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Juan Goytisolo: El sitio de los sitios (State of Siege)

The novel is set during the Siege of Sarajevo. Though the book is relatively short, there are various plot threads. The main one concerns an unknown traveller who arrives at a hotel in Sarajevo, known only as H.I. but presumably the Holiday Inn. He is about sixty and it is not clear what he is doing in Sarajevo. The day after his arrival, a mortar hits the room in which he is staying and he is killed. The commander of the International Force comes to investigate but when he removes the blanket from the corpse, there is nothing there. The guards have no explanation. As far as they are concerned the body could have not have been moved without their knowledge. When he goes to check the passport, that too has disappeared, despite the clerk saying he put it in a drawer and no-one took it. Moreover, contrary to normal procedure, he did not note the details. The only clues are a series of poems and a novel, the former signed J. G. (Goytisolo’s initials) and written in Spanish. As the commander is Spanish, he is able to read the poems and finds them disgustingly pornographic, promoting sodomy. The book, interestingly enough, seems to be the novel we are reading and even describes the death of the writer before it has happened.

The commander does investigate but does not come up with a satisfactory solution and is baffled by how this man managed to arrive here without anyone knowing who he was and why he was there. His investigations are mixed in with descriptions of the events in Sarajevo. In particular, Goytisolo has a brilliant description of a siege, involving ethnic cleansing but set in a suburb of Paris rather than in Sarajevo. What is interesting is that while the siege is going on and various ethnic groups are being cleansed, particularly the Jews but others as well, the rest of Paris carries on as though nothing is happening. The Metro just misses out the stops that go through the area under siege. Goytisolo has made the point that the rest of the world tended to ignore what was happening in Sarajevo and this stresses it.

The second part of the book starts with the (deliberate) destruction of the Oriental Institute in Sarajevo, with its fine collection of Arab, Ottoman and Persian manuscripts. A couple of scholars – one specialising in literature, the other in history – are devastated and feel that their life has been destroyed. However, when a sixty year old man arrives at the hotel and registers as Ben Sidi Abú Al Fadaíl, one of them is excited, as Ben Sidi Abú Al Fadaíl is a Muslim saint, about whom he was writing a biography. When the man is killed when a mortar hits his room and he finds a manuscript confirming the man’s connection to the saint, he is very excited. His initial reaction is to completely cover up the death but the body is seen by a Dutch diplomat, so the elaborate plot we have learned of in the first part is concocted. The manuscript is removed, the saint buried in the grounds of the ruined Institute and the poems we know of planted, to make the investigators think that he is Spanish.

The manuscript he used turns out to be one that was found in a second-hand bookshop in Barcelona and came from a madman (a perverted sodomite) who had been in a mental hospital in Morocco. Further investigation reveals that there might be some connection between the madman J. G. and the Muslim saint, though this is left open. The somewhat post-modern plot is certainly clever but Goytisolo is as much making a point about the siege of Sarajevo and the suffering of the people there, all too often ignored by near neighbours in the West. Once again he tells a very fine if not always clear story and makes his political point very strongly.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 1995 by Alfaguara
First published in English by City Lights Books in 2002
Translated by Helen Lane