award and the National Award for Literature, and
its continued readership has elicited multiple editions. The novel is
superficially a crime intrigue in which the search for a stolen
becomes an international chase that covers at least five major cities (
Demonstrating the double-edged features of postmodernity, the characters in the novel are simultaneously freer to move and more lost. In his study of contemporary Spanish culture, The Moderns, Paul Julian Smith emphasizes the linkages between physical and symbolic space across a variety of current Spanish media, noting in Julio Medem’s films as a case in point, “the emergence of new, unanchored subjects” (3). Just as postmodern openness can be seen as alternately freeing or anxiety producing, Muñoz Molina’s use of the spatial theme of distance highlights a more subjective, internal sense of dislocation which is not resolved through the capacity for reinvention or the ability to arrive at a new location. In the novel, the creation of distance, physically through travel and emotionally through detachment, is both a strategy for dealing with a climate of uncertainty and contingency, and an outcome. The strategies themselves perpetuate a sense of separation between individuals and thwart the establishment of permanence or identification often associated with community. As such, I explore the absence of a sense of belonging, a gap that is felt in the novel as perpetual displacement and nostalgia for what is perceived as having been lost. I also examine Muñoz Molina’s use of the quest motif in this novel, and its reorientation as a nomadic process of continuous movement without a precise direction, what Deleuze and Guatarri have referred to as “[…] coming and going rather than staying and finishing” (25).
Mapping the Novel
The novel is structured episodically through separations and re-encounters marked by tenuousness and uncertainty. A narrator tells the story by sorting his own recollections and those that Biralbo apparently told him. The narrative perspective is itself characterized by a unique combination of distance and intimacy, an aspect which is underscored by the narrator’s ambiguous connection to Biralbo, a friendship the narrator reflects as “discontinua y nocturna” (12). At the same time, despite the discontinuous nature of their friendship, Biralbo evidently shares much of his personal story with the narrator. Memories are clouded by the passage of time, by alcohol, and by the uncertainty of the narrator himself, whose comments include frequent references (“tal vez”, “acaso”, for example) to what may have occurred. The novel consciously recalls the classic American film noir, a genre based in the hard-boiled detective fiction typified by authors such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and characterized in part by its emphasis on the direct dialogue between the characters. In El invierno en Lisboa, the narrator filters dialogue, reinforcing awareness that all knowledge in the story is at best partial. For example, the narrator acknowledges at one point that a memory he has recalled does not actually pertain to his own life, “sino a una película que tal vez vi en la infancia y cuyo título nunca llegaré a saber” (24).
Lucrecia is based on transitory encounters in hotel rooms and other
locations, by the pressure of time revealed in the repeated attention
Lucrecia’s wristwatch and to the speed of the taxi with which she
departs. The one time that Biralbo goes to the apartment Lucrecia
Malcolm, he feels even more aware of his own exclusion from her life.
after her departure for
This feeling of being alone, of a lack of enduring attachment to any one person or to any one place, pervades the novel. In El invierno en Lisboa, the presence of another person at the same time evokes an awareness of absence. The lack of a sense of belonging in one place or with an individual is reflected in continuous movement from one location to another as a strategy for overcoming feelings of estrangement. Lucrecia, for example, has the repeated sense that she belongs someplace else: “la sospecha de que su verdadera vida estaba esperándola en otra ciudad y entre gentes desconocidas” (88). Similarly, Biralbo’s attachment to Lucrecia is based on a glimpse of something in the past, something no longer accessible to either of them but which at the same time refuses to fully disappear. The past seems to occupy an almost physical space that intrudes to suggest the fragility of the present, the sense that what is being experienced has already been lost. Edward Said has referred to exile as a “perilous territory of not belonging […] Exile is never the state of being satisfied, placed or secure. Exile, in the words of Wallace Stevens, is a ‘mind of winter’ in which the pathos of summer or autumn as much as the potential of spring are nearby but unobtainable” (Said 177, 186). In a different context, the characters in El invierno en Lisboa are all exiled in some way, not forcibly but by virtue of their own perpetual displacement.
