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Juan Goytisolo: Telón de boca (The Blind Rider)

The Spanish title means front curtain or house curtain, i.e. the curtain you see in a theatre at the very front before the performance starts. Both the English and Spanish titles are in that category of clever-but-meaningless titles beloved of writers. The story concerns a widower in his seventies. He has been a professional writer and, though Spanish, has lived in Paris for many years and is now in Morocco, the exact path that Goytisolo followed. The book has five chapters. In the first section, we find him unable to sleep. He increases his dose of sleeping pills, despite being warned against doing so by his pharmacist. Matters get worse when Francoist martial music starts playing in his head, reminding him of the period at the end of the civil war. Then he is reminded of death – dead butterflies, possibly caused by a virus, a dead bird and the death of one of his tortoises. Even his house seems to be decaying. He also feels that his hearing is becoming less clear. He feels, in fact, he is dropping out of the word, slowly but surely.

We gradually learn of his wife. She would go the cinema every day and he would accompany her a couple of times a week, enjoying various foreign films. She likes classical music and is very knowledgeable about it and collects CDs, which he listens to as well. In short, they seem to have a fairly happy, conventional marriage. However, now that she is dead, he seems to have difficulty in coping. We learn about his life in Morocco but also about his past. He grew up on a farm and likens it to Tolstoy’s farm at Yasnaya Polyana. Tolstoy has been a big influence on him and, indeed, it was reading Tolstoy that made him interested in literature. He visited Russia with his wife to visit Yasnaya Polyana and we learn about both his trip and Tolstoy’s final days. He also visited Chechnya on his own with a copy of Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat and this had a profound effect on him.

There are two other key factors he mentions. The first is the Moroccan landscape, where he lives. At the end he will, in his mind, take a trip in a collective taxi out to the desert and asked to be left there, even though warned by the driver that he has just missed the last bus and that there will be no other transport passing by till the next day. The other one is a rather odd chapter in which he conducts a dialogue with himself, the one voice being a Godlike personage and the other the man himself, with the Godlike creature criticising him for his wanton ways and reflecting on the wicked ways of mankind. However, as the book of a man approaching death, left without his wife, who remains vague but still a presence throughout the book, a man who is trying to find out not only where he has been in the world but where exactly he is now, it works well and is an interesting addition to Goytisolo’s work.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 2003 by Aleph
First published in English by Serpent’s Tail in 2005
Translated by Peter R. Bush