Juan Goytisolo (goy-tee-SOH-loh) is generally considered the greatest modern Spanish novelist. Unquestionably, he is Spain’s best-known and most acclaimed contemporary writer worldwide. Born in Barcelona on January 5, 1931, Goytisolo was an early witness to the cruelty and terrors of war. Catalonia was one of the strongholds of Loyalist resistance during the Spanish Civil War, and Goytisolo’s mother was killed in the Nationalist bombardment of its capital. After her death, the family fled the city and did not return until after the war. Ironically, Goytisolo’s parents had been strong supporters of Francisco Franco.
Goytisolo’s sympathies lay in the opposite direction. He and his brother Luis, also a prominent novelist, soon were labeled as leftist radicals by Franco’s police. At first, Juan studied law at the Universities of Madrid and Barcelona, but he abandoned the field to concentrate on his literary career. After the war, a new generation of writers such as Carmen Laforet Díaz, Ana María Matute, and Camilo José Cela, reacting against the perceived elitism and triviality of the prewar Spanish novel, desired to anchor the new narrative in a precise and painstaking description of social reality. Goytisolo, one of the founders of the important Turia literary group, was their spokesperson. His first two novels, The Young Assassins and Children of Chaos, are prime examples of the new realism. In both books, the plot centers on groups marked by the civil war and its aftermath. In The Young Assassins, spoiled adolescents try to rid themselves of their ennui by murdering a politician; in Children of Chaos, refugee children, playing among the carnage and destruction of war and inured to the suffering around them, try to imitate the actions of their elders. Neither group receives any sympathy from the reporter-like narrator, whose task is not to comment on events but simply to describe. Nevertheless, the narration cannot be called completely objective because of the cumulative effect of the carefully selected events and conversations. The net result is a relentless condemnation of Spanish society.
Goytisolo first placed his work in the objectivist school of Alain Robbe-Grillet, and he continued in this mold until 1963. Island of Women is perhaps the extreme example of this objectivist phase of Goytisolo’s technique. The Spaniard, however, disagreed with his French mentor in one crucial area. For Goytisolo, the very essence of the novel was its social and political implications. He could not accept a dispassionate, impartial depiction of reality. In any case, as Goytisolo insisted, given that any word could be considered threatening to the authorities, any writer living under a dictatorship could not help but be committed to his art.
Such a commitment also involved a dedication to the art of the novel itself. One of Goytisolo’s hallmarks as a writer has been the unceasing analysis and reevaluation of his work. This reassessment intensified after Goytisolo’s permanent move to Paris in 1956. His new freedom not only gave him the opportunity to write without censorship, but, together with his employment by the influential publishing firm Gallimard, also immersed him in the literary vanguard of the late 1950’s and 1960’s. Three major collections of essays, Problemas de la novela (problems of the novel), El furgón de cola (the caboose), and Disidencias (dissidences), testify to his growing interest in new theories and movements such as formulism and structuralism.
Goytisolo now believed that his previous narrative efforts had been inadequate. The publication of Marks of Identity in 1966 marked a break with his previous production and signaled his new tendency toward extreme textual manipulation. Marks of Identity , the first novel in the Mendiola...
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trilogy, is the fictional autobiography of Alvaro Mendiola, an exile, who returns to Spain and tries to discover his authentic identity by delving into the past. Alvaro’s psychological crisis is symbolized by the splitting of the narrator into separate personas. Not until the very end can Alvaro refer to himself as “I”; before the pronoun employed had always been “you” or “he.” It is significant that this reintegration is achieved only when the protagonist decides to return to France. The novel had begun with voices vituperating the exile for abandoning his country.
Marks of Identity presents a pitiless portrait of Spanish life, but Goytisolo, still not content, wished to destroy the very foundations of what he called “sacred Spain.” Count Julian, the novel that gained for him immediate international fame, is a bitter, venomous attack on not only the political and social structure but the entire cultural infrastructure as well. In his efforts to annihilate Spain’s national mythologies, Goytisolo reverses one of its most famous historical legends, that of the traitor Don Julian, who, infuriated at the rape of his daughter by the Visigothic king Rodrigo, betrayed his country to the Moors in 711. Yet in the eyes of the drug-smoking, exiled protagonist of Count Julian, the traitor is the hero. In his vindictive daydream, Don Julian invades and commits all manner of atrocities. Even the masters of Spanish literature, seen as collaborators in the hated mythology, are reviled and their work destroyed. Every cherished concept of decency and morality is ridiculed and desecrated. Everything must burn in the vengeful rite of purification without end, just as Count Julian, the novel, is one continuous monologue that has no end. There are no periods used for punctuation in the text.
In the last book of the trilogy, Goytisolo takes this nihilism to its absolute limit. If language is used as a tool of communication by the hated, dominant powers, then it too must be destroyed. In Juan the Landless, the final passages of Castilian are erased and replaced by Arabic.
The theme of Goytisolo’s work is Spain. His protagonists are all exiles, whether inside Spain or far from their native land. Their dilemma is the possession of an identity, a cultural heritage, which they scorn. In destroying Spain they also destroy part of themselves, but hope to find something new in the ashes.
Count Julian remains Goytisolo’s masterpiece. Critical reception of later work has been mixed, and criticism, which had been muted by the dazzling show of Goytisolo’s technical expertise, has again surfaced. Goytisolo has been accused of allowing his own personal obsessions with sadism and biological functions to dominate his work to the point of fetishism. Detractors have also underscored his vitriolic derogation of women. In reply, his many admirers have considered Goytisolo’s constant use of certain images and opinions a form of shock treatment, another deliberate device to repulse readers out of their complacency. All sides agree, however, on the power and originality of Goytisolo’s language.