The status of both
locations, captured in images, faces, and the names of places, seem
Lucrecia, for example, is characterized by the narrator as seeming to
the city of
All of the characters in the novel are seeking something, from the material aims of recovering the painting implicated in the crime story, to Lucrecia’s desire for independence from Malcolm and a home of her own, or Biralbo’s effort to realize the possibility of a relationship with Lucrecia. In a sense, both Lucrecia and Biralbo encounter what they were looking for, as Lucrecia’s obtainment and sale of the painting allow her to buy the house she had dreamed of, and Biralbo spends a night with Lucrecia in which he finally feels able to let go of the past. But these satisfactions are only momentary – the borders of Lucrecia’s home are no longer safe, and she cannot stay there; Biralbo’s change of identity does not provide him with immunity from the past either, as his pursuers catch up with him in Madrid, forcing him on the run. The theme of distance which runs through the novel works to underscore and comment on the nature of the contemporary experience, one in which the search can never really be completed because what is found won’t last, but rather – like the painting by Cézanne-turned commodity – is marked by the transience of its possession.
The novel progresses
repeated patterns of hope, absence, and a sense of restlessness and
longing that seem both to evoke and to transgress the traditional
the quest – of separation, initiation, and return. Ultimately, the only
thing that Biralbo retains of Lucrecia’s is her gun, a paranoiac
awareness of the necessity of being on the run, of changing his name,
in one hotel room after another. In
contrast with Madrid – “un lugar de tránsito” –
the narrator describes San Sebastián as a city characterized by
mythical return: “Supongo que hay ciudades a las que se vuelve siempre
igual que hay otras en las que todo termina, y que San Sebastián
las primeras […]” (49). That the novel ends in
This is apparently not, in Muñoz Molina’s novel, an ironic attempt to demonstrate the impotence of the quest, or the artificiality of one form compared with another. Rather, El invierno en Lisboa revisits the archetypal theme of the quest, placing it within a postmodern context characterized by impermanence and fragmentation – one Zygmunt Bauman has referred to as a world no longer “hospitable to pilgrims” (Fragments 88): “How can one live one’s life as pilgrimage if the shrines and sanctuaries are moved around, profaned, made sacrosanct and then unholy again in a stretch of time much shorter than the journey to reach them would take?”(Postmodernity 88).
The replacement in
last correspondence to Biralbo of a piece of a map with the word
Absence of Belonging
As Bauman has noted of the contemporary context, citing Christopher Lasch: “The world construed of durable objects has been replaced with “disposable products designed for immediate obsolescence. In such a world, ‘identities can be adopted and discarded like a change in costume.’” (Fragments 88). While Biralbo actually alters his identity, changing his name to Giacomo Dolphin (1), all the characters’ identities in the novel appear malleable, an aspect highlighted by either ambiguity of geographic origin, or evidence of efforts to flee one location and ‘escape’ to another which seems to offer more promise. For example, Bruce Malcolm is called “el Americano” and speaks Spanish with “inflexiones sudamericanas” (26); Floro Bloom had only recently been “feliz en algún lugar del Canadá, a donde llegó huyendo de persecuciones políticas de las que no hablaba nunca” (57); Toussaints Morton “hablaba como ejerciendo una parodia del acento francés” (60); Billy Swann had arrived from America, “acaso huyendo sobre todo de la lenta declinación de su fama, pues había ingresado casi al mismo tiempo en la mitología y en el olvido” (49-50). The characters in the novel reflect a status of indeterminacy regarding both origin and destination. Absent a specific direction, geographic mobility is connected in the novel with a sense of starting over, of recreating possibilities that seem to have been closed off in previous locations.
“The home,” as Zygmunt Bauman characterizes it, is “the place where nothing needs to be proved and defended as everything is just there, obvious and familiar” (Fragments 97). In El invierno en Lisboa, even familiar locations such as the Lady Bird reflect the unsettled state of the protagonists and reinforce perceptions of absence. There is a repeated perception that the current location is only temporary, as when Lucrecia rents a room across from the train station, a place Biralbo describes as “aquel lugar desierto al que ninguno de los dos pertenecía” (87).The protagonists are surrounded by landscapes which extend a sense of separation and alienation, as when a few weeks before Lucrecia’s departure they say goodbye under a doorway announcing Malcolm’s address, a place to which neither one of them really belongs. When Biralbo and Lucrecia quickly meet in a café before her departure for Berlin, they are actually divided by the physical space: “separados por la mesa, por el ruido del bar, alojados ya en el lugar futuro donde a cada uno lo confinaría la distancia” (44).
