The narrator of Antonio Muñoz Molina’s To Walk Alone in the Crowd is a man with a 20th-century sensibility exiled in the excesses of the 21st. He’s recovering from a terrifying depressive episode, in a state alternating between “the twin poles” of nostalgia and anxiety. And because he is, above all, a passionate reader, the project that keeps him grounded is gathering the words thrown up by the cities he wanders – mostly Madrid and New York, with brief interludes in Paris and Lisbon – and archiving, collaging, and repurposing them. His quest is to understand what the words in all the restaurant menus, billboards, erotic massage flyers, subway signs add up to. What do they say underneath, and who, exactly, are they saying it to?
Guiding his movements are the “literary wanderers”: Thomas De Quincey, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, and Walter Benjamin. He empathizes with these brilliant, often substance-addicted, eventually destitute, and lonely explorers: “Black sheep and reprobates, failed heirs, useless slackers, derelict dandies, bankrupt rentiers, proletarians dressed in bourgeois boots and overcoats … skilled in obsolete crafts and lonely, meticulous trades that were wrecked and tossed aside by industrial production and mass commerce.”
But with this tidy character sketch, this narrative outline, I fear I misrepresent the spirit of the novel. From the start it plunges the reader into a jumble of texts, at first a disorienting procession of overheard conversations, newspaper clippings, and advertising copy. Mixed in-between these found objects are the narrator’s musings (on topics like the delight of writing with a pencil); tender passages on the woman he has loved through the decades; a parallel story of a mysterious stranger with a similar mission (he might be a ghost, a time traveler, the writer’s own double, or a figment of his anxious mind); episodes from the lives of the “literary wanderers” (Poe et al); and a parade of references to painters, photographers, jazz musicians, and poets, which span from Emily Dickinson to Christian Marclay.
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: “Experience pleasure. Don’t miss a thing. Tell me a secret. Beyond your wildest dreams. More than beauty. Your own private paradise. Anything you want. Let me blow your senses. Wild beauty. Follow your dreams. Catch the fever. Replenish your skin. Feel the flavor. Give yourself a gift.”
Each section, none longer than a few pages and sometimes just a paragraph, is titled with a short phrase in bold, clipped out from elsewhere: a mobile phone ad, a homeless person’s sign, a travel brochure. 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. It’s the art of shifting context and juxtaposition: “TRUE LUXURY SHOULD KNOW NO BOUNDS. By 2025, the world will produce six million tons of waste a day, twice the current level.”
The novel hints at a timeline, too: Pokémon madness sweeping Madrid and news of Brexit arriving at dawn in Paris situates the opening in June 2015, while Trump’s name “instantly sh[ooting] forth like a profanity” from the radio in New York the following winter marks the end of the journey in April 2016. But for all of the pulse-taking of the time, the internet is notably absent, a testament to the narrator’s own attachment to the tangible, for better or for worse. While the digital as characterized as “ghostly,” the world of things, for the worse, includes the endless stream of plastic waste coursing through cities. For the better, the value of the sensory world offers a glimmer of hope amid the recurring gloom of environmental destruction:
“Timeless things seem obsolete only to those who don’t realize they belong to the future as much as the past. What is outdated suddenly becomes futuristic: bicycles, streetcars, farmers’ markets, crowded streets, public squares with trees, the fertile mingling of commerce, work, and life.”
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. There’s room for everything and everyone. The lives of Benjamin, Poe, and Baudelaire, for example, are never treated with pedantry or possessiveness, but instead with the devotion of a true believer recounting the lives of saints. Familiarity with their work enriches the telling but isn’t necessary to appreciate the account of their last tragic years. The themes and scope of the book could easily be imagined as a scholarly work on modernity, semiotics, etc., but it’s the absence of citations, the magicking of seemingly too many parts into a seamless whole that gives it a cheeky modernist appeal. 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.
To Walk Alone in the Crowd
Antonio Muñoz Molina
Published July 13, 2021
Farrar, Straus and Giroux