From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Summer 1984, Vol. 4.2
Julio Ortega: The main character in your novel entitled Marks of Identity is a Spaniard alienated from his milieu. In Count Julian, your new novel, alienation is even more radical: Don Julian is actually in exile. Your recent work on Blanco White retrieves from oblivion a Spanish intellectual of the nineteenth century who seems to have been ignored by the critics on purpose. One is tempted to relate this process in your critical work with your own attitude as an exile. Maybe you yourself have had need of a tradition that comes to grips with the solitude of exile and an obsession for Spain? It might be interesting, I think, to establish a critical relationship between your literary persona and these other figures which in some way broaden your own discourse in fiction and in criticism. How would you describe the process that led you to assume and include these two historical people?
Juan Goytisolo: There is, in fact, a common denominator to the three texts that you mentioned- the two novels and the critical study of Blanco White on which I worked for the last two years- and this common denominator is, as you point out, the problem of exile. Marks of Identity is, among other things, the expression of the process of alienation in a contemporary intellectual with respect to his own country. It is the exposition of a moral wound in a man of my generation who has had to live through one of the most sepulchral periods of peace in the lengthy history of Spain, a person who has been in the anomalous situation of growing old without having ever known youth or responsibility (as you well know, the Spanish people live in a perpetual state of legal adolescence since April 1, 1939). In Count Julian the process of being dispossessed and breaking with his homeland on the part of the narrator has already taken place. Saint Dreamgirl or The Foster Mother—as Cernuda used to call his country—is seen from the outside; the moral wound has given place to a vengeful curse. As Professor Vicente Llorens, the Spanish critic who has contributed the most to reviving the work of Blanco White has pointed out, an expatriate lives generally in a state of anguished isolation. But, this very state of marginality is favored toward the affirmation of his own ideas, liberated in this way from the hypnosis, from the tabus and the blackmail demanded from him by the society in which he lived. For a country is not merely a piece of earth; it is, above all, a compendium of social, cultural, and historical factors which begin to acquire sense and order through the process of writing. The narrator in Count Julian has renounced the specific space which comprises his homeland (landscape, earth), but he has not renounced its discourse (literary, ideological, etc.) in which his actual identity resides, his historical evolution. With the total freedom which comes from possessing absolutely nothing and having nothing to lose, he wanders like a nomad through eight centuries of Spanish culture, stopping at random wherever his own inspiration dictates, and he picks his intellectual sustenance wherever he pleases. In this manner he integrates in a new and free discourse the places, phrases, and words which he extracts from the collective Hispanic discourse and thus invests it with an active and dynamic function. His aggression, vented against the society in which he has had to live, is first and foremost an aggression toward history and language. All of this is possible because of his alienation and estrangement, since we are dealing with a vision from the outside, from Africa, or more specifically, from Tangiers. Naturally, it must be tempting for the literary critic to establish a relationship between my own person, that of the author, and the other “persons” which amplify my own discourse in the novel or in my criticism. It is not an accident that the two Spanish authors who have interested me the most and influenced me profoundly in the last two years are two exiled authors, two pariahs, two execrated authors: Blanco White and Cernuda. While I lived in Spain, and during the first years of exile, my models were those that had thus served my generation: Larra, Machado. When, in the last decade, I began to shed the tabus and myths which continued to mold in Spain the so-called intelligentsia on the Left, my isolation became distressing. I not only lived physically away from my native land, but the values and critical judgments of those closest to me became stranger and stranger. As I began to discover my own truth and endeavored to possess it with clarity, I became more and more alienated from that which my companions held, or professed to hold. My exile was not only a physical one, motivated exclusively by political reasons; it was also a moral, social, ideological and sexual exile. And with each day that passed, the gulf broadened and my isolation became more accentuated. In such a situation, the discovery that my experience was not unique, that it had also been that of other Spanish intellectuals, became very important for me. When I began to study the work of Blanco White, I had the impression that I was re-reading something that I had written myself, so instant was my familiarity with it. In this centrifugal force a certain law of national gravity had taken over in me. His works amplified, as you say, my own discourse; the tone was different, but the voice was so intimately related to mine as that of the fictitious Don Julian is to my own. And it is because a series of elements in Spanish life which operate today the same way as they did in the times of Blanco White made obvious my relationship with him, based on a similarity in Spain’s condition.
JO: The most notable aspect in Count Julian seems to me the formal and expressive will which questions the notion of genre and also of colloquial language spoken in Spain. There is a critical plurality (from a poetical point of view) in the novel, much more radical than the one which appears in Marks of Identity. This invention of a plural language seems to me to originate precisely in the critical and fictional unity that the text possesses, in the very passion that governs its obsessive writing. I would like for you to tell me how you wrote this novel, how it came to you, how it imposed itself upon you.
JG: In my opinion, the most significant works of the twentieth century are those that rise beyond the conceptual tyranny of genre; they are, at the same time, poetry, criticism, narrative, drama, etc. A contemporary artist can use the findings of all epochs and all styles, from the most primitive literary expressions up to the most refined products of the baroque. The fundamental purpose of a novel like Count Julian is to achieve the unity of object and means of representation, the fusion of treason as scheme and treason as language. Count Julian is at the same time a work of criticism and one of fiction, or, if you prefer, of critical praxis. The free use of different expressive forms and literary styles as building elements in new architecture is a reflection of the present aspiration of authors to achieve a totalizing art, an art that will reflect the situation of man in the twentieth century confronting a cultural heritage of tens of centuries forced to take into account and to be influenced by that musee imaginaire of which Malraux speaks. A mythic interpretation which would justify Spain’s history had been obsessing me for years. It is difficult to live in a city like Tangiers, chasing the proximity of the Spanish coast, without evoking the legendary figure of Don Julian, and without musing over a grandiose “treasonous act” as his was. My distance from the official values of Spain had reached such an extreme that the idea of profanation, of symbolic destruction accompanied me day and night. The only problem which faced me was the choice of language with which I was to commit my own “treasonous act.” In order to violate Hispanic values, i.e., legends and myths, I had to violate the very language in which they were created, to destroy both with the same violent aggression. Having reached this conclusion the rest was relatively easy; the text began to grow by itself.
