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Is she Blanca, or not?

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Did she or didn't she? Is she or isn't she? Spanish novelist Antonio Munoz Molina's

puzzling and beautiful "In Her Absence," concerns a wife of passionate appetites — Blanca — stuck in a provincial Spanish town with Mario, her well intentioned but unremarkable husband. Mario loves Blanca dearly, and in this story of their young marriage, a union beset by trials as he struggles to keep up with his more sophisticated spouse, it is he who garners the lion's share of sympathy.

Mario was raised on soup, beans, tough meat and potatoes. Blanco knows sushi and can use chop sticks "with infallible precision." There is some ambiguity about whether Blanca has an affair, but as the new marriage moves forward there are hints she has strayed (more than once), and even more perplexing are suggestions that over time Blanca has somehow been transformed into a different woman.

So the novel opens:

"The woman who was not Blanca came down the hall toward Mario wearing Blanca's green silk blouse, Blanca's jeans, and Blanca's ballet flats, her eyes narrowing into a smile as she reached him — eyes the same color and shape as Blanca's but not Blanca's eyes. She welcomed him home in a tone so identical to Blanca's that it was almost as if she really were Blanca, and she stooped a little to kiss him because she was slightly taller than he was, just like Blanca . . .

"In the warmth of her breath and the brief, carnal softness of her lips he felt as if he'd gone back in time to Blanca's first delicious kisses, now identical, but falsified with a flawless or almost flawless precision that made everything all the more unreal."

Mr. Munoz Molina energizes every bit of every page with telling detail in a manner that recalls Flaubert's "Madame Bovary." Not a single word is wasted, and a reader aches for Mario who, in addition to being a virile, committed and decent man, cannot understand his wife's distance. Blanca's discontent is similar to Emma Bovary's, but it is an unease that has been updated to the 1980s and tweaked to include mystery and metaphysics.

Part "The Turn of the Screw" and part "Lady or the Tiger," one can argue that the question of who Mario thinks he sees is not utterly resolved by the prose itself but weighing its segments, which detail the couple's respective backgrounds, preferences and friends.

Readers are given glimpses of Mario's singularly dull job at the Provincial Council building, the couple's spat over attending a Frida Kahlo exhibit (Mario said they couldn't afford it), their differences in background (as a child he spent winters in boardinghouse; she came from a family of lawyers) and Blanca's and her friends' vocabulary: "tage, Mediterranean, virtual, installation, performance, mestizaje, multimedia. Words like these instantly aroused an instinctive hatred in Mario; they were as virulent as a gob of poison spit or the quick, lethal sting of a scorpion — and what made it even worse was that he, Mario, had been hit with the gob of spit; the sting was lethal only to him."

And then there are the friends themselves. "Except for Mario, whose only remotely artistic skill was line drawing, all her former boyfriends and almost all her current friends were practitioners of one art form or another and were voraciously interested in all forms of artistic expression without exception, including bullfighting, hairdressing, and Spanish pop music."

Readers learn about the cultural offerings of Jaen as Mario learns about them. And readers learn about Blanca's "sentimental biography." Clearly, she has loved more than Mario has, he having only had one girlfriend, she a spin with "a photographer, a would-be film director, and a professor ten years her senior with a passion for Puccini." There is the painter Jaime Naranjo (aka Jimmy N) whom she falls for briefly and Lluis Onesimo, the artist who proved the greatest threat to Mario and Blanca's marriage.

"What vanity could have made him take Blanca's love for granted? What mindless blindness could have led him to believe he was out of danger and their life together would go serenely on forever, the way a job does once the civil service entrance exam has been passed?"

Mario is tormented, and yet while the push and pulls of life propel their marriage forward, it cannot be said that one crisis, one plot brings it or anything in this book to a certain conclusion. What is satisfying here is the ambiguity. The reader is asked to consider everything in order to weigh Blanca's behavior and Mario's reliability as an observer of her slights. Were there slights? Is he wrong? Is she unfaithful or does she remain?

"He got used to living for Blanca, adapting his schedule to her needs, her sudden whims and outbursts. He enjoyed a kind of furtive and half-clandestine happiness, a happiness sustained by Blanca's mere presence but continually assailed by crises of dejection and fear."

Long after the pages of this stunning little book end — much the way it began with Mario again faced with a woman who "looked so much like [Blanca]" — it is hard not to think of what becomes of the couple. Mr. Munoz Molina, twice the winner of Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Literartura prize, skillfully leads the reader to the story's conclusion but does not tip his hand. The pleasure of this deeply felt mystery of a book depends on what cannot be known with certainty.

IN HER ABSENCE

By Antonio Munoz Molina

Translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen

Other Press, $113.95, 126 pages

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