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A- : impressive, but a lot to take on and in
See our review for fuller assessment.
¹ review of Recuento
² review of Los verdes de mayo hasta el mar
³ review of La cólera de Aquiles
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
Antagony is a tetralogy by Luis Goytisolo -- yes, brother of the great Juan --, originally published in four volumes (or installments) between 1973 and 1981 but really meant to be read as one novel, which is how it is now published in its long overdue English translation.
(Dalkey Archive Press did first bring out the first volume, Recounting, separately, but have now gone for the all-in-one edition.)
As Ignacio Echevarría puts it in his Prologue, it is: "really just one novel, whose intentions are impossible to appreciate without reading the whole thing".
It is a massive work, approaching somewhere near half a million words, complete with novels-within-the-novel(s) attributed to two of the characters.
Obstinately, like the person who returns to the landscape of his childhood and searches and searches in the amniotic lap of memory. Because in the same way that the young man usually rejects reading old authors and only after a number of years pass will he discover that they are closer to him than the greater part of his contemporaries, thus, in life, only after having walked around and around them many times do the landscapes of his youth acquire new value.So also Antagony repeatedly circles back to past, reconsidering, reëxamining, and often reconfiguring incidents and relationships in an ongoing struggle to capture them in a work of 'fiction'. (This includes presenting characters under different names, including Raúl himself also as 'Ricardo', which adds to the challenge of keeping things straight in this frequently contorting chronicle.) As Ricardo Echave -- yet another narrator (and a figure who, at one point in these novels of fluid identities, acknowledges: "I was not the Ricardo Echave I believed myself to be") -- observes in Theory of Knowledge: "Like with a landscape: everything is there, but recognizing it takes time". For both author and reader, Antagony is such a (vast) landscape -- a term that crops up frequently (so also in the observation that: "There are landscapes, and then there are landscapes" ...) --, and both the process of writing it and then of reading it are presented as process, a give and take with the text and the memories and observations described in it (so also for the reader, what s/he takes and can remember from the in many ways unwieldy text-mass along the way) necessary for it to come together as a whole. To read Antagony is indeed time-consuming but also beyond just in the usual page-turning way; it is a novel that doesn't simply unfold in some plot-driven way; it isn't static, but demands to be considered as a whole-/big-picture work. (As such it also rewards re-reading -- though that's a big ask for a tome of this heft.)
In The Wrath of Achilles Raúl's cousin, sometimes lover, and fellow author Matilde Moret sums up his by then deeply ingrained opinion, that: "what we write inevitably refers, in the final analysis, to that period of childhood in which the world starts to become differentiated from what one is" and:
So, he says, not only does the writer always write about himself, but he always writes the same thing, without even being aware of it, new topics and new ways of saying things that barely do anything but redress, or rather, disguise, under new appearances, what he's always said.Much of Raúl's life parallels author Luis Goytisolo's, including the very specific time period, of having been born near the onset of the Spanish Civil War (Goytisolo was born in 1935) but with limited actual experience or memory of it and then growing up in Francoist Spain. Like Goytisolo's mother, Raúl's was killed in the Civil War; like Goytisolo Raúl was also jailed for a time for his political activity. Just how self-referential Antagony is, in both theory (in a novel that is deeply concerned with theory) and practice is eventually also made clear, in Theory of Knowledge, in the narrator's acknowledgement that: "when it comes to style, it's not difficult to discover the influence of Luis Goytisolo".
The presentation, especially in Recounting, is far from straightforward. There is something of a chronological progression, but the narrative flows back and forth from description to the essayistic to (often unattributed) dialogue, covering many characters -- Raúl's large extended family as well as his friends -- and subjects.
When asked what he plans to study, high school student Raúl shrugs: "Maybe Law", and eventually, briefly, does just that -- despite the fact that law is the career: "he most detested and [...] this was precisely the reason why he'd chosen it, to distance himself to the maximum from university life". An interest in writing hangs in the air from early on -- recognized also by others: "Why don't you write something about this, since you like novels ?" someone suggests to him -- but Raúl is cautious in claiming the mantle of a writer. In their youth it is fellow law student Adolfo -- "our official chronicler" -- who seems to be more clearly staking out a literary career. When Raúl dismissively remarks about Adolfo's poetry-writing: "And who hasn't written some at one age or another ?" Nuria -- his sometime close love interest (and someone Adolfo has a crush on) -- counters that Adolfo is slowly working his way to becoming a writer. It is Adolfo who then also first flirts with success, his (unfinished) novel Los Ángeles touted as a likely winner of the prestigious Premio Nadal -- though Raúl argues it is inadequate:
I don't mean political commitment: what I mean is that nobody can write a novel about us, which is, in fact, what his novel is, a roman à clef, limiting himself to give testimony to a partial version of our acts, without going deeper, without at least giving things some meaning -- whatever that might be -- that make it literarily valid. Lacking all that, the tale is pale, darling. The simple objective transcription of our comportment, of our drunken sprees, of our affairs, no matter how well written it is, couldn't possibly interest anyone who knows us.Since he is arguing with Nuria, and Adolfo is a romantic rival of sorts, one can read no small amount of jealousy into his charges -- yet he clearly believes that writing ('literarily valid' writing) must do more. One reason he has not yet written a novel at that age is because he is still feeling his way -- as, indeed, he continues to for practically all of Antagony (which does cover much of the material that is the basis for Adolfo's novel -- but, ultimately, in a very different way).
