A Review of Angelina Muñiz-Huberman’s A Mystical Journey

Noelia Diaz

Angelina Muñiz-Huberman was born in France (1936), to Spanish refugees from the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).  Her parents moved first to Cuba, and then permanently to Mexico (1942). Muñiz-Huberman conducted her studies at City University of New York (CUNY) and National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). A novelist, essayist, poet and critic, she is deeply concerned with notions of Jewish identity, exile and death. Her 1977 novel, Tierra adentro, translated by Seymour Menton into English as A Mystical Journey in 2011 (Gaon Books), explores all of these themes.

A Mystical Journey charts the spiritual and emotional development of a Jewish boy in Spain, under the rule of Philip II, at the height of the Spanish Inquisition. Muñiz-Huberman’s novel manages to fuse the picaresque and the Bildungsroman. Its shape is that of the picaresque, travelling from Spain to Israel; the novel’s hero, Rafael, is a protagonist in the Bildungsroman tradition, in his maturation from adolescence in a violent Spain to young adulthood in Israel, his true home. When the novel begins Rafael is a few days short of his bar mitzvah, which his parents decide not to celebrate in order to keep him safe from persecution. The inability to honor his true heritage prompts Rafael to leave his house and seek spiritual guidance, under the tutelage of a family friend residing in Madrid. His journey from Toledo to Madrid is the first of many, and along the way Rafael will find the help of an elusive character, the muleteer. In a world filled with horror and despair, the muleteer functions as a guardian angel, providing Rafael with companionship, help, and support. In his first trip to Madrid he will also meet Miriam, his future wife, who will dutifully await him until he is ready to embark in the journey that will lead them both to Israel.

Given the historical background of the novel, Rafael’s coming of age tale is filled with pain, sorrow and unimaginable hardships. In deeply poetic language, vividly captured by Menton’s translation, beautiful, winding sentences unearth a world filled with violence and despair. Rafael’s decision to remain true to his Jewish heritage, to seek spiritual growth under the guidance of different teachers in a country where execution, torture, and death were the price paid for that choice, allows Muñiz-Huberman to explore an unlikely spiritual itinerary. This is a novel of many roads, physical and imaginary. Rafael’s journey will take him from his hometown of Toledo, through nameless towns in Spain, France, Germany, Italy, and finally Israel. The cities reflect the tension and struggle of a world built on extremes, devoid of peace and alienating to Rafael: “A white city built of limestone, with many yesterdays but no tomorrow. A desert-like city that could improve its landscape with some palm trees to rise up among its walls. A city of sterile struggles, of lascivious secrets, a crucible of whirlwinds. A city of troubled and overwhelming passions, of torture, of enjoyment, of pure fresh and deep water that nevertheless is poisonous, of silence, calm and indifference. Imagined city, white city. A small city laid out in a grid, with white walls, tall rocks, watchtowers, austere, spotless” (45). The images invoke a deceptive, guarded and diseased society where much is hidden and little revealed. Against a background of “lascivious secrets,” Rafael’s sexual awakening is pure and gentle. The girls/women he encounters are kind and soft, and provide a safe haven in his tortuous journey. Miriam above all provides Rafael with an anchor, along with that of his faith, sustaining him through the many losses he endures; his parents are burnt in the pyre, his grandfather descends into madness, and Rafael’s house in Toledo is usurped by Catholic occupants. Winding like the prose of this novel, Rafael’s path stalls and continues, at times detoured by external pressures (persecution, war, the plague) and sometimes by internal struggles (fear, doubt, boredom) until Rafael reaches both his physical and spiritual home, Israel. Muñiz-Huberman’s lovely, poetic voice creates a complex coming of age journey filled with uncertainty and struggle, but ultimately hopeful and inspiring. This is a brief, condensed text that nevertheless manages in its short space (the English version is just above 125 pages) to be rich and deeply moving.

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Noelia Diaz grew up in Madrid but has lived in New York for the last 17 years. She is currently working towards her PhD in Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center of CUNY. Her areas of concentration are contemporary Irish and Argentine theater. At the moment she is teaching Latino/a theater in the U.S. in the Communications & Theatre Arts Department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Angelina Muñiz-Huberman (Hyères, France, 1936) has lived in Mexico since 1942. She teaches at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and is a guest lecturer at international universities. She is the author of 40 books of fiction, poetry and essays. Some of her literary themes are Jewish mysticism and Cryptojudaism.  Her work has been awarded with major prizes and translated into various languages. Some of her titles published in English are:Enclosed GardenThe Confidantes, and A Mystical Journey.  She is included in The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories;With Signs & Wonders; The Scroll and The Cross; The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature; Miriam´s Daughter, Jewish Latin American Poets, among other anthologies. At present Angelina Muñiz-Huberman holds a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Culture and the Arts (Mexico).

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2 comments
  1. Eva said:

    Straightforward read, can’t get ample wish there was more like this. will like this specific post about facebook.

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