Exiled From Almost Everywhere
160 pp., Dalkey Archive Press, £9.99.
It’s difficult to fathom what actually happens in Juan Goytisolo’s Exiled From Almost Everywhere. However, I never felt that this lack of comprehension posed a problem: half the pleasure lies in the fact that this is a deliberately disorientating novel, an infinite influx of information made manageable (just about) in small, postcard-sized chapters. It's pointless trying to work out what is tangible story and what is pure speculation (and as we've been dropped in a virtual reality anyway, does it even matter?): our narrator is bombastic and erratic and everyone we meet seems to function under a number of untrustworthy aliases. Don’t bother trying to locate yourself: just focus on the manic feel of the inflated language, the mood, the sharp interjections and tangents. Every page fizzes with multiple psychologies gone haywire in some mutable, ever-shifting zone of cyberspace. Goytisolo has a wicked sense of humour and isn't concerned in the slightest about making his reader work so they can get it. Exiled From Almost Everywhere echoes the layered nature of the internet, its very structure mirroring the projection and nonchalant clash of (mis)information.
Goytisolo knows more about exile than most, as his personal life makes clear. He has been on voluntary exile from Spain since 1956 and he now lives in Marrakech, where the ‘illiterate storytellers [of the Djemaa el Fna] were my professors’. In his own words: ‘It would have been impossible to have a third life in Spain. I love Spanish culture but hate Spanish society; I can't live there.’ This deliberate stepping away from his roots hasn't stopped him from being noted by the literary world: he has been championed by internationally renowned writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa, Orhan Pamuk and Carlos Fuentes, and in 2004, he won Mexico's Juan Rulfo prize for a lifetime’s literary achievement (presented by Gabriel García Márquez, no less). He is also currently on the shortlist for the Man Booker International prize. However, Goytisolo is careful to place himself on the periphery at all times, discovering early on that he was ‘interested in literature, not in literary life.’ Exiled From Almost Everywhere reaffirms this evasive method of self-placement, the skittish brand of identity we see threading throughout the text like a mischievous, multifaceted code. I’ll admit, I initially had a few false starts with this novel (if you’re feeling at all impatient or slightly tetchy, ‘ironic’ forms of address directed specifically at you – ‘my long-suffering reader’, ‘Reader, darling’ or ‘dear friend’ – may potentially grate a little) – but once I was in, I was very much in.
So: the ‘Monster of Le Sentier’ – a Parisian pervert ‘complete with hat and dark-tinted glasses’ – has been blown up in a terrorist attack on Earth and finds himself in the Hereafter, a ‘deserted cybercafe’ of an afterlife, filled with ‘thousands (millions) of computers’. However, he is able to send emails to other ‘visible or anonymous computer geeks’, some of whom become (slightly) more apparent as we read on. I was particularly delighted by 'Alice', a radical imam in the unlikely guise of 'a flabby female in her forties, luridly face-packed and mistress of a recherche English she'd learned in her Oxford college.' The overall tone of the novel is cartoonish and paranoid, an extended, overarching caricature. It fits in comfortably with the exaggerated, inflated personas which can be easily found on the internet any day of the week. Behind all the throwaway flippancy, however, is a novel which dwells on problematic contemporary material (the issue of terrorism, for starters). Goytisolo is no amateur: he avoids dealing with these topics in an awkward, heavy-handed manner and is subtle in the way he utilises his chosen format. For example, in an email from the so-called Crack Revenue Inspector, he sarcastically indicates at the ways one can dehumanise and manipulate a vulnerable psychology: 'It is vital to guilt-trip the subject selected for the operation. And make him understand [...] that his very existence constitutes an obstacle to our grand project of social and ideological renewal and identity construction.' Well, quite.
The author never expects the reader to fully understand what is going on. In fact, you wonder if the author knows exactly where he is going himself (my instinct says no, he’s just furiously enjoying the journey). In an early chapter which parodies the insatiable nature of the public figure, Goytisolo also seems to be poking fun at the indulgent, egotistical needs of the artist: ‘I’ve had an idea! I must tell it to the cameras, grab the media’s attention with a massive press conference! How can I develop the thread of my thoughts if nobody is listening, if nobody is looking at me?'. It’s definitely worth stepping into Goytisolo’s virtual underworld of the Hereafter and reeling back and forth in an erratic cyberspace with this volatile cast of characters. Prepare yourself (because you will get lost), pick up the novel and log in.