Scoop Review of Books

Juan Goytisolo: the Revenge of the Exile

Tim Bowron marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of the first English translation of a great work of ‘anti-patriotism’. count

Juan Goytisolo, Count Julian, translated by Helen Lane, Serpent’s Tail, London, 1989.

It is funny how sometimes a single line or fragment of a poem can lead you off on the strangest of intellectual tangents.

I had this experience a couple of years ago when I was reading the through some of the Civil War poetry of Antonio Machado – the Spanish modernist writer and contemporary of Unamuno and Azorín – and came across a sonnet entitled ‘A Otro Conde Don Julian’ (‘To the other Count Julian’).

The poem itself, which is far inferior to Machado’s earlier works such as those found in his collection Campos de Castilla (Lands of Castille) and of primarily propagandistic rather than literary significance, held little interest for me, but the title, which casts the nationalist leader General Franco in the role of the arch-betrayer of Spanish history Count Julian of Ceuta held a strange fascination.

While each nation has had its legendary betrayers in history – the Athenians had Alcibiades, the Romans Coriolanus – but arguably none was as spectacularly successful as the Spanish Count Julian.

My knowledge of the half-legendary, half-historical figure of Count Julian was derived from my early-adolescent reading of Walter Scott’s The Vision of Don Roderick which with Scott’s customary poetic licence recounts the story of the last Visigothic King of Spain and his defeat at the hands of the Moorish invaders.

In the poetic account of the fall of Visigothic Spain, King Roderic is betrayed by Count Julian, the governor of the Christian outpost of Ceuta which lies on the North African coastline at the closest point to the Spanish shore (the Romans knew it as the city of Septem). The reasons suggested for Julian’s betrayal are many and varied – some say it was because Roderic raped one of Julian’s daughters who was a hostage at the Visigothic Court in Toledo, others that Julian was the protector of the sons of the previous Visigothic King Wittiza, whom Roderic was suspected of assassinating.

More recently, historians have suggested that Julian may have been a Byzantine Greek official who had only entered into a temporary alliance with the Visigoths after the fall of Carthage to the Umayyads in 695-698 and the departure of the last Roman troops. Given the fact that the Umayyads proved to be considerably more tolerant towards other religions and denominations than the formerly Arian Visigothic rulers (who with the zeal of recent converts to the one true faith were continually trying to prove their Catholic bona fides to the Pope by violently persecuting Jews and heretics) it is not inconceivable that Julian’s decision to enter into an alliance with Musa ibn-Nusair, the Umayyad governor of the newly conquered Maghreb provinces, was motivated simply by enlightened self-interest.

Whichever of these scenarios is correct, what is uncontested is that in the year 711 Julian provided the fleet which transported the Berber Umayyad general Tariq ibn-Ziyad and his troops across the narrow straits to the landing place which now bears Tariq’s name – the Rock of Gibraltrar (from the Arabic ‘Jabal Tariq’), echoing the invasion of Republican Spain by General Franco at the head of the Army of Morocco in August 1936, some 1200 years later.

After the defeat of Roderic at the Battle of Gaudalete and the establishment of Umayyad rule in Spain, Julian was rewarded for his ‘act of treachery’ with extensive lands and titles.

These, then, were some of the literary and historical associations that Antonio Machado’s piece of Civil War propaganda rekindled in my head, leading me to look up again the story of the fall of Visigothic Spain and in the course of this process to discover the work of a remarkable man – also an exile estranged from the political and religious order of Christian Spain, a modern day Count Julian living in Morocco – the self-exiled Spanish novelist Juan Goytisolo.

Goytisolo is a fascinating figure, in that while he has chosen to spend almost his entire adult life living outside of Spain much of his literary work is characterised by a near-total obsession with the land of his birth. Though living in Morocco, he still manages to write a regular column for the newspaper El País (for whom he worked as a war correspondent during the 1990s in Bosnia and Chechnya).

Strangely enough it seems, Goytisolo is a writer whose name is hardly known in the Anglophone world, despite the existence of several excellent English-language translations of his novels.

Goytisolo is a man of contradictions – he grew up in Barcelona during the 1930s and ‘40s in an impoverished bourgeois family whose forebears had been the owners of vast sugar plantations (and hundreds of slaves) in Cuba. Goytisolo’s father was a strong Catholic and ardent supporter of General Francisco Franco, and the revelation that his mother’s death in 1938 had been due to a Nationalist bombing raid alienated Goytisolo from his father (who had suppressed the truth and always blamed his wife’s death on ‘the Reds’).

