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Interview with Juan Goytisolo

Juan Goytisolo is possibly Spain’s greatest living writer but one with a fraught relationship with his home country, to put it mildly. The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes once likened Goytisolo’s savage indignation and position as the perennial outsider to that of Jonathan Swift.

 

Goytisolo was born into a conservative, monarchist, Barcelona family in 1931. When he was seven years old, during the Spanish Civil War, his mother was killed in an air raid while out shopping. One brother, José Agustín, became a poet while the other, Luis, is now one of Spain’s most respected novelists. Goytisolo moved permanently to Paris in 1956, where he worked sporadically as a reader for Gallimard, assessing Spanish-language works and advising them what to publish. In France, mainly through his wife who was a writer and editor, he came to know Luis Buñuel, Sartre and de Beauvoir, Guy Debord, Camus, Raymond Queneau, Marguerite Duras and – especially – Jean Genet, who became a ‘moral, rather than literary’ mentor. Goytisolo has published over forty books, in various genres; his fiction, certainly since the 70s, is modernist in style and difficult to classify. He is best known for his journalism, memoirs, and the novels that make up the ‘Alvaro Mendiola’ trilogy published between 1966-75. Goytisolo has lived full-time in Morocco for nearly twenty years, dividing his time between Marrakech and Tangier. During the Arab Spring, aged 80, he travelled throughout the region reporting for El País.

 

We met last June at the old colonial Café de France on the Djema el-Fna, Marrakech’s historic central square, where he goes most evenings. As we walked back through the twisting streets of the medina to Goytisolo’s house he was greeted by countless vendors and friends, replying to them courteously in fluent Maghrebi Arabic. We sat in a cool, dark side-room off a central patio where two large motorbikes lay; on the side table between us was a photograph of Monique Lange, his late wife. Our conversation was broken only once, when we stopped to watch the laborious entry of Fakroun, his pet tortoise, looking for a corner to sleep in.

Q

The White Review

— A couple of years ago I read you saying you’d given up writing novels. Is that right?

A

Juan Goytisolo

—  Yes, I realised that I’ve already said practically everything I wanted to say. I’ve written one or two things lately, but I’m in no rush to publish. I brought out a little book of poems in Spain, nine in all, and I’ve written a few more since. I’ve two or three manuscripts I’m working on, but again, I’m in no rush. One, Zonas atávicas, is kind of an essay on the perception of homosexuality in the Islamic world and the other is a sort of hybrid text comprised of poetry, memoir, fiction and testament.

Q

The White Review

—  Why this recent urge to write poetry?

A

Juan Goytisolo

— Well, everything I’ve written since Count Julian is both poetry and prose, texts which can be read out loud, which were written out loud, paying careful attention to prosody, rhythm, etc. I don’t know if it comes out in English, but I’m lucky enough to have benefited from great translators such as Helen Lane and Peter Bush.

Q

The White Review

—  So you read your work out loud as you write?

A

Juan Goytisolo

— Yes. I’ve always valued intonation and reckon novelists should always be reading poetry. If they don’t, they produce a utilitarian prose, of terrible quality, that the public devour because all they want is action, or whatever. But for me this is not literature. We must make the distinction between a literary text and a published product. I’ve always written literary texts; I’ve had different priorities. I’ve never written to make a living, but have made a living in order to be able to write.

Q

The White Review

—  Is that something you learnt from Genet?

A

Juan Goytisolo

— Well, he had a phrase that I repeat often: ‘Difficulty is an author’s respect for the reader’, or rather, making him or her think, collaborate – the work is incomplete without the reader’s input.  A published product, on the other hand, is read, digested and dispensed with in the way that hamburgers are consumed in burger joints, and then shitted out.

Q

The White Review

—  Your wife, Monique, first introduced you to Genet. What was it about him that impressed you so much?

A

Juan Goytisolo

—  He was unique – I’ve never met anyone like him. His moral values were like those of an old Islamic sect, the Malāmatiyya, who cultivated malamah, reprobation. It was a sect that, to maintain hidden virtue, not to give in to vanity, behaved in a reproachable manner: namely, drinking wine in public, practising sodomy, etc. So the general public spurned them, and they maintained their concealed virtues and interior purity. There are parallels because he was a provocateur, but also had his moments of extraordinary sanctity.