JO: I am very interested in another aspect of Count Julian; its close relationship with the new Hispano-American narrative. l would say that Count Julian is the most Spanish novel that you have written, but it is also the most Hispano-American one, because of its diversity of form and of expression which allows you even to gloss Hispano-American oral language in your novel. What importance has the Hispano-American prose fiction had for you?
JG:Of course, Count Julian is the most Spanish work I have written. And the reason is simple: its content on a purely verbal level consists of the Hispanic literary discourse from its origins to the present. The attempt to vindicate the treason committed by Don Julian is to refute centuries of hostile history through a kind of vandalic aggression against the written word of our chroniclers, poets, and story tellers. The examples of “plagiarism” which are included at the end of the book may resolve for the erudite scholar the problem of “sources.” The real problem, however, is not a problem of sources, but rather of functions which I attribute to those “plagiarisms,” to the rather free use which I make of them. My approach allows me to engage in an intertextual dialogue with authors whom I admire, or to parody or play with the style of those who seem to me not very respectable, etc. All of which leads us to the second part of what you say: my symbolic intellectual nomadic quality does indeed have affinities with the new Hispano American prose fiction, which is much freer in its relationship with the past than is Spanish prose fiction. In fact, it is also freer with the past tradition of other languages and other cultures. In my opinion, the great pioneer of this attitude is Borges. Without him, neither the new Hispano-American novel nor a work like Count Julian would have been possible.
JO: Although the contact between Hispano-American literature and Spanish literature has been rather poor in the last few years, I would say that there is now a new situation. Do you believe that a more modern tradition is now changing the new Peninsular literature, or do you see a more decisive hiatus in it at an earlier period?
JG: This lack of contact does not exist only between Peninsular literature and Hispano-American literature. If the Atlantic separates writers and readers from Barcelona and Madrid from those of Mexico City, Buenos Aires, or Lima, then among the latter there is also a kind of political, psychological, and patriotic Andes barrier separating them, which actually favors compartmentalization and plays right into the hands of imperialism. I believe that to lift cultural blockades, to ferment a real free interchange of ideas, and to combat all kinds of monolithic structures, can contribute decisively to the creation of a literature in the Spanish language without any kind of frontiers or custom houses.
Having said this, I do believe that the new relationship between Hispano-American literature and Spanish literature is irreversible on both parts. One characteristic of Peninsular literature has been its isolation and lack of permeability to ideas and currents from the outside. Hispano-American literature, on the other hand, has suffered from exactly the opposite effect, sometimes incurred through too much acceptance of foreign literature. Today both the tendencies are beginning to correct themselves and to compensate each other, and in this respect it is interesting to observe that the most European of our poets—I am referring to Cernuda—is the one who has most influenced later generations in Spain. These generations are no longer impeded as ours was, by the asphyxiating cult to the authors of ’98 and their followers. The paralyzing attention to “Castilianism” with all its narrowness has now lost its prestige, and young writers show themselves to be more internationalist. In the last analysis the world does not stop at the River Guadarrama, at the Gredos Mountains, or at the walls of Avila. The generational gap and the new life forms have really abolished many of the old frontiers.
JO: In your own work, I find that the moment of breaking with tradition is fundamental to an essential reformulation of your creative endeavor. What importance do new critical ideas have in this process? To what extent do you think that an awareness of critical theory can affect the formal nature of a work of fiction?
JG: All creative work is indissolubly linked to the exercise of a critical faculty. Count Julian is, simultaneously, a work of fiction and a work of criticism, which defies deliberately a tyrannical conception of genre. The old-fashioned novel (with “round” characters developed psychologically, with its verisimilitude and its “realism,” etc.) no longer interests me, and I don’t think that I will write such any more (which does not mean that I renounce those I published earlier). The only kind of literature which interests me at the moment is that which lies outside the labels of “novel,” “essay,” “poem,” etc. When I wrote my essay on Blanco White, I also included in it my own autobiography. I have appropriated Blanco White into my own myth. In Count Julian I simply proposed to create a text which would allow for diverse levels of reading. My approach is the natural result of a series of critical reflections based, in part, on my reading of the Russian formalists, Benveniste, Jakobson, the Prague Circle, etc. A writer who is unaware of the movements in poetics and linguistics seems to me an anachronism in today’s world. The writer cannot abandon himself simply to inspiration, and feign innocence vis a vis language, because language is never innocent.
JO: As we all know, you are known as a literary figure who also has taken an active part in politics. You have gone from a literature of protest, and an involvement in political activity, to literary reflections of culture within an international ideological framework of a totally engage nature. But does not engagement have its own evolution? What can you tell us with respect to this aspect of your work?
JG: If we analyze literary history, we will find the alternation between periods in which the individual expression of the artist predominates with others in which literary works reflect rather unanimously what Lukacs has called with keen insight the “social charge” of a period. In times when religious or political faith or hope predominates, the writer functions totally in unison with society, and expresses society’s feelings, beliefs, and hopes in perfect harmony. This is what happened during the Middle Ages, when no one doubted Christianity or, to take more recent examples, in the great moments of revolutionary strife, in 1789, 1848, 1871, 1917, etc. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, almost all the best writers and intellectuals put aside their personal problems and obsessions and immediately offered their talents to the service of the Republican cause. The same thing occurred in Cuba, I remember, during the dramatic hours of Playa Giron and the missile crisis. But when this faith and hope in the collectivity either becomes weakened or disappears—through a change in circumstances or perspectives or, simply, through fatigue—and the writer no longer feels the urgency of his “social charge,” the expression of problems of a social and collective dimension tends to give way to individual expressions of the artist himself. It is for this reason that socialist regimes often impose by decree upon their authors a set of themes which are to be followed because they are convenient for those regimes. But the mechanism of such creations explains the failure of the so-called “socialist realism.” The faith and enthusiasm that a poet possesses cannot be dictated from above. When Christianity was not an empty word, the architects and artisans could construct those marvelous Romanesque or Gothic cathedrals which today fill us with admiration; today, in a world without God such a religious art is absolutely unthinkable.
