In the circle of deceit and delight

<i>The Garden of Secrets</i> by Juan Goytisolo, trans. Peter Bush (Serpent's Tail, &pound;14.99, 150pp)
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The Independent Culture

When Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned in the Tower of London, he decided that the time had come to write his history of England. Then, the story runs, a brawl erupted in the quad. He enquired what had happened of four guards. Receiving four incompatible replies, he jettisoned his project. If no one could agree on an event minutes earlier, how could anyone compile a history going back a thousand years and more with any objectivity?

When Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned in the Tower of London, he decided that the time had come to write his history of England. Then, the story runs, a brawl erupted in the quad. He enquired what had happened of four guards. Receiving four incompatible replies, he jettisoned his project. If no one could agree on an event minutes earlier, how could anyone compile a history going back a thousand years and more with any objectivity?

When Juan Goytisolo came to write this fictional history of Falangist-Republican struggle in 1930s Spain, he chose one man - a friend and fellow poet of Lorca's who may never have existed - as his vehicle. Or he may have existed as the alternating character of Eugenio, Emilio or Eusebio. Or perhaps only in the minds of the "Readers' Circle", who resurrect him for their narrative - all 28 of them, identified by letters of the Arabic alphabet, each with their own memory to recount.

The author is located an "invention" of the 28. He is given "a rather fancy Iberian-Basque surname, Goitisolo, Goitizolo, Goytisolo", at times adding the common name of Juan and the nickname "Lackland, the Landless, the Baptist, the Apostle". The nicknames cross-refer to some of the 30-odd books Goytisolo has published. But if the characters are as elusive as their authors, is there a clue in the book's title? It alludes to the most famous Arab fable of them all. The 1001 Nights avers that "the most beautiful garden is a cupboard filled with books".

While this slim volume is crowded with pleasure gardens and courtyards blooming with orange blossom and jasmine, laden with fruit and fountains, it is equally as crammed with books. And with asides to their authors: Padilla and Potocki, Wilde and Sterne, Quevedo and Cervantes - who, like Shakespeare, spelled his name variously, and who has been claimed by protagonists of every religion and of none.

To read Goytisolo's library helps to situate this book at the summit of his work. All his favoured themes are here: travel, especially to the heart of a beloved country; politics, and the legacy of colonialism; sexuality, and the ambiguities of gender; class, and the desire to escape a caste system that has kept Goytisolo outside his native Barcelona for 30 years.

Above all there is story-telling, whether that of Don Quixote or of the Djemaa el Fna - the "storytellers' square" in Goytisolo's home of Marrakech. The relationship between the written and spoken word is akin to that between Raleigh's notion of a definitive history and his guards' various accounts. We, the present readers, can only be grateful that the fictitious Reading Circle saw fit to alliterate this invented history of the Spanish Civil War for our entertainment and edification.

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