Juan Goytisolo, La Chanca
Goytisolo, Juan. La Chanca. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1983 (1962).
The standard story about postwar Spanish fiction is that the first couple of Franco decades saw an earnest but ultimately uninteresting social-realist movement, followed by a sudden turn in the sixties (more or less contemporaneous with the Latin American boom) toward a late-modernist or postmodernist emphasis on artifice and enigma. Goytisolo straddles this divide; in his early career he wrote eight realist novels, the last being La Chanca, then repudiated them all and switched to a blurrier, more difficult mode. Being cautious of the long late books I decided to start with La Chanca, which among other attractions is quite short.
Goytisolo spent most of the Franco years in Paris, and up until the Generalissimo’s death all his books were banned in Spain. La Chanca is certainly meant to outrage. The title denotes an impoverished neighborhood in the impoverished southern city of Almeida, which the geography books falsely call part of Spain; in fact it is a colony, says Goytisolo’s narrator, and the economic and social conditions he describes (with statistics as needed) certainly place it in the Third World. This isn’t Dreiser’s social realism but a more interesting quasi-journalistic form, following Goytisolo’s narrator (an unnamed expatriate Spanish writer living in Paris) through several days in Almeida, on which dates the real Goytisolo (so says the back of the book) also visited the city. The descriptions of place and incidental encounters are all written with vivid economy and read as perfectly good nonfiction even where there aren’t statistics to back them up.
It isn’t always clear where the book shades into fiction, but the main invention seems to be the narrator coming to know a particular family with particular woes. One son left years ago to find work in France and was killed in an industrial accident; another has just been picked up by the Guardia Civil. Because Goytisolo doesn’t try to force development of these situations, and because his narrator can’t do anything other than listen and be outraged, the stories manage to complement the journalist sections rather than undercutting them. The effect is a bit like Juan Rulfo’s minimalist stories about Jalisco, with their individualized observations of hardship. So while the realist/antirealist division might work as a first pass