It seems serendipity has decreed that State Of Siege shall be the last novel that I read this year, for the year runs to its end, though when one thing ends, another begins just as it has done before with a new name. This short novel, written by Juan Goytisolo and published in Spanish in 1995 is perhaps easier to read than his other works, for Goytisolo murders the conventions of how novels or for that matter anything can be written. Earlier this year, I waxed lyrical about him, and I completed Makbara but was unable to finish Marks Of Identity, his trilogy, a project I have left for the future.
Goytisolo is a difficult writer to read for he writes with many voices, in many ways. He has, as remarked by someone, "laid siege to the Spanish language" and in the final process, liberated it and given it a new aesthetic. It is unlikely that I will read him in Spanish ( there is an Oblomov in me) but Helen Lane's translations are masterpieces in their own right. Goytisolo's language ranges from long, never ending sentences, few pages long to delirious fragments, poetry stretching and shivering till words break into explosions. His writing celebrates language but also gives expression to voices that are tired of oblivion, for these voices exist at the margins of two worlds. Goytisolo is known for his love and celebration of Islamic and Arab culture and he lives in Djemaa El Fnaa, a place he has described with not words but ecstatic mysticism in Makbara.
State of Siege begins in Sarajevo and describes the siege of this city, a siege wherein a mysterious man dies when mortar shells strike his hotel room. The man's body disappears, his identity is assumed to be Spanish, he is called by the initials J. G, ( the author?) and a major is assigned to look for clues. This is described along with a siege of a district in Paris, which is mostly home to immigrants. The chapters are interspersed with dreams, fragments, voices. It is revealed later on that JG does not exist, never did but was a Moroccan man, a saint who wanted to die in Sarajevo, to redeem a medieval siege. His identity was carved up by unknown people, but he has left behind poems, homo-erotic mystical fragments and laments. The novel ends with a chapter called Astrolabe, which has these mystical fragments, written by this Moroccan holy man.
This novel is a description of European apathy towards Sarajevo and its Bosnian Muslims, for the apathy is described clearly, the waiting for some outside intervention, as snipers claim civilian victims, and a city is ravaged and devastated by an army that had sworn to protect people it was killing, mercilessly, ruthlessly. Goytisolo's parallel descriptions of the Paris siege seem prophetic, considering the events of recent civil unrest in Paris, the xenophobic passages and the anti-immigration and racist stances are well captured ( one can see the same strains in Sarkozy, France's president who called rioters scum) It might seem outlandish, a district in Paris under siege by unknown forces but not incredible.....the parallels with Sarajevo are drawn....
Goytisolo has dedicated this novel to Sarajevo's residents, European intellectuals and to Susan Sontag, whose staging of Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo was an act that hugely impressed him. It is clear whose sides his sympathies lie with but that is besides the point. "God or Godot never turned up", he writes, as Sarajevo's library is destroyed, "its soul....deafening collapse of the walls and ceilings of archives and reading rooms housing thousands of ottoman, Persian and Arabic manuscripts. The object of the aggressors....to leave no trace of the historical substance of this country so as to build on it a temple of lies, legends and myths"...... The last days of the siege are described too......"people gulping air after urbicides, as cafes open and the besieged gather in cemeteries to pray and place flowers on the graves of their relatives and friends".
There is some humour as nicknames are invented for the main players....."Slobe globe Milo Venusevic, Elevnus Milo-Chechnik, the Bardobomber Kara schtick" and so on. It was a way of lumbering up their brains, stretching the muscles of their wit......as humanitarian tourists came on sightseeing trips to pity our sufferings and photograph them". As we move from the "Kristallnaght" of a besieged Paris district, directed against foreigners to a real siege elsewhere, from a Moroccan holy man to Sotadic poems, Goytisolo reminds us of the barbarity and the inhumanity of a situation which Europe tolerated because the sufferers, like those a few decades earlier belonged to a different religion. In writing this novel, Goytisolo's lyricism and imagination deconstruct mythical overtures and stances and exposes the cruelties that are too obvious.