Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Juan Goytisolo / Lansdcapes After the Battle


LANDSCAPES AFTER THE BATTLE By Juan Goytisolo. Translated by Helen Lane. 159 pp. New York: Seaver Books. $17.95.
IT will be said of Juan Goytisolo's brilliantly peculiar new novel that it is apocalyptic or, even better, postapocalyptic. The Spanish author, a longtime resident of Paris, has been leading up to this. In his best-known work, ''Count Julian,'' he invented an abusive language with which to assault the sterility of his country's social, political and linguistic orthodoxies. In ''Landscapes After the Battle,'' the location is an unfashionable quarter of Paris; the subject is the postmodern world, a place and a state of mind full of forebodings of future catastrophe, memories of recent calamity and an enduring experience of disintegration.
In the midst of the novel's nightmarish and farcical fireworks, the problem is summarized with textbook detachment: ''In the course of these last ten years, the ever-increasing number of catastrophes of every sort - terrorism, massacres, mass poisonings, ecological disasters, the advent of new and deadly forms of contagion, etc. - has created . . . a general climate of pessimism and anxiety particularly favorable to the development of our most primitive instincts and a dizzying proliferation of crimes against persons and property.''
Apocalypse, commonly misconstrued as the last and most spectacular cosmic blowup, can be big box office. In Francis Coppola's film ''Apocalypse Now,'' audiences were presented with the vision of Marlon Brando and a cast of thousands going to their tediously protracted doom and bringing Wagner and Joseph Conrad with them. Mr. Goytisolo's notion of apocalypse is more sophisticated and his ambition and achievement, notwithstanding the modest appearance of this short novel and its tone of self-deprecation, are far more serious. Well served by Helen Lane's translation, the author's language - a mixture of precise articulation, slang and parodic jargon - seems to devalue its own apparent objective. A reference to ''erotico-apocalyptic fantasies . . . as we enter the homestretch'' is not an allusion to some extratextual folly but an accurate description of the novel's style, mood and fragmentary form.
An apocalypse is a revelation of things that were, are and will be, and it has become identified, following the biblical model, with a kind of writing that is associated not simply with catastrophe, but with mysterious events, figures and signs associated with the end of time. ''Landscapes After the Battle'' begins with the inhabitants of Le Sentier awakening one day to find their neighborhood covered with graffiti, ''mysterious messages on the wall,'' in an exotic and illegible script. Their consternation increases when they discover that even shop and street signs have been changed to what turns out to be Arabic. The district, once purely French, has gradually been taken over by foreigners ''like an underground stream that swells and broadens before suddenly and impetuously surfacing.'' First came the Jewish merchants and the Spanish and Portuguese concierges, then the Turks, and finally Arabs and Berbers, Afghans, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Victims of war and colonization, the newcomers have surreptitiously brought about their own invasion, a de-Europeanization of the city. A script of supple curves and no angles is the talisman of their conquest and, for the French Parisians, a sign of the beginning of the end.
A revelation requires a scribe through whom its secrets can be partially uncovered. The God of the Bible chose John of Patmos, but the less authoritative creators of contemporary visions have more trouble finding the appropriate agent. Indeed, one more sign that things are in the ''homestretch,'' for Mr. Goytisolo as for others in this century, is the difficulty in locating the voice (and script) of authority.
One of the most peculiar things in this flamboyantly eccentric book is the identity of the main character, the source of the bizarre schemes, anecdotes, letters, dialogues, prophecies, nightmares and daydreams that make up what the narrator refers to apologetically as ''this clumsy patchwork of a narrative.'' For a time it seems possible that the narrator, cool and disapproving, is separable from the fantasist he refers to sarcastically as ''our hero,'' the ''monster,'' a ''hermit,'' a ''misanthrope'' and, for literary variety, ''our protagonist.'' But the gap between one narrator and another narrows as the ''hero'' is identified not as an originator or inventor, but as a ''copyist, compiler, anonymous correspondent.'' Like the reader (or John of Patmos, for that matter), he is a witness, not a creator. Unlike John, he has no recourse to ''a great voice as of a trumpet.''
Mr. Goytisolo does make what in Hollywood might be called a cameo appearance. Autobiographical traces are presented. The writer/dreamer is a Spanish expatriate who opposed Franco and once thought the destiny of his country was the central issue in modern history. But the ''permanent porosity and mobility'' of his Parisian neighborhood ''fragmented his vision, uncentered his sentiments.'' Mr. Goytisolo names himself, his country of origin, and even addresses a personal note to his wife, but he does not assume ultimate responsibility or occupy a central position in his own book.
