Death, Sleep and the Traveler
“We can speak of occupied languages as we speak of occupied countries,” Juan Goytisolo wrote recently in The New York Times, thinking of the Spanish of Franco’s Spain. Yet this is a language occupied by native speakers, not by an invading army, and the members of the Resistance all seem to live abroad—they are the Free French, to shift the latitude of the metaphor, not the maquis. Certainly any good book written in Spanish strikes a blow for the language’s liberation, but the characters in such books (and the people stuck in Spain) may be forgiven for dreaming of less oblique acts of sabotage against the status quo.
This is the dream of the hero of Goytisolo’s own brilliant Count Julian: a ruinous, apocalyptic reversal of the whole course of Spanish history. The Moors, held off by the Cid, turned back at Granada in 1492, come sweeping over the Straits of Gibraltar at last, scimitars gleaming, white robes flowing, grins like Peter O’Toole’s all over their faces. “O tempora! O Moors!” the hero snappily thinks at one point.
The book recounts a hallucinatory day in the life of a Spanish exile in Tangier, histrionically peering (and refusing to peer) across the narrow water at what he calls his harsh homeland, that arid, Castilian country, home of St. Theresa, Lope de Vega, Calderón, the Generation of ’98, and the Falange. His major act in the course of this (and other) days is to take a trip to the local library with a purseful of dead insects, and crush them between the pages of a few Spanish classics, smearing those immortal words with the blood and entrails of bees and ants and spiders and flies—
the “Dos de Mayo,” the resoundingly patriotic sonnet of Enrique López Alarcón!: you can barely keep from drooling as you place the massive corpse of a horsefly on top of it, and zap!: consummatum est: the perfect hendecasyllable is shattered, the grandiloquent tercet is blotted out….
The helplessness which lies behind this comic and pathetic gesture of wrath and rebellion is too painful to be laughed at for long, and a good measure of Goytisolo’s achievement is the poise with which he juggles both helplessness and laughter, avoiding despair on the one hand and too much jocularity on the other. This makes the book a very literary achievement, an elegant and accomplished novel about impotent rage rather than a cry of rage and impotence itself, and a little too civilized for all the violence it keeps threatening to conjure up (“on the way back home, you will meet an old woman mounted on a humble ass, and gratuitously attack her, with the greatest severity and cruelty”).
I say this because the book occasionally behaves as if it were a genuine political act all on its own—it is no more political than any good novel is, and it is less political than some. What it is, is a Spanish work of fiction which has…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.