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Thursday, December 18, 2014

He’s just been awarded the 2014 Cervantes prize. Well, the prize comes with a catch, because it’s announced at the end of the year, usually toward the end of November or the beginning of December, but the award ceremony isn’t until April 23 so it can coincide with the death of Miguel de Cervantes, the namesake of the Spanish language’s most important prize.

This year the winner turns out to be Juan Goytisolo. I can never remember where the i goes in his last name. The name also always reminds me of Juan’s brothers, who are also writers, José Agustín and Luis (Juan is the middle child). I’ll always appreciate the older brother, who unfortunately died in 1999, for a poem he wrote that has accompanied me on my long journey through life ever since I first read it in the seventies: Palabras para Julia.  The youngest of the trio, Luis, was awarded the 2013 National Prize for Spanish Literature by the Spanish Ministry of Culture, which by the way Juan won in 2008. Talk about a talented family!

Awards sometimes fall into the hands of lesser-known figures; members of that exclusive club of privileged folks who hang out around the ivory towers of the Mt. Olympus of literature. This however is not the case with Juan Goytisolo. At the age of just seven, he witnessed the death of his mother during an air-raid in Barcelona by the nationalists during the Spanish Civil War. I’m convinced that this tragic event impacted him in his opposition to Spanish tradition and all things conservative. Angry with the country that had brought about the death of his mother, he lived almost his entire life between Marrakech and Paris. His works systematically question any and all questionable topics: in his novel Count Julian, he offers deep criticism of deep Spain. Religion, tradition, culture… nothing gets past his critical quill. Don Julián is considered Spanish history’s great traitor, who facilitated the invasion of the Muslims (or musulmanes in Spanish, people who were repeatedly referred to during my childhood as moros, a word loaded with negative connotations in my opinion), despite the fact that these so-called invaders injected culture and modernity into a Medieval Europe light years behind the times in comparison.

Later I discovered Makbara, a novel based on the great square in Marrakech, a work that includes memorable moments like the sports recap of a race between sperm to reach an egg as if it were a cross-country running competition. It’s just an example of the narratives I’ve often used in my upper-level Spanish classes (B2 and above).

Goytisolo’s body of work includes more gems beyond his novels. His essays, such as España y los españoles and Contra las sagradas formas, remind me of Octavio Paz’s Laberinto de la soledad and their analyses of a people: Paz’s look at Mexican people and Goytisolo’s look at Spanish people.

His journalistic chronicles make for wonderful material to inspire our advanced-level students to get into reading in Spanish: Paisajes de Guerra offer incredible journalistic prose and they recall García Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

So check out Goytisolo’s work at your local library, dive right into it and prepare to enjoy a modern master who has been able to become a prophet in his own land despite the fact that throughout his life, not unlike a 20th century Don Quixote, he has been tirelessly facing off against the windmills of intolerance, tradition, and ignorance.

Congratulations don Juan!

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