An additional factor impelling Goytisolo’s journey towards exile was his alienation from Spanish culture and the Spanish language, a reaction provoked as Goytisolo says in his memoirs by ‘the ignorant, small-minded priests’ (the Jesuits) who educated him. As a result of his education, Goyitsolo did not even read Cervantes until he was in his late 20s.

This sense of alienation (which remained with him throughout his adult life) is described by Goytisolo in his memoirs:

…Castillian in Catalonia, Frenchified in Spain, Spanish in France, a Latin in North America, nesrani in Morocco, and a Moor everywhere, as a result of my wanderings, I would become a writer not claimed by anybody, alien and opposed to groupings and categories…outside the bounds of abstract ideologies, systems, or entities always characterised by their self-sufficiency and circularity.

(Coto Vedado/Forbidden Territory: The Memoirs of Juan Goytisolo 1931-1956, trans. Peter Bush)

In 1956 Goytisolo left Spain for Paris and was soon associated with the leading cultural and literary figures of the French Communist Party.

Not long afterwards he also became an enthusiastic supporter of the Cuban Revolution, but following a number of visits to revolutionary Cuba he became disillusioned with the Castro regime. In his memoirs he tells of giving a speech at a secondary school in Havana as the invited guest of the Cuban poet Navarro Luna, arriving just as some girls were being publicly censured in front of the entire school assembly for being lesbians. Goytisolo describes the overwhelming feeling of hypocrisy he felt as he went onto the platform to give his address:

…I, that juan goytisolo suddenly ashamed of his role, of the unbridgeable abyss opened at a stroke between reality and words, overwhelmed by the tumultuous applause for the imposter who has usurped his name…

Goytisolo was discovering at around the same time that he himself was a homosexual, although despite finally confessing as much to his partner Monique Lange in 1965 they maintained an “open relationship” and even later married.

Goytisolo published a number of novels throughout the 1950s and ‘60s to a modest level of critical acclaim. Throughout much of this time he was also working for the French publishing house Gallimard and in the course of this work came to befriend some of the great writers of the Latin American ‘boom’ such as the Mexican Carlos Fuentes and the Cuban Cabrera Infante.

However, it was in his Álvaro Mendiola trilogy (published between 1966-1975) that Goytisolo finally evolved the unique literary style for which he has subsequently become famous. The second book of that trilogy in particular – Revindicación del conde don Julián (published in English as Count Julian) – stands (perhaps a little ironically) as a masterpiece of Spanish literature and the ultimate condensation of Goytisolo’s personal, philosophical and political thought.

Count Julian consists of a series of interwoven experiences, childhood memories, dreams and drug-fuelled hallucinations successively recalled, lived or fantasised by the narrator-protagonist. A Spanish exile living in Tangier, he looks out across the Straits of Gibraltar that separate him from his homeland and is filled with such an overwhelming sense of loathing that he imagines himself as the great betrayer Count Julian, leading the Arab army of invasion to the sack of Christian Spain.

Goytisolo prefaces the novel with a quotation from Luis García de Valdeavellano’s Historia de Espana:

In their struggle against the Byzantines and the Berbers, the Arab chieftains had greatly extended their African dominions, and as early as the year 682 Uqba had reached the shores of the Atlantic, but he was unable to occupy Tangier, for he was forced to turn back toward the Atlas Mountains by a mysterious person whom the Moslem historians almost always refer to as Ulyan, although his real name was probably Julian, or perhaps Urban or Ulbán or Bulian. Soon thereafter he became a legendary figure known as ‘Count Julian’. We are not certain whether he was a Berber, a Visigoth, or a Byzantine; as a ‘count’ he may have been the ruler of the fortress of Septem, once part of the Visigoth kingdom; or he may have been an exarch or a governor ruling in the name of the Byzantine Empire: or as appears more likely, he may have been a Berber who was the lord and master of the Catholic tribe of Gomera…

Goytisolo’s style takes some getting used to – he avoids the use of full stops and paragraph breaks so that the text appears as one never ending stream-of-consciousness, a kind of Latin Ulysses. The task of the translator Helen Lane in handling this work is therefore one that cannot be underestimated.

