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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

Landscapes of War

Juan Goytisolo

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To purchase Landscapes of War

Title: Landscapes of War
Author: Juan Goytisolo
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: (2001)
Length: 225 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Landscapes of War - US
Landscapes of War - UK
Landscapes of War - Canada
  • From Sarajevo to Chechnya
  • Translated by Peter Bush
  • Introduction by Tariq Ali
  • Except for the final essay all the pieces in this book originally appeared in El País between 1993 and 1996. Most were also collected and previously published in book form in Spanish. "Extracts from the English translations" were also published previously in The New Statesman, the TLS, and Casablanca

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting glimpses from some of the hot spots of the 1990s

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction A Fall/2001 Thomas Hove
The Village Voice A 9/1/2001 Ammiel Alcalay

  From the Reviews:
  • "By so movingly expressing "the need for commitment, the urgency of solidarity," Goytisolo invests his outrage at overdue political solutions with a power that one hopes would become infectious." - Thomas Hove, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "(A) book riddled with illuminating insights, both historical and contemporary. (...) Goytisolo's writings on Algeria and Chechnya are brilliant and should serve as a primer to anyone interested in probing the complex relationship of Islam, colonialism, revolution, and modernity." - Ammiel Alcalay, The Village Voice

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The noted novelist Juan Goytisolo has always been a political writer. The outrage that was the Franco regime was a tremendous influence on him, but in exile he has been particularly interested in Islamic culture (and politics) and the complex attitudes and reactions towards it, especially in Europe. A native European but also a long-time resident of Marrakesh and Arabic-speaker, Goytisolo is particularly well positioned to consider a number of the notable localized conflicts of the late 20th century.
       No parlour intellectual, Goytisolo is a hands-on writer: he wants to see, feel, and experience. As his fictions and their often unreliable narrators suggest, he is wary of mere words and the reports of others. Goytisolo wants to see for himself -- and he often does just that.
       Landscapes of War is divided into five parts. The last is an essay on Approaches to Islam, but the other four each recount his own experiences in four of the most troubled spots of the 1990s: Sarajevo, Algeria, Palestine, and Chechnya. In each place Islam played a role, but the situations varied greatly.
       These are newspaper pieces, reports from the front that describe the horrors being perpetrated. From the "mousetrap" of Sarajevo to the ruins of Grozny in Chechnya, Goytisolo sees how the conflicts affect the locals and tries to also show the larger picture.
       The sojourns in Sarajevo and Palestine are more hands-on, describing what Goytisolo finds, and conversations with the people he encounters. In the Algerian and Chechnyan sections he offers more historical background (in addition to the eyewitness accounts), providing more information to an audience less familiar with these conflicts than it is with the Yugoslav outrages or the continuing strife in and around Israel.
       The scenes are horrifying, poignant, and inevitably frustrating. Goytisolo rightly complains of the "present apathy of intellectuals and artists, with the exception of a lucid minority", noting, for example, that his and Susan Sontag's efforts "to bring writers of renown to Sarajevo have ended in fiasco." Sontag (there to put on Waiting for Godot) and her boy, Dave Rieff, are pretty much the only representatives of Western intelligentsia Goytisolo finds in Sarajevo; needless to say, the situation is even more dire in Algeria and Chechnya.
       Goytisolo is justly and sincerely outraged by what he finds in Sarajevo in 1993: it was a horrible time, and international reaction (or rather: lack thereof) -- politically, morally, and militarily -- was too often simply an embarrassment. He does a service in describing the hapless UN presence, or reminding readers of the unconscionable destruction of the Library of Sarajevo. Goytisolo also presents the complex political and military situation of the time fairly well, rightly blaming and condemning Serb nationalism (and international indulgence of it).
       Nevertheless, these are newspaper reports, written in the heat of a horrible moment, seething with outrage. This serves a purpose, but it does not always read well years after the fact. "How can I sum up the feelings and emotions released by the city ?" Goytisolo asks aloud as he heads out of Sarajevo. The horrors he has described, the facts he has related speak for themselves, but unfortunately Goytisolo can't leave it at that. Instead he tries to set it in words, writing, among other things:

New friendships become deep and long-lived. Sincerity and a longing for truth take hold. One's sense of morality is refined and improved.
       One doesn't doubt his sincerity, but his conclusions read like an attempt to resurrect the time of the Spanish Civil War, Goytisolo's ideal of combatting evil, with intellectuals allied together in a common cause.
       It is an admirable vision of the world he has, finding nobility and hope even in the despair of Sarajevo, but who does it speak to ? One should share Goytisolo's frustration at the large-scale indifference to the situation in Yugoslavia and its after-states, but -- as Goytisolo himself points out -- for a variety of reasons (including concerns about Islam) most prefer not to concern themselves with the problem.
       The section on Algeria is better presented, and Goytisolo offers a useful survey of how the situation developed (up to 1994, when these pieces were first published). The conflict there, between the fundamentalist FIS organization and an often repressive government is less well-known abroad, and Goytisolo describes it well. Algeria is also a country veiled in secrecy, with almost no foreign journalists daring to go there, and the local press unable to present a clear picture either. Goytisolo ventures there and tries to get some sense of the situation: facts are harder to come by (rumour and unreliable reports are the norm), and Goytisolo is careful with his statements and claims. From his indictment of the governments that had taken this promising African country after independence and made it reliant on oil exports (these constituted 12 percent of exports at independence, and 95 percent by 1988, according to Goytisolo) to his description of the terror that gripped the country in the 1990s, Goytisolo offers a good introduction to the current situation in that country.
       Goytisolo is particularly good at describing the reasons for the rise of the Islamic groups, and the consequences this has, now and in the future (a subject he also returns to in the final section of the book). Goytisolo is no Islamic apologist, but he is a realist with an understanding of the driving forces and the issues, and he offers a useful perspective here.
       The Palestinian section offers another view of a familiar situation. Journalistic reports, these pieces nevertheless offer a welcome examination of the difficulties faced by the Palestinians in establishing their state. This festering conflict, continuing today (and, it would seem, everafter) is well-known, but Goytisolo does offer an interesting glimpse of it, anno 1995. Writing from Gaza and the West Bank, Goytisolo focusses on the Palestinian experience -- and his sympathies tend to fall on that side. Nevertheless, he is aware of the complexity of the situation.
       Of particular interest is the section on Chechnya, another ignored conflict deserving considerably more attention (and foreign involvement) than it has received. Goytisolo offers a sound and round condemnation of Russian aggression and, again, international indifference. He offers a good survey of the situation, as well as reporting from the scene itself.
       Finally, the essay on Approaches to Islam is also valuable, with Goytisolo's comparison to the Spanish experience of particular interest.

       Except in the section on Sarajevo Goytisolo manages to avoid the tendentious fairly well. It is a good collection, and the parts on the less well-known conflicts are of particular value.

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Landscapes of War: Reviews: Juan Goytisolo: Other books by Goytisolo under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Spanish author Juan Goytisolo (1931-2017) lived in voluntary exile since 1956, mainly in Paris and Morocco. He is the author of numerous highly regarded novels.

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