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Juan Goytisolo, Prodigal Son

ISSUE:  Summer 1990
Forbidden Territory: The Memoirs of Juan Goytisolo, 1931—1956. Translated by Peter Bush. North Point Press. $18.95.

Since Rousseau (or at least since Lillian Hellman) we have known that “autobiography” is the art of lying gracefully, an act of self re-creation mediated by memory, purpose, and language. As Jean Guehenno informs us in his work on Rousseau (1962), sincerity and truth are not necessarily synonymous, a statement equally applicable to Juan Goytisolo, one of Spain’s best-known contemporary novelists. Forbidden Territory may be sincere, but its truthfulness has been questioned even by Goytisolo’s novelist brother Luis. In Investigatiónes y conjeturas de Claudia Mendoza (1985) he contradicts Juan’s “memories” of the house they grew up in in Barcelona and the experiences of their early childhood. He does not suggest that his recollections are more correct—that he is a “privileged reader” of their past—only different, but some of Juan’s readings of his childhood experiences do not square with Luis’s (Luis writes that the differences are so great that he would have to write a book as long as Forbidden Territory to put them straight). Among other things, Luis defends his grandfather against Juan’s accusations of pederasty and his father against Juan’s portrayal of him as a tyrant. Where does the “truth” reside? Impossible to tell, and probably irrelevant, since Forbidden Territory, the work of an exciting and provocative novelist, should be read as fiction rather than as fact.

Juan Goytisolo gained a reputation as a fine craftsman in the 1950’s and 1960’s, but he stunned (and angered) the world of Spanish letters with the publication of his trilogy, beginning with Señas de identidad (Marks of Identity) in 1966. (The others were the astonishing Revindicatión del conde don Julián, 1970 [Count Julian, 1974] and Juan sin tierra, 1975 [Juan the Landless, 1977]). He moved both the content and form of Spanish narrative onto an international plane, while maintaining the distinctive “marks of identity” left on him by the Civil War, the Franco victory, and the repressive atmosphere of the 1950’s and 1960’s in Spain. Forbidden Territory (Spanish original: Coto vedado, 1985) plots the trajectory of Goytisolo’s early novels, the trajectory of an intellectual struggling for identity in an alien culture. Juan Goytisolo has always seen himself as an outsider, a man living in the margins of that narrow environment but unafraid to question its stultifying complacency.

Goytisolo (b. 1931) was five years old when the Civil War split Spain into a bloody, warring monster turned in upon itself, and just eight when the conservative repression became legitimized by virtue of the Franco victory in the war. The war came to him and his family in whispers at first, then in flames as the family chapel was burned, and finally in threats at gunpoint and the tragic death of his mother in a bombing raid. The child of privilege (his ancestors were Spanish sugar magnates in Cuba), his early experiences marked him deeply and created his need to move, to run, to escape. The words “alienation” and “rupture” appear in the first paragraph of Forbidden Territory, and signal his predominant mindset. He broke away from his father’s conservative politics and grew into a leftist, anticlerical homosexual in Franco’s Catholic, orthodox Spain, a man who represented everything antithetical to the country’s official culture (a culture he characterizes as “irrevocably parasitic, decadent, and vacuous”).

Goytisolo is cynical, ironic, and humorous in turns as he details his awakening to Marxist doctrine and his attraction to the clandestine and illegal Communist party in the 1950’s. He weaves the details of his life together with those of his early novels, underscoring the genesis of certain works or highlighting emotions which he later transformed into fiction. Through his early years parade the odd mixture of merchants, bohemians, intellectuals, dreamers, and soldiers that make up his extended family. The most poignant moments are reserved for his mother, killed suddenly one day in a bombing by Francoist troops (we came to know this as “friendly fire” during the Vietnam War), but whose death is transmogrified by his pro-Francoist family into the mythology of the New Crusade. At first, the child believes the myth, but as he grows and reflects upon the facts of her death and his life, his own understanding develops in a radically different way:

Imbued with crude but refreshing Marxist principles— hostile to the reactionary values of your class—you began to focus on the events you experienced marginally from childhood from a very different perspective: Franco’s bombs—not the innate evil of the Republicans—were directly responsible for the break-up of your family.

He becomes, then, “rather than her son, the son of a woman who is and always will be unknown to you, you are a son of the Civil War. . .”

This marginalized self reacts with ambivalence to the grandfather’s alleged perversity. While confused by the old man’s actions, Juan nevertheless thinks the family’s persecution of him unjust or at least pitiable, and his grandfather’s “secret tragedy” intensifies his own revolve to avoid deception: “The memory of this self-contempt resulting from the scorn of others, of the shame that was accepted and transmuted into inner guilt, weighed very heavily in my decision to affirm my destiny whatever the cost, and to set everything out clearly for myself and others.” What he sets out clearly, among other things, is that as a child he was a rather disagreeable type, by turns a thief (he steals 25 peseta notes from his crazed grandmother), a liar, a tattletale, a coward, and an “insecure poseur.” His struggle toward sincerity and understanding included the disdain for the “small-minded priests” in charge of the education of the young and the search for literature outside the classroom.

Self-taught like almost all the men and women of my generation, my culture, which was tentatively shaped, would for a long time retain the mark of the prejudices, gaps, and the insufficiencies of a barren, sunbaked Spain choked by the censorship and rigors of an oppressive regime. It is very significant that the books I would soon rush upon would be almost without exception by foreign authors.

Here, Goytisolo outlines his discoveries of authors prohibited by the censors—Hemingway, Camus, Proust, Malraux, Faulkner, Capote (one thing must be said of Spanish censors—they had good taste)—and confesses an “Olympian” ignorance of Spain’s own classics. He read political works, poetry, and social tracts by France, Sartre, Gide, Baroja, Lorca, Ortega, Orwell, and Neruda; the difficulty of securing such books intensified the pleasure of their acquisition and consumption. The Spanish works he had read were deemed boring or useless, and he provides acute observations on the formation of his literary tastes. One small vignette anticipates the famous squashing of the flies scene in Count Julian.

Later, as an adult, when he “discovers” the Spanish classics, the prodigal (ignorant) son returns:

With a mixture of passion and anger I then threw myself at the work of our classical authors—anxious to regain the time wasted by my false educators. My amorous relationship with some of them was established immediately but, as I realized at once with rage, at the wrong time: like a youth who tastes the ineffable delight of intercourse after a long virginity, I had through my own fault been deprived of the most intense enjoyment.

Stylistically, Forbidden Territory alternates “traditional” autobiographical narrative with second-person reminiscence on the act of creation. Goytisolo adopts multiple narrative postures—”I,” “you,” “our man”—as different distancing strategies in an attempt to understand his identity (-ies), his self (-ves), as he (they) developed. Eventually, in spite of discovering his love for Madrid’s bohemian life (“the street chaos, the brutal transparency”); he opts instead for self-imposed exile in France, where he works against the Franco regime, writes novels, and continues “the painful conquest of my own voice.” A second volume will appear in English next year.


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