Juan Goytisolo: The Spanish inquisition

The arch-heretic Juan Goytisolo has been enraging conservative and Catholic Spain for nearly 50 years. He talks to Gerry Feehily about culture and a state of siege
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The Independent Culture

It's easy to get lost in Marrakesh. The narrow, red alleys twist and turn, lead into cul de sacs where women hurriedly fix their headscarves, or where, retracing your steps, blacksmiths never seen before hammer horseshoes into shape, and, in front of an unknown mosque, a boy begs a pen and then, with a new pen in his hand, a euro.

Frazzled but exhilarated, the traveller by some miracle washes back up on the Place Djemaa el Fna, where storytellers and acrobats gather. It's here, at the Café de France, with a folded copy of El Pais for identification, that Juan Goytisolo, Spain's foremost living author, has arranged to meet. Over the phone he said his house was nearby, but a bit difficult to find.

As we set off, Goytisolo pulls aside for a barefoot youngster hurtling past on a moped. He slips a dirham to an old man in a blue djellaba squatting on the ground, battering a goatskin drum. "I've been living here permanently since 1997," he says, "but every day I suddenly stop what I'm doing and ask myself, 'What is this place? How did I get here?'"

He has come a long way, this writer born in Barcelona in 1931 to a wealthy family severely affected by the coming civil war. "My father, a monarchist, was imprisoned by the Republican government. In March 1938, the Francoists launched their first major air raid over the city: 800 people were killed, my mother among them."

"A son," as he puts it, "of the civil war", Goytisolo was stifled by the moral and intellectual climate of Franco's Spain, despite the warm reception for his first novel, The Young Assasins in 1954. "Prison isn't always necessary. Most writers of my generation didn't need to censor themselves. The repression had seeped within. Eventually I had to move on."

To Paris in 1956, where he frequented literary circles involved in opposition to the war in Algeria. Most crucially, however, he befriended the writer Jean Genet, whose play about Algeria, The Balcony, was causing riots. "Genet was like a Malamiti, one of those Sufi mystics who believed in order to attain moral perfection, one did everything to be despised, pride being the worst sin," he recalls. "He sang in praise of treason, homosexuality, the Algerian independence struggle, everything a provocation, but always with the deepest moral rigour."

With Genet he made his first trips to Tangier in the late Fifties, where he underwent a creative awakening. Goytisolo, as "the first Spanish author since the 12th-century Archpriest of Hita to speak a dialect of Arabic, a dialect spoken not more than 15km from the southern tip of Spain," launched a mortar across the strait with the 1966 publication of Marks of Identity, a novel that, in his own words, "dynamites coventional Spanish". Sexually explicit, a bitter denunciation of Francoist Spain, Marks of Identity was banned in his native country, like all his works until the dictator's death.

Later, in Count Julian (1970) and Juan the Landless (1975), he took his highly personal weave of autobiography and literary parody even further. "It's impossible to understand Spanish literature, this neo-Latin language, without taking into account Arabic literary models. In Count Julian, I celebrate the homosexual traitor who sold his land to the Moors, and reclaim that Moorish heritage, buried for centuries."

But to argue that Spanish identity begins not with the Reconquista and the Empire has wider implications. "How can Giscard d'Estaing seriously suggest that Europe is a Judaeo-Christian society?" Goytisolo asks. "I owe so much to the Parisian quarter of Sentier, a neighbourhood where over 40-odd years I saw successive waves of Jewish, Armenian, Turkish, Pakistani and African emigrants arriving. All I had to do was walk out of my door and see people from every continent, speaking every tongue."

By the early Eighties, he had perfected his Arabic, and had fallen in with a group of leftist Turkish exiles, fleeing the recent coup d'état in Turkey. "They were pro-Albanian. In the room where we met, portraits of Hoxha [the Communist dictator] hung everywhere. To doubt the perfection of Albanian society was a heresy as heinous as a Catholic doubting the intactness of the Virgin Mary. None of them had been to Albania, though. They argued they were not yet ready. One had to be in an ideological state of grace to attain to the perfections of Hoxha's Albania. Nevertheless, they were lovely people, and I learnt Turkish."

"A culture is the sum of the exterior influences which have enriched it," he continues. "Writers of Indian or Pakistani descent now revitalise the English novel. But in France, when I wrote Landscapes after the Battle in 1982, editors went apopletic when I dared imagine a Paris with the street signs in Arabic. But a culture which doesn't accept enrichment from marginal cultures is doomed."

With State of Siege, his latest novel to be published in the UK (translated by Helen Lane; Serpent's Tail, £7.99), Goytisolo deplores the siege of Sarajevo. "I made three visits in the Nineties," he says. "The second time, in 1993, the situation was even more horrible. The city was emptied of journalists, and still the Serb extremists kept up the slaughter from their artillery batteries, their snipers picking people off. Meanwhile, two hours away in Paris, life went on, oblivious."

