The Spanish Riveter: A Writer Without Frontiers: Juan Goytisolo by Peter Bush

Karl Marx and his wife Jenny sit on the edge of their threadbare armchairs in a gloomy flat on Dean Street watching a television news bulletin: images of a ‘dissipating dolce far niente’ on a private beach in Italy disturbed by the small craft and swimmers approaching their gilded haven: the Albanians! A few months later Karl and Jenny are glued to scenes of statues of Stalin crashing down and free-market oligarchs licking their lips.

The narrator’s ‘Faulknerian, tweed-jacketed publisher’ is more enraged by the surreal fantasy flecked with the historical. Great subject, why couldn’t he emulate the bestselling Anglo-Saxon authors?: ‘Keep strictly to the facts!’ Fortunately, Robert McCrum at Faber had no such qualms when he commissioned me to translate The Marx Family Saga in 1994. Juan Goytisolo had long since abandoned realism, linear narrative and conventional punctuation for fictions that are at once personal, political and poetic.

Not that he held any post-modernist aversion to ‘facts’. His mother was killed in a 1938 bombing raid on Barcelona by Mussolini’s fighter pilots – she was shopping for birthday presents for her children – and he became aware from the age of seven that he belonged to an ‘inhuman’ species embedded in history. He was to write regularly for El País covering civil conflict in Bosnia, Chechnya, Algeria, the Middle East and the ‘Arab Spring’ in Cairo, as well as constantly defending human rights in a stream of articles attacking Fortress Europe and racism. His was a huge intellectual presence in the Spanish-speaking world, though he left Spain in 1956 for Paris and never returned to live there.

Juan Goytisolo’s voluntary exile meant he escaped the yoke of self-censorship and provincialism that plagued writers under Franco and embarked on a life that would lead him to live partly in Paris with his wife-to-be, the writer and Gallimard editor Monique Lange, and in Marrakesh with his Moroccan lover, Abdelhadi. He became fluent in Moroccan Arabic in the streets of Tangier and in and around the square of Djemaa El Fna, and learned Turkish talking with immigrant workers in the Le Sentier district in Paris. The multilingual flâneur already knew French and English, though he always lamented being unable to speak Catalan: his right-wing widowed father imposed a Spanish-only policy at home, and he and his siblings were raised by a series of maids and nannies, migrants from the south of Spain who spoke Castilian with broad Andalusian accents.

He wrote about this life in a two-part autobiography that is one of his most widely read books in English. In a deliberate attempt to break the Hispanic tradition of self-serving, ‘forgetful’ autobiographical writing, he charts his journey from Francoist Barcelona to Sufi Marrakesh, from realism to poetic adventure, from heterosexuality to homosexuality, in a narrative that alternates chronicle and meditation. Forbidden Territory and Realms of Strife (Verso, 2003; in Spanish, 1985 and 1986) is also one of the finest literary introductions to politics and literature in modern Spain and Latin America.

Juan Goytisolo used his unique confluence of experience to highlight Iberian culture’s Islamic and Jewish roots in every way possible. His scholarly essays delineate a radical alternative literary canon including, say, the Archpriest of Hita’s bawdy medieval poem, The Book of Good Love, the language of which draws on the street vernacular of a society dominated for hundreds of years by the use of Arabic, to Celestina, the 1499 tale of class conflict and star-crossed love in a Castilian city written by the converso Jew, Fernando de Rojas. He created three series of the Alqibla documentaries for Spanish national television that explored different aspects of Islamic culture throughout the world. The Catalan writer Najat El Hachmi once told me how vital they had been for her as a first-generation Moroccan Catalan in reaching an understanding of the variety of the Islamic experience. These programmes were often accompanied by photo-essays in El País and many of the texts were published in English in the TLS and the collection Cinema Eden (Sickle Moon, Eland, 2003).

Jean Genet used to drop off things to store at Monique Lange’s flat and joined her there for her first supper with Goytisolo after he started working at Gallimard. It made the invitation so attractive! Lionised on his arrival by the ‘Gauche Divine’ as the young radical anti-fascist novelist, the Spaniard was then dropped when their attention turned to a new cause. He admired Genet’s rejection of the literary establishment and conventional manners, and his view that writing should be an adventure, an exploration of new stylistic and moral territory.

In 1990 a friend Goytisolo had made while teaching at NYU died unexpectedly. She had been exploring connections between Spanish mysticism, Sufism and Dante. Juan began a new narrative that was to be a homage to her and would focus on these religious crossroads that had come to obsess him too. The Iraq War began, and he wrote an article for El País that was published on 26 January 1991. I translated it as ‘Vision of the “Day After” in Djemaa el Fna’ and it was published in the Village Voice in June. It is an evocation of the square and its story-tellers, his favourite space, after a war has broken out; it is flooded with blood and dead bodies. I didn’t realise that it would be chapter eight in Quarantine, which would be published later that year. Nor could Juan have imagined that his comparison of Dante’s Christian severity towards sinners in the Inferno with Ibn Arabi’s more forgiving Sufi stance and his mourning of his friend’s death would eventually be imbricated in a text that was a literary response to a new imperial onslaught. There could be no better example of his literary union of the personal, political and poetic: 

‘Were they Kurdish survivors of Halabja, Dahuk, or Mosul, or simply fellow citizens of his who fifty-two years earlier had passed through the Catalan village where he lived as a refugee, dirty and ragged like that, leaving behind a trail of corpses and excrement?  Did the images shown on the television news relate to events after forty days of airborne hell or unearth reminiscences buried in his memory of sombre civil war?

He was undecided, still undecided.

For who was really writing that page? The writer in his sixties bent over his desk or the ignorant child who for the first time in his life saw a dream destroyed, a hope abruptly dashed?’

(Quarantine, 1994, Dalkey Archive Press)

By Peter Bush

Read The Spanish Riveter here or order your paper copy from here.

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