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.