Juan Goytisolo, 1931-2017
Sunday, June 4, 2017 at 11:23PM


Juan Goytisolo died this morning. He was 86 and had been ill for some time. It’s hard to begrudge him his rest, but I am sad nonetheless. One doesn’t get too many literary heroes per lifetime. Goytisolo wouldn’t have liked the word “pure” to be applied to his work in any sense, but I can’t think of a purer anti-authoritarianism than his. He had a keen nose for the violence concealed by every form of domination, linguistic and narrative as well as the more obvious types. His novels dug away at their own foundations, even and especially at his own authority over them. The idea was not to weave a careful and oh-so-pretty semiotic web that leads you if you’re clever to some determined point of emotional impact/edification, but to set you free to tear it all down, and to stand beside him in the intimate, layered, screaming silence that remains. I interviewed him once, over the phone from Marrakesh. “If there is no clear author then there is no authority,” he told me, “and you give the freedom to the reader. For me that was the most important thing, that the reader decide for himself what was the reality.” His antinomianism, his antagonism to the policing of borders of all sorts—to policing of all sorts—his embrace of polyphony, heresy, promiscuity, queerness, and the endless fertility of doubt was not an abstract avant-gardist stance. It formed a concrete politics of exile, the one by which he lived. In his memoirs he wrote of “an irreversible hatred for the monuments and symbols of an ever-cynical, cruel history, for those severe, threatening, official districts whose false grandeur and solemnity hide the original sin of their construction at the expense of humiliations, sufferings, and blood,” and of a corresponding “attraction towards those areas where life is spontaneous, dark, dense, and proliferating, in which the creative act can take root.” As much as anyone, maybe more than anyone, he taught me where the writer belongs: outside, always outside, far from the lights and fences, in the fecund, swirling, darkness, where it is possible to see.

It’s worth adding that Goytisolo understood decades ago that the urge to cleanse Europe of its Muslim past and present, to wall off some purified fictionalized West from the possibility of external contamination, is self-annihilating as well as genocidal.  “We would fight,” his narrator enthused in State of Siege, “against the enemy and his doctrine of borders traced in blood with the eternal and subtle weapon of the weak: the seminal dispersion of their voices, the infinite variants of the Word!” Let’s take him up on that. 

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