Q

The White Review

—  It must have been around this time you met Guy Debord, too. His focus on marginality must have appealed to you.

A

Juan Goytisolo

—  I met him on my first visit to Paris, but I don’t remember the circumstances. By that time he already despised Sartre, Camus – he was a total radical. The Society of the Spectacle is the book that has best defined our age, even more so than Marx. Debord couldn’t stand Genet either, so when I became friends with him we stopped seeing each other. The break in our relationship was principally for this reason, but of course my youthful vanity and mingling in the ‘literary world’ played their part.

Q

The White Review

—  You’d call works such as Marks of Identity and Count Julian novels, yes?

A

Juan Goytisolo

— They’re novels, definitely. The novel is cannibalistic and can take in many other forms of writing: the essay, poetry, etc. This doesn’t apply to contemporary poetry, which can’t seem to maintain a narrative arc.

Q

The White Review

— When did the break happen with what you have termed the realism of your first novels? Was it with Marks of Identity, the first book in your ‘Álvaro Mendiola’ trilogy?

A

Juan Goytisolo

—  Yes, in the last pages of Marks of Identity I enter into the style of Count Julian, and then came Juan the Landless which I recently reedited to cut away nearly one hundred pages. Rereading is fascinating. I say that a literary work calls to be reread, which is why I’ve always looked for the greatest number of re-readers rather than the greatest number of readers. Every summer I reread two or three authors, Diderot, Flaubert, Tolstoy or what have you. What you read aged 80 isn’t the same as what you read at 30; I used to respond to the nihilism and passions in Dostoevsky over Tolstoy, but now I see that Tolstoy was much the greater artist.

Q

The White Review

— How do you select what you reread and what will you read this summer?

A

Juan Goytisolo

—  I wander around my library and pick something out. When I was 30 and first read Mateo Alemán’s Life of Guzman d’Alfarache I didn’t get it at all, taking it to be a Catholic tract. But now I find it, between the lines, totally agnostic and displaying an extraordinary nihilism towards society. I’ll probably be reading Joyce this summer, but I’m not sure. Finnegans Wake in English is a bit much for me, but maybe I’ll try Ulysses again.

Q

The White Review

—  What contemporary writers do you read?

A

Juan Goytisolo

—  I often receive parcels containing people’s first or second novel, but rarely have time to read them. I used to be able to read ten hours’ straight, but now my eyes get tired after four. I’m loathe to waste what time remains to me, but there are four or five younger writers I follow with interest. Javier Pastor, for example, whose Fragmenta I read in manuscript and found a publisher for, which can happen. That was the case with Manuel Puig, whose first book Betrayed by Rita Hayworth I recommended and chose the title for – the phrase was his, but I selected it. He was great at titles though: Pubis angelical

Q

The White Review

— One of the first interviews we published was with your old friend Jorge Semprún. How did you get to know him?

A

Juan Goytisolo

—  We worked on a cultural magazine together in Paris – in those times, because of his political activities, he went by the pseudonym Federico Sánchez; but later we found out who he was (I was never a Communist Party member, which is lucky because that means I’ve never become anti-Communist) and got to read the wonderful Le grand voyage. But his best book was Quel beau dimanche!, which is neither French, German or Spanish, but European.

Q

The White Review

— Do you believe in the idea of a national literature?

A

Juan Goytisolo

—  As Carlos Fuentes said: my nationality is cervantino, Cervantine. It’s absurd to make distinctions between national literatures. There are just bad things written in Spanish, and good things. I’ve a lot more affinities with Fuentes or Cabrera Infante than with Camilo José Cela or Miguel Delibes.

Q

The White Review

—  Your works, and those of your two brothers, have continually recreated episodes from your family history to give a window onto Spain and Barcelona of the 1930s and ’40s. Has this semi-obsession with the period ever surprised you?