In the Europe which was created by the Second World War, divided into two blocks, each in need of a revolution that would end the abuses and injustices of capitalism and the privileges of a bureaucratic caste, collective faith does not exist. Given the difficulty of capturing and expressing the discontent, often vague, and the aspirations, often confused, of the masses, the best writers and painters opt for the expression of their own psyche, for rebellion, sometimes alienated, sometimes schizophrenic, against an age which repels them in its totality.
This vacillation between “social charge” and individual expression functions in the same manner within the work of a painter, a novelist, or a poet, according to the accidents of the historical moment in which he lives. Picasso and Alberti offer us good examples of that fact. I see the same kind of alternation within my own work. After an initial stage (that of Juegos de manos, Duelo en el paraiso, and Fiestas) in which, rather vaguely even for me, I try to express my obsessions and personal anguish, my own vision of the world (oppressed, as I felt, by a rigid education and traditional values which I felt were invalid), my developing political conscience, the discovery of the brutal injustices of the society which had spawned me, all these factors led me, as they also did many of the writers of my generation, to express the urgent need for social and political change in my country. These conditions forced me to adopt a literary form which was suited to the didactic and revolutionary purposes which guided my pen: novels of social theses—La resaca; documentaries—Campos de nijar, La chanca, Pueblo en marcha; scripts to be used for popular films—La isla; political articles, etc. This engage state lasted as long as the reality surrounding us seemed to make possible a revolution that we thought feasible. But when it became evident to me that Spain was modernizing itself, and becoming Americanized, under the present regime, and that this process threatened to last even beyond the death of Franco, I began to weaken. I was at that time well on my way to becoming one of those official writers of world progress, glorious representatives in exile of their country’s political plight (a rather comfortable career, I might add, dependent upon closing one’s eyes to the defects—ever more visible—of institutionalized revolutions). I remember that in 1963 when I was visiting Cuba, I was introduced to a large popular group in this manner, and while I was being applauded, I perceived with anguishing clarity that the applause was directed toward an official and external person which had little to do with me. Between my real person and the applause that I was hearing there seemed to stand a double, or, as Cavafy says in one of his most beautiful poems, “an inopportune visitor.” This experience was an essential one for me because it led me to examine the roots of things, to look at problems in a different way. From that time on I have not ceased to have the need to clear the atmosphere that surrounds me, to explain my real being to others and to myself without worrying about any inconvenient obstacles. Marks of Identity, Count Julian, my essay and translation of Blanco White all form part of this new attempt at individual expression, which I have found absolutely necessary to go on living in peace with myself. The book that I am now working on ought to complete in rather definitive form, I hope, this stage. For the last few years I have abstained, sometimes with great difficulty, from participating in an active way in a series of political causes which affect me personally. I want to separate my artistic and human condition from any stricture which might be based on equivocation, inhibition, or censorship. If I am true to myself and recognized as such by others, I will be able to take up causes and be more effective in them. I hope that at that time I will be able to give myself again to an activity which is not “literary.”
JO: In this respect, how would you place your own critical confrontation vis a vis the theme of Spain? This is not the place to review it, but I know that your own dissidence is taken seriously by Spanish intellectuals and creates very diverse reactions: from the attempt to bypass it dealing with it as “obsessive” up to the genuine need of assuming it for oneself because the intellectual recognizes himself in his marginality. I think that it might be interesting to have you comment on this.
JG: For many years I wrote regularly a series of articles and notes, some in Spanish, some in French, about Spanish political affairs. Most of them appeared under a pseudonym in L’Express and L’Observateur. The last one was published in 1964 and it was the object of very severe criticism on the part of many of the Spanish opposition within Spain, and above all, in exile. Recently I reread it by chance and, without sounding at all vain, I must say that subsequent events have borne me out in what, at the time, was held by others to be negative and defeatist. These reactions from the Left after a very violent campaign of denigration from the official Right (so similar to that which Blanco White suffered in London after the publication of his articles in favor of the Hispano-American revolutionaries) influenced me to withdraw from Spanish political life. My role in it was never intended to produce either personal gain or a career. It was prompted by strong feelings for my country. The Spanish tragedy—the consciousness of a national tragedy which has been felt so acutely by our best intellectuals since the middle of the eighteenth century—reached its paroxysm during the Civil War of 1936-39, in terms which moved and mobilized the entire liberal and progressive intelligentsia of the world. When I read or meditate on what happened in those years, it is difficult for me to hold back my emotions and not think of what Spain meant to so many writers and intellectuals and to thousands of people of different means and ideologies, races, religions, and languages, who left their countries, their work, their families, and their friends in order to fight and die for our country. It is evident that the Spanish cause appealed to a universal conscience in the clear-cut dilemma which was then being faced politically, and that explains the passion and the generous sacrifice of so many lives.
