Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Juan Goytisolo: the journey into exile

...Castillian in Catalonia, Frenchified in Spain, Spanish in France, a Latin in North America, nesrani in Morocco, and a Moor everywhere, as a result of my wanderings, I would become a writer not claimed by anybody, alien and opposed to groupings and categories...outside the bounds of abstract ideologies, systems, or entities always characterised by their self-sufficiency and circularity.

- Coto Vedado/Forbidden Territory: The Memoirs of Juan Goytisolo 1931-1956
(trans. Peter Bush)

In the course of my literary perambulations (see previous post) I recently discovered the work of the Catalan-Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo, a writer whose name it seems is hardly known in the Anglophone world despite the existence of several excellent English-language translations of his novels.

Goytisolo is a fascinating figure, in that while he has chosen to spend almost his entire adult life living outside of Spain much of his literary work is characterised by a near-total obsession with the land of his birth. Despite living in Morocco, he also still manages to write a regular column for the newspaper El País (for whom he worked as a war correspondent during the 1990s in Bosnia and Chechnya).

Goytisolo is a man of contradictions - he grew up in Barcelona during the 1930s and 40s in an impoverished bourgeois household whose forebears had been the owners of vast sugar plantations (and hundreds of slaves!) in Cuba. Goytisolo's father was a strong Catholic and ardent supporter of General Francisco Franco, however the revelation that his mother's death in 1938 had been due to a Nationalist bombing raid alienated Goytisolo from his father (who had suppressed the truth and always blamed his wife's death on "the Reds").

An additional factor impelling Goytisolo's journey towards exile was his alienation from Spanish culture and the Spanish language, a reaction provoked as Goytisolo says in his memoirs by "the ignorant, small-minded priests" (the Jesuits) who educated him. As a result, he did not even read Cervantes until he was in his late 20s.

In 1956 Goytisolo went into voluntary exile in Paris, France and was soon associated with the leading cultural and literary figures of the French Communist Party. He also became an enthusiastic supporter of the Cuban Revolution, but after a number of visits there he became disillusioned with the Castro regime. In his memoirs he tells of giving a speech at a secondary school in Havana as the invited guest of the Cuban poet Navarro Luna, arriving just as some girls were being publicly censured in front of the entire assembly for being lesbians. Goytisolo describes the overwhelming feeling of hypocrisy he felt as he went onto the platform to give his address

...I, that juan goytisolo suddenly ashamed of his role, of the unbridgeable abyss opened at a stroke between reality and words, overwhelmed by the tumultuous applause for the imposter who has usurped his name...

Goytisolo was discovering at around the same time that he himself was a homosexual, although despite finally confessing as much to his partner Monique Lange in 1965 they maintained an "open relationship" and even later married.

Goytisolo published a number of novels throughout the 1950s and 60s to a modest level of critical acclaim, while at the same time working for the French publishing house Gallimard (in the course of which he came to befriend writers such as the Mexican Carlos Fuentes and the Cuban Cabrera Infante). However, it was with his Álvaro Mendiola trilogy (published between 1966-1975) that he really made his name. The second book of that trilogy in particular - Reivindicación del Conde don Julián (published in English as "Count Julian") - stands (albeit a little ironically as we shall see!) as a masterpiece of Spanish literature and the ultimate condensation of Goytisolo's personal, philosophical and political thought.

To be continued...


  1. Hi - I was alerted to this Blog by Maps just now - Scott - interesting re Goytisola. Good Blog.

    I will put a link on my own Blog EYELIGHT -

    Regards, Richard

  2. Cheers Richard - have reciprocated the link.

  3. Thanks! Here are 2 poems influenced by reading European poets such as Reverdy and Trakl - actually Scott (Maps) "introduced" these poets to me about1994):

    Poem 10

    They are naked under the arch –
    But by whose door are they doomed?

    Enter into summations by whichever
    climbs like downwards into fantastic.

    Go you

    and bravely axe the ice:
    Russia burns to wake. out.
    By little caves of doors
    The real toy people quaver.

    They are notes of motes.

    All at sometime have double crossed
    The criss-crossed face, crinkled
    Into maps of gone-away.
    Quick! All leaps
    these mad have sleepless tongues.
    The nights return.

    There are things so delicate
    bones cannot think of them.

    Poem 11

    The head on the table like
    an accusation
    the descent
    the cylinders of despair
    are split with light.

    who understands.

    these are distant these

    and power
    crawls: the boxes are ready

    they lie impaled in their thousands
    in the dawn

    the profound books wait with
    the white valley of their pages
    for the sentences

    the stranger walks the empty streets.
    the city is troubled

    this speech. this eternal –
    rotating thing

    Richard Taylor

  4. I sell books and once I did a a relatively big sale (to a friend and bookseller) and I included my copy of Neruda - I found that for me he and Paz I found Neruda's images too rich - too much overall (Paz I still have but he is similar I find) - and all of it too much...but I enjoyed the film about him a lot.

    But I enjoyed some poems translated by Elizabeth Bishop - various South American/Spanish poets - Machado was one I think - I must get some of these guys again and "revisit" them as I have a large poetry section of my own...

    I fact I want an edition of Bishop's poetry.

    But frequently if someone has an enthusiasm for something - I found too many people were liking Neruda so I was dubious of him at the time & I discharged his book - but if certain people are looking as you are in an interesting way it often rekindles my own enthusiasm or curiosity...


  5. I came across Goytisolo for his reportage on the destruction of the Sarajevo library and went on to read State of Siege, a much underrated work. I'll have to try Count Julian now.

  6. Re Neruda I guess I'm mainly a fan of his earlier works such as Tentativa del hombre infinito and the first two cycles of Residencia en la tierra. His later works are more accessable but I think ultimately less interesting - also there are a few occasions in his more "socially committed" phase where his Stalinism really let him down a bit (a bit like RAK Mason perhaps in that regard)...

    Re Machado he was the first Spanish poet I really got into and Campos de Castilla still ranks as one of my all-time favourites. Again though his later, more political works have not aged as well.

    Coincidentally, Goytisolo had an interesting column in El País yesterday -

    - in which he argues that were many of the great authors of the past such as Miguel de Cervantes to be living today it would be impossible for them to be judged fairly in terms of their literary works, such is the fascination we have now with peoples' personal or moral failings in this new 24-hour celebrity and reality TV culture.

    So I guess despite their political mistakes Neruda et al may still have gotten off fairly lightly as far as the verdict of history is concerned!

  7. P.S. an essay I wrote a while ago on Machado is online here: