Juan the Landless


My first contact with theliterature of incitement—books that cuff you about, knowingly deploy the word “cunning,” or operate beyond thestretch of domesticated narrative contortions—happened at the age of fifteen,when I was fortunate to have had one of those semi-mystical, pedagogicalexperiences. Tom Gazzola—a lanky, affable, tenth-grade English teacher whotaught world literature—lent me his copy of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, a book that wound uphaving a cataclysmic influence on my conception of literature. It taught thatfiction—and by extension art in general—need not seduce, pamper, nor strive tomimic life; it could goad the reader into a head-on confrontation with an aliensensibility. Ihad only a hazy understanding of the aesthetic terrain that dawned before me. Threeyears later, these intuitions were clarified by time spent with WilliamBurroughs’s Naked Lunch: “Gentle Reader, The Wordwill leap on you with leopard man iron claws, it will cut off fingers and toeslike an opportunist land crab… it will coil round your thighs like a bushmasterand inject a shot glass of rancid ectoplasm.” The militant stance ofthis quotation invites most readers’ disapproval: those with no fondness fortexts designed to combust in your brain need readno further.   

As with Burroughs, thereare some authors who,because of their aloof or confrontational stance toward their readership,inspire on the part of their perfervid admirers nuanced recommendations. TheSpanish novelist Juan Goytisolo (b. 1931) is such an author. Though in Europeand South America he has been enshrined as one of the foremost novelists in hisnative tongue, in this country, as Fernanda Eberstadt noted in a 2006 profilefor  The NewYork Times Magazine, Goytisolo”has remained all but unknown in the United States.” The cause, shesuggested, was the author’s commitment to a challenging narrativeapproach, “a denselyallusive, high-Modernist style, which makes few concessions to the reader.” But while the bedrockof Eberstadt’sjudgment doesn’tneed revision, a patch of its topsoil might. For in the afterword to the newlyrevised, shortened—and supposedly definitive—edition of Juan theLandless, Goytisolo writes aboutpruning the text of its initial excesses and overbearing theorizing—”heavy stodge the readercan well do without.”

Originally published in1975, Juan the Landless is usually referred toas the third book of Goytisolo’sso-called Álvaro Mendiola trilogy whichincludes Marksof Identity (1966), and CountJulian (1970). (Some scholarsdebate whether it should be called a trilogy at all.) The books needn’t be read sequentially, butthe first sets the stage for the events in the succeeding volumesby unveiling the contradictoryramifications of the Spanish Civil War, and the Franco dictatorship, for peopleof varying social castes. One of the finestpolitically-obsessed novels I’veever read, Marksof Identityis also an anatomy of exile. Itscrutinizes the internal divisions of a Spanish expatriate community in France,which entangle the novel’s protagonist, Álvaro Mendiola, whose fixationupon his “marksof identity”echoes throughout the other books.

This wellborn man, inwhom Goytisolo invests much of his biography, finds in his family’s history amicrocosm of the injustices that have beset his ex-homeland. In hisautobiography, Forbidden Territory, Goytisolo discussesthe effects of his coming into possession, as an adult, of documents that hadpassed through the hands of his great-grandfather, Agustín—aSpaniard who, with the help of slave labor, amassed wealth as a sugar magnatein Cuba: 

Thefamily myth, carefully nourished by my father, vanished forever after the nakedrevelations of a world of abuse and robbery, outrages hidden behind piousphrases, excesses and violence beyond belief. A constant, repressed feeling ofguilt, an obvious residue of a long-sincedefunct sense of Catholic morality, was added to my already heightened awarenessof the iniquities of Spanish society and the irrevocably parasitic, decadent,and vacuous world to which I belonged.

How does one handle theemergence of a previously stifled history? How does one expiate the guilt ofone’s corrupt forebears?Whereas in Marksof Identity,Mendiola and those around him try to grapple with Spain’s legacy—as a colonialpower, a hub of authoritarianism, and a tourist haven—in CountJulian and Juan theLandless,this reflective spiritis cast aside in favor of one consigned to repudiation and spitefulness.

One of the commandingmoments in Count Julian occurs when thenarrator, now living in Morocco, visits a library. He plucks from the shelves aselection of classic Spanish literature. Seeking out their most beautiful orclimatic passages, he annotates them with dead insects which he crushes betweenthe pages in an act of creative defacement. And towards the close ofJuanthe Landless,the narrator articulates his aesthetic objectives:

[To]eliminate the last traces of theatricality from the corpus of the novel:transform it into an uneventful discourse: dynamite the worn-out notion of theflesh-and-blood character: replacing the dramatic progression of the story withclusters of text driven by a single centripetal force… improvising thearchitecture of the literary object not as a tissue of relationships ordered bytime and logic but as an ars combinatoria of elements (oppositions,alternatives, symmetrical play) on the rectangle of the blank page… deaf to thesiren songs of self-interested functional-content based andpetty utilitarian criteria. 

To be sure, there isbluster aplenty in this declaration. For one thing, the boast about purging thenovel of theatricality is, in itself, like standing on a proscenium andgesticulating wildly. For another, because the book is alive with moments thatare more memorable than others, it’snot “uneventful.”But be that as it may,the “centripetal force” driving the novel’s segments is a river ofgenuine outrage over “the stunted existencesof millions and millions of beings sentenced over centuries to … ideologicalservitude.”  

To illuminatethis servitude, the narratorrevisits the scene of the great-grandfather’s sugar plantation. Theslaves have been convened by their betters to demonstrate and sanctify a newinvention: a toilet, a device that yields afantasy of sterile hygiene: “the non-materialinvisible odorless perfect emission that… plummets down the double cavity tothe central cistern, that vault of riches immaculate and aseptic as a bank’s.” From early in the novelonward, the modern-day ideology that people who use (western-style) toilets aresuperior to those who don’tis challenged. This conceit is subjected to permutations and reversals thatencompass multiple types of cultural subjugation—from the priest who instillsinto the enslaved an inferiority complex, tothe circulation of government propaganda that legitimizes the elimination ofundesirables.

The narrator rebels,seeking to undermine the distance of the body from its emissions andchampioning “nonproductiveloves…lewd couplings, and the rest!”Part of this itch to épater la bourgeoisie comes from the narrator’s brush with anupwardly-mobile couple visiting the “GreatSouk.” Chancing upon a beggar,the woman says to her husband, “getout the way, Paco, he’lltouch you!”Repulsed by her disgust, the narrator proclaims: you knew from then onthat no ethics, no philosophy, no aesthetic would be valid for the flock tamedby five centuries of conformity if it didn’t dare risk provokingthe couple’s same shrieks ofdisgust at the sight of the scabby scrounger.”   

The differences betweenthe older edition of Juan theLandless publishedby Serpent’sTail and the new edition put out by Dalkey Archive are substantial; certainlythose with a raised interest in the author’s work will want toconsult both versions. As it happens, I wonder if one of the contributingfactors that played a role in the author’sdecision to rework his novel was abelated unease over lines such as “thevoice of the almocri chanting his chaplet of suras from the Koran reaches thesmall room where you lie enveloped in clouds of kif smoke: insatiable, you willexpand your holy war until it embraces the entire country.” I was, however,disappointed to see that Goytisolo had eliminated a passage where one of hischaracters lays into the narrator for turning away from the realist novel. Inthis section, the rational objections of serious readers who believe thatliterature undermines itself when it shuns plot and celebrates its ownstrangeness are heard. Ifound it too bad that the newer version dispensed with this proof that thenarrator is not oblivious to the rationale spouted by those who may beunwilling to follow him to theend.