But the Spain which emerged around 1960, beginning with its economic miracle, created by the invasion of tourists, can no longer result in impassioned dedication on the part of its intellectuals, and even less on the part of foreign intellectuals. This does not mean that Spanish intellectuals do not continue to have a reasonable and pragmatic interest in the destiny of their country. What I am saying is that their passion, when it exists, will be channeled in other directions. Let us take, for example, the case of England at the beginning of the nineteenth century. She had obtained religious liberty, resolved religious conflict, begun the Industrial Revolution (full of horrible injustices, of course, but necessary nonetheless) and the result was that its intellectuals began to draw away from the national problem. They continued naturally to intervene in British political life, but their heart was in Greece, in Italy, or in Spain. Everyone remembers the death of Lord Byron defending freedom in Greece. Well, even though the episode is not as well known, the Spanish liberal cause also had its martyrs. Vicente Llorens has described magnificently the participation of young people like Robert Boyd and the poet Richard Trench in the ill-fated expedition of Torrijos. In the final pages of The Face of Spain, Brenan has described with great precision the kind of nomadic sentimentality which his British compatriots feel frequently, as an escape from their countryside more and more devastated by the Industrial Revolution.
What happened in England in the nineteenth century is happening right now in Spain, even though many intellectuals of my generation, and particularly those of previous generations, do not understand the process. Those who do, and very clearly indeed, are the modern captains of industry, those technocrats of the Opus dei who have freed Spanish Catholicism from all its shame accumulated during the centuries and now concentrate only on commercial values and money. One might say that the Opus dei are our Calvinists, and that explains why they have had such a good reception in Protestant countries. As I wrote in an article in 1964, Spain has lost its dramatic character and hence the attraction that underdeveloped countries have (traits which one finds today, for example, in Mexico or in Morocco), without acquiring through that process the material and moral advantages of richer nations. The fight must continue to acquire political and syndical freedom, the abolition of censorship, the elimination of social injustice, etc. But today this fight cannot create in Spain the passion and the unlimited dedication which either the Vietnamese or the Palestine cause has elicited in others. Spain’s present image approximates more and more that of the other European countries, and just as no intellectual of the French Left can feel passionately about France, no British subject about England, no Dutch citizen about Holland, a loving passion for Spain these days, to my view, would be anachronistic. I have tried to develop these thoughts in my essay on Blanco White. Patriotism on the Left, I say there, is linked to underdevelopment and to the necessity and even the actual possibility of violent change. Clearly this is not the case in Spain today. I can safely say that I have been among the first to see this Spanish problem in a modern light. As British writers have been doing for the last century and a half, I continue to be interested in the cause of liberty and democracy in my country (as I am also interested in that of any other European country), but my passion (not only intellectual, but also “physical, physiological, anatomical, functional, circulatory, respiratory, etc.,” as Artaud used to conceive it) is now spent on the revolutionary struggle of the Arab countries. Neither exultation which I felt towards Spain in the decade of the fifties, as a result of my remembrances as a child in 1936-39, nor the repressive political climate which ensued thereafter, obtains any longer for those young people in Spain for whom the Civil War evokes no memory, for those who have been educated in a country converted through an annual tourism of more than 20 million Europeans into a paradise.
JO: Marks of Identity and Count Julian are independent works of fiction, but at the same time they belong to a process which not only presupposes a “destruction” of your previous narrative, but also unleashes its own system, a system which seeks to destroy the novel as a genre. Where do you think that this process might lead you to?
JG: I have for some time now been working on the continuation of Count Julian, and, with it, will close the cycle which I began with Marks of Identity. I am not dealing, of course, with a continuation of a novelistic world of characters, events, actions, and environments, but rather with a discourse which in each of the three books operates on different linguistic strata. In Marks of Identity I was searching for the integration of different narrative techniques within the mold of an eclectic, artistic conception in the sense which Broch gives to this term. In Count Julian I tried to create a circular work, unified and hermetic, with no loose ends. In the book which I am now writing, I aspire to create an open work, radiating in various directions as with the slats of a fan, and in which the centrifugal force of the various narrative lines will become unified through the use of discursive language. Alvaro, the character who used to speak in Marks of Identity, became metamorphosed later into the mythic Don Julian and now haunts time and space as would a ghost, like the Wandering Jew. Spain no longer plays an important role as in Count Julian. The phantasmagoric discourse which the text produces no longer has a homeland in a material or spiritual sense. In Count Julian, the narrator had renounced Spain, but not yet its history or culture. In this new novel, the process of cultural pruning continues; sometimes it is embodied in the person of a character who failed in his aspirations; other times it adopts the voice of a priest who believes in slavery, or it transforms itself into King Kong or Lawrence of Arabia. The essential meaning of the work takes no barriers into account: it jumps from Cuba to Istanbul, from New York to the Sahara Desert, from the past to the present, and then to the future or to Utopia. Everything treated is unbelievable or strange but, as Sklovski saw very well, the more remote the possibility was of justifying a moral or artistic position “the greater the pleasure that the writer takes in developing his examples.” The creator of “discourse” changes his voice, and in that manner changes his skin, as easily as a fregoli; he is a “mere linguistic character,” an authentic man without a country, and that is why I have entitled the novel “Juan sin tierra.” (I must explain that when Blanco White seeks refuge in London, and begins the publication of his political chronicles in El Espanol, he does it with the pseudonym of Juan sin tierra.) As you might suppose, I use the label “novel” only out of convenience because, as I have said earlier, the only kind of writing that interests me lies outside canonized literary forms. My own praxis (and not just my critical reflection) has shown me the wisdom of Barthes’s suggestion, in Le degre zero de l’ecriture, that every writer can potentially add to the process of literature. And it is true that my own birth as a writer coincides in fact with the destruction of my literature, of the literary molds which in routine fashion I took from tradition.
JO: What you say indicates that the natural result of this cycle which you’re writing lies in the very code of the text; within a literary construction which seemingly destroys itself. But before we deal with this “zero degree” of the narrative process, I must ask you about “the objective correlative” as an ingredient in the two novels of your present cycle.
JG: When I write now I do not invent situation, characters, or actions, but rather structures and discursive forms, textual groupings which are combined according to secret affinities among themselves, as in architecture or the plastic arts. In fact, the only “novelistic” works which I am interested in now are those which show a new and audacious elaboration; those in which the creative imagination of the writer manifests itself not through an outside referent in reality, but above all, through the use of language.