Much of Recounting is devoted to Raúl's student-years, with, however, his political activity much more in the foreground than any studying. Much of the action here is set in Barcelona, as Recounting is also very much homage and even paean to the city, with several lengthy run-on passage devoted to trying to capture it in all its multifariousness, from the quick succession of its transformations -- "the separatist Barcelona of 1934, the anarchist Barcelona of 1936, the communist Barcelona of 1937, the fascist Barcelona of 1939, cheering, triumphal, overlorded, symptomatic versatility" -- to streams of description and history. Here, in these fabulous torrents, Goytisolo's language is at its most free-flowing, as in describing Barcelona as, among much else, a:
prostituted city, city of leisure pursuits and occupations, of political ambitions and courtesan hopes, prisons and gallows, lost glories and abandoned empresses, miracles and revolts, perverse and versatile city, twisted, malicious, pharisaical, Manichean, sweet-talking, dissimulating, keen, dissolute, insolvent, anarchic, separatist, fundamentalist, reactionary, plutocratic, rich loafing laborious city, libidinous, lascivious, insane, profaner of sepulchers, incendiary, blood-streaked city, caked in bloodElsewhere, Goytisolo reins himself in, getting to the essence in much more straightforwardly described scenes such as of the young students together:
Their conversation was dry, sticking with safe, general questions, the merits of some work by Sartre, or Pavese, the moral and intellectual asphyxia of the times they lived in, the lack of unrest demonstrated by the students at the university, the mediocrity of everything. Nuria said that things were even worse in the School of Philosophy and Letters, that one single class had been enough to leave her feeling fed up with that parochial environment of priests and monks, of exhausted, pale-faced young men, of girls studying simply to find a fiancé or because they were in despair of finding one. They wandered aimlessly, walking in circles, and the winding streets turned gray in the long afternoon.Raúl's relationships, especially the long-term but often ambivalent one with Nuria -- complicated by her going to England --, frequently figure prominently -- with Raúl, here and throughout, leery of marriage, of the opinion, as mentioned in The Greens of May Down to the Sea, about:
the problem of living together, generally more destructive than living without a partner, marriage being an institution that only seems to serve the purpose, as years pass, of making people, increasingly conscious of their failure or grown accustomed to it, feel more alone and helpless as death steals, with the life of the first partner to die, any meaning from the disastrous life of the one left behind, now dispossessed of all justifications.Raúl's father no doubt serves as an example here, repeatedly bemoaning his fate and maintaining that: "losing Eulalia marked the start of my misfortunes, it was the true tragedy of my life", and convinced that if his wife had lived everything would have worked out better. He harps on what he has been through:
First losing Jorgito, my firstborn. Then, losing Eulalia, like a hammer blow. Then, the time of the Reds, always on edge, living like a refugee there in a town, with two children to feed and no resources. Then, my company collapsing.(As Raúl notes, however, his father was apparently a poor businessman, pushed out of his position because he was unfit as a manager.)
The opposition to marriage is a near-constant in the novel, with Matilde also arguing against it at some length, as an institution that "now makes much less sense", in The Wrath of Achilles. And the most succinct summing-up then comes in the final volume, in Theory of Knowledge, with the claim:
Thus, the prospect of getting married and having children seems to me not only crazy but also ridiculous and even humiliating; the author must be exclusively devoted to his own work.The experience of required military service is vividly presented in Recounting -- a brief, peculiar life-episode -- but it is the political activism by and around Raúl that is of particular significance in this first volume of the tetralogy, culminating in Raúl's arrest and detention. Raúl is active -- distributing leaflets, for example -- if not completely committed to a politically engaged life; clearly (slowly, increasingly so), he sees writing as his true calling. Nevertheless, the scenes of his activities, and the milieu in general, as well as how the police and other authorities act makes for a fascinating account of those times. So also then Raúl's period in detention, Goytisolo's perspectives -- clearly also from personal experience -- a neat, often unexpected slant.