Locations in the novel
characterized as vestiges, by reminders of what is absent, the leftover
from a cigarette, the smell of perfume, the empty envelope that held
correspondence from Lucrecia. Things that stand still seem to be those
have been left behind. The years that Lucrecia is gone and Biralbo
After failing to
complete the trip
A number of features
Bauman’s four categories are relevant to the context explored in El invierno en Lisboa. In addition to
the manipulation of physical distance, these strategies of movement
suggest emotional distance. As Bauman notes, “[…] they aim at
splicing the life process into a series of (ideally) self-contained and
self-enclosed episodes without past and consequences, and as a result
render human relationships as fragmentary and discontinuous” (Fragments 155). Biralbo’s
encounter with Lucrecia in Lisbon, for example, is ultimately the
consequence of a trip which was based on his going to see Billy Swann,
than part of a planned itinerary. At the same time, the trip to
Sólo unas horas más tarde, en el vestíbulo del aeropuerto, cuando vio Lisboa escrito con letras luminosas en el panel donde se anunciaban los vuelos, recordó lo que esa palabra había significado para él, tanto tiempo atrás, en otra vida, y supo que todas las ciudades donde había vivido desde que se marchó de San Sebastián eran los dilatados episodios de un viaje que tal vez iba a concluir: tanto tiempo esperando y huyendo y al cabo de dos horas llegaría a Lisboa. (129)
Towards the end of the novel, Biralbo has an epiphany of sorts when the sound of his own music “le mostraba al fin su destino y la serena y única justificación de su vida, la explicación de todo, de lo que no entendería nunca, la inutilidad del miedo y el derecho al orgullo, a la oscura certidumbre de algo que no era el sufrimiento ni la felicidad y que los contenía indescifrablemente” (214). Yet, the ability to find comfort in this indeterminacy is overwhelmed in the novel’s ending by the dissolution both of a stable sense of place and of a secure identity. The comforting assumption of the mobility of the tourist, as Bauman argues, is that it is always possible to return home. He notes, “Homesickness is a dream of belonging – of being, for once, of the place, not merely in.” Yet, he adds, “as the tourist’s conduct becomes the mode of life and the tourist’s stance becomes the character – it is less and less clear which one of the visiting places is the home and which but a tourist haunt. […] The value of ‘home’ in the homesickness [of the tourist] lies precisely in its tendency to stay in the future forever” (Fragments 97). As Lucrecia’s return to look for Biralbo ultimately suggests, her freedom to move is not accompanied by a corresponding freedom to return; the past dream (and imagined future) of ‘home’ remains ungraspable, vacated, as vaporous as the narrator’s final image of her “ya convertida en una lejana mancha blanca entre la multitud, perdida en ella, invisible, súbitamente borrada tras los paraguas abiertos y los automóviles, como si nunca hubiera existido” (221).
The image of Lucrecia fading into the distance with which the novel ends appropriates a common convention of film noir, of the presentation of the femme fatale as nothing more than the shadowy projection of male desire, as illusory as the dream itself. The evaporation of Lucrecia’s identity into cinematic image alludes not only to the way that absence is projected onto the physical space of the novel, but also the ambiguous relationship in the novel between the actuality of experience, and its simulation – since neither the “reproduced” image nor the “original” is ever fully able to be possessed.(2) As Randolph Pope observes, “El cuadro de Cézanne que se menciona en la novela sí es original, pero acaba encerrado en la caja fuerte de un coleccionista americano. Biralbo, naturalmente, asocia su música con el cuadro de Cézanne, pero no con el cuadro mismo, que no llega a ver, sino con una reproducción del cuadro que ve en un libro” (115).