Actually, there is no contradiction between the desire for personal expression which I have mentioned above and the intention of constructing a discursive texture which can be judged of and by itself. As you know, any literary work has within it several kinds of readings: it is, at the same time, the illustration of certain ideas (political, artistic, philosophic, etc.), the image or reflection of the society in which it is produced, and the expression of the author who creates it. Traditional critics tend to accentuate one of these three factors, sometimes all three; but a literary work is much more than this. In Count Julian there is obviously a desire for personal expression. Nevertheless, the best critical reading is that of the text itself in its relations with the literary corpus of the Spanish language. Only an analysis of this sort can reveal its originality, its innovations and relationships, its secret architecture.
JO: You are right. Both Marks of Identity and Count Julian require in the reading the various levels which you are pointing out. Count Julian may be read as an answer to the romantic treatment of the theme as treated by the English romantics who also wrote of a legendary Spain using the themes which you do in Count Julian. But this very disintegration of forms and of themes which seem to culminate in “Juan sin tierra,” might it not imply a “zero degree” of its own, a blank page, a silence? If so, how far have you actually advanced?
JG: I don’t know when the novel will be ready, I imagine not for three or four years yet. In contrast to that period in my life when I used to produce a novel a year, now I write very slowly and I am in no hurry at all to publish my work. In recent years I have achieved what I had wanted before and found very difficult to achieve; namely to disappear from the world of publishing, to cease to be a piece of merchandise in that world. Before, when I used to write novels in a few months, these were immediately translated into more than ten languages, and I could live from my royalties. The temptation was great to continue producing at that pace, and to assure myself in that manner a place in the publishing world. But even then I was cognizant of the danger that such a process holds for the development of a creative writer. When I was one of the most translated writers and the majority of my colleagues considered me very fortunate, I felt myself more and more anguished and in need of sabotaging my own position. I came to realize that my own personal growth as a literary writer depended upon my giving up the capacity to earn a living through writing. Now I teach for several months in universities in the United States or Canada, and I can work without any hurry, at my own pace. When the text that I am working on now ceases to grow and its architecture satisfies me, I will publish it. But I do not want to be pinned down about dates.
If young writers were to ask me for advice, the first one that I would give them is that they renounce living from their writings, that they search for parallel activities that might earn them a living. In large measure it is these economic reasons which are responsible for that monstrously irresponsible and repetitious mass of writing which floods the publishing market, converting writers into hens, some of whom lay eggs at an amazing speed. The writer, too, ought to have the right to keep quiet and not to produce. In this sense the silence of Sanchez Ferlosio after publishing his extraordinary work, El Jarama, ought to be a lesson to all. His is a much more significant work than the entire “realistic-objective” production of those novelists whose works we have read for a long time. I hope that when the time comes when I have nothing to say or do not feel like saying anything, I will have the good sense and guts to keep quiet.
JO: What you are saying shows very well how your new relationship with language has taken also into question the literary context and the writer within that context as well. What are your critical reflections as you write “Juan sin tierra”? What else are you writing at the same time?
JG: At the same time that I work on the text of “Juan sin tierra,” I am writing a series of essays which bear a relationship with my own discourse: on Genet, on Joaquin Belda, on Rojas and Sade, on Fra Turmeda, and on Tristram Shandy. The courses which I am teaching in American universities are extremely useful to me in that they allow me to explore subjects which otherwise I would never have had the time to study. Right now I am working on “castes, sex, and repression in Castilian literature, from the Arcipreste de Hita to Maria de Zayas,” and I have written a short essay on the latter which will serve as an introduction for a new edition of her novels. On the other hand, contact with the American world and with the new phenomena and modes of life that it is creating, fascinating in their horror and ferocity, has opened my eyes with respect to the marginal and static condition of life and culture in Europe, not unakin to that of a wax museum. To tell the truth, France is today as much taken as Spain is with “the American way of life” and copies it without shame. If there is any difference between these two cultures, it is in the faithfulness to the model and nothing else. Maybe Europe has lost forever its stimulus and attraction. It no longer is in the vanguard, nor can it serve as a refuge from the suicidal aberrations of “progress.” That is why the jump from New York to the Sahara Desert renders the old charm of Venice, Paris, or Rome inoperative. My own sensitivity becomes oriented toward the two poles. As Gide said: “The extremes touch me.”
JO: Lezama Lima explains insightfully in La expresion americana that our view of our cultural past is not only historical in character, but also mytho-poetic. Ever since the rupture with Naturalism in the 1920s, it seems clear that the “breaking apart of writing” also implies a critical and creative reading of tradition. Might it not be that the notion of change is not too important these days because contemporary Spanish literature has lost contact with its classics? I find a creative reading of tradition in Borges, in Lezama, in Paz, and also in your own present literary process. How do you read our classics, both major and minor? Do your new essays follow the perspectives which you expounded in El furgon de cola?
