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Luis Goytisolo: Antagonía (Antagony)

Though originally published as four separate books, Goytisolo’s magnum opus was conceived by its author as a single book and, more recently, has been published as such. The first book was originally published in Mexico, as the Francoist censors would not allow it to be published in Spain but it was later published in Spain as were the subsequent books. In Spain, it is considered as one of the great works of 20th century literature, compared both to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time; Remembrance of Things Past). The comparison are certainly valid. Like the Joyce it is a Bildungsroman while, like the Proust, it is a long exploration of the artistic development of a young man. Yet the book is barely known outside Spain as it has not been translated into English nor, indeed, any other language, except for Polish. This reflects, I feel, the general marginalisation of 20th century Spanish literature. Had it been written in English or French, it would have been recognised as the great work it is.

The first three books tell the story of Raúl Ferrer Gaminde from childhood. Spanish names for men generally consist of [first name] [last name] [mother’s maiden name] (a married woman will usually take her husband’s surname instead of her mother’s maiden name). However, Gaminde is not Raúl’s mother’s maiden name but the maiden name of his grandmother, as the family wanted to preserve her name. Raúl’s story starts in the civil war. The family is from Barcelona but traditionalist and Catholic in their outlook. The first book is by far the longest, nearly half of the total tetralogy. We see that he is exposed to violence early on – a local man is killed and then his mother dies in a bombing raid. His family try to impose their strict orthodox Catholic views and partially succeed, as his older brother, Felipe, starts out training as a lawyer but then switches. He goes to a Jesuit seminary and becomes a priest. Raúl, however, does not follow in his brother’s footsteps. He also starts training as lawyer but with a view to becoming a diplomat not a lawyer. He also gets involved in politics, joining the Communist Party and having problems with the police when distributing leaflets calling for a strike. But he is also disillusioned with the Communists and leaves the party. However, he is still arrested by the police and sent to prison. He had suspected that this might happen, so he was not entirely surprised when it did. It turns out that he has been followed for some time before being arrested. He even knows who betrayed him, as he sees him at the police station. After being arrested, he is beaten up to persuade him to reveal the names of his fellow party members. He is then sent to prison.

While the plot is important, it is not the plot that makes this book. As with Joyce and Proust, Goytisolo gives us much more. We learn, of course, about the philosophical and political development of Raúl but also a lot about the philosophical and political ambience in Spain at the time, particularly from the Catalan perspective, where there is much opposition to Franco. But Goytisolo gives us a much richer picture. We get a picture of Barcelona, its topography and history, in some detail, and the same with Catalonia. We also get a whole range of issues brought up by the characters, from the nature of relationships to religion, from the Spanish Civil War to literature (what other book could mention Nâzım Hikmet and Howard Fast in the same sentence?). But, like Proust, this book is also about memory. And, if we are in any doubt about this, he states, in French, à quoi rechercher le temps retrouvé?. However, he also gives us his idea of memory. Los caminos de la memoria. Algo así como la visita a una de esas catedrales edificadas sobre otra anterior, construida a su vez con residuos de templos paganos, piedras pertenecientes a esa otra ciudad excavada bajo la ciudad actual, ruinas subterráneas que uno puede recorrer contemplando lo que fueron calles y casas y necropolis y murallas protectoras, cimentadas casi siempre con restos de ciudades precedentes. [The paths of memory. Something like visiting one of those cathedrals built on a previous one, which was, in its turn, built from the remains of pagan temples, stones belonging to this other city, excavated under the current city, underground ruins that you can visit and see the old streets and houses and necropolis and defence walls, cemented, almost always, with the remains of the previous cities.] As good a description of memory as you are likely to find.

The second book is, to my mind, less interesting. Raúl and his wife have moved out to the coast resort of Las Rosas. What we see, through the eyes of Raúl but also through the eyes of his doppelganger, Ricardo, are the people he is associating with, a well-heeled group of people, anti-Franco, cultural and well-off. Raúl/Ricardo is writing a novel and the story we are being told is mixed in with the novel fragments, which does make for some confusion. Indeed, we need to distinguish between Raúl the character in his book and Raúl the narrator and that is not always easy to do. However, once again, memory is key, as we see more of his family, particularly Matilde Morel, his cousin, with whom he has a brief fling but who will be key in the next book. Then, suddenly, the final chapter offers us what he calls a periplo, which is often translated as simply long journey but has overtones, as the Greek origin implies, of a journey around some particular place but also a long journey. In this case, the journey is a mythical one, involving real and fictitious characters – from Kirk Douglas and Yul Brynner to Modesto Pirez, the man who betrayed Raúl. It also travels around the coast area near Barcelona but ends up at the centre of the Earth and ends up with all travellers but one drowning. It certainly is an amazing piece of writing even if it is not always clear what is happening.

