Spain: the world to come

December 17, 2012

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I met book blogger Alastair Savage at the Guardian First Book Awards ceremony a few weeks back. We were both there because we’d been on the team of reader-reviewers asked to help vet some of the contenders for the readers’ shortlist entry. As neither of us knew many people there, we got chatting, and when I discovered Savage lived in Barcelona it struck me that he might be just the person to help me solve one of the last major choosing conundrums on my list: Spain.

I’d been puzzling over what to read from the country for months. While the Spanish recommendations had been nowhere near as numerous as those for India, I was very conscious that the titles on the list represented a drop in the ocean of the amazing literature out there. I asked Twitter what I should do a few times but, while I did have some good responses, there was nothing conclusive.

For a long time Edith Grossman’s translation of Miguel de Cervantes’s 17th century classic Don Quixote was a hot favourite. But while I was intrigued by it – and (pretty) confident that, having got through UlyssesAmerican Gods and A Providence of War this year, I could take it in my stride – I couldn’t help feeling that reading it might be a missed opportunity in terms of this project. Don Quixote was so well-known as to be almost stateless; I was keen to see what else Spain had up its sleeve.

Alastair Savage didn’t hesitate. I should read something by Juan Goytisolo, he said – and when he started to tell me about the writer, I couldn’t help agreeing. Living in voluntary exile from Spain in Marrakech, Goytisolo has carved out a niche as something of a malcontent and critic of his homeland. His most famous work, Count Julian, takes traditional Spain apart from the inside by giving an account of events that favours one of the country’s most notorious traitors. However, it was the notion of the author’s self-imposed separation from his home country that intrigued me, so when I discovered that one of his most recent novels is titled Exiled from Almost Everywhere I decided to read it.

Opening with the terrorist bomb blast that kills its main character, the novel portrays the afterlife of ‘the Monster of Le Sentier’, an unprepossessing character who in life spent his time hanging around public toilets looking for children to molest. Blown into the ‘virtual universe’ of the beyond (represented in his case by an empty cybercafe), the protagonist continues to receive emails from people in the real world and enters into a series of exchanges and experiences with extremists that show up the hollowness, contradictions and strangeness of consumerism and politics.

Just as the protagonist is exiled from life, so Goytisolo distances the novel from many narrative conventions. Moving from one short, loosely connected vignette to the next, the text frustrates readers’ attempts to find continuity and consistency in it. Emails from strangers lambast, exhort and attempt to con the main character; dreams blur with reality; and the narrator frequently steps out of the action to remind us of the ‘suspect nature of writing’. Indeed, reading the book often feels like browsing the internet, clicking from one unsubstantiated and dubious website to the next by way of a series of chance connections and interlinking search terms.

Irreverent and unapologetic for the book’s inconsistencies and contradictions – at times even pointing them out – the narrative sets out some delightfully quirky and provocative ideas. From the cross-dressing imam ‘Alice’, who moonlights as a stripper, to the vision of a hereafter in which you ‘can just as easily find yourself in a cybercafe the size of an Olympic stadium as floating in the weightlessness of space, or helplessly trapped in a traffic jam with an objectionable Madrid taxi driver for company’, there is a devil-may-care flamboyance to the writing that makes it engrossing.

The narrative’s organic and often random feel, however, will grate on some readers. While Goytisolo is careful to set out his stall early on with the observation that ‘the genes determining the static identities and solid characters that peopled the world of your childhood no longer parallel the discoveries made by science’ and that therefore shouldn’t ‘the astonishing innovations at work in the field of genetics be applied to the novel’, the practical implications of shape-, gender-, ethnicity- and dimension-shifting characters make for a rather giddy ride.

Overall, though, it’s hard not to admire Goytisolo’s achievement. In 135-odd pages, he manages to take on not only the whole world but the world to come too. The result is a queasy-making, yet compulsive vision of a jaundiced present, in which eclecticism and specificity are both kill and cure.

Exiled from Almost Everywhere (El exiliado de aqui y alla) by Juan Goytisolo, translated from the Spanish by Peter Bush (Dalkey Archive Press, 2011)

This book was recommended to me by Justin at the African Books Collective when I dropped by the their stall at the London Book Fair back in April. I’m glad he brought it to my attention as the subject matter and cover – which makes the book look a bit like a self-help manual – mean that I probably would never have chosen it on my own.

Written by Dr Mardia Stone, a Liberian obstetrician and gynaecologist living in the US, the book is an account of her homosexual half-brother Konkai’s diagnosis and struggle with AIDS in the late eighties and early nineties. Charting her sibling’s decline and death back in the days when very little was known about the killer disease, Stone confronts her and her family’s fears and prejudices, weaving in and challenging the attitudes to homosexuality that she and her relatives grew up with in Liberia and discovering a capacity for love that breaks down social barriers.

Stone’s unflinching honesty and direct style make the book. From reflections on death and mortality through to confessions of her and her other siblings’ tendency to laugh at their brother and sweep his sexuality ‘under the carpet’ in the years before his illness, the book is fearlessly frank as well as touching and tender. At times this can make for shocking reading, as when Stone writes about Konkai’s deliberate promiscuity without protection after his diagnosis when his anger and pain were at their peak.

