A Cock-Eyed Comedy, by Juan Goytisolo, trans. Peter Bush

Amanda Hopkinson hails the satirical, subversive Spain

Saturday 12 October 2002 00:00

Anyone who can remember the dark days of the Franco regime can recall something of the neo-medieval cult of mystery and authority that cloaked the Generalissimo. How better to forestall any international interest in, say, the fate of Republican prisoners than by a panoply of government spokesmen whose task was to obfuscate? Franco's style was well-suited to a Catholic church that had, by dint of its zeal in forming the Spanish Inquisition, been rewarded by the Vatican with the unique authority to appoint its own bishops.

For 35 years, Franco played on that nationalism, both by controlling appointments and via the unique network established by Jose Maria Escrivá, founder of the right-wing Opus Dei movement. Franco wished to return the Church to the "pure" state of 1492: when Iberia's diverse regions were "unified" by Ferdinand and Isabella, and purged of Jewish and Moorish "infidels".

Jews and Arabs are, of course, among the subjects that most interest Juan Goytisolo in his literary pursuits. In choosing to draw out this strand in the composition of Spain, Goytisolo again sides with the underdog rather than the protagonist. His theme in A Cock-eyed Comedy may be "the Opus" – as it's referred to in Spain – but its works are dissected by a time traveller, a member of the organisation named Father Trennes.

Moving across five centuries of European history, this narrator converses with the voice of Guzman de Alfarache, protagonist of a late 15th-century picaresque novel by the Jewish "converso" Miguel Alemán; with Jose Maria Blanco White, an 18th-century Irish Hispanic who wrote in two languages but abandoned both his roots for a post at Oxford, Unitarianism and a campaign to emancipate the colonies; and with Severo Sarduy, the 20th-century Cuban author whose poetry combines bawdiness, the baroque and Buddhism.

What Father Trennes, the above figures, and a cast that extends to embrace the more familiar characters of Barthes, Genet and Lorca, have in common is complex gender and sexuality. The novel is hard-pressed to include a natural woman, on the flamboyant assumption that the only "real" woman is a transvestite. At times, such as during the lengthy inventory of "My Saints and their Works", the list becomes tedious. So do the blasphemous escapades of the swashbuckling prankster Lanzarillo de Tormes, protagonist of (supposedly) the first novel written in Spanish.

The point of a picaresque tale is to be found in its often scurrilously sacrilegious anecdotes. Goytisolo's differs only in that it travels across centuries as well as countries.

Not one of the books in Goytisolo's long and important bibliography have conformed to conventions of the novel in any recent incarnation. His brand of blended history, legend, imagination and autobiography; his characters drawn from life and literature; and his juxtaposition of religion and sacrilege, politics and subversion, convention and culture, is always both erudite and humorous. His specific targets may, in the year of the Opus Dei founder's canonisation, be Escrivá and his version of Catholicism – but Goytisolo is as corruscating in his criticisms of the other 20th-century creeds, Communism and psychoanalysis.

Goytisolo is a free spirit, an unabashed libertine, who wishes to restore our faith only in another Spain – that of the counter-culture forever practised in alternation, or in tandem, with the repression of autocratic monarchs and religious hypocrites. This work of parody is intended not only to subvert but to enlighten. By using the Latinate language of the Church, Goytisolo is at one with Apuleius, Boccaccio and Villon. He goes beyond merely a demolition job on "the Opus", resurrecting libidinous ribaldy along with anticlerical sentiment.

Goytisolo is a Catalan who writes in Castilian, speaks flawless French and Arabic, lives in Marrakesh, and reads voraciously. Such literary voracity places fierce demands on any translator. In Peter Bush, Goytisolo has found one not only familiar with all his own works but well-versed in those to which he pays homage.

Of all the varieties of couplings in A Cock-eyed Comedy, there's no better match than that between the translation and the original.

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