A

Juan Goytisolo

—  Well, the Civil War cast a long shadow and the death of our mother was a great shock. Later, I hated the Francoist regime and from the age of about 18 decided that this Spain was not my Spain. I lost my faith, became obsessed with the idea of escape, and read only banned books, which I sought out from among my mother’s shelves or in the back rooms of bookshops.

Q

The White Review

—  You’ve written before that there’s no better reading experience than that of a banned book…

A

Juan Goytisolo

—  Oh yes, a book by Cabrera Infante has a lot more worth in Cuba than outside the country, for example…Censorship has the Midas touch – everything it infects turns to gold. Everything becomes politicised; censorship exists to get rid of politics, but in fact it achieves the reverse.

Q

The White Review

—  You taught yourself Catalan when living in Paris, but did your mother speak it?

A

Juan Goytisolo

—  She was bilingual Spanish/Catalan, and mostly read books in French. When she disappeared, Spanish became the only language of the house. I was taught practically nothing in the religious colleges I was sent to – I learnt French and English on my own, after I’d moved away.

Q

The White Review

—  At what point did you learn Arabic, and to what extent has Islamic culture influenced your work?

A

Juan Goytisolo

—  I tried to learn in Paris, but that was difficult; and in Tangiers, everyone spoke to me in Spanish or French. It was really here in Marrakesh that I started to learn. When I first came there wasn’t much tourism, and I pretended not to know French. I used to go to the square to listen to the storytellers…

Q

The White Review

—  Can you still find hlaykia, the traditional storytellers, here in Marrakech?

A

Juan Goytisolo

—  Not one. It’s been 40 years since the true storytellers died, leaving no heirs. I remember being here, in 1976, forcing myself to go and hear them on the square every day until I understood what they were saying. I became friends with one who looked like a medieval character from The Book of Good Love. They nicknamed him ‘Missile’ for being so tall, he had a huge belly and was hilarious, with an incredible verbal inventiveness.

 

I consider at least two of my works to be mudéjar, heavily influenced by Arab and Persian literature. The Virtues of the Solitary Bird, inspired by the mysticism of St. John of the Cross, and Quarantine, which requires a good knowledge of Muslim eschatology. I’ve learnt a lot about the Spanish language by learning spoken Arabic.

Q

The White Review

—  When the Arab Spring started in Tunisia you were one of the first to publically predict the same would happen in Egypt…

A

Juan Goytisolo

—  It was like all revolutions, which start with a great yearning for freedom. All those young people on the barricades, thinking they were going to create a democratic state within a short period, I said to them, ‘Look at Spain, from the first Constitution in 1812 until 1879 there was an absolutist monarchy, then a liberal monarchy, three civil wars, four dictatorships…’ In France it was the same, it started with the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man’, then came the Terror, the Directorate, and Napoleon as emperor. Creating democracy is a slow and circuitous process.

Q

The White Review

—  Do you see any solution to what’s happening in Syria?

A

Juan Goytisolo

—  No, and for a very simple reason (as things tend to be) that it is not in the United States’ interest for either side to win. So they are waiting for each to exhaust itself –sacrificing, in the process, the Syrian people. The mistake was not arming the opposition forces when they could have made a difference, and before their radicalisation.

Q

The White Review

—  Could popular uprisings happen here in Morocco, or Algeria?

A

Juan Goytisolo

—  Algeria suffered a terrible civil war in the 1990s. People don’t want anything to do with extremism. There were a few reforms here, some of them cosmetic, and free elections were allowed which were won by an Islamist party, but the king still holds most of the power.

Q

The White Review

—  Do you believe that literature created from the margins is always better than more popular, visible, forms?
A

Juan Goytisolo

—  I’ve always found a perspective from the periphery more interesting than one from the centre. I learnt this from the Christian converts in Spain, the Jewish conversos, who maintained a critical view of society because they were marginalised. (But of course there are also those who situate themselves at the centre of things are still great writers.) In spite of what they say, I’ve never promoted heterodoxy for its own sake, but to widen the traditional Spanish canon by rescuing what Arab culture, that of the Jews, the Enlightenment, the Illuminati, the freemasons and encyclopédistes have bestowed us. My mission has been to rescue all that’s been excluded for religious or ideological reasons.
 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


works for PEN International, The White Review and Asymptote.




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