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Juan Goytisolo: Las semanas del jardín (The Garden of Secrets)

According to my copy of the Spanish version of this novel, the author is Un círculo de lectores [A circle of readers] and there is no mention of Goytisolo’s name. The front cover is a picture of a stork walking across what looks like a tiled hallway (we shall see in a minute the relevance of this) and, at the back, a photo of Goytisolo. In short, there is scant evidence that Goytisolo is the author. Indeed, the basis of the novel is that twenty-eight members of a circle of readers decided to write a novel and this is it. We learn a bit about the twenty-eight. There are only four women. There are journalists, graduates of both Spanish and North American schools, lawyers, ethnologists, sociologists and so on. The penultimate contributor even invents an author for us. He happens to be called Juan Goytisolo and has a biography identical to the real Goytisolo. Each of the twenty-eight chapters is named after one of the twenty-eight letters of the Arabic alphabet. And, of course, as this is Goytisolo, the contributors are essentially unreliable as the story goes off on tangents and, indeed, the fate of the hero, Eusebio, has several possible outcomes. Twenty-five of the chapters tell the story, as the first sets up the group, the penultimate invents the author and the last is a pseudo-bibliography.

So who is Eusebio? Initially he seems to have been confined to a mental institution in Melilla in 1936, sent there by his family, with his insanity, at least in part, actually homosexuality. He is subjected to various treatments, including electric shock. A later writer will point out that electric shock treatment did not come into Spain for at least another ten years but that is all part of Goytisolo’s disorientation and unreliable narrator technique. Initially, we learn that he escaped from the institution and lived the rest of his life in North Africa. In North Africa, he lived his life as the servant to a local man. When the local man died, he made contributions to the poor and he was revered as a saint after his death. Indeed, apparently his tomb is still venerated by the locals. There are slight variations on this story, including his involvement with Madame S., a rich women, about whom we learn a bit. Another major story has him recruited by two Fascist leaders, Veremundo and Basilio, involved in their disgusting (i.e. homosexual) orgies and possibly part of a plot to overthrow Franco. In later life, he may have assumed a French identity under the name Eugène (the Spanish text spells it Eugéne) Asensio and, just to show us where this idea might have come from, he may also have become Alphonse van Worden, the narrator of the Saragossa Manuscript. In short, we really don’t know who or what he is or was and the narrators are free to invent what they want.

Some of the stories go off on complete tangents. For example, one of the narrators says that he is fascinated by magic realism and goes on to tell the story of a poor man who lives in Marrakesh with his wife and four children. The wife get the opportunity of a well-paid job in France and goes off, leaving her husband and children. Eventually, her letters get fewer and fewer but when the poor man writes to a friend, he learns that she is alive and still working. He is planning to get a visa and go and find out what happened but cannot get a visa but, when a flock of storks appears, he turns into a stork and joins them in their flight to France. He gets hurt and falls into a garden of a French house. When the man calls out his (the poor man’s) wife’s name and she then appears, he resolve to stay there (as a stork). The wife cares for the stork (assuming it is female) telling the man she is now living with that it is good luck in her country to do so, to the extent that the stork shares her bed. The man she is living with is naturally upset out can do nothing. The stork eventually returns to Morocco and becomes human again. At home, he finds a lot of letters from his wife, mentioning the stork incident and, eventually, she returns but her husband never tells her about his role. The relevance of this is only revealed at the end, when we learn that the poor man told this story to Eusebio. This is not the only tangent and certainly not the only literary reference.

Does it work? Absolutely. It is very cleverly done. If there is a fault, it is that all too often the style of the narrators is Goytisolo’s. Few, even the women (who are not specifically identified) adopt a different style. But that is a minor complaint. Though derivative of the Saragossa Manuscript and other works such as Don Quixote, both of which Goytisolo readily acknowledges, it is a thoroughly original work, erudite, complex and highly imaginative.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 1995 by Alfaguara
First published in English by Serpent’s Tail in 2000
Translated by Peter R. Bush