LANDSCAPES AFTER THE BATTLE
By Juan Goytisolo
Translated from the Spanish
By Helen Lane
Seaver Books. 159 pp. $17.95
JUAN GOYTISOLO, Spain's leading experimental novelist, is infatuated with Muslim culture, and in the opening pages of Landscapes After the Battle he gleefully pictures a Paris in which all the street signs and advertisements have been replaced by Arabic inscriptions.
The rich promiscuity of the Parisian garment district, Le Sentier, is the narrator's beat, a place that already sports such exotic place names as rue d'Alexandrie, rue d'Aboukir and Place du Caire. Here blond Turks loaded down with coats on racks brush shoulders with Portuguese concierges and Jewish ready-to-wear merchants from North Africa (the older local population of Ashkenazi Jews was annihilated by the Holocaust).
Goytisolo himself lived in Paris as a political exile from 1957 until the death of Franco; his books were banned in Spain during most of that time. Today he divides his time among Paris, Barcelona and Tangier. For the narrator, the vitality of Paris derives not from its postcard-perfect museums, churches and fashionable shops but precisely from its hordes of black Africans and Arabs, its Caribbean and Vietnamese immigrants, its Turks and Chinese -- that whole fertile crescent that cuts across Paris from Barbe`s (just below Montmartre) through Le Sentier and the Bastille on down to the new Chinatown near the Place d'Italie.
Our hero despises what the French call their "patrimony," that whole official cultural heritage encoded and disseminated by the schools. What he likes instead are fast-food hangouts, porno movie palaces, wax museums and the sound of "bendirs, flutes, camanyas, Sufi dances, Anatolian ballads, heartrending laments . . . . " He likes the smell of saffron, not the sight of men in berets drinking Calvados and grumbling about "foreigners."
The narrator-hero (not to be confused, of course, with Goytisolo himself) is a latter-day version of Baudelaire's loafer, that artistic do-nothing who passes his days wandering about the metropolis soaking up impressions. As Baudelaire put it, "The crowd is his domain . . . . His passion and his profession is to merge with the crowd. For the perfect idler, for the passionate observer it becomes an immense source of enjoyment to establish his dwelling in the throng, in the ebb and flow, the bustle, the fleeting and the infinite."
Like this dandified idler, the narrator passes his days mingling with revolutionaries writing obscene personals, patrolling Le Sentier and attempting to avoid his pet peeves -- the sight of warts, the smell of vinegar and the sound of an Argentine accent.
Whereas he may welcome the conversion of Paris into an oriental bazaar, an extreme-right, France-for-the-French political group, the Charles Martel commandos, is planning to terrorize all immigrants. This group, of course, is named after the Charles Martel who turned back that Muslim invasion in 732 at Poitiers.
Landscapes After the Battle is a short, exciting tour of contemporary themes -- the emergence of pop culture, sexual liberation and ethnic militancy in Europe. These political issues are juxtaposed in a bright, disturbing collage (a textual "miscegenation") with the narrator's eccentricities -- his lusting after little girls (a taste explicitly linked to Lewis Carroll), his strangely formal relationship with his wife (he slips notes under her door), his random sorties through the city. The "battle" that the title refers to may be the narrator's own sense of defeated dignity or relevance, or the death of leftist ideology in Western Europe, or the lost war against the Arab invasion.
In a book of essays (Saracen Chronicles), Goytisolo has expressed the opinion that the worst thing that ever happened to Spain was its liberation from Arab rule, the expulsion of the "Moors." An earlier novel, Count Julian, is recounted by a Spanish narrator who dreams of a new Muslim invasion of his homeland. In yet another novel, Makbara, Goytisolo invokes a pre-industrial Muslim culture in which there is room for games, leisure and the spirit of festivity -- the very virtues pictured with such gusto and refined irony in Landscapes After the Battle.
Some readers will be disturbed by the way Goytisolo has let the wail of the muezzin ring out over the City of Lights, but no one will remain indifferent to his dizzying collage of cultures. :: Edmund White, who lives in Paris, has just completed a new novel, "The Beautiful Room Is Empty."