To Walk Alone in the Crowd
by Antonio Muñoz Molina
translated by Guillermo Bleichmar
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021
Reviewed by Jan Alexander
While I was reading To Walk Alone in the Crowd, Europe had nearly melted in its global-warming summer. The world was bracing for high-tech annihilation at the hands of Putin and a medieval-esque plague with no end. The last time I’d seen a city looking truly alive was July 2021 in Manhattan, when a rock band played on a busy avenue and many of us danced in the street, imagining we we’d won the war against the microscopic virus. That moment of hope is now just another layer of time in the city’s essence.
In an era when the past, present and future mingle freely, I tried to escape into the wanderings of a flâneur immersing himself in the recent past. Antonio Muñoz Molina’s 2018 novel of wandering, watching and writing, in an English translation by Guillermo Bleichmar, is just such a tale.
Muñoz Molina, a celebrated novelist in his native Spain and recipient of awards including Spain’s National Narrative Prize and the Medici Prize for Foreign Novel, has written many stories in which time and place are brutal forces. Beltenbros (1989) was about love and political intrigue in post-Civil War Madrid, while in A Manuscript of Ashes (2008) a student in Franco-era Spain stumbles into a three-decade-old mystery. In Like a Fading Shadow (2017), a Man Booker International Prize nominee, Muñoz Molina reconstructed his own time in Lisbon while tracing the path of James Earl Ray when he briefly fled there after assassinating Martin Luther King in 1968.
In To Walk Alone in the Crowd, time and place exist as the web through which a flâneur must travel. The protagonist is an aging successful writer much like Muñoz Molina himself, with an assignment to write a book about wandering through Madrid, Paris, New York, and urban scenes past. The meta-conceit of a book about writing a book plays into a pronouncement from Walter Benjamin. The great German philosopher, who drew upon the poetry of Charles Baudelaire to make the flâneur an object of literary and scholarly interest and a kind of archetype of the urban experience, said there are two types of flâneurs: the bourgeoisie wanderer of the arcades, and the ragpicker who is truly on the outside.
Muñoz Molina is most certainly the former type; a ragpicker wouldn’t have a book contract. He has a sense that a man is following him. Because our literary gentleman flâneur is not practicing a random art at all, but rather walking through the world as great writers of the past defined it, the phantom is surely Walter Benjamin himself, playing guide and inspiration.
As the story begins, the narrator is wandering through contemporary Madrid:
“I read every word that meets my eyes as I walk by. Fire Department Only. Premises Under Video Surveillance. We Pay Cash for Your Car…… A glaring, empty bus rushes from the mouth of a tunnel like a ghostly galleon in the high seas. Its entire side is taken up by a large ad for gazpacho.”
The blatant condescension would seem to be a search for meaning in the banal as Benjamin defined it—a way of “imitating the gods [to] temporarily overcome the shock experience of modernity.” In The Arcades Project, Benjamin’s seminal work on flânerie, he cited Baudelaire’s poetry as having turned what he called erlebnis—the shock-induced anesthesia brought on by sensory overload in modern cities—into erfahrung—the experience of absorbing the artificiality of capitalism and modernity.
Muñoz Molina, whose own erfahrung is most vivid when he treks back to the lives of his literary gods, points out that Baudelaire, “who coined the word modernity, was posthumously enshrined as the prophet of the modern world when he in fact detested, with a spite as searing as his genius, everything our experts declare he wished to celebrate.” Benjamin also said Baudelaire was a “secret agent, a renegade from the bourgeois class to which he belonged by birth….But he would have liked to be even more than that: a dissident, a saboteur of the same modern age that nourished his talent and originality by provoking a furious rejection.”
What the great flaneurs of the past would find strangest about our contemporary world is how easy it is to become a saboteur and gain a following. Muñoz Molina said urban hallucinations “no longer need to arise from the mind, since they are made objectively available across a thousand simultaneous screens.” Just a few years later, hallucinations have become a genuine obstruction: Vaccines take away my freedom. Left-wing conspirators stole the election.
For Muñoz Molina, menace comes in the form of the evil clowns that made the news—for real—between 2013 and 2016. “A student started a panic at Brunel University in London this week by running through campus dressed as a killer clown wielding a chainsaw….. Professor [Mark] Griffiths [a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University] says that coulrophobia, or fear of clowns and jesters, is a well-documented syndrome that can cause panic attacks, cold sweats, and difficulty breathing.”
I think I can safely say that creepy clowns of a sort have been causing panic attacks every day since early 2020. In that sense, To Walk Alone in the Crowd is an instant classic. A flaneur of the future can look to urban life and fears in Muñoz Molina’s time and perhaps imagine how the clowns of his prose gave way to an order of murderous buffoons, not unlike the way Muñoz Molina loops into the wanderings of Baudelaire, Benjamin, Edgar Allen Poe, and Herman Melville and ponders how in retrospect, their transcendence became part of late-stage capitalism.
He recalls, for example, the Paul Klee drawing that was one of Benjamin’s few possessions that survives, no doubt one of many artworks that “are now trophies for billionaire investors, gleaming like gold ingots in crypts of bulletproof glass.” For that matter, Melville’s legacy now jumps out at us everywhere in the green seafaring logo of Starbucks. The literary tradition of scoffing at modernity and capitalism was always a warning, but the trouble with a god-imitative perch is that it might turn you into a modern-day god.