Juan the Landless Juan Goytisolo (trans. Peter Bush). Dalkey Archive Press. 163pp, $13.95.
In grappling with Peter Bush’s recent re-translation of Juan Goytisolo’s 1974 novel Juan the Landless, I kept wondering why we read at all. Goytisolo’s book is notoriously challenging: there’s no real punctuation save frequent colons, and the book is full of shifting protagonists and pronouns and constant pressure on the language, as though Goytisolo aims to make the text itself implode. So why do we read, and what can be said about a book seemingly created to subvert the entire act of reading?
I’m reminded of another Spanish-language writer, though the Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano is odd an associate to align with Goytisolo. Both have it made it a major career goal to tell the story of their respective areas (Goytisolo, Spain and Europe; Galeano, Latin America). Both are prominent and relatively well-known writers. Both are interested in how oppression affects the oppressed. But this is where the similarities end, and this is where the power of both writers becomes apparent. Where Galeano is restrained, Goytisolo is exuberant. Where Galeano uses muted, hinted-at emotion, Goytisolo rages. Where Galeano creates brief vignettes of individual lives and experiences, Goytisolo’s words explode with such force it takes several readings and re-readings to understand the implications of this big bang. Galeano is interested in telling a history through the barest of details from the individual lives he imagines. His oppression is almost paternal, at times almost sorrowful. Goytisolo, on the other hand, is more interested in the widest of views and the purest of emotions: there is little sorrow here and lots of rage.
Born in 1931, Goytisolo was greatly affected by the Spanish Civil War, and as a young man he left Spain, first settling in France and then later in Marrakesh where he still lives. Despite being widely discussed upon its initial publication in 1974 (Goytisolo is often ranked as one of the most respected writers working in Spanish), the author revisited Juan the Landless prior to its re-translation and cut out large sections, a process which, he explains in the afterword, “lightens the text and brings a greater unity of composition.” These cuts, he believes, make the violence in the work starker “and this heightened tension imbues the whole of the writing.” Nowhere in this afterword does the author explore the rationale behind these choices in the context of form and original intent vs. current intent, but it is interesting to consider that the book originally took a slightly different shape.
Juan the Landless represents one third of Goytisolo’s informal trilogy, starting with Marks of Identity (1966), Count Julian (1970) and finally, Juan the Landless (all retranslated and republished by Dalkey in the last few years). The trilogy traces the history of Spain through the experience of an alienated, furious and “modern” protagonist. Count Julian is based on an actual legendary figure called Julian, Count of Ceuta, notoriously credited for opening Spain up to the Moorish influences that can be felt to this day in the nation’s language and culture. Through Julian has long been considered a “traitor” to Spanish-ness, Goytisolo has said he felt a connection and identification to him:
I imagined the destruction of Spanish mythology, its Catholicism and nationalism, in a literary attack on traditional Spain. I identified myself with the great traitor who opened the door to Arab invasion. I discovered that the Franco dictatorship was the result of a long tradition that began in the middle ages.
A notorious critic of Catholicism, Spanish society, and of the xenophobic (anti-immigrant, racist, homophobic, misogynistic) voices he sees embedded in the very nature of Western culture, Goytisolo’s fury is ever-present just beneath the surface of his writing, including Juan the Landless. Goytisolo’s own ancestors were key players in the Cuban sugar trade, and it is therefore no idle exercise in anti-colonial raging when he sets his opening scenes in the slave market in that country. Because his own history is also tied in with that of Spain, it might be easy to dismiss book as merely an attempt to justify or understand his ancestor’s motivations. But this is not the case, and throughout his trilogy, one gets a sense that it’s impossible to be a Westerner without being implicit in the murder, rape, oppression, and violence against huge swaths of humankind.
Part I of Juan the Landless opens with an ironic riff on meditation:
According to the gurus of Hindustan, at the highest stage of meditation, purged of appetites and longings, the human body joyfully surrenders to an ethereal existence, all passions and ailments shed, attentive only to the listless flow of time without end, light on the wing like those meandering little birds seemingly inspired by the gentle melodies of an invisible breeze, musically absorbed in distant contemplation of the sea . . .
This can be taken a few ways: is it an ironic juxtaposition, a calming and happy doorway which the author wants to contrast against the brutal violence that his novel later explores? Or is it a dogmatic hint that the great Western project comes as a result of a state of perpetual anti-enlightenment (possibly even an anti-Enlightenment)?
Soon, the karmic meditation passes and our focus shifts towards a figure on an LP cover. This figure, (“the Queen of Rhythm”—meant to be a female singer inspired by Cuban Celia Cruz) allows the reader to “step inside” a different reality represented on the cover: a reality of “blurry buildings of a sugar-mill” to
those not-so-distant dead and abolished times when the rebellion let its hair grow long and its hurricane of hope shook the stunted existences of millions and millions of beings sentenced over centuries to the ideological servitude that comes with your language, dazzling you all with a spectacle of violent unpolished beauty, before your tribe’s age-old predisposition to suppress the vibrant freedoms of today in the name of the imaginary freedoms of tomorrow subordinated creative invention to the imperatives of production, sacrificed nation to plantation and once more crushed its children like cane in the mill . . .
