In June last year the Spanish novelist Juan Goytisolo (interviewed in The White Review in 2014) died in Marrakesh, his home for decades. While his reputation never waned in the Spanish-speaking world, his name hardly holds the currency it did in the 1970s when V. S. Pritchett could write, in the New Yorker, ‘It is natural that Goytisolo should immediately bring Joyce, Malcolm Lowry, Beckett and even Nabokov to mind . . . he is fully worthy to be considered among the major innovators of our time.’ Many of Juan Goytisolo’s best-known novels, such as Marks of Identity and Count Julian, appropriate autobiographical material, national history and myth to subvert and explode notions of a unified Spanish culture fostered under the dictatorship of General Franco. With his early works banned in Spain until after Franco’s death, he went into self-imposed exile in Paris, and later Morocco.
Juan Goytisolo’s brothers – the poet José Agustín and novelist Luis – remained in their homeland, where their work is held in equally high regard. Recounting, by the youngest sibling Luis – the opening novel of his vast tetralogy Antagony – is his first to be translated into English. He began writing it in 1960, but due to a short period of imprisonment and censorship the book finally appeared in Mexico City in 1973; the whole tetralogy was completed in 1981. Although not widely translated (due to cost and complexity, we can assume: it numbers over one thousand closely-printed pages in the collected volume), Antagony’s status is such that, for the 2017-18 period, it became the required course text for students of Spanish in all French universities, replacing Don Quixote.
Recounting chronicles the early life of Raúl Ferrer Gaminde. The book hews more closely to realism than most of Juan Goytisolo’s, but is similarly a roman à clef replete with autobiographical detail. It opens with the Nationalist victory in 1939 over the Republican ‘Reds’ and extends through the early decades of the dictatorship. Ferrer, growing up in a privileged, conservative household in Barcelona, soon loses his religion; he does military service, joins the Communist Party (initially seen as the most viable opposition to Franco) and is later imprisoned for his political associations. The dithering, spendthrift, father figure in Recounting is indistinguishable from that of Juan Goytisolo’s autobiography Forbidden Territory. In both accounts the family fortune was made by a slave-owning great-grandfather in Cuba; both books feature a paedophilic older relative and an absent mother figure – in real life theirs was killed on Luis’s third birthday, in 1938, by an Italian Fascist air-raid in the service of Franco, while she was out shopping for presents.
Certain parallels might be drawn between the Goytisolo and Mann brothers, and Antagony bears comparison with Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks in its monumental canvas, mapping the decline of an upright industrial lineage. The petty family snobberies are the same, the wealth and moral rectitude gradually leached away under the deleterious inbreeding of artistic tendencies – personified by the mother – with stolid bourgeois values: the father. In his essay ‘A Family Reading of Antagony’ (1982), Juan Goytisolo confirms the autobiographical precision of Luis’s novel, even claiming that their family’s asphyxiating mediocrity was the wellspring for their mutual vocation as writers. But Recounting (which can also be translated as ‘retelling’) is clearly a novel, one in which the narrator grapples with discourse through which, as Raúl states, ‘one has the sensation of configuring, with nothing more than words, a reality far more intense than the reality which all literature pretends to witness or replicate.’ Indeed, in Recounting, each restitution or retelling of events offers fresh interpretations of Raúl’s past, and often ones that artfully kick sand over past selves and assumptions.
While Raúl Ferrer’s home life is marked by the observation of saints’ days, Mass, town fiestas, afternoon teas and long summers at the country house north of the city, his clandestine Communist cell attempts to mobilise the student body to their cause, instil class consciousness among disenfranchised Andalusian migrant workers, and foment civil disobedience towards a general strike to topple the regime. Evading police surveillance, night by night Raúl and his friends trawl the jazz caverns, flamenco bars and brothels off Las Ramblas; later, becoming disillusioned with all dogmas, and sensing his vocation as a writer, he breaks with the Party while continuing to pursue an on/off relationship with the woman he will eventually marry.
If disparaging of narrow Catalan nationalism, the narrator emphasises the age-old standoff with Castile, the ‘impotent animosity that the central power has always manifested toward Catalonia… antipathy, the envy that all things Catalan have always inspired’. Recounting is in many ways a pained love song to Barcelona: ‘prostituted city, city of leisure pursuits and occupations, of political ambitions and courtesan hopes, prisons and gallows, lost glories.’ The social panorama is interspersed with aerial views of the town as seen from the surrounding elevations of Montjuïc or Tibidabo. The book’s most affecting passages are its meandering digressions into Catalan history, its inscriptions of personal cartographies; within an architectonic structure lie remarkable set-pieces on the city’s topography, whose details accrue like blueprints for memory itself. Over the remaining volumes of Antagony, Goytisolo extends his project of retelling: narrators – who often resemble Raúl Ferrer/the author – come and go, casting new light on previous events much in the manner of Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet. The second instalment appears this summer: we are fortunate that Brendan Riley has undertaken the herculean task of translating the entire series.