The situation seemed even more surreal given the United Nations presence, there ostensibly to protect the civilian population. "Their white armoured cars became for me a symbol of hypocrisy and corruption. Not only did they reinforce the moral status quo by doing nothing, but they engaged in all forms of trafficking, the sale of icons, altarpieces, drugs. In January 1993, 1,350 mortars fell on the city. The government fired 38 back. Unprofor called this a balanced exchange of mortar fire. Totally complicit, the news agencies aided this neutralisation of reality."

It was here he decided to oppose the fictions of Western agencies with the truth of fiction. One of the novel's most startling sequences is where a siege takes place in the heart of Paris. "You've got to realise that for the citizens of Sarajevo, this crucible of culture, the situation was absolutely surreal. The notion there could be this medieval slaughter in their streets, that their libraries could be destroyed by Serbs claiming that a Muslim identity did not exist, was so unthinkable they thought they were going mad. To convey this enormity, I put the reader under siege." And his characters, too.

Opening with the death of a Spanish author (initials JG) by mortar fire as he observes the ruins of the city from his hotel, State of Siege introduces a Spanish Unprofor major, come to recover the body, finding only an empty room and a series of notebooks containing homoerotic poems and dream sequences. They not only allude to a latterday Malamiti who defecates in the Parisian streets, but also describe the death of the author whose body has disappeared. "State of Siege is a labyrinth, in the spirit of Cervantes and Potocki [author of The Saragossa Manuscript]. The commander discovers that he himself is a fictional character. Each time there seems to be a solution, an exit for the reader, it reveals itself as illusory."

It reveals also that the commander, rapidly losing his grip on reality, is a victim of a prank by a Muslim scholar working at the hotel's reception, a Christian author plagued by his own personal sniper, and a Jewish Hispanicist. But in disseminating fraudulent texts, "with the subtle weapon of the weak - the infinite variants of the word", this polyglot circle is soon hoist by its own petard. The final task of identifying the author comes down to the reader, ironically invited to assist in "the urgent task of the compiling of the material at hand and making of it a conventional novel".

With several narrators, several registers - ranging from the commander's officialese to Goytisolo's own vivid, fevered prose (powerfully captured by Helen Lane) - State of Siege is unified by a devastating image at its outset and close. A woman crawls for her life through the debris of Sniper's Alley. "I came to Sarajevo to understand war, which I had experienced unconsciously as a child. Of all the horrific things I saw, and there were several, this woman, with her black kerchief, dead in the snow, strangely remains the most terrible."

He puts his glass of mint tea down. We are sitting in his house, on a patio, which could be Spanish or Moorish. Beneath an orange tree a boy, the son of the family with which he shares the house ("my tribe" he says) is playing with coloured buttons. "It was said of Joyce that he transformed topography into typography. In the same spirit, State of Siege is a maze, as Sarajevo was then. The key to survival was to know your way around, otherwise you were picked off."

A few minutes later we go to Djemaa el Fna. Beneath the darkening red sky, musicians light gas lamps, belly dancers put on veils. Through the crowd, Juan Goytisolo spots a man in a white djellaba and turban, the lenses in his glasses so thick his eyes are specks. "He is the square's greatest storyteller," he says. "Like all the storytellers of Djemaa el Fna, my teacher, a Homer." The half-blind storyteller takes Goytisolo's hand, a handshake like a blessing. He kisses his knuckles, touches his heart. Behind us drums and hand cymbals clatter. Having been through the horrors of the 20th century, Juan Goytisolo might sometimes wonder how he got here - but this definitely seems like the right place.

Biography: Juan Goytisolo

Juan Goytisolo was born in Barcelona in 1931. His father was imprisoned by the Republican government during the civil war, while his Catalan mother was killed in the first Francoist air raid in 1938. After law studies, he published his first novel, The Young Assassins, in 1954. His deep opposition to Franco led him into exile in Paris in 1956, where he worked as a reader for Gallimard. Breaking with the realism of his earlier novels, he published Marks of Identity (1966) and Juan the Landless (1975). Like all his works, they were banned in Spain until Franco's death. Juan Goytisolo was married to the publisher Monique Lange, who died in 1996; he has lived in Marrakesh since 1997. This year he publishes three books in the UK: State of Siege (Serpent's Tail), a reprint of Forbidden Territory and Realms of Strife, his two-volume autobiography (Verso); and, next week, Cinema Eden, on Muslim-Mediterranean culture (translated by Peter Bush; Eland/ Sickle Moon).