Juan the Landless, by Juan Goytisolo

I didn’t finished Juan the Landless. I got about two-thirds of the way through, but found it by that time such a chore to read, that I found that – like say with Joyce’s Ulysses or Kafka’s The Trial – the only reason I could give to continue to the end would be at least to say I had read it.

Goytisolo died this year, and in one of the obituaries I read, it was remarked that his body of work demonstrated an astonishing variety. Now it is true, the author of this piece had read a lot more of his earlier work than I; I have only read in this respect his Marks of Identity, which is his emergence from this period (I’m not sure much else pre-Marks of Identity is published in English); but on the contrary, my experience of Goytisolo – in particular contrast to Vallé-Inclán, for instance – is that he’s one of those writers all of whose books are exactly the same; and not merely that, my experience of reading them too is exactly the same. For I always start out swiftly reading the first 50-70 pages, thinking it all marvellous; and then I put the book aside, and when I pick it up again, I’ve lost the thread, and the whole thing becomes just the most terrible struggle.

Juan the Landless is the third in a loose trilogy which starts with Marks of Identity, and seems to presage Goytisolo’s entire later style where he just rants about vaguely connected stuff to the reader and calls that a novel. There’s usually a character and a plot in there somewhere, but they’re often difficult to locate or understand. These rants tend to consist of a denunciation of Spain, capitalism and western society in general, and an embracing of Islam and homosexuality (two things which in Goytisolo’s mind seem to go together). Sometimes this ranting, and the mad ideas accompanying it, is enjoyable: I liked the piece in this book, for instance, where tourists come to Spain not to watch bull-fights but heretics being burnt. But after a bit it, I find, it all gets too much.

I also read earlier in the year Landscapes After The Battle, about a quartier of Paris which is in the process of becoming an Islamic state, for which the above description of Juan the Landless would also suffice.

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Marks of Identity, by Juan Goytisolo

Marks of Identity seems to be Goytisolo’s most highly admired novel, but frankly I was a bit disappointed by it – I think, because it is not entirely mad like The Virtues of the Solitary Bird. In fact, aside from the first few pages, which Goytisolo was no doubt intending to ward off anyone who might casually have picked the book up in a bookshop, it could be described as more or less normal. Fine, it jumps around a lot in time and place, and switches between one story and another (all the kind of “tricks” of discontinuity I don’t like, in fact), but really it is a simple, coherent story about a rich boy living through the Spanish Civil War and the early years of Franco’s regime, who rebels against his upbringing, against Franco’s Spain, and then against Spain itself (he’s particularly not impressed by its tourist trade), eventually determining to erase all such marks of identity.

As such it fits into that popular Spain-language genre, the novel of exile; and is a worthy enough contender. I can’t think of another offhand which is better. There’s some particularly good writing at times – what I’m inclined to see as its more Faulknerian moments; but there’s a lot of pretty dull passages too (all that police surveillance stuff, for instance).

Still, I shall continue on with the trilogy. Count Julian next, which I’m hoping will be more unhinged.

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.