Many of Goytisolo’s own personal experiences are blended into the narrative – mainly scenes of human cruelty from his childhood spent in 1940s Francoist Spain which also resurface in his memoirs. However despite sharing many aspects of his personality and background (up to and including his self-imposed exile in Morocco) with Goytisolo, the nameless protagonist represents an extension beyond Goytisolo the writer. As our exiled Spaniard delights in fantasies of sexual violence perpetrated by the Arab armies he imagines overrunning Spain, it is clear that he is channelling the Marquis de Sade, while at other points in the narrative he seems in equal parts José de Espronceda and Miguel de Cervantes.

The protagonist desires the complete destruction of Spain – physical, political, linguistic and literary. He imagines a variety of ways in which this destructive intent can be encompassed – ranging from the fanciful (ordering the removal from the Spanish language of all words of Arabic etymology) to the truly bizarre (contracting rabies and donating his blood to be used in Spanish hospitals).

He fulminates not only against the Francoist dictatorship but the entire Spanish weltanschauung/cosmovisión, symbolised for him by the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca (whom, we are reminded, Nietzsche called ‘the torreador of virtue’). Our protagonist imagines that Seneca was not born in Corduba, as the historical accounts maintain (such a birthplace would create the suspicion that he was not of ‘pura sangre’) but rather in the very heart of Castille, in the village of Madrigal de las Altas Torres – the birthplace of Queen Isabella ‘the Catholic’, located in the Sierra de Gredos mountains.

The weary fatalism that the novel’s protagonist perceives in the Spanish collective psyche is further underlined by the frequent jibes at the figure of Platero, the donkey in the poem by Juan Ramón Jiménez who exhibited an enormous capacity for blind, trusting faith (such faith was a positive quality for Jiménez, but is obviously not so for the protagonist who – in a passage reminiscent of Luis Buñuel’s 1929 surrealist film Un chien andalou – imagines meeting the inoffensive creature and slitting its throat with a knife).

Elsewhere in the novel the Spanish obsession with racial purity is represented by the continuous praising of the Castillian ibex or capra hispanica by Don Álvaro Peranzules (an obvious caricature of General Franco). Yet the protagonist also feels nothing but contempt for the erstwhile progressive Spanish intellectuals, the partisans of racio-vitalismo and heirs of Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset who claim to oppose Franco:

at literary gatherings and cocktail parties, in arty cafés and elegant salons, men of letters are carefully tending the flame of the brightly glowing Torch of Generations: sons, grandsons, great-grandsons of the giants of ’98, bards celebrating the immutable flora of the steppes, the Hispanic essence that has stood the test of centuries: statues who do not yet have a pedestal, but are already masters of the art of tauromachic pedestal…

Of course, these same intellectuals during the Spanish Civil War delighted in stoking the fires of patriotic nationalism against the colonial Moroccan troops used by General Franco and the Nationalists – demonising the alien ‘Other’ instead of seeing them as a people oppressed by Spanish imperialism who could potentially be won to the Republican cause.

However, in the final analysis Count Julian is not just a Spanish story but a universal one, as the protagonist tells us:

one’s homeland is the mother of all vices: in order to be cured of it as rapidly and completely as possible, the best remedy is selling it, betraying it: selling it?: for a mess of potage or for all of Peru, for a great deal or for almost nothing: to whom?: to the highest bidder: or giving it, as a gift filled with poison, to someone who knows nothing about it and does not care to know anything: a rich man or a poor one, a man who is indifferent or one hopelessly in love: for one simple but sufficient reason: the pleasure of betraying…what homeland?: all of them: those of the past, the present, and the future…selling one’s homeland into bondage, an endless chain of sales…an unending crime, permanent and active betrayal…

It is this fundamentally irrational yet somehow heroic (or anti-heroic?) sentiment which I think makes Count Julian such a powerful work – worthy of comparison with Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great or Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Together these works could form the basis perhaps for a course to be taken in conjunction with all the papers on nationalism and ‘nation-building’ that currently infest our institutions of higher learning – a course that could be entitled Anti-Patriotism 101.


Tim Bowron is studying Spanish-language literature at Canterbury University. You can visit his blog at:


  1. Tim Bowron, 27. May 2009, 10:41

    This comes a little late in the piece, but I’ve just discovered that the Helen
    Lane translation of Count Julian was originally brought out in 1974 by
    a New York outfit called Viking Press, predating by 15 years the
    edition I reviewed.

    Apologies to the editors!

  2. Scott, 30. May 2009, 13:01

    As a monolingual Kiwi cultural chauvinist, I very much appreciate the light that Tim Bowron has shone on a corner of modern Spanish literature in this review. Count Julian is going on my reading list – the subject, theme, and technique all sound fascinating.