Peter Bush: In these times of talk of imminent war, can you say how the Spanish civil war marked your life? You were five when it broke out?
Juan Goytisolo: My family was destroyed. My mother was killed. I was a child of the war, as I describe in Forbidden Territory, a war followed by more than thirty years of General Franco's dictatorship. By the age of eighteen I had decided to abandon a Spain where I knew work such as my novel Fiestas would never be published. Although I was part of a group of young writers opposed to the regime, I still found that writing critically of the regime meant you wrote with the censor looking over your shoulder. Spain was asphyxiating, and I was asphyxiated: From 1962 to 1976, none of my writing came out in Spain.
PB: Exiled in Paris, you found freedom as well as a new approach to writing that was different from the linear narratives of your earlier novels.
JG: Paris was not what it is today. I first began to write for the center-left publications like France-Observateur under a pseudonym, then through my friendship with Monique Lange and my work at the publishing house Gallimard, I began to mix with the writers around Gallimard and Les Temps Modernes. There was Sartre and Genet. I'd meet Camus in the corridors of Gallimard, and he would nod very politely in my direction because he knew that Monique was a "Sartrean." I accompanied Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren on a trip to the south of Spain, the Almería I described in Campos de Níjar. My friendship with Genet was deeper and more lasting. He was a great moral influence and turned me away from my youthful vanity in relation to literary life. He made me see the difference between a love of literary circles and a love of literature. Anyway, Paris was a vibrant intellectual scene, dazzling to a newcomer from Fascist Spain. But there were limits to French liberty, and we helped the FLN in the struggle to liberate Algeria with petitions and demonstrations. Monique's flat was a kind of safe house. In the midst of this I discovered my homosexuality and was thrown into a quest for a subjective authenticity in my life. In my writing the quest began with Marks of Identity.
PB: Paradoxically, your fiction written outside Spain in this new vein was to be a rediscovery of Spanish literature. I'm thinking of Count Julian.
JG: Count Julian was an attack on the founding myths of Spanish traditionalism and on the altars of family, fatherland, and churchóbut not in the manner of the pamphleteer. I was out to create a new literary language. A new way of experiencing the world required the destruction of the Spanish literary canon and traditional models of good literary Spanish, an anticanonical dialogue with the tree of Spanish literature. I wanted to add something to the tree. Cervantes, in Don Quixote, parodies not just the chivalric romances of his day but also its literary structures through a new poetry of language. In my novels, I engaged in a dialogue with authors marginalized or concealed by Spanish academic tradition; with Saint John of the Cross in The Virtues of the Solitary Bird; with the Archpriest of Hita, the Spanish Chaucer, in Makbara; with Cervantes everywhere.
PB: This was also a dialogue with José María Blanco White.
JG: I found an affinity with many of the writers I discovered behind the diatribes of Catholic ideologue Menéndez Pelayo, in his History of Spanish Heterodox Thinkers. The more bitter his hatred, the greater my affinity! It was really difficult to get hold of Blanco's works, and finally I read all his works in English through the US system of interlibrary loan when I was teaching in the States. I then prepared an anthology of his work in English and had a sense that by translating him I was translating myself. In the early nineteenth century he was calling for the independence of Spain's Latin American colonies, opposing celibacy in the Catholic Church. He spoke out against ideas of blood purity and praised Spain's Arab traditions.
PB: This literary dialogue often has a contemporary political elementóin those novels, aids, immigration, and racism are all dealt with. In A Cock-eyed Comedy, you take on an organization within the Catholic Church. The narrative follows its transmigrating protagonist, the homosexual Father Trennes, and lampoons the founder of the Opus Dei, Monsignor Escrivá de Balaguer. He was canonized a saint on October 6 of this year, yet he was more than a fellow traveler of Franco's.
JG: He was in Burgos, the headquarters of the Nationalists, during the civil war, and his main workóThe Wayóthose thousand and one maxims, are full of misogyny, and of homosexuality concealed in its exhortations to his male followers to be virile: "Tender, soft, flabby . . . that's not the way I want you." It is the language of the civil war, of the caudillo as ideal: "Be caudillos"; "The sacrifice must be a holocaust," he advises. The true stuff of saints! I bring together a satirical reading of Balaguer's teachings with characters from a forgotten medieval workóA Cock-eyed Comedy, by Friar Bugeo Montesinosóreincarnations from the Spanish picaresque, a post-'68 Parisian transvestite, and, finally, elements from my own sexual autobiography. Franco gave Balaguer an aristocratic title. Instead, I have his disciples fishing for men in Vespasian chapels along the boulevards of Paris. I'm delighted that the English tour to launch the book coincides with his actual celestial elevation and is called "Cock-up of a Canonization." As I recently wrote in El País, while Balaguer is being fêted in the Vatican, with buses and planes being chartered across Spain to take thousands of the faithful to Saint Peter's Square, London will have an alternative show led by Chloe Poems, a drag performance artist, who will declaim my text as a Sister of Succor in the same way he acts out his own poems.
