The death of the Catalan-born writer Juan Goytisolo on June 4 at his home in Marrakesh marks the end of an era in Spanish intellectual and literary life. Though he went into exile in 1956 and never lived in his native country again, Goytisolo was Spain’s pre-eminent contemporary novelist and political essayist. After Níjar Country (1954), his account of the mixture of human misery and natural beauty he’d encountered in Andalusia, he decided he could not continue to write in Spain “with a censor in his head”. In Paris he soon rejected the role of the lionized young anti-Francoist rebel and embarked on a less public kind of life under the influence of Monique Lange (later his wife) and Jean Genet, his moral mentor.
He went on to produce a series of texts that were to be at once personal, poetic and political: “establishing a fine web of relationships, weaving a net of meanings beyond time and space, ignoring the laws of verisimilitude, rejecting worn-out notions of character and plot, abolishing the frontiers between reality and dream, destabilizing the reader by multiplying the levels of interpretation and registers of voice, appropriating historical events and using them to fuel his purpose” (from Quarantine, 1991, which I translated). Provoked by the first Gulf war, this text combined a meditation on Ibn Arabi (the thirteenth-century Sufi thinker and poet) and Dante, conversations with a recently deceased American friend, and harrowing descriptions of war from Iraq to the Spanish Civil War when his mother was killed by a Nationalist bombing raid on Barcelona. But Count Julian (1970, translated by Helen Lane) marked a shift of register. It was a bitter, savagely lyrical attack on the myths of Spanish nationalism, the Catholic Church and imperialism in the guise of slavery in Cuba, with no conventional punctuation, calling for “readers to be re-readers”.
Goytisolo also wrote a two-volume autobiography, Forbidden Territory and In Realms of Strife. It displayed great originality in a context where memoirs tended to be self-promoting and gossipy. He describes, in particular, the exploration of his homosexuality and friendship with Moroccans that led to his having two households: one with Monique in Paris; the other with Abdelhadi and Abdel Haq in Marrakesh. His homoerotic discoveries deepened his quest into the Islamic roots of Spanish and European culture in such works as Saracen Chronicles (translated by Helen Lane) and Cinema Eden (which I also translated) and a stream of articles for the Spanish daily El País on political conflict across the Arab world.
In Paris he founded the magazine Libre with Julio Cortázar and Gabriel García Márquez. It was short-lived: they fell out over the direction of the Cuban revolution during the show-trial of the poet Heberto Padilla. Nonetheless, Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel Cabrera Infante, both close friends, considered Goytisolo an honorary member of the Latin American Boom group of writers.
Goytisolo won numerous awards, including the Cervantes Prize, but was less interested in such recognition than in reclaiming the “heterodox” canon of Spanish literature from a fourteenth-century masterpiece such as the Archpriest of Hita’s Book of Good Love to Fernando de Rojas’s novel Celestina to the poetry of St John of the Cross, both in critical essays and by suffusing his texts with these precursors’ themes and language. Above all, he brought their spirit into poetic literary narratives that were always sparked by present conflict: his last work, Exiled from Almost Everywhere (2008), focuses on terrorism.
His death came as a great shock to me, even though I knew he had been very ill over the past few months, and we had been unable to have our usual chats on the phone. He constantly challenged me as his translator to extend my own horizons into the past and the present, as he did with all readers. I would one day be consulting about a word he had used that he would tell me came in some medieval clerical rant, and then, on another, be translating pages faxed to me from Sarajevo where he had gone at the invitation of Susan Sontag to write about the siege. His chronicles from the frontline in Algeria, Chechyna and Gaza were also published in El País and then in the TLS, which also carried many of his literary critical writings, including his memorable lambasting of the Spanish literary establishment: “Downhill all the Way”.
I first met Juan in 1983 with Monique Lange in their flat on the rue Poissonnière in Paris when I was preparing an edition of Níjar Country. Then he supported me when I wanted to translate Forbidden Territory. That was the beginning of my career as a literary translator. In 1991 I met Abdelhadi and the other branch of Juan’s family in Marrakesh when making a Channel 4 documentary about him, and subsequently watched that family grow and thrive.