Obituary: Jose Agustn Goytisolo

Elizabeth Nash
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:39

JOSE AGUSTIN Goytisolo, the eldest and best of three literary brothers, was a key figure in a group who revitalised lyrical poetry in the 1950s after civil war and Franco's dictatorship had crushed Spanish intellectual life.

"We were few, but we made a noise," he said about his fellow poets based in Barcelona, known as the "1950s generation". He called himself a "sniper from the left" in the dark days of Franco's rule when it was impossible for Spanish artists or writers to remain pol- itically neutral. He was imprisoned on several occasions.

Too young to have fought in the Civil War, he became a fierce anti-Francoist after his mother, Julia Gay, was killed in the Fascist bombardment of Barcelona in 1938, when he was 10. His family, prosperous Spanish-speaking Catalans, were devastated by the tragedy. Jose Agustn named his daughter Julia in memory of his mother.

He never joined a political party, although he - like his brothers, Juan and Luis - was close to the Communists and he considered his art as a political instrument. "There were no rules, everybody wrote what they wanted and the only things we had in common were the colloquial tone, the use of satire, the celebration of the city and the opposition to Franco's regime," the poet said of those early years.

Goytisolo studied at Barcelona University, then in Madrid, and graduated as a lawyer. As a student he flung himself into the hedonistic enjoyment of drink, tobacco and sex that he maintained throughout his life. His first work, El Retorno ("The Return"), published in 1955, showed his rebellious spirit. This was followed in 1956 by Salmos al Viento ("Psalms in the Wind") and in 1959 by Claridad ("Clarity"). In Algo Sucede ("Something's Happening", 1968), he restated the value of poetry as a political weapon.

Irony, sarcasm and a passionate defence of liberty ran through his work, all of which enjoyed huge popularity and was reprinted again and again. Best known is his poem "Palabras para Julia" ("Words for Julia") dedicated to his daughter and commemorating his mother, a tender encouragement to overcome bitter times and celebrate life.

"You can't go back / because life is already pushing you / with an interminable howl / You will feel trapped / you will feel lost or alone / sometimes you will wish you had not been born. / Never give up nor fall / by the wayside, never say / I can't do more, enough. / Life is beautiful, you'll see . . ."

The poem was set to music by the singer Paco Ibanez, and the two men toured the country in the mid-1990s to huge acclaim in a stage show entitled La Voz y la Palabra ("The Voice and the Word") in which the singer sang and the poet recited his works. He remained prolific up to his death.

Prone to depression, Goytisolo was reported to have committed suicide by throwing himself from his flat in Barcelona. But his wife and daughter said he had many projects in preparation and that, with his customary fussiness for domestic order, had been trying to mend a shutter when the fatal accident occurred.

Jose Agustn Goytisolo, poet: born Barcelona 13 April 1928; married Asuncin Carandell (one daughter); died Barcelona 19 March 1999.

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