Stone’s frankness  also paves the way for some refreshingly open discussion of the approach to homosexuality in many African countries: ‘You will sometimes hear African people say that Africans, for the most part, are not homosexuals because culturally or traditionally most Africans know nothing about homosexuality. [...] It is still taboo in many countries. Yet, I have seen a number of African homosexuals living “in” and “out of the closet” in Africa,’ she writes. Indeed, as Stone explains in her preface and again at the end of the book, a large part of her motivation for writing her brother’s story came from a sense that, because of this reticence, ‘Africans themselves are not writing their stories, everybody else is writing for them’.

In addition to its personal and cultural discussions, the book is also a valuable documentation of a key moment in the history of modern medicine. Having been a hospital doctor in New York during the eighties, Stone writes powerfully about the fear she and her colleagues felt when they first encountered patients with the newly discovered HIV/AIDS virus. Her account of her first exposure to a pregnant woman with the disease is particularly compelling:

‘The woman was immediately isolated. A stack of disposable gowns, masks, shoe covers, gloves and hats were placed in front of her room door. No one dared to enter without being properly suited. We looked like astronauts ready to enter a space shuttle every time we entered her room wearing our protective biohazard suits. Some of us even doubled [sic] gowned, double booted and wore triple hats and masks. We were that fearful. None of us wanted to go into her room alone so we always arranged to see her in pairs or as a group.

‘In the course of caring for our patient, I had to draw her blood. The very thought of this routine procedure was terrifying. [...] Terrified, I searched for a fellow resident to assist me, hold my hand and give me encouragement. No one agreed and no one was ‘available’. Even the nurses seemed to be on the snail track to Timbuktu, and because I had a heavy load of over twenty patients that day, I put on my brave face and with a brave heart entered the room alone, in my space suit.

[...]

‘”You people make me feel like a demon,” [the woman] said in response. “Why do you treat me this way? I may have AIDS, but I am a human being. I feel bad enough already and I am hurting because I may lose my baby. Is there no compassion left in any of you?”‘

Occasionally, the directness of the writing leads to assertions that some readers will find uncomfortable. In particular, the discussion of Konkai’s early abuse as a child by a young adult in Liberia and the role this may have played in the development of his identity and sexuality, while no doubt worth exploring, is muddy and at points seems to conflate homosexuality and paedophilia. However, as this seems at odds with Stone’s views elsewhere in the book, it’s possible that this is down to slightly awkward expression of these ideas rather than deliberate intention – it’s interesting to note the disclaimer at the beginning that states the work ‘is not a pronouncement on any debates about the nature of sexual orientation’. The closing sections of the book could also have done with some cutting.

All the same, this does not detract from the fact that this is a brave and often deeply moving book. Few would argue with Stone’s central discovery in the midst of Konkai’s cruel deterioration that ‘compassion is the key to our human experience’. A welcome voice from a part of the world where such subjects rarely get put into words.

Konkai: Living between two worlds by Mardia Stone (Cotton Tree Press, 2011)

When you’re reading lots of books from different countries, stories from contrasting backgrounds can often seem to be talking to each other across the globe. Soon after finishing Alberto Barrera Tyszka’s The Sickness, with its memorable description a doctor’s struggle to accept his father’s terminal illness, I began Gerbrand Bakker’s International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award-winning The Twin. The novel was recommended by Dutch literature translator Michele Hutchison, who lives in Amsterdam, and it showed me a startlingly different filial response to a parent’s approaching death.

Having lived and worked on the family farm all his life, late-middle-aged Helmer finds that his father’s illness is the catalyst he needs to stop ‘hiding behind the cows and letting things happen’. With the power dynamics in their relationship turned upside down, he begins to exert control over the house and business. But when his dead twin brother Henk’s former fiancée and her uncannily named son Henk get in touch, Helmer is forced to confront his emotional stuntedness and the toll his narrow existence has taken on his ability to function in society.

Bakker’s writing is extraordinarily good, complemented, no doubt, by David Colmer’s excellent translation. Where most books confined to such a small number of locations and incidents feel static and wooden, this one throbs with a quiet fury that imbues even the smallest of actions with significance. We watch Helmer select his new bed, paint the living room and buy an antique map in the local town, feeling behind each deed the weight of decades of unexpressed anger, loss and grief.

Bakker heightens this sense of reticence through his spare style, which enables him to capture and express powerful impressions in very few words. This, coupled with his deft deployment of descriptions of the natural world to reveal the extent of Helmer’s isolation, enable him to walk the delicate line between his protagonist’s disturbing and often deliberately cruel treatment of his father and the slow unfolding of his blighted life.

In addition, the narrative’s strange beauty and the humour that gusts up suddenly to catch you unawares enable it to meander through profound themes without any pretentiousness. Its subtle exploration of what it means to be a twin and the sad echoes of the breezy predictions people make to adolescents about what life has in store for them will stay with me for a long time. Marvellous.

The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer (Vintage, 2009)

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