Spain: the world to come


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)

8 responses

  1. Not sure if you are still looking for more Spanish recommendations but Spain’s most recent Nobel laureate, Camilo José Cela, has written many interesting works. My personal favorites are San Camilo, 1936 and La Colmena (The Hive). Also, Miguel de Unamuno’s Niebla (Mist) is a more unusual selection.

  2. Hope you do get a chance to read Don Quijote. As so often seems to be the case in a certain genre, the first is still the best! At least, I think it’s still one of the most wonderful books ever written. How did he manage to distill a genre, pastiche it, and at the same time create one of the most lovable, insane and human characters ever? And if you managed to wade through Joyce, Cervantes is a walk en el parco. Do yourself a favour, everyone!

  3. You have so many recommendations I don’t know where to start! I will definitely read Goytisolo soon and will check on your list for the most different cultures I find.

    About literature in Spain:

    Dulce Chacón – La voz dormida (The Sleeping Voice), about women during the Spanish Civil War. One of my favourites from all times:

    And just in case, you would like to add some Catalan literature to your amazing list:
    – Mercè Rodoreda – la plaça del diamant (The Time of the Doves) – a classic
    – Eduard Marquez – El silenci dels arbres (The Silence of the Trees) I don’t think it’s translated to English

    I was surprised to find there are not many Catalan books translated to English and I found this which you might be interested in:

    I just discovered you on TED-talks, and you have a new fan! You are doing a great job, thank you!

    • Thanks Clara. I will add these to my to-read pile. (I’m not updating the list anymore as it’s a record of my project, but I do choose one book to add each month for Book of the Month) Thanks again.

  4. I know the project is over but I thought it was a pity you didn’t come across Almudena Grandes. Her _The Frozen Heart_ is a vivid account of the fallout from the Civil War over several generations. I also liked _The Wind from the East_, evoking the Atlantic coast of Andalucia. Very good translations by Sonia Soto.

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