JG: The vision of the cultural past of Borges, Paz, Lezama Lima, has contributed decisively to that “breakdown in writing” which characterizes the literary Hispano-American vanguard in the last few years. Unlike their Spanish counterparts, these three authors have confronted the classics in a free and creative manner, without that false “respect” which has almost always paralyzed Peninsular critics, and for this reason Borges, Paz, and Lezama have rescued the classics from the deadly historical perspective of erudition, and have rendered their truth a contemporary one. Let’s take the case of Don Quixote. From the very beginning of the work, Cervantes invites us to contemplate it not as a “tranche de vie or piece of reality,” but as a literary object which, though it limits itself to actualizing the potentialities of novelistic discourse, also offers us a combination not found in any previous literary model. The reading of Don Quixote introduces us to an authentic gallery of literary mirrors, to a complex relation of signs which correspond to very diverse kinds of literary and extra-literary reality. Americo Castro, one of those very rare Spaniards capable of a creative reading of the classics, understood very well that the Cervantine novel does not correspond only to the exaggerations and extravaganzas of the novels of chivalry, but that it is related to the totality of the literary corpus of the period (pastoral novel, novel in the Italian style, Moorish tale, Lope’s theatre, etc.). In the Quixote, Cervantes introduces us to a complete catalog of the different literary codes of his time, with the entire arsenal of literary tricks characteristic of each of them, and proceeds in the most garrulous and playful manner to mix them all up and to destroy them in the name of the new literary reality which he creates. For example, the famous discussion on verisimilitude between the curate and the innkeeper which appears in the first part, takes place before Cardenio and Dorotea (protagonists, or better yet “agents,” in a different novelistic genre), and later Don Quixote and Sancho (hidalgo and squire from La Mancha, but also characters in a novel of chivalry), Cardenio and Dorotea (as actors in a tale in the Italian manner) and the curate and the innkeeper (as characters on the “realistic” level of the work) all come together during the reading of “The Curious Impertinent” (a manuscript which was “found” in a suitcase and in turn included within the text of a translation of some notebooks in Arabic which the second author bought for half a silver coin; all this according to a technique of the tale within the tale such as we find it in Russian dolls or in Chinese boxes). In order to measure the audacity of Cervantes’s playfulness in mixing in the same scenes characters which belong to different genres, one would have to imagine -as I did recently with my students at New York University—a movie in which the typical hero of the Far West (John Wayne) would meet up with, say, Dillinger or Al Capone (James Cagney) and together they went to view a film about Frankenstein featuring Boris Karloff. The creative reading of literary tradition which Cervantes begins did not produce any echo in his own country -the Spanish Peninsula proved to be once more a lump of granite which did not allow the seed of free quixotic invention to thrive—but it did just that in France and England, where it allowed for the creation of such disparate works as Le neveu de rameau, Jacques le fataliste, Tristram Shandy, Pickwick Papers, and Bouvard et Pecuchet, novels which share a debt to Cervantes. For three centuries, Don Quixote remained among us at the hands of erudites like Rodriguez Marin, or readers who were involuntarily odd, such as Unamuno. Borges was the first writer to abandon, as you say so well, the historical vision of the past common to most writers of the Generation of ’98, in favor of a new and much more suggestive view. For Borges, as for the author of the Quixote, literature is a play of mirrors, a dialectic succession of forms, an uninterrupted creation. He feels that in our imaginary museum there are no sacred works, no works that function as fetishes, because time and other works are forever modifying them. Such a hypothesis results in an extremely fruitful creation. Following the steps of Cervantes, Borges teaches us that the influence and relationships between works that belong to different epochs do not operate in a unilateral mode, but rather in a reciprocal one, to the degree that the older work can inject new reality into the newer one, both transcending their own limits and creating a new general text with a wider rhetoric. The excellent statements by Lezama on Gongora and by Octavio Paz on Gongora and Quevedo take us precisely in this direction.
As for me, I think that the focus in El furgon de cola still suffers, perhaps because of its polemical spirit against a cultural vision of the Generation of ’98, from some historical drawbacks. Today, my reading of Rojas, Cervantes, or Gongora is closer to that of Borges, Lezama, and Paz, and also to that of Fuentes and Sarduy. In the course that I taught on the structural analysis of narrative, this is the manner in which I focused on the works of Cervantes. But the best example of my position can be found throughout Count Julian.
JO: Borges wrote his memorable “Pierre Menard” based on the Quixote; Lezama, as Vitier says, has poked fun at Don Luis de Gongora. In Count Julian, there are many references in parodies to the whole museum of language. Is parody the mechanism which you use for working on the classics?
JG: I would say rather that the many parodies which are inserted in the text of Count Julian are less directed to the classics themselves than to the classics as-seen through the reductive prism of the Generation of ’98. It was for me a way of protesting against a curious phenomenon of appropriating Cervantes, which in the case of Unamuno, reaches indecent proportions. The Generation of ’98’s view of the Golden Age is based upon old Christian myths which created the downfall of Spain. It is a gaunt and grotesque echo of retrograde values which the bourgeois world swept from the rest of Europe more than three centuries ago. . . . Even in the case of authors for whom I have very little admiration, such as Lope, the object of my scorn, as Gonzalo Sobejano has seen very well in his article on the subject, is directed less towards them than towards the reactionary use of these authors by Unamuno, Ganivet, or Azorin.
Having said this, I must point out that the parody of the classics already includes such illustrious authors as Cervantes or Valle-Inclan, and such a parody does not summarize the division of the cultural past which appears in Count Julian. In fact, the intertextual dialogue, which is not parodic, also plays a predominant role, even though it functions on very different levels. The four authors whose shadows are in evidence constantly throughout the book—Rojas, Cervantes, Fray Luis, Gongora—to different purposes and strata of the structure of the novel. The relationship with Fray Luis, for example, is a thematic one, through the “Profecia del Tajo” and the legend on the destruction of Spain. With Rojas the relationship is a moral one, through the same subversive spirit with which Don Julian fights the values of his time. With Cervantes the relationship is structural, based upon the desire to create a work which is at the same time criticism and creation, literature and a discourse on literature (the episode of the flies functions in a similar manner as the episode of the burning of the books by the curate and the barber; both introduce the question of literary discussion within the very corpus of the novel). With Gongora the relationship is linguistic, through the use of a terminology and a syntax which might be termed Baroque, a language which uses discourse rather than referent and which centers its attention on the sign rather than on the thing designated.
