The Garden of Secrets

Juan Goytisolo

translated from the Spanish by Peter Bush
Serpent's Tail 2000
A book review by Danny Yee © 2003 http://dannyreviews.com/
At the start of the Spanish Civil War, the left-wing homosexual poet Eusebio finds himself in Melilla, in Spanish North Africa. This is the starting point for a collaborative work by the 28 members of a Readers' Circle, among them
"journalists, cinema buffs, fledgling writers, students from Spanish and North American creative writing schools, sociologists, lawyers, ethnologists, a graduate in Arabic language and literature, a specialist in the language of Quevedo, two assiduous readers of Ibn Arabi and other mystical, esoteric writers."
Over three weeks, each of the Circle co-readers tells a story about, or at least loosely connected to, Eusebio, building — or at least touching — on what has gone before.

The result is a story for each letter of the Arabic alphabet, beginning with ALIF, which explains how the Circle worked, and ending with WAW, which describes the Circle's invention of an author, Goytisolo, and YAA, a kind of bibliography. The stories in between fall into two different threads. In one, Eusebio is incarcerated in a fascist military hospital at the request of his family, re-educated and given a new identity; he is then caught up in Nationalist purges of Falange supporters. In the other, Eusebio escapes to Morocco, where our narrators uncover a life with many twists and turns — when they don't prefer to tell stories about women running restaurants and brothels, or fables of marriages and humans turning into storks.

The framing conceit is nicely executed and extends even to the prefatory material, where Goytisolo is credited only with having "written down" the work and the copyright is assigned to a "Readers' Circle". The individual stories display an extraordinary range, doing justice to the diversity of their narrators in a kaleidoscopic display of literary, historical, philosophical, sexual, and linguistic diversions and excursions. The result left me wondering how much I had missed — a second reading is a definite option — and wanting to read more Spanish and Arabic literature, to visit Morocco, and to find a history of Nationalist politics during the Spanish Civil War, among other things.

I wouldn't say that Goytisolo's Readers' Circle has managed "to put an end to the oppressive, pervasive notion of the Author", but The Garden of Secrets has managed to do something genuinely original with narrative and perspective. It is not a simple work, and readers after straightforward plots and simple narrative should stay away, but neither is it heavy-going: the tone is light and the individual stories are engaging, often arresting.

July 2003

External links:
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
- review and links at the Complete Review
Related reviews:
- Juan Goytisolo - Marks of Identity
- Juan Goytisolo - The Marx Family Saga
- more Spanish literature
%T The Garden of Secrets
%A Goytisolo, Juan
%M Spanish
%F Bush, Peter
%I Serpent's Tail
%D 2000
%O paperback
%G ISBN 1852428090
%P 152pp