Saturday, September 01, 2007

Juan Goytisolo: Count Julian

The original Spanish title of Juan Goytisolo's novel, Reivindicación del conde don Julián, is clearer about what the novel is about. In English it means Vindication of Count Don Julian. Count Julian (link to wikipedia) was an actual historical figure who sided with the moors in their invasion of Spain in the eighth century to settle some personal scores with the king. For this reason he is also considered a traitor in Spain.

This novel's relationship with the historical figure of Count Julian is a little tenuous. The book is collection of fragmented thoughts, daydreams, fantasies, drug induced hallucinations and surreal acts of a mysterious figure, who is also the narrator, but who addresses himself in second person, thus making it impossible to find out whether he is really doing something or just fantasizing about it. All of his daydreams and hallucinations remain fixated around his native country and culture from which he has been exiled and estranged. But this is no display of nostalgia or longing for returning back home or celebrating a lost childhood. It is actually the exact opposite. This is where the historical Count Julian comes in. Most of his fantasies are about ways to exact a terrible revenge on his country and in his dreaming he identifies himself as the traitor Count Julian. This book is structured just like those one-day-in-the-life-of novels of Joyce and Woolf. We follow the character from the time he wakes up to the time he goes to sleep, thinking of another day, doing the same thing over again.

From the time he wakes up in the morning he has already started on his daydream of destruction. His own plan of invasion and destruction of Spain differs drastically from Count Julian however. He is more interested in desecrating the cultural and religious icons than actually capturing lands and overrunning governments. The stoic philosopher Seneca is singled out for a particularly harsh criticism and parody. The religious sentiments and catholicism on which the Spaniards so pride themselves are also mercilessly parodied and ridiculed. Most of it reads like a mad man's unrestrained blasphemous tirade. Goytisolo is particularly skilled in parodistic skills. I think it wouldn't be an exaggeration to compare him to Joyce and Nabokov, two other masters of high-brow literary parody. For example this from a passage where Seneca expresses his desire for retirement from the role of the spiritual guide for the Spaniards and how people in turn express their feelings towards him (I am omitting the peculiar paragraph structure of the book):

I'm thinkin of telegraphin him to tell him I got down on my knees and prayed to the Blessed Virgin to make him change his mind: the way I look at it, she's got no reason atall to leave him in the lurch at this stage of the game, seein as how she's given him a helpin hand his whole life long: he just can't throw in the sponge and leave us flat like that: me and all the millions of guys wo watch him eyes as big as saucers on afternoons when there's corrida: he's tops in our book: it'd be a catastrophe for us ordinary folks if he quit on us: we wouldn't have a think left to live for

my poetry is essentially intimist verse: that is to say, it is by and large inspired by emanations from the depths of my being, by my conception of the world as shaped by my own personal experiences, by the joy I find in savoring my own self: it is a sort of continuous dialogue tat I carry on with my soul, which sometimes discusses my queries at length, and at other times remains stubbornly silent when I try to coax an answer out it
do you intend to vote?
do you care to say anything further in this regard?
my vote will be an unqualified YES

In an earlier episode he visits the local library with a bagful of dead insects and befouls the books by crushing those insects on their pages. All again described in really colourful ways. The only problem was that I didn't know anything about the particular books he chooses but from the description and the general tone of the novel it is clear that he is not fond of any book or in general any cultural symbol which smacks of cultural "purity" or are exploited as the source of ethnic-nationalistic pride. (He does mention an al capone prize in literary excellence that is awarded to many of these books he is desecrating.) It is not just books, writers or religious figures which annoy him. He is not too fond of the Spanish landscape and flora and fauna either:
down with you, rustling elms, chaste poplars, dark majestic oaks!: your mystical aureole is fading: your leaves are suddenly turning yellow, a secret, shameful disease is poisoning your sap: your bare felled trunk totters and falls: you are now nothing but vegetable skeletons, charred stumps, sad remains doomed to combustion and decay: you need not expect any elegy from me: I rejoice at your ruin: let the bards of the steppes celebrate your demise in tearful sentimental verses: your heart knows no pity: your only response will be a burst of derisive laughter: growing tired of lopping off branches and chopping up trunks, you will aim the yellow stream of your disdain at their mutilated corpses.

His tirades and fantasies are not always funny. There are episodes of extreme violence and grostequerie which are more confounding, if not frightening, than humorous or risible. Like in the sequences where he imagine Arab hordes overrunning his country and raping women and pillaging everything on their way:
Tariq's hosts are awaiting your signal to fling themselves upon her and force open the portals of the ancient temple
you will whip her soundly, with swift unerring strokes, and will impassively witness the efficacious touch of their lips, open like a fresh wound, and the reptilian ecstasy of their pitilessly cruel asps
the futile struggle of the damsel who protests her innocence, pleads for mercy and forgiveness, before modestly yielding to her torturers and finally submitting, with bestial docility to their stubborn, imperious cobras
and in ringing, forcible tones, you will address them thus
hearken to my words
you Arabs with vulgar members, coarse rough skin, clumsy hands, greedy mouths
prepare your poison-filled needle
virgins made fecund by long centuries of modesty and decency are impatiently awaiting the horn-thrust
their tender thighs, their soft breasts are crying out to be attacked, to be bitten
leap at the opportunity
violate the sanctuary and the grotto, the citadel and the cavern, the bastion and the alcazar
penetrate the hollow mercilessly
the Cunt, the Cunt, the Cunt!