Already in Recounting there is some discussion of the commercialization and destruction of the coastline, and in The Greens of May Down to the Sea this comes more to the fore. This is just one manifestation of, as Raúl-now-Ricardo finds: "A difficulty: to orient oneself in a landscape transformed, where all the old landmarks have disappeared". The locale here is Rosas, where Ricardo struggles to write -- trying: "to dedicate himself exclusively to his true calling". Here, too, there are digressive reflections on process, while in the next volume, The Wrath of Achilles, Goytisolo goes a step further, the narrator here Matilde and this (part of the) novel including an entire novel(ette) that she wrote (and published under the pseudonym Claudio Mendoza), The Edict of Milan, with her then also commenting on the writing, publishing, and (re-)reading of the work.
She, too, tries to explain method and motives -- and tries to make clear the relation of the written to the real, unable to deny her own centrality in her invention as she notes:
Because what's true -- and I know that Raúl knows it -- is that nobody really corresponds to anybody, that all the characters in The Edict of Milan are fictional creatures. Creatures, that's right, drawn with lines inspired by reality, taken from real people, from myself in the first place. As in all novels, I suppose.She also notes Raúl's even starker position:
For Raúl, if I'm not mistaken, every author always writes about himself, no matter how far removed the book seems from his personal experiences, however distant his invented reality from his own daily life.The Wrath of Achilles serves also to allow Goytisolo to note the role of the reader, brought increasingly to the fore here. In Theory of Knowledge the situation in The Wrath of Achilles, of protagonist Matilde (re-)reading the book she wrote, which is itself presented to the (outside, actual) reader as well, is itself described (as Goytisolo builds up to a summing-up of his (in the form of Raúl's) theory of fiction):
Just as the reading of a work of fiction that we shall call A, in which the protagonist, for his part, settles down to the reading of a work B, included in A, a work which reader and character read simultaneously, prepares the reader for the later reading of new works in which the reality of the referent is not real but fictional, predisposing him, in consequence, to not seek in it any illustration of a specific reality, but, rather, the internalized vision of reality in general and of himself in particular, thus, in a similar way, a child's education, based not so much on reasoned explanations of reality as on the creation of images, analogies, and symbols.Matilde had already explained more about the role and perspective of the reader:
According to the same principle, all reading, from the masterpiece to the latest comic book, constitutes material that each reader remodels according to a particular interpretive lens, whose roots, no less than in the case of writing, inevitably connect to early childhood.So also, in the final section, it is emphasized that:
reading a book is like underlining it with a pencil, like pointing out, marking with signs and even adding comments in the margin, not so much about what is important in the text itself, as much as about what is important for usA book like Antagony drives home this idea at every turn -- as readily demonstrated in this entirely inadequate discussion of it, which points to only scattered bits and pieces of an enormous and many-layered text.
The protagonist-author (of sorts) of much of Theory of Knowledge is Ricardo Echave, who is a trained architect yet has always had a: "plan for a novel, a project developed in a parallel fashion to my work as an architect, practically since I left the university" -- La Ciudad Ideal ('The Ideal City'). This -- and his background as architect -- allow for another variation of and on Goytisolo's theory of fiction (with the nice added twist of Ricardo dictating much of his account, and allowing for further debate as to then the 'true' author here). Much can be done in architecture -- and other art-forms --, but Goytisolo has no doubt here: "Has anything transformed reality more profoundly than books ?"
At one point Matilde notes that: "Apparently, for Raúl, anything that's clear is suspicious", and readers might be forgiven for sometimes wondering whether Goytisolo isn't forcing too much unnecessary complexity into this work. Certainly, Antagony is in no way an easy read, demanding a more active role of the reader than almost all fiction, but the rewards are still considerable.
There is a lot of beautiful writing here, too:
Voices separating little by little, quieting down, falling off, and then only the wind, emptiness, nocturnal abysms, dark night, serene and starless night, calm, clear, quiet, a night transfigured, burning, opaque, pitch-black, placid, dark, black night black as a crow's wing hovering overhead, menacing, and so, clamor of complaints or perhaps wild laughter, and so, and so, so falling and rising and fading away, and so, and so, in slow inquisitive semicircles. So ?Arguably, (too) many of the characters fade too easily from the story -- more or less forgotten, once they've served their purposes -- but Raúl is a satisfyingly fully developed and realized character, and he and everything about him are what's central to Goytisolo's purposes. (And some of the other characters are also sufficiently fully and well-drawn, including Nuria and Matilde (with the section dominated by her, The Wrath of Achilles, the most straightforward and approachable of the four).)
Ultimately, too, Antagony convinces as an example that:
the writer, however much from the start he hides his theme under this or that kind of literary expression, will always ends up writing what he must write.To read Antagony is a considerable undertaking, but it is certainly a major work that is well worth engaging with.
- M.A.Orthofer, 9 December 2022
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Spanish author Luis Goytisolo was born in 1935.
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