The phantom-like image of Lucrecia with which the novel ends reinforces the underlying instability throughout the text, of a world characterized by a lack of solidity and definiteness. Everything is known by echoes of echoes, up to the physical integrity and ‘realness’ of Lucrecia, who has been the focus of the search for so much of the novel. The way that the story is constructed by the narrator, the piecing together of his memories with what Biralbo has told him, emphasizes this uncertainty of origin. Just as the narrator’s memories are tangled with images from film, he observes that he is not sure whether his description of Lucrecia is drawn from actual memory of seeing her, or from her reproduced image in photos: “No sé si la estoy recordando como la vi aquella noche o si lo que veo mientras la describe es una de las fotos que hallé entre los papeles de Biralbo” (27). The lack of a clear referent is felt in the novel through the disoriented nature of the characters’ searching. In Lisbon, for example, Biralbo wanders lost through the city: “Pero ya no estaba seguro de haber visto a Lucrecia ni de que fuera el amor quien lo obligaba a buscarla. Sumido en ese estado hipnótico de quien camina solo por una ciudad desconocida ni siquiera sabía si la estaba buscando […]” (140).
It is in the absence of
or an individual when the characters seem to experience the greatest
their presence, as Ernst Bloch has described of Goethe’s drawing The Ideal Landscape, in which just the
glimpse of a temple is depicted, “distanced and therefore powerfully
present” (473). The narrator wonders, for example, how Biralbo could
have written the song Lisboa without
having yet been there. Biralbo’s
reply is that it is “precisamente por eso. Ahora es cuando no
podría escribirlo” (185). Biralbo tries to recover a
between himself and Lucrecia that is not hedged by distance or
but whose rediscovery repeatedly eludes him – as when they begin their
Pero me dijo que una parte de su conciencia permanecía ajena a la fiebre, intocada por los besos, lúcida de desconfianza y de soledad, como si él mismo, quieto en la sombra de la habitación, mantuviera encendida la brasa insomne de su cigarrillo y pudiera verse abrazando a Lucrecia, y se murmurara al oído que no era cierto lo que sucedía, que no estaba recobrando los dones de una plenitud tanto tiempo perdida, sino queriendo urdir y sostener con los ojos cerrados y el cuerpo ciegamente adherido a los muslos fríos de Lucrecia un simulacro de cierta noche irrepetible, imaginaria, olvidada” (119).
Even the presumably ‘original’, the live sessions of jazz, demonstrate an awareness of distance rather than pure presence or intimacy. Biralbo describes the experience of playing his music as “el instinto de alejarse y huir sin conocer más espacio que el que los faros alumbran, era igual que conducir solo a medianoche por una carretera desconocida” (63).
In the romantic view of the quest, what is emphasized is the distance between one’s present circumstance and what might otherwise have been possible. In Madame Bovary for example, when Emma Bovary attends the opera, she is drawn to the plea of the character on stage, who “bewailed her love, she begged for wings. Emma, too, would have like to escape from life and fly away in an embrace” (203). One of the central differences between Emma’s romantic view and what could be termed the postmodern perspective in El invierno en Lisboa is that the characters in Muñoz Molina’s novel, while similarly dissatisfied, are not trapped in their present locations but are free to roam and escape to other places. Rather, as was suggested earlier, they are confined by the distance, by a multiplicity of options that impart fragmentation along with their freedom (3). They can go virtually anywhere, but none of these places seem to result in where they want to be. This is not a new theme in literature, this sense of hope and then of alienation upon actually arriving. Ernst Bloch writes in an essay, “It was better in the dream, one says. Something is left over, something that resists any attempt at realization. This is everywhere the case, and it makes itself felt as a certain sadness when a wish had been satisfied” (464). Yet, the capacity to arrive at the imagined site and strip it of its image is now greater than in the past. As Miguel Ángel Gara has observed of the contemporary context: “Internet, los nodos de comunicaciones, los aeropuertos, las fronteras, los países inexistentes, lugares de paso, espacios donde se puede vivir pero a los que dificilmente llamaríamos hogar, desiertos en definitiva […] La identidad como tránsito” (www.literaturas.com).
In the epic and romantic quests, travel over great distances was a monumental task, focused toward the completion of a specific mission. While distance was an obstacle, the journey itself had a finite end, and the completion of the quest was the achievement of a huge accomplishment. In contrast, in the postmodern context so well delineated in El invierno en Lisboa, physical distance is no longer any impediment. Not only are individuals capable of traveling in a matter of hours over vast distances, but as the relationships between the characters demonstrate, there are no overriding social bonds or other responsibilities which tie them to one place (4). The context of El invierno en Lisboa is one in which there is no barrier to the free flow and constant movement of individuals or of objects; the crimes of theft and murder go unpunished and the perpetrators escape, and Biralbo – who is arguably an unintentional victim in the conspiracy – becomes a perpetual object of the chase.
