The Marx Family Saga

Juan Goytisolo

translated from the Spanish by Peter Bush
City Lights Books 1999
A book review by Danny Yee © 2003
The Marx Family Saga begins with a dramatic description of Albanian refugees landing on a posh private beach in Italy, carrying photocopied dollars and dreaming of Dallas. But that's just the news on television, watched by Karl Marx and his family in their digs in Dean St, somehow transplanted to the present. Marx contemplates the fall of communism in Russian and Eastern Europe, debating its implications with visitors such as Anselmo Lorenzo — while Bakunin clowns his way around Europe, posing as a billionaire and begging for money on the metro.

The author's fantasies, his escape from the trials and tribulations of writing, have become his novel. In part two, he imagines his publisher taking him to task.

Mr Faulkner's welcome would be icy
the text you put before me is a mere succession of sketches, plans, outlines, notes, doodles and drafts
(would he use up the list from the Dictionary of Synonyms sitting on his table in order to ram his point home?)
no organising thread, no plot, the reader loses his way in a sea of contradictory data and ridiculous anachronisms! whenever he comes across a story, you make sure you knock him off course and bring him back to the start, to zero, to nothingness! do you have any objections to what I'm saying?
(This illustrates Goytisolo's typographical style, with no full-stops or speech quote marks; initially distracting, this soon comes to seem perfectly normal.) The author faces attacks from a Ms Lewin-Strauss, giving the feminist critique of Marx, and there's a suggestion that he should write something suitable for film adaptation... In response to an injunction to include Facts, he takes to including excerpts from historical appraisals of Marx and his family by visitors.

The author now receives an invitation from the Marxes to a ball at Modena Villas, which turns out to be the set of a film, Le Baronne Rouge. He investigates the marriages and fates of Marx's three daughters, Jenny, Laura, and Eleanor.

when he spots you, the monocle dangling over his eye seems to betray an ironic gaze, a mixture of guile and good humour
dear me, my long-suffering writer friend, are you still having fun rattling the family skeletons?
Next comes a talk-show debate about Marx, in which the author and the producer spar with an Oxford professor, a student of Godelier, Ms Lewin-Strauss, an Indian historian, a Spanish anarchist, and an Eastern European emigre.
the emigrant from Eastern Europe: yet another utopia! such words trip lightly off the tongue of a poet but not from those of a responsible politician!
the Spanish anarchist: my dear fellow, I have to say that I mistrust people who mistrust poets! doesn't Marx's well-known expression in relation to his friend Freiligrath, 'what a miserable, wretched breed poets are', by any chance prefigure the attitudes of future Communist regimes towards Ahkmatova, Mandelstam, Pasternak and Mayakovsky's suicide?
Godelier's student: Freiligrath, that mediocre versifier, was, politically speaking, a weathercock! the bonds of friendship between Marx and Engels and a great author like Heine were always based on an attitude of utter respect and admiration!
the Oxford Professor: what does Marx reproach Freiligrath for? for the fact that, as a poet, he needs freedom! for the fact that he had the courage to write to him that the Party is a cage and that he sings better outside!

The finale takes place at Marx's grave in Highgate cemetery, where the author engages in a dialogue with Lenchen, Marx's servant and mistress.

Despite the light-hearted presentation, Goytisolo takes his central topics — the fate of communism, Marx's life — seriously. There's no attempt to explain marxist theory, but there is real substance in the presentation and even some historiographical sophistication, with the narrative devices used to contextualise different viewpoints. (It should be possible to appreciate The Marx Family Saga without knowing much about the history of socialist thought, but those without any historical background at all may find themselves adrift in places.)

The Marx Family Saga is a surreal fantasy with something of the logic of a dream, erratic in course and disjointedly plotted — the publisher's complaint quoted above is quite accurate! — and multiply self-referential to boot. But it's not difficult to read: its twists and turns are easy to follow and it's never unclear what is happening. Witty, clever and entertaining as well as provocative and insightful, The Marx Family Saga is a remarkable achievement.

December 2003

External links:
- buy from or
- review and links at the Complete Review
Related reviews:
- Juan Goytisolo - The Garden of Secrets
- Juan Goytisolo - Marks of Identity
- more Spanish literature
- more political fiction
- other "best book" selections
%T The Marx Family Saga
%A Goytisolo, Juan
%M Spanish
%F Bush, Peter
%I City Lights Books
%D 1999 [1996]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0872863492
%P 186pp