Marks of Identity

Juan Goytisolo

translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa
Dalkey Archive Press 2007 [1966]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2007
The present of Marks of Identity involves its protagonist Alvaro's return to Spain in 1963, from a self-imposed exile in France. This is by no means its most prominent strand, however: most of it consists of episodes from Alvaro's childhood, student days, and life abroad, and from his family history and the lives of his friends. These are interspersed with extracts from documents — police reports, fascist propaganda, tourist brochures — and the stories of prison inmates, peasants and workers. (1963 is when Goytisolo started work on Marks of Identity, which has many autobiographical elements.)

Looking through the family photo album while listening to Mozart's Requiem, Alvaro recalls his childhood in Barcelona, subject to an almost sado-masochistic Catholicism, his family's flight to France during the Civil War and return under Franco, and his early stirrings of revolt. Attending the funeral of one of his university lecturers, he is reminded of life as a student a dozen years earlier, being introduced to sex, riotous living and politics. And, visiting the site where his father was killed at the outbreak of the Civil War, he looks back to an earlier massacre of peasants and social tensions — which he had researched on a previous visit, when an attempt to make a documentary led to a run-in with the Civil Guard.

The travails of Alvaro's friend Antonio, released from prison and on parole in his native village on the Andalusian coast, are contrasted with Alvaro's life in France, where radicals are more interested in Algeria and Vietnam than Spain; this is interspersed with police surveillance reports. And the self-absorbed world of Spanish exiles in Paris and around Europe is described in parallel with a stillborn attempt by students to stage a demonstration in Barcelona.

Looking through an atlas with his wife Dolores, Alvaro remembers key events and locations in their life: a romantic meeting in Paris (and a contrasting passion of their landlady), an abortion in Switzerland, Venice in winter, and other periods of disillusionment. Alvaro's discovery of Andalusia is interspersed with the stories of poor workers and peasants, told in an "oral history" format. And, visiting a prison overlooking Barcelona that has been turned into a tourist destination, Alvaro looks back over his family's connections with Cuba and slavery.

The fractured and discontinuous structure extends down to smaller scales, sometimes down to the level of individual words. There are also long sections, including the opening three pages, which are entirely without punctuation or which use white-space as an alternative. This is more intimidating than difficult, however, and Marks of Identity is not hard to read once one becomes accustomed to it. The focus on an individual keeps it together, while individual sections and sub-stories provide narrative drive.

Marks of Identity is an exploration of the rifts and dislocations of Spanish society in the quarter-century following the civil war, through the life of an individual torn between Spain and exile and haunted by his family history. Combining political repression with economic growth and burgeoning tourism from an open Europe, Franco's Spain now seems very distant. If Marks of Identity has not commanded a wide audience in translation, that may be less because of its structure and style than because of its historical specificity and the context it assumes.

August 2007

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%T Marks of Identity
%A Goytisolo, Juan
%M Spanish
%F Rabassa, Gregory
%I Dalkey Archive Press
%D 2007 [1966]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 1564784533
%P 362pp