The Virtues of the Solitary Bird, by Juan Goytisolo

Well, that’s the Obooki Prize wrapped up for another year – which is just as well, because, without any candidates so far, I was beginning to wonder whether I was going to have to not award it at all.

So, what to write about The Virtues of the Solitary Bird? – Since I’m not sure, let’s here what Goytisolo has to say himself (perhaps in his case about St John of the Cross’ Spiritual Canticle, but we can easily enough I think apply it to his own work):

was it possible to decipher the obscurities of the text, find a univocal explanatory key, get to the bottom of its occult sense through recourse to allegory, circumscribe its linguistic ambiguities, establish a rigorous philological critique, search out a strictly literal meaning, resort to moral and anagogical interpretations, straighten out its malleable syntax, elucidate its supposed absurdities, extenuate its abrupt and unparalleled radicality, structure, order, prune, reduce, strive to trap its immensity and fluidity, capture the subtleties of wind in a net, immobilize its ungraspable fluctuations and oneiric shifts, reproduce the pure splendor of the mystic fire through the accumulaton of glosses, commentaries, index cards, academic notes and comments, leaden observations, stodgy syntactical arrangements, filtered exegeses, pages and pages of dull and redundant prose?
wouldn’t it be better to plunge once and for all into the infinitude of the poem, accept the impenetrability of its mysteries and opacities, free your own language from the shackles of rationality, abandon it to the magnetic field of its secret attractions, encourage the wave of its expansion, admit plurality and simultaneity of meaning, purify the verbal incandecence, the flame and gentle cautery of its living love?

For Goytisolo’s work is indeed a strange series of images, dreams within dreams, mostly about some kind of moment of Armageddon – a plague which has struck the world, occasionally personified as a frightening giant of an old woman, and the members of a weird heretical sect – often to be found sitting and chatting on a hotel balcony, which is really a stage-set – who are being destroyed, melted, imprisoned, tortured and then finally taken to a sports stadium in the costume of birds to be publicly executed, all told by a narrator who occasionally is – or believes himself to be – the Spanish poet, St John of the Cross, who was similarly imprisoned and tortured.

Yes, but what’s it actually about? – It’s about the heterodox, those who have the temerity not to think what everyone around them’s thinking, and who are persecuted because of it.

And it’s told in a straight-forward manner, is it? – No, as I said, it’s told in a series of strange dream-like images, connected to one another by motifs, by the same individuals existing in different settings; that sort of thing. – Oh, and there’s no capital letters or full stops; but there are, thankfully, paragraph breaks and section breaks. (It reminded me a lot of Claude Simon: the constant shifting of scene – though clearer than Simon; in fact, to concentrate a little, it was easy enough not to get lost – and the long rolling sentences). – Yes, those long rolling sentences, we rather liked them.

I am looking forward to some more Goytisolo now.


7 thoughts on “The Virtues of the Solitary Bird, by Juan Goytisolo

  1. I’ve only read part of one Goytisolo novel; I guess I really ought to fix that one day. In the meantime, this one sounds even stranger than the ranting one I first attempted (my then even more limited Spanish made it tough to follow at times, hence the multi-year pause).

  2. I ought to say, it is quite avant-garde, but I didn’t find it too difficult: so long as you accept bewildering scene shifts with only vague connections between them. The writing though was very good (the above quote is a bit list-y – building synonym on synonym – and he can get like that, but they are well written lists) and I read it in only a couple of days. (It is quite short too).

    I also ought to say, I started this book once before – let us say, about eight years ago – and it put me off reading Goytisolo for a long time; but I think my mistake was, as it often is, that I started it, read 40 pages, left it alone for three months, and then when I came back hadn’t the slightest idea what was going on any more.

    Also, I don’t know where this particular novel fits in to the canon of Goytisolo: is it typical? Hopefully, stylistically, it is. I have Marks of Identity too, which I have an idea is regarded as his best novel.

  3. Only one I’ve read is Count Julian. Full of hatred, vituperation, sexual perversity, dirt, despair and general madness. Great stuff.

  4. Count Julian is part of a trilogy, of which Marks of Identity is the first episode – so I shall be getting on to it soon enough. (There was a copy of it in a secondhand bookshop nearby, but seems to have gone now). Sounds good from your description.

    Yes, there were winners (2011 – Antonine Maillet’s Pelagie, and 2012 – Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude; I forget the runners-up); but I’ve been thinking for the last 2-3 years of redesigning that page, perhaps with a nice table, so have never updated it.

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