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Juan Goytisolo: Señas de identidad (Marks of Identity)

This novel, the first of a trilogy, was the one that brought Goytisolo to world-wide attention though, for a long time, it was not available in Spain (it was first published in Mexico). It is easy to see why it brought him fame, even though it is a difficult book and deals extensively with Spanish politics, which foreigners might find difficult to fully grasp. It has two main themes. The first is Spain post-Civil War and what that means (it was written while Franco was still in power). The second, as the title implies, is what makes an individual, how he is defined and how he finds his place in the world.

The hero is Álvaro Mendiola, a photographer who lives in Paris (though we also see him in Barcelona and Cuba, where his family had had estates). The book starts with a character assassination that attacks him, both as immoral and as a traitor to his country and is similar to an attack by the Spanish government on Goytisolo himself. The rest of the book both tells Álvaro’s story and the stories of others associated with him, in particular his wife, Dolores, and his friend, Antonio. He has just returned to Spain, after living ten years in exile in France, as a result of a heart attack. We follow him as he looks at old photo albums, listens to Mozart, drinks wine and talks to friends and family. More particularly we go on to follow the fragmented nature of the (then) current situation in Spain and Álvaro’s own fragmented approach to dealing with this reality and his own situation. He has been brought up in a right-wing, Catholic family. We meet him as a child with his ultra-Catholic nanny in Barcelona at the beginning of the Civil War, with the nanny trying to get to church (with him) in the face of left-wing opposition to the church. Goytisolo moves on through his life, which includes exile to France while Barcelona is under communist occupation and subsequent return to Spain under Franco. His views of the political situation changes, over time, even as he confronts his own guilt (e.g. the fact that he comes from a slave-owning Cuban family).

One of the most telling chapters is the one where he visits the site where his father was killed during the Civil War. He knew little about this event but learns that his father was one of a small Francoist guard, who had come to a village to arrest republicans but had found themselves outnumbered by the villagers and then, when someone fired a gun, was killed. How the story is gradually unraveled and how the village is now (i.e. in 1963) is superbly told. After telling Álvaro’s story, we learn about the anti-Franco Spanish groups in France – there seem to be very many and this fragmentation is an issue for Álvaro and others – and we also learn about his friend Antonio, in internal exile in Spain and subject to much abuse. We even get to read the police reports of those charged with tracking Antonio and others. And fragmentation extends to language, as one of the chapters consists primarily of fragments of sentences by different people, it being clear that Goytisolo is making the strong point that the old language will no longer do. Goytisolo’s point of view is clear and anti-Franco. There is, for example, one very funny scene involving a very successful pro-Franco novelist who is visiting France (the first time he has left the country) and who is interviewed and whose ignorance of the world at large and literary trends is mercilessly mocked by Goytisolo.

It is difficult to describe the importance of this novel in the context of Spanish literature. It sent a huge signal that the old style novels (e.g. of the pro-Franco novelist mentioned above) just will not do any more. The novel in Spain, as in the rest of Europe, was changing and Spain had better follow suit. Of course, Goytisolo’s point is that it is not just literature that needs to change in Spain. The book could have been boringly autobiographical and boringly politically rabid. While it is certainly autobiographical to some degree and certainly takes a political stance, it is Goytisolo’s skill that he makes much more out of it and creates what may be the first important novel of the post-Civil War era.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 1966 by Mortiz
First published in English by Grove in 1969
Translated by Gregory Rabassa