Antonio Muñoz Molina on Fortunata and Jacinta
To be placed inside a copy of Fortunata and Jacinta left as if by chance on a park bench, a coffee shop table, or on a subway or bus seat:
Reader, reluctant reader, unknown reader, unlikely reader: I am aware there is little chance that you will crack open this book, let alone read this message, and so I must warn you that you are about to make one of the saddest mistakes in your reading life—maybe even in your life, period. Probably you are discarding this book after glancing at its difficult, unfamiliar title; the author’s name, Benito Pérez Galdós, is even a bit foreign looking, all syllables and oddly placed accents; and, insult to injury, it is such a fat, thick volume, you almost yawn. Who wants to read a thousand-page novel with an exotic title by an unknown, nineteenth-century, long-dead European or perhaps South American writer? Who has the time, unless under the grim command of a college assignment? Who wants to read anymore, anyway? Why do they keep churning out these obsolete dinosaur novels in the age of instant messaging and Twitter?
But mark my words, disbelieving reader: You are about to miss one of the best novels ever written; one of the most ambitious, generous, and daring, with an unblinking gaze into the mysteries of love and the ravages of social injustice; a novel in the same league as Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina or The Portrait of a Lady—and not far, in its almost insane endeavor to compress an entire world into its pages, from Moby-Dick. It is a novel about adultery, like Bovary or Karenina; it is a novel filled to the brim by the swarming life of a city, Madrid, as alive in its pages as London in Dickens or Paris in Balzac; it is a novel about one of those periods in history when the vast political and personal expectations awakened by a revolutionary uprising were gradually and bitterly discredited by betrayal and greed, by the dead weight of social inertia and personal mediocrity, as in Sentimental Education.
It is, foremost, a novel about a woman—about two women, actually, who were born at the two extremes of the social hierarchy and were never meant to meet or hear of each other, but who end up connected by a shared passion for and loyalty to a charming predatory man who doesn’t deserve either. Jacinta, upper-middle-class, and Fortunata, born in a Madrid slum, who, despite her poverty and lack of education, shines in her beauty, intelligence, her almost blind courage and generosity of heart. Their lives run parallel courses through political turmoil and social and economic changes that end the old, nearly feudal system in Spain, but do not alleviate in the least the jarring extremes between the haves and the have-nots—let alone the lot of women, especially working class-women, so often sexually exploited and then murderously excluded.
Reader: I am a novelist myself, and an avid fan of novels; this particular one taught me the glorious scope and the exhilarating freedom that a novel can provide, both as an art form to practice and as a reading experience to enjoy. You live in it. You move into it. You inhabit it. You get accustomed to it. It becomes part of the daily setting of your life, like your coffee mug or your computer or your dog. You scrape some extra minute to get back to it. You stay awake longer than you should to reach the end of a chapter. You walk the same streets the characters walk, overhear their conversations, visit the same cafés and street markets and bourgeois mansions and working-class slums and taverns. I am all for quick fixes in literature: telegraphic poems by William Carlos Williams or Emily Dickinson, any of George Costanza’s existential statements, a swift blog entry. But take my word for it: There is still much to be said for the long durations, for The Sopranos or The Ring of the Nibelung or Morton Feldman’s almost motionless chamber pieces, for War and Peace and The Iliad and, well, Fortunata y Jacinta, Fortunata and Jacinta—you can’t even use the excuse of having little or no Spanish: a wonderful Penguin Classics edition, flawlessly translated more than twenty years ago by Agnes Moncy Gullón, is waiting for you one click away on the internet.
You are very, very welcome.