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Truth-telling in a World of Lies

THE GARDEN OF SECRETS A Novel; By Juan Goytisolo Translated from the Spanish by Peter Bush; Serpent's Tail: 154 pp., $24

April 22, 2001|DOUGLAS MESSERLI | Douglas Messerli is the founder of Sun & Moon Press and Green Integer Press

Living in Marrakech's medina, Spanish novelist Juan Goytisolo has published at least 15 works of fiction in English, and the most recent, "The Garden of Secrets," like most of his preceding works, is in part an attack on the author's native Spain and, in particular, on Franco and the fascists. Indeed, like James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard and other great writers who lived in exile and often loathed their homelands, Goytisolo has spent most of his life attacking the values present and past of his own country. His most recent (and as yet untranslated) novel, "Carajicomedia" (A Cock-Eyed Comedy)-now a bestseller in Spain-attacks the Spanish Catholic Church and its ancillary secret society, Opus Dei.

In part, Goytisolo's literary warfare with Spain has much to do with the general Castilian oppression of the Catalan minority. As a recent interview with Goytisolo revealed, his Catalan mother's parents were not permitted to speak to the family in their own language. His father, a chemical company executive, supported Franco and was later imprisoned by the Republicans; his mother was killed by Franco's bombs in Barcelona, the Catalonian capital, which, until 1939, remained the Loyalist center of the Spanish Civil War and was accordingly severely punished by Franco and his forces. The young Goytisolo was forced into exile. Over the years, living in Paris, Morocco and elsewhere, Goytisolo came to be a passionate supporter of Arab culture, and in his novels and other writings he argues for the Spain of Moorish and Jewish roots. His struggles against fascism are not directed merely at the Franco past of his country but also against the Serbian nationalism of Slobodan Milosevic, the Russian treatment of the Chechens and Israeli relations with the Palestinians (his book "El Pais, Landscapes of War: From Sarajevo to Chechnya" was published by City Lights Books last year). Once a supporter of Cuban communism, he later disavowed his support after visits to that country in which he witnessed the oppression of the African and Asian cultures as well as of homosexuals. Moreover, Goytisolo's own bisexuality, which he discusses in his two-volume autobiography, "Forbidden Territory" and "Realm of Strife," has led him to strong moral statements against sexual tyranny as well. He claims his true mentor to be Jean Genet.

All of these issues merge in "The Garden of Secrets," which tells the fictional life of a Spanish poet named Eusebio-a homosexual friend of the great authors Federico Garcia Lorca and Luis Cernuda-who is arrested by Franco's forces and imprisoned in the military psychiatric center in Melilla at the beginning of the 1936 rebellion. But this is not ordinary fictional biography, told in the third person. Like Orson Welles' exploration of the life of Charles Foster Kane in "Citizen Kane," Goytisolo's is a Rashomon-like tale, with 28 tellers, one for each letter of the Arabic alphabet. Sitting in their garden, which one of the figures describes as "make-believe," the Readers' Circle meets for three weeks, each member telling his or her own version of stories about the mysterious poet, his arrest, escape and later life. Obviously, they are attracted by the rumors and myths surrounding Eusebio just as American readers have been attracted to figures like Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac and-in a previous generation-William Randolph Hearst.

Unlike "Citizen Kane," however, Goytisolo supplies no Rosebud to draw his themes-his multifaceted version of reality-together. As in all the works of this great experimental writer, there is no single truth. Part of the joy of reading the novel, in fact, is in the various styles, from high poetic diction to the ribald language of sex films, as well as in the methods and genres that the members of the group employ. Some are highly factual, recounting Eusebio's surprise arrest, his imprisonment and tortures; one teller extracts the supposed interrogation of the prisoner with regard to an inquiry into the sexual proclivities of the military leaders who imprisoned him. Some members of the group are of the belief that Eusebio, dressed as a woman, escaped to Morocco; others argue that he escaped through the intervention of his brother-in-law, an officer in the Fascist army. The story, popular with many members of the group, is that he fell under the sway of the Falange leaders Veremundo and Basilio, who engaged in all-male orgies in the army camp, and that he escaped through their help; one member of the "secret garden" even presents a film proposal-in the manner of Luchino Visconti's "The Damned'-of these sexual events.

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