It doesn’t take long to see that Goytisolo thrives on these odd couplings: calming meditative ocean waves juxtaposed against violence and brutal explications of slavery as an institution, the sacred juxtaposed with the profane, the detached, noble pursuits of the aristocracy juxtaposed against the debased and disgusting reality of poverty. But most importantly: actual oppression and betrayal of experience with oppression and betrayal of language.
It is through this chain of associations, both visual and linguistic, that we are transported to a slave market scene where the author allows us to “pause to sketch in the details.” There are familial echoes, ancestors in portraits overseeing the entire scene (the story weaves in and out of second person throughout), blessed and made sacred by the chaplain who declares the first flushing toilet a miracle. This “miracle,” comes to be seen as a divine right of nature given to the ruling classes, who are finally allowed to do away with their own excrement as though.
It’s hard not to get carried away here by the opening scene, but it’s not an easy feat to start a review about a book that attempts to encompass so many themes into one small package: from slavery and colonialism to identity and language, to the corruption of the Church, to the role of women in the oppression and administration of racial purity, all beginning with an aristocratic woman declaring “I shat like a queen.” Goytisolo doesn’t rely on one narrator as a vessel for the rants which make up long sections of Juan the Landless. Quite the contrary, he creates a metamorphic you that is both slave and overseer, mistress and chaplain, oppressor and oppressed. Occasionally the you seems to be a letter to the author himself.
As Goytisolo moves on from the slave market scene we start to realize that this book is hardly a novel at all. And if the author himself wants the freedom to play with form, he also wants his reader to understand what that freedom allows, what it encompasses, how it can both free and limit us in telling the story of a life, of a nation, of a people. We learn about exile and alienation (mirroring or detailing Goytisolo’s own exile from his country), not only of the you, but the exile of class, of language, of sexuality, of the human condition itself. The author moves in an out of other languages in much of the book, addressing again the unclear you and snippets of French, Italian, Catalan, and Arabic. Here we serve as witnesses to both the inherent power to build up, but also the danger of tearing down that languages allow: “You will learn to think against your own language,” we are told, a plea to the reader to indulge the author, to trust him and his idiosyncratic use of language and form. Again, the question of reading becomes an important notion in the experience of interacting with this book. Many have said that Goytisolo’s books are designed to be read aloud, and Juan the Landless is no exception. Take this passage:
Our austere and solemn Peninsula has always been a land rich in heretics, mystics, apostates and eccentrics of every stripe, as well as male saints and sages, so writes the illustrious Menéndez Pelayo, and there is certainly something unsettling shady and sin-loving in the genius of so vibrant a race . . .
Even in translation the power of this ironic passage read out loud nearly takes one’s breath away. In spite of this (or perhaps because of this), Juan the Landless is not a book to be read cover to cover. It follows only the slightest hint of any kind of narrative arc and operates more like a very long series of juxtaposed poetic sequences that have no definitive beginning or ending. The entire trilogy blurs the line between fiction and poetry, yet it’s not an unpleasant sensation to be without your footing inside this narrative experience: being free of form, of structure, of time, allows one to revel in the language much as the Hindu ascetic revels in the delights of the ethereal. And perhaps that’s the significance of the opening sequence. Just as the devoted monk shows mindfulness by experiencing his senses as an end in itself, so we revel in the senses of this anti-form “novel” whereby the experience of reading it becomes almost purely sensual. And, more importantly: it’s through this sensual experience and through the novel approach to perspective that we come to understand the reality of historical experience and perspective:
impersonal pronouns, empty substantive shells!: your scant reality is the speech act by which you appropriate language and submit it to the deceptive control of your malleable subjectivity . . . I make you all jump to the diktats of my changing protean voices . . . who’s expressing . . . himself as I/You: the shades wandering in your indispensable emptiness transmute, and you can . . . skilfully play with signs your naïve reader doesn’t notice: immersing him in an unstable world, prey to a continuous process of destruction . . .
Much of the writing in Juan the Landless is this dense and rich. Here Goytisolo plays with the reader and acknowledges his mischievous play with form. But this passage does more than offer an ironic aside: it represents his entire approach to what the ultimate power of the novel is and isn’t. Just as nations oppress and empower, so does language.
Ultimately, the work’s success or failure depends on what form we give it. As a novel, the work largely fails, and if read as such, it’s hard to see how it could ever do anything but fail. But let’s not be parochial about this: as a piece of writing—whether we call it poetry or prose—the book packs enormous power and range. Its historical underpinnings give it all the more power and relevance in a world where globalization has firmly taken root, even when such a system seems hardly questioned. It’s even more remarkable that the author was exploring these issues nearly 40 years ago, and a testament to his foresight that it can still be read and discussed nearly two generations later.
Gregory McCormick is a freelance writer, editor, and translator. Raised in Idaho, he now lives in Montreal.
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