Review: Juan Goytisolo. Cinema Eden. Essays from the Muslim Mediterranean. Translated by Peter Bush. London: Sickle Moon Press, 2003.

To get to Goytisolo, first you'll have to hack your way through this inept translation: it's grammatically shaky, streaked with weak stabs at flamboyance. I suppose the shakyness and the flamboyance are attempts to convey Goytisolo's prose, but I don't see the point in being stylistically rich when the material is so tame. This series of articles constitutes what Goytisolo's colleagues at Gallimard call "les fonds de tiroir," stuff from the back files. It's not even travel writing, just travel journalism posing as daring, offbeat stuff: Turkish wrestlers, sleazy movie-houses in the third world, etc. It's as if Paul Bowles had decided to write for the New York Times: fifty camels practicing safe sex. Of course, to Publisher's Weekly or National Geographic or the folks back home it's all about The Steamy Orient: "sensuous, bustling.... thronging citadels... sheer spectacle... beguiling..." Pul-eaze.

The weakest piece is the one about the Djemaa el Fna, the popular square in Marrakesh, and Goytisolo means to tell us how "authentic" it all is, to borrow a favored word of the New York Times. Except, you can't borrow the concept without questioning the assumptions behind it, the first of which is: authentically what? Authentically non-Western, non-European, non-straight, non-middle class? Goytisolo, bless him, has made a career of siding with all of the above, now he's stuck in his own implication that Westerm, European, Straight, Middle-Class etc., are the norm, the others (the poor, the gay, the Muslims and the dark-skinned people) are marginal.

Years ago, when I was teaching in the New York State Penitentiary system, I decided on a lark to explain some rather heavy post-structuralist theory to the bloods. I was surprised that they were comfortable with the ideas, as if those ideas had always been there, among them. Barthes, who makes a cameo appearance cruising the movie-house in Goytisolo's book, would probably not have understood; Foucault, surely. Goytisolo, not: he's writing about these people; for these people, never.

And how he sees these people is not, as a rule, how they will see themselves. Goytisolo's like an elderly gay man who one day will discover that there are new generations of gay men who couldn't dream themselves outsiders if they tried, thanks in no small part to the elderly man himself. He's been most of his life an exile from Spain, glorifying in Mediterranean multiculturalism while Spain itself, and thanks in part to him, has moved toward his own wishes: he's like a Jorge Semprun character, frozen in his outsider status, overtaken by his own success. If he wrote in French, I'd say his is the kind of francophonie that works at Gallimard; just not the kind that's needed now. What's needed now: no longer a Literature of the Perpetual Outsider, but one in which the outsider declares himself an insider by fiat, and by making of his own, invented culture the culture of his native land, returns.

Come home, Juan Goytisolo, we love you.

Hystérix le Gaulois


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