Matilde Morel, his cousin, takes over as narrator in the third book. She lives in Cadaqués and her story is about her upper class group of friends. She has separated from her husband, Juan Antonio, and has a Lesbian lover called Camila. The books starts with something of an argument when she finds out that Camila has had a brief fling with a man Matilde calls the Argentinian Robert Taylor (he turns out not to be Argentinian but from Barcelona). But, as we have realised with the previous book, we see that this book is more and more about artistic creation. It started in the first book, when we became aware that Adolfes, one of Raúl’s friends, was writing a novel, which never seemed to be finished but which some of the characters read fragments of. In the previous book, we see Raúl as narrator juxtaposed with Raúl as character. Now we have both Matilde and Raúl as narrators, as we see both commentary on Raúl’s novel in progress as well as the text of Matilde’s novella – Edicto de Milano [Edict of Milan] (though formerly called La cólera de Aquiles [The Anger of Achilles], i.e. the title of this (Goytisolo) novel). The book is a roman à clef of her well-heeled group of friends, for whom money and sex are important (There is Charlotte who states (in English) that she prefers men who are a bit homosexual and Lucía casually picking up a ticket inspector in a train and having sex with him in the train toilet while Charlotte guards the door, purely because she had never had sex with a ticket collector before.) Matilde will go on to auto-critique her own book, showing where it is a roman à clef, i.e. which fictitious character is which real life character. Though she is paid the compliment of being one of the few women who can be considered as wise, Matilde does not come out particularly well in this book, as she is arrogant, demanding and an unreliable narrator. But it is artistic creation that is more and more becoming the key theme of this novel.

The final novel in the tetralogy is, in fact, Raúl’s long-awaited novel. It is divided into three parts and is, of course, something of a roman à clef. We start off with the story of young man, who, we soon learn, is called Carlos. He seems fascinated by an older woman who lives in the flat opposite. He learns that she is called Aurea, as he hears someone call her that in the lobby of her building. He keeps trying to find her by looking at her from his flat and sees her shadow and silhouette now and then. Meanwhile, he gets on with his routine life. Is he Raúl? Maybe. When asked by Ricardo, an architect friend of his parents (who will be the key character in the next section of the book), he states that he is not a writer but then later says that he want to become a writer. Finally, after looking at each other across the street, Carlos decides to phone her and speaks to her while watching her at the window. She agrees that he should come over. However, when he gets there, the porter tells him that she has been in Manila for the past few months and is not expected back any time soon. The porter is able to confirm this by showing Carlos her flat. When he listens to the answering machine recording, he finds that there is an error on the tape and he cannot hear her voice. We later learn that she has been killed in Manila before returning.

The next section concerns Ricardo Echave, the architect. He is undergoing a midlife crisis. He had had an affair with Margarita, a cousin, in the past but she had been killed in a car accident. She had left an envelope addressed to him, which contains only a photo of her room in her house. He suspects that she intended to leave an accompanying letter but it has either got lost or she never got around to writing it. He wonders what it means. Part of this section is his worrying about this issue and worrying about the significance of the room. (We will learn more in the next section, written after Ricardo’s unexpected death.) He also thinks about his relationship with Margarita’s brother, Jaime, and sister, Magda. But he also worries about his role as an architect. He feels that all the great buildings have already been built and that there is no important role for him to play. He also speculates considerably on the creative process, particularly writing. Indeed, he considers how the novel has developed, particularly with the relationship between the author and his protagonists, and specifically refers to Luis Goytisolo (and other authors) in his deliberations.

The final section is by El Viejo [The Old Man] who is also called Carlos but turns out to be the great-grandfather of the previous Carlos. He worries about his progeny (he seems to worry about having his name carried on, as his various male progeny have not produced further male progeny). In particular, he is not happy with modern life. Indeed, his section starts off La humanidad idiotiza progressivamente en virtud de la creciente ignorancia que atrofia las facultades intelectivas del hombre. [Humanity is growing increasingly idiotic because of its increasing ignorance, which atrophies man’s intellectual faculties.] He bemoans that, for example, today’s farmers know about yields per hectare and the like but little about nature, which their ancestors knew about. Carlos is well-read, self-taught as he proudly proclaims. For him knowledge is all-important but his idea of knowledge is not the new-fangled knowledge, which he condemns, but the traditional wisdom and community with nature. He likes music – Haydn’s Creation is his favourite work. He also talks about power and force, of which he is critical, though he himself has practised it in his rivalry with his neighbour, El Moro. It is he who tells us of the death of Ricardo Echave (in an accident) and more about the room in the photo. But, at the end, it is his imminent death that he thinks of.

This is definitely a very complex novel and, like many other long complex novels, not to everyone’s taste. It is also a novel, like many other complex novels, that you should really read several times to appreciate what is going and what the author’s intentions are. But there is no doubt that it is a very interesting novel and one that should be better known. Sadly, it is not available in any other language but Polish and does not appear to be likely to be translated in the near future. Yet when it was reissued in Spanish in one volume by Anagrama as No 500 in its Narrativas Hispánicas series (the number was no accident), it was hailed by Spanish critics as one of the great novels of the twentieth century. As I said above, Spanish literature has been generally neglected in the English-speaking world, with the focus much more on Latin American literature. This is a pity because there are many fine works waiting to be discovered by English speakers and this is certainly one of them.

Publishing history

Recuento (Recounting)
First published in 1973 by Avándaro
First English translation by Dalkey Archive Press in 2017
Los verdes de mayo hasta el mar [The Green Shoots of May Down to the Sea]
First published in 1976 by Seix Barral
La cólera de Aquiles [The Anger of Achilles]
First published in 1979 by Seix Barral
Teoría del conocimiento [Theory of Knowledge]
First published in 1981 by Seix Barral

No English translation