0225 | Marks of Identity – Juan Goytisolo

Context: Had to break out the hot water bottle on more than one occasion while reading this. It’s getting cold here.

Now the 1001 Books list has its critics. But quite honestly, it’s books like Marks of Identity that reinforce my commitment to it. I’ve never heard of the title or the author and check out that front cover in the photo. Frankly, on the strength of a photo of a stuffed rabbit, some straw, a bit of rusty corrugated iron and a blue torso, I would never have picked this up. I did so simply because it was on the list.

Boy, I’m glad I did pick it up though. Goytisolo’s novel is the first one that has moved me with its writing in so many ways for a long time.

The ‘story’ takes place while Alvaro Mendiola drinks in the night air in his apartment in Cuban exile. From beginning to end, this event must last no more than a couple of hours at the most. But as he drinks, Alvaro starts to recall his life from his childhood to his student days, to the Spanish Civil War and afterwards with self-imposed exile to Paris and, eventually, Cuba.

But these flashbacks are amazing. For each one, Goytisolo adopts some remarkable styles of writing. I was never sure what was coming next. Some of his sentences stretch on for pages and pages. But they’re not tough to read. I never had morbid fear as I turned a page like I have had with some books that just seem to go on and on and on. I was engaged throughout.

Goytisolo’s depiction of the messy war is very moving and intimate. He uses some great prose to conjure up vivid images and metaphors which reinforce this. And there’s a large cast of characters who play his associates and friends, his enemies and, above all, his lover who appears from time to time always with a tinge of melancholy.

This novel, as all good ones should, opened up a world to me and engaged me in it. Highly recommended.

“Established in Paris comfortably established in Paris with more years of residence in France than in Spain with more French habits than Spanish ones including even the classic one of living with the daughter of a well-known exile a regular resident of the Ville Lumiere and an episodic visitor to his homeland in order to bear Parisian witness to aspects of Spanish life that might serve to epater le bourgeois an expert in that vast European geography that is traditionally hostile to our values and also present in his intineraries the well-known hand of the great bearded saint of that ex-paradise of a Caribbean island transformed today by work and the grace of Reds semi-Reds and useful idiots into a silent and lugubrious floating concentration camp evading the realities of the moment with an easy comfortable and advantageous nonconformity showing himself with prudent niceties and calculated tactics in all the social circles of the Boeotian world beyond El Ferol in order to gain for us the forgiveness and pardon… [this is still going two pages later so there’s no way I’m going to type it all out!]


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