Without a single guiding hand, this novel can hardly trace the adventures of one character as he progresses along one path. In that sense, the book has no plot. ''Our hero'' has certain recognizable traits and habits. He wears a felt hat and a raincoat; he reads the personal columns in newspapers; he lives apart from his wife, who is in the flat across the hall, and meets her only once in the elevator; he is attracted to little girls; he sympathizes with all revolutionaries and displaced persons. He hates the countryside but likes to sit in shabby parks, go to pornographic movies and stare out of his window. In short, the more we hear of this ''monster,'' the more he sounds like a familiar rag doll of modern and postmodern fiction, a patch of Leopold Bloom and Humbert Humbert, a shred of Murphy and Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a bit of stuffing from Robbe-Grillet and Sartre, a stitch from Borges.
This is not to say that Mr. Goytisolo borrows because of a lack of imagination. It is his originality to borrow in such a way that his patchwork antihero, like his patchwork narrative and language, is presented as a provocation. Like graffiti, the literary hand-me-downs deface the surfaces that bear them. As displaced figures, they mock decorum and context. They are a joke and an outrage, an insult and an invitation. They are a display of alienation but, more than that, they are a display of a display, a revelation of the way language, art and politics can turn feeling - even feelings of outrage, anxiety and despair - into an empty gesture, a ludicrous fashion.
If one considers this book against the background of Beirut or Belfast, its presentation of splinter separatist and revolutionary groups may seem grotesquely frivolous. The writer imagines himself mistaken for a member of the Yakut Popular Liberation Army; besieged by Ruthenian nationals; kidnapped by the Red Queens, a group of feminist urban guerrillas; ''visited by a Lacanian sociologist from Buenos Aires who is a Marxist and a supporter of Peron''; hypnotized by a Sufi mystic; seduced by a wax effigy of Stalin; and harangued by Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse representing radical Donaldists and Dumboists against the forces of Bambi and the Hundred and One Dalmatians. OBVIOUSLY, the makeshift narrative and indecent humor go beyond the particular claims of individual groups and instead play off their collective unorchestrated clamor, far wilder and crazier and more confused than any deviant novelist could invent. The book seems to keep asking: What are artists to do in the ''homestretch''? One of the writer's friends, a musician, refused to compose during Franco's reign and gave a highly controversial performance of his ''Concerto in A Major for Silenced Instruments.'' Silence is one answer. Another is to rally behind noble causes. The writer is invited to a gala at the Paris Opera on behalf of Poland, but is repelled by the display of bourgeois egotism that has nothing to do with the miners of Katowice.
Mr. Goytisolo's choice is to write a fraudulent novel without a hero and without a plot, composed of short journalistic items rather than chapters. His vehicle is not Odysseus' craft or Thomas Pynchon's rocket, but le metro, the subway, ''playing with space and the light-beam of possibilities it embraces. Stairways, corridors, transfer points, platforms, trajectories, hustle and bustle . . . sudden movement backward. Bargain-price sunshine . . . toothpaste smiles . . . countermessages mocking the consumer society or the political status quo.'' If anything gives shape and momentum to his novel, it is this urban underground movement to which all are being drawn. The dominant voice in Mr. Goytisolo's apocalypse does not belong to the conductor or engineer but to a peculiarly observant and loquacious fellow passenger who draws us into a ''deliberately grotesque autobiography'' and ''a meticulous expose of the cliches of the period as little by little they fill in the map of universal stupidity.''
But the author has not forgotten that out of the apocalyptic vision of disaster emerges the image of a new city. In this case, it is a totally unexpected and carnivalesque utopia ''where the street is the medium and the vital element,'' where ''foreigners and natives joyously take over the space . . . to weave an endless, inexhaustible network of exuberant encounters.'' War and colonization seem redundant when at last everyone realizes that all the invasions have already taken place, that Paris is already infiltrated by Dakar, Cairo and Karachi; ''Berlin-Kreuzberg . . . is already an Istanbul-on-the-Spree . . . New York colonized by Puerto Ricans and Jamaicans.'' One can even look forward to a ''Moscow of Uzbeks and Chinese and a Barcelona of Tagalogs and blacks, able to recite from memory, with an ineffable accent, the verses of the Ode to Catalonia.'' RESISTING THE FORCES OF BAMBI
Inflamed by the speeches of the provocateurs, the crowd begins to smash shop windows, overturns trucks and buses, rips up paving blocks and litter baskets . . . confronts the forces of repression. In order to avoid possible identification in photographs, the leaders hide behind bear cub, bunny rabbit, or squirrel masks. . . . As the most radical Donaldists and Dumboists occupy and sack the offices of the glorious newspaper on the corner . . . the crowd of partisans of Bambi or the Hundred and One Dalmatians drives the class enemy back toward the modern post office building, accepts, for reasons of strategy, the support of potentially dangerous minority groups - backers of Fritz the Cat or Asterix - which will have to be eliminated later. From ''Landscapes After the Battle.''
Photo of Juan Goytisolo (NYT/Michel Baret)


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