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The Best Books of 2001

Fiction

December 02, 2001

Living in Marrakech's medina, Spanish novelist Juan Goytisolo has published at least 15 works of fiction in English, and "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 country. "The Garden of Secrets" 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. 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 version of stories about the mysterious poet. In "The Garden of Secrets," Goytisolo has given us a beautifully written metaphor for what it means to seek out the truth in a world often dominated by lies. As novelist Carlos Fuentes has described the book, "The Garden of Secrets" is "one of the finest novels in Spain of the last 10 years." And though I prefer Goytisolo's trilogy of novels, "Marks of Identity," "Count Julian" and "Juan the Landless," "The Garden of Secrets" certainly reminds us again that this author, now 70 years old, is one of the most brilliant of living writers.

\o7 Douglas Messerli\f7

*

THE GLASS PALACE

A Novel

By Amitav Ghosh

Random House: 476 pp., $25.95

*

Ambitious, multigenerational, "The Glass Palace" is a saga akin to a 19th century Russian novel. Opening with the British invasion of Burma in 1885, its early chapters focus on Rajkumar, a penniless boy who, through sheer intelligence and pluck, becomes a rich merchant in Burma and marries Dolly, a lady-in-waiting from the exiled Burmese royal court. There is something irresistible about the novel's ambition and how thoroughly it dissects the impact of the British colonial enterprise. "The Glass Palace," like its far-ranging subject, is capacious; it reflects the author's curiosity and hunger for understanding. Amitav Ghosh shows how, for all its oppression, British colonialism helped to create a cosmopolitan culture in which Indians and others re-created themselves in foreign lands. Ghosh has taken great care to depict these mingled identities, where questions of allegiance are not so clear-cut. There is the figure of Saya John, for instance, a Europeanized, Christian Malayan, who speaks Hindustani and builds up a successful rubber plantation, which his son and American wife come to run. Character, for Ghosh, is built up through the careful accrual of culture and history, and it is against this complex panorama that his creations are most vibrant. The result is a rich, layered epic that probes the meaning of identity and homeland--a literary territory that is as resonant now, in our globalized culture, as it was when the sun never set on the British Empire.

\o7 Marina Budhos\f7

*

GRAND AMBITION

A Novel

By Lisa Michaels

W.W. Norton: 276 pp., $22.95

*

When Glen and Bessie Hyde departed from Green River, Utah, on Oct. 20, 1928, en route to the Colorado River and their final destination, Needles, Calif., they hoped to make history. Either they'd set a speed record for running the rapids, or Bessie would become the first woman to make this journey. But something went wrong. By Dec. 9, they were overdue, and a few weeks later their 16-foot scow was discovered floating in an eddy just past Diamond Creek, the couple nowhere to be found. In "Grand Ambition," Lisa Michaels answers the mystery of their disappearance in her own surprising and magnificent way. Ignore the rumors about the Hydes that have surfaced in recent years--that Glen, for instance, forced Bessie on the trip and that she, feeling trapped, killed him--Michaels tells a decidedly less sensational but far more satisfying story about two people falling in love, about ambition and acquiescence played out in the most epic, solitary and sublime of settings. Balzac called marriage "the most audacious of enterprises," and "Grand Ambition" is the most audacious of love stories for attempting to take us to a place most of us inhabit but can't describe and for suggesting what it takes for two people to live with one another without sacrificing their ideals or limiting their dreams.

\o7 Thomas Curwen\f7

*

GUILTY OF DANCING

THE CHA CHA CHA

A Novel

By Guillermo Cabrera Infante

Translated from the Spanish by the author

Welcome Rain Publishers:

112 pp., $22.95

*

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