(The book has an epigraph from Sade just in case anyone was wondering about the literary lineage.) There are innumerable passages like these. In another place he is thinking about some way to inflect the whole country with Syphilis. The basic theme is obvious- relentless negation of anything that can be used as a source of Spanish identity. It is also not a negation of a country or a people, but rather a national and ethnic identity, part of narrator's own self. Only through this act of spiritual violence, destruction and negation he can hope to free himself and find a new identity among the people of a different culture. He expresses his own views about language and national identity many times in the book:

soaring falcon, noble Poet, come to my aid: bear me aloft to the realm of more luminous truths: one's true homeland is not the country of one's birth: man is not a tree: help me live without roots: ever on the move: my only sustenance your nourishing language: a tongue without a history, a hermetic verbal universe, a shimmering mirage: a lightning bolt or a scimitar: the Word freed after centuries of bondage: the illusion of the bird who flies into the canvas to peck at the painted grapes: language-as-transparency, language-as-reflection...

All of this will make sense only when one is familiar with his biography and the modern Spanish history, specially the fascist rule of Franco and the persecution of artists and intellectuals. Goytisolo, a child of the civil war, lived all his life in exile in France and Morocco. He feels particularly at home in the Islamic culture with its local traditions and cultures. It is also for this reason that he is incensed at the official Spanish cultural tradition defines itself as free of Islamic and Jewish impurities which are considered foreign and baneful and disposable legacies of history. (I am also reminded of Don Quixote which deals with Moorish cultural issues in a very humourous manner. Specially the character of Cid Hamete Benengeli (or "Sayyid Hamid Eggplant", interesting how the hindi word Baingan is so similar) the Moorish historian, who Cervantes says is the original author of the book and that his version is based on the translation of the original book. Some of it may be considered racist by today's standards but I think it is one of the funniest and earliest depictions of cross-cultural literary communication.)

All the while when I was reading the book I was also thinking of Luis Bunuel who shares the same biographical trajectory and the same artistic and political sensibility, sometimes uncannily so. (There is no doubt there are more artists and intellectuals too but Bunuel is perhaps the most widely known outside Spain.)

Finally a note about the style. As the extracts above would have shown the book is written in a highly experimental style. It is as if a straight-forward mimetic style were a kind of selling out to the standard literary tradition too! The only complain, and this is aimed at the reader and not the writer, is that the book assumes an extensive and in-depth familiarity with Spanish history and cultural traditions which I don't think many amateur non-Spanish readers would have. This might be one of the reasons why he is not so well-known outside Spain. I though the translation by Helen Lane was extremely competent given the difficulties of getting all the word plays and parodistic tone right in a foreign language. In fact after a long time a book forced me to look up a dictionary so many times, almost every second page. There are words like "fustigate" and "telluric" on almost every page. I am not much into bullfighting either so I guess that was the reason why I had never come across words like "toreador," "tauromachy" and "taurine." There are also many technical words and phrases which would have pleased Nabokov ("dipteral and hymenopteral hecatomb"). There is a passage where he takes us on a surreal tour of the female anatomy ("the infernal cavern"). The book ends with a notice of acknowledgements which lists the entire Spanish canon I think. He says this work was written in posthumous and unwitting collaboration of all these people! In short a wonderful book, if a little tough and challenging.

Not much of secondary material on the internet. I had linked a few in my last post. Kubla Khan who nudged me in this direction writes about Marks of Identity, the first book in the trilogy. Count Julian is the second. Also see the page on complete review with reviews of his more recent books.


KUBLA KHAN said...

I must say that it is a great post. it is not easy to write about Goytisolo, for two, that his books demand a good working knowledge of spanish history, literature etc and second, his language is not easy, a subject we have discussed earlier.
however, it is not just the subject but the beauty of his prose that holds me in awe. i think it is important to read more diffuse and difficult narratives, especially with psychological imperatives and from that point, Goytisolo is important reading.
that said, why he is not as famous as the other spanish language writers is easy to understand. Goytisolo is a rebel, an anti imperialist, an infant terrible in spain. any writer who actually does what he preaches suffers.
i have not read Count julian yet. i am reading the first novel of this trilogy and have his makbara and essays. will post on those in the future.
to end, a very good post, for it is not always language that matters but the effort.

Alok said...

Hi kubla, thanks for the nice words...

I did find it very difficult to write about the book, that is, after finding it equally difficult to read it. But it was really great overall.

From what I read elsewhere about him he has quite a following in France and Spain and his essays on diverse subjects appear regularly in mainstream newspapers there. He has been to the major war zones like Bosnia and Chechnya and has written reportage from there. Not something that is common for writers of his stature and reputation.

Also from his background and political views it seems he should have a lot of interesting things to say about multiculturalism in europe, specially its relationship with Islam. I think continental europe as a whole is certainly much more tolerant of radical and dissenting voices than the anglo-american world. may be that's the reason why we don't hear his name much in this part of the world.

KUBLA KHAN said...

You are right about the toleration of dissent in Europe, in opposition to WASP culture.
i think another factor is this.....critics and literary magazines...don't they have a mill to grind?
yes, Goytisolo is popular after all. i am going to start reading his war reportage essays from Bosnia and Algeria and will let you know how i find them!

Anonymous said...

i have just finished reading this text in spanish, and found your analysis quite useful.