In “Juan sin tierra” the intertextual relations are not limited to literature and to Spanish authors; they extend to other languages and other cultural contexts ranging from the works of Fra Turmeda, the renegade Mallorcan, to the works of Pere de Foucauld or Lawrence of Arabia. Thus, the references are wider; the world of the classics is substituted by that of the movies, of popular literature, and of marginal author-adventurers who are fascinated as I am by the Arab world.
JO: I would like to continue chatting about the change in the Hispano-American narrative. Side by side with those novels that create a world (Rayuela, El Jarama, Paradiso, La casa verde, Cien anos de soledad), we have another series of texts which might be called “dissovlent” because of their open structures (Tres tristes tigres, Cambio de piel, Siberia blues, Cobra. . . ), and I think that part of our literary production moves direction. What you tell me indicates that Count Julian creates a world and that “Juan sin tierra” moves in another direction Would you care to comment on this Process?
JG: Count Julian is, as you say, a closed work, circular, whole, not allowing for any loose threads, and forcing the reader to go back once and again through a series of elements which seemingly have already given all their information. This type of literary construction is to be found in a series of novels for which I feel a great admiration: La casa verde, for example, or Under the Volcano. In them, the continuous play between the parts and the whole, between the language and the structure through which the work adopts, as Yury Lotman says, the form of a spiral “in which the number of spires is proportional to the complexity of the system.” It is for this reason that critics who study these works often use musical terminology and speak to us, for example, of a semantic orchestration which sometimes takes on the forms and canonical movements of classical works. The great variety of elements which the novelist plays with conforms to the rules of an ars combinatoria of its own, ignored by the reader, which does not mean that the novel does not have a unifying nucleus—unity of place, of time, etc.—around which the novelist weaves laboriously the threads of his narrative. This central nucleus (even in those cases in which it takes the form of a vacuum) exercises a greater degree of attraction than what we might call the centrifugal force of the elements composing it. In Count Julian one has, for example, unity of place (Tangiers), or time (the entire action occurs between the moment in which the protagonist wakes up and returns to his room to go back to sleep), and even of character (despite his continual metamorphoses), and the connection between the various themes follows a structure which Manuel Duran has rightly called “symphonic.”
In “Juan sin tierra,” the problem is a different one. There is no unity of time, nor of place, nor of character, even though at the beginning of the text this might not seem to be the case. The reader needs to penetrate the novel as if it were a dream, confronting a slippery and ever changing world, one which appears and disappears incessantly before his eyes. The personal pronouns which appear in the narrative do not express an individual voice, but rather all voices or none at all. As Benveniste showed, I, you, we, do not really refer to an objective reality as is the case with most nominal signs, but rather to a reality of discourse, to a mere process of enumeration. Neither the you, which is the referent, nor the I which is the agent, possesses a precise and concrete identity, and at no time does the reader really know who is the actor and who is the recipient. The various textual groupings distributed throughout the chapters of the book obey a single centrifugal force which is different from the unities of the classic; they depend rather on the organizing nucleus of the writing itself, on the text. This does not mean that the entire book has a single language. The linguistic center of the text creates the unity of the novel insofar as it is not situated within any of the linguistic strata, but rather at the point in which these various strata converge. All of this may seem rather abstract, but as you can see, I am going from music to geometry. Because only spatial reality can express with fidelity what I am trying to do and, in this respect, “Juan sin tierra” is closer to poetry. Because while the novel (even those works like La casa verde, Under the Volcano, or Count Julian) is grounded on logical relationships (causality) and temporal ones (succession), poetry is based predominantly on a spatial relationship, by virtue of a combination of repetitions and symmetrical games which take place on the written page. In “Juan sin tierra” logic and time are systematically destroyed and the structure of the work, like that of the poem, develops on a spatial plane. The reader ought to “read it” as if it was a Calder mobile.
JO: Speaking once again of “zero degree” in writing, I asked myself if “Juan sin tierra” does not raise the two issues that we have talked about: the decoding of literature (yours included) and the possibility of silence at the end of a cycle. I asked myself if, in the “vacuum” of tradition and in that final cycle, that “zero degree,” there may not be a new generative center which will create new unseen possibilities in literature. Or do you feel, rather, that in inciting the dissolution of the novel as a genre, the text will become all-consuming, a kind of final formulation beyond which one cannot go?
JG: The answer is a difficult one, and right now I don’t know how to answer you with any degree of certainty. My present impression is this: I conceive of “Juan sin tierra” as a final work, as the finis terrae of my own writing. In any case, I work on this novel as if in the future I were not going to write again, as if I were blowing up all the bridges behind me, and cutting off all the avenues of retreat. When I published Count Julian, various critics were of the opinion that I had come to the end of the road, to a point beyond which I would not be able to advance. But I knew that despite the difficulties implied in writing a book that would transcend Count Julian, I could proceed further in my own personal process with literature toward the dissolution of language and of traditional narrative forms. Between the period of time in which I finished Count Julian and I began “Juan sin tierra” (while I translated and wrote the prologue to the English works of Blanco White), I wrote a series of texts which are truly the beginning of my actual work on “Juan sin tierra,” and I became convinced in doing so that I still had a certain amount of room to experiment with the final architecture of the book. I propose to continue with such experimentation, and that is why I think that “Juan sin tierra” will close the cycle that I began with Marks of Identity and will not open new possibilities for the generation of new works. This is doubtless a suicidal attitude, but all contemporary vanguard roads lead fatally to a kind of symbolic suicide, to a hara-kiri of expressive possibilities. In this sense, we are living in a literary period which is not unlike that known to Spanish authors in the first half of the seventeenth century, to Quevedo and above all, to Gongora. Gongora’s great poems, as Octavio Paz has observed, are sumptuous, funereal monuments, destructive ceremonies which close definitely a poetic cycle in our language and which in fact serve as Gongora’s own mausoleum, since he was buried in it for three centuries until he was resurrected in 1927. The poetry of Mallarme and of Pound, the novels of Joyce, all converge toward a zero degree of dissolution, toward a final reabsorption into silence, and if one is looking for closer and less lofty examples, the present crisis in the French vanguard reflects the same process. Think, for example, of the destructive evolution in Beckett or in Michel Butor, or in the novels and plays of Genet. The Journal du voleur, Le Balcon, Les Negres are really death rituals, real mausoleums to a lofty dead language. Roland Barthes is right when he says that the contemporary European writer faces an excessive alternative: either to seek refuge in a mandarin kingdom, the product of the fatigue of bourgeois culture, or in the utopic idea of a culture created by a revolution which is radically different from any that we know today. That is to say that the dilemma facing the contemporary writer can be summarized in the following terms: idle chatter or silence. To progress, to take one’s own personal process in literature, leads one to a final process which closes all exits; not to advance, to repeat oneself, leads one to the idle prattle that characterizes 99 percent of all writers, and includes some who at a given moment questioned their own praxis, but stopped scared, in the middle of the road, when they noticed that their trajectory would run into nothingness. Maybe in Hispano-America things are different.
