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Juan Goytisolo: La saga de los Marx (The Marx Family Saga)

Goytisolo may not be an easy read. He jumps all over the place, does not use standard sentence structure and does not always, to say the least, make it clear who is doing what. But if you can get past those issues, he is a wonderful read – totally anarchic, highly critical of everything to do with the power structure and very funny as well. This novel finds him at the top of his game, as he takes on Karl Marx and his family, His highly original approach is to not only dissect Marx, both as a family man and as a philosopher, but to have the family simultaneously in their past lives and to have them as alive today. He takes this game one step further, as he is, of course, writing a novel about the Marx family. His publisher – wittily named Bill Faulkner – comments on the novel (complaining about the historical inaccuracies and wanting to sex it up somewhat). The author discusses it with various people, including members of the Marx family themselves, a feminist critic, who bitterly complains about his treatment of the women characters and even at a conference where the chair of the conference points out that the conference is currently part of the novel and even asks him for the specific page they are on. He even goes one step further, with a French film/soap opera being made at the same time, called La Baronne rouge. If this seems complicated, it is but it is great fun.

As this is Goytisolo, he manages to condemn both side of the equation – Marxism and its successors, and capitalism. It starts with the Albanian boat people arriving on the Italian beaches and disrupting the wealthy sunbathers, expecting to be welcomed but, of course, being beaten up, all watched on TV by the Marx family, picks over the trappings of capitalism – from Benetton to Coco Cola – and comments on the downtrodden peoples of the world. Above all it goes through Marx’ life and the lives of his family, while seeing them in a modern-day setting, whether watching the news on TV, participating in the French soap opera or even having Marx himself talking about his own death and funeral with Goytisolo. Marx seeing the failure of his own work but also Marx’s disagreements with other contemporaries from Proudhon to Nechayev to Bakunin shows that there is very much a serious side to this novel. Indeed, Goytisolo is at pains to point out that while, in his view, Marxism and what it led to (Soviet Russia) and capitalism are both failures and very harmful, there are alternatives.

But you get the feeling that, however serious Goytisolo is and however strongly he feels about the political views he pronounces in this novel, he really does enjoy poking fun at publishers and politicians and Marxists and feminist critics and all the paraphernalia of capitalism. It is a wonderfully entertaining and witty book, brilliantly conceived and brilliantly executed.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 1993 by Mondadori
First published in English by Faber & Faber in 1996
Translated by Peter Bush