PB: As I was translating A Cock-eyed Comedy, I was very conscious of the musicality of the language, its orality. The themes live through a language buzzing with resonance and cadence, a hallucinatory, burlesque fusion that demands to be read aloud. Is the sound poetry a way to confront the complexity of its subject?
JG: There's a prosody of orality stretching from the Middle Ages, when texts were read aloud, to the work of twentieth-century writers like Joyce or Céline. I don't expect readers to read everything aloud. I hope they'll be sensitive to the rhythm, try it out once or twice. Like the Circle of Readers in The Garden of Secrets. In Marrakech I have the benefit of being a neighbor of the great square of Djemaa-el-Fna, where storytellers still tell stories. There was a move to turn it into a car park. It was defeated.
PB: You've written about an interchange between you and these storytellers.
JG: In The Garden of Secrets a member of the readers' circle tells the story of the Stork-Man. There is an old Berber belief that storks are actually transformed humans. In the circle's version a man turns into a stork and flies with a flock to Europe, blissfully ignoring the political boundaries and controls imposed by Fortress Europe. The stork-man is hunting for his wife, who has migrated to work in a French factory and has stopped sending money home. When he swoops into her suburban garden he discovers she's living with a French businessman. When it was translated into Arabic and read around the square, one of the best storytellers asked me if he could retell it. I was delighted that what was oral had become written literature and was now passing back into orality. I like that dynamic.
PB: You played a leading role in the defense committee and in the campaign to get UNESCO to recognize oral cultures.
JG: UNESCO recognized the square and its storytellers as part of the "oral patrimony of mankind," and I now chair a UNESCO committee that seeks to defend this oral tradition. In 2003 we will be looking at eighty candidates for similar recognition from Asia to Latin America. The world has many oral poets and cultures that are under threatóas are many languagesófrom globalization.
PB: Another aspect of your exilic relationship with Spain is your desire to uncover the country's Arabic traditions.
JG: Spanish conservative thought over the past two hundred years has done all it can to blot out the country's Semitic culture, the phantoms of the Spanish Arab and Jew that right-wing Catholics would like to eradicate from accounts of the past. Two books recently published in Spain focus on representations of North Africans and Jews in Spanish culture, and they concur in their main theses: There is a constant wish to animalize the moro and the judío, who are often described as insectos or microbios. They are treated as foreign bodies that have to be extirpated from the body Hispanic. Spanish may be a neo-Latin language, but more than four thousand Spanish words are derived from Arabic, including that most Spanish of exclamations, Olé! For the traditionalists, the Romans were Spanish, as were the Greeks, the Celts, the Iberians, but never the Jews or Arabs who lived on the peninsula for eight hundred years! You can't read any of the Spanish classics of the Middle Ages or the so-called Golden Age without thinking of the Inquisition and the expulsion of Jews and, later, in 1612, four hundred thousand moriscos.
PB: Your political activism has been expressed outside your novels in essays like the Sarajevo Notebooks, which were published in El País. Like George Orwell, you have written extensively as a political journalist, visiting Sarajevo during the siege, the Middle East, Chechnya, and Algeria.
JG: It was a personal decision I made after the Gulf War. I could see more and more that there was no connection between reality and what was being reported. People were being fed only video reality. Susan Sontag persuaded me to go to Sarajevo during the siege. I was in the Holiday Inn in January 1994, and one night, more than a thousand mortar bombs were fired at Sarajevo, including at the Holiday Inn: The government shot in reply just thirty-eight. The news bulletin the day after announced there had been "an abundant exchange of artillery fire," as if it were equal from both sides! In other words, there was the real war and also a war of words, which was fought in terms of both what was said and what was not said. I felt the need to go and report what was going unsaid.
PB: Then you wrote A State of Siege.
JG: I went back to Bosnia in winter. It was bitterly cold. The journalists had all gone. I felt I couldn't write a second chronicle of events, that only fiction could communicate what was happening to the city and its inhabitants. I felt that I had to besiege readers as the Sarajevans were being besieged. They should feel desperate, that they'd lost control of everything. Locked in a room, they would find a key to a door that only led to another locked room. There is no way out. Sarajevo transforms into Paris under siege, the district where I lived at the time. The reader doesn't know who the characters are or who the narrator is. It's not a political novel. I wanted it to be Cervantes-like territory of doubt and uncertainty.
PB: Back to the talk of war in Iraq. What do you think?
JG: What can anyone say? Bush has said that those who don't participate in the war coalition won't get oil contracts. It is so brazen. Bin Laden has faded into the background and is now of secondary concern. Now it's Saddam Hussein. The consequences will be dire for the Middle East, for whole continents. Intellectuals should speak out. Politicians should be challenged.