JO: Seemingly, the breaks with tradition among the novelists of the Hispano-American “boom” have also been realized as a technical repertory whose efficacy of expression allows them to create new and valid novels. But everything seems to indicate that in the questioning of the techniques of writing, they cease to be meditations and become rather the text itself in a sufficient and inimitable manner. The techniques of Garcia Marquez can produce an excellent new novel, but it is difficult to imagine a new novel by Cabrera Infante using the same techniques that appear in Tres tristes tigres. It is not an accident, then, that the works of Severo Sarduy and Nestor Sanchez reveal each time, new formulations.
JG: Tres tristes tigres, as Tristram Shandy, is of course a text that cannot be repeated, one in which the creative and dissolutive process leads to its ultimate consequences. But I do not think that the work of Garcia Marquez can be repeated with success. Proof of that is the monstrous proliferation of stories about crazy colonels, alchemists, people who can fly, to which in the last four or five years those who serve on juries for literary prizes have been subjected. The fundamental dialectical antinomy of a work is that which opposes the subjectivity of the author to the objectivity of the literary structure. Thus, even though the individual work may limit itself to actualizing a series of latent possibilities in narrative discourse, the combination it produces is totally unique. Nevertheless, I agree with you that the experience of Tres tristes tigres and of Cien anos de soledad is of a different nature. After more than three centuries of that “imaginative apathy” which Blanco White lamented in his excellent defense of “unreal imaginations,” Garcia Marquez has given the Spanish-speaking world a masterpiece which has a direct tie with the creative universe of Cervantes. That is, Cien anos de soledad has come to fill an imaginative vacuum that has lasted more than three centuries, and this key historical function explains, I think, its immediate and universal recognition because it is at the same time a classical and revolutionary work; revolutionary if we take as a point of reference the real world insofar as it presents to us facts and situations which are totally imaginary; classical in its relationship with what we might term the grammar of narrative and narrative structures. In the case of Tres tristes tigres as in Aura and Cambio de piel of Fuentes, or in the last two novels of Sarduy, the subversion that we discover in them is not that of reality, but rather that of narrative language. Despite their apparent differences, these works have all been created through an irreversible process of dissolution as discrete ceremonies of destruction. What these authors are telling us is that the novelist does not forge the literary object which we have come to know with the name of novel only by listening to his interior voices or reproducing real things, but by working through a language and a narrative structure which possess their own laws, a complex net of convergences, harmonies, and exclusions. All of this is, of course, rather an approximation, since all novels are, simultaneously, the expression of the author, a reflection (not necessarily a realistic one!) of the world, and the combination of elements within the frame of an autonomous narrative. But the degree of personal expression, of the representation of the world, and of the attention paid to structure and its rules of construction and destruction, is not the same, for example, in Vargas Llosa, Garcia Marquez, Donoso or Cabrera Infante. All this does not in any sense imply a value judgment on my part, because it is obvious that works which are as different as Cien anos de soledad, La casa verde, Paradiso, El obscene pajaro de la noche, or Tres tristes tigres cannot be measured in the same manner.
JO: The same kind of radical criticism of the novel as a genre can be observed in some Spanish writers. In the novels of Juan Benet I seem to see an interesting version of the relationship between change and tradition, between an autonomous writing which converts the world into a kind of rumor and narrative sequence into a neutral language. And I know that Recuento, the new novel by Luis Goytisolo, which is about to appear, uses and consumes a diversity of expressive norms in a discontinuous and circular structure. Your own work coincides with these experiences in the same manner as it is related with the latest Hispano-American novel. In a different way these signs can also be applied to a wider break in aesthetics within an international literary framework. I’d like to ask you now about such a relationship. Which authors, which texts, have you found decisive for the evolution of this change? Aside from the new French criticism, how do you view the experiences of Roche, Ricardou, Sollers?
JG: Let’s discuss this section by section. Insofar as Spain is concerned, I cannot speak with great authority because I live away from it physically, morally, and intellectually. I am consequently not very much up on what happens there. Nevertheless, my impression is that with very few exceptions, Spanish writers have not been able to escape the creative impasse which existed about ten or twelve years ago when the expressive possibilities of objectivism and of the documentary novel ended. Tiempo de silencio was a fortunate early attempt at breaking with the state of affairs which existed then, but it did not develop because of the untimely death of Martin Santos. Of Benet, I know only Volveras a Region, a work which interested me a great deal, particularly the first halt. I have not read my brother Luis’s novel Recuento, but all I have heard from people whom I trust leads me to believe that it is an extremely important book. In any case, the reading of Ojos, circulos, buhos has convinced me that Luis has broken forever from the shackles that seem to paralyze the Spanish novel and is now writing in a new manner. I might add that this book, when it came out, was met with complete silence from the so-called Spanish critics, proving once again the validity of thes