The modern dream of progress links the goal of the voyage with discovery, the capture and possession of something formerly only imagined. In contrast, the continual movement from one location to another in El invierno en Lisboa is that of the dispossessed, of temporary places, stopovers characterized by their lack of resiliency. The mid-range hotels “de huéspedes tan desconocidos y solos como él” (19) in which Biralbo becomes a permanent guest “parecen templos desertados” (17) and the ancient castle-like home which Lucrecia dreams of, with its town and garden surrounded by a wall – is equally transitory.
In El invierno en Lisboa, certain foundational themes associated with the idea of the quest – the search for missing treasure, the foundation of community, the discovery of oneself – are re-examined with an ironic eye toward their emphasis on finality and the neatness of closure. The treasured object –the painting – is sold away; individuals become dispersed rather than rejoined; and the protagonist’s identity, rather than being strengthened, is abandoned altogether under the necessity for disguise and continued escape. The classic tale of the quest, The Odyssey, comprises a world in which nostalgia for one’s origins results in the ability to return to one’s homeland and restore it to its remembered order. In El invierno en Lisboa, what is emphasized instead is the impossibility of such return. Even if you can arrive at an imagined location, it seems already to be not as you remembered it, already altered by the velocity of change into something altogether different. If nostalgia assumes its full meaning as the desire to return to a place from which one has felt exiled, the characters in El invierno en Lisboa remain displaced. Even if physically they are able to bridge the distance, as Lucrecia is able at the end of the novel to locate the hotel where Biralbo is staying, there is always a gap that cannot be closed. Lucrecia arrives to find Biralbo already gone.
The novel’s ending – the screen image-like fade out of Lucrecia – consciously suggests a false closure. The unsettled state of the characters in El invierno en Lisboa constitutes both an effort to recover something felt as lost, and a desire to escape the emptiness of the current location. Yet, rather than overcoming the distance, or, alternately, consigning the past to a distant point closed off from the present, the characters remain in an in-between state, a landscape characterized by ambiguity. Biralbo (now Giacomo Dolphin) is neither able to realize a future with Lucrecia nor is he able to fully leave that part of his life behind. Similarly, Lucrecia sells the painting, but does not gain in return the enduring sense of home that she had longed for. While Biralbo has the feeling when heading to Lisbon that all of the cities in which had lived to this point were nothing more than “dilatados episodios” (129) of a trip that perhaps might finally find conclusion, this sense of closure is only transient and there is no real ‘ending’ to cordon off experience into coherence.
The theme of distance which repeats itself throughout the novel implies an almost limitless mobility and at the same time a similarly unyielding dissatisfaction. As Zygmunt Bauman reflects on the contemporary context, “It does not matter so much what is being done and what targets are chased; what does matter is that whatever is being done be done quickly, and that the chased targets escape capture, move and keep moving” (Fragments 76). The perpetuation of movement in the novel suggests the difficulty in the postmodern realm of retaining an image and holding it down, as in The Odyssey Menelaus was able to hold onto Proteus in order to extract the truth from him. Objects, individuals, and truths seem to slip away in El invierno en Lisboa. The ability to overcome geographic distance does not imply a corresponding ability to reach the end of the search, but rather the necessity, amid a continued sense of absence, to keep looking.
(1). The name itself suggests a sense of dislocated identity, through the adoption of the Italian ‘Giacomo’ and the English language ‘Dolphin’, as an aquatic mammal which must both combine a need to breathe air with conformity to life in the sea.
(2). Jo Labanyi has observed, “While agreeing that, in many respects contemporary Spanish culture – obsessed with creating the image of a brash, young, cosmopolitan nation – is based on the rejection of the past, I want to stress the engagement with history by considerable numbers of directors and writers, both older and young, and also to suggest, tentatively, that the current postmodern obsession with simulacra may be seen as a return of the past in a spectral form” (Ramon Resina ed Disremembering 65).
(4). According to Bauman, the “change in question is the new irrelevance of space, masquerading as the annihilation of time. In the software universe of light-speed travel, space may be literally traversed in ‘no time’; the difference between ‘far away’ and ‘down here’ is cancelled. Space no more sets limits to action and its effects, and counts little, or does not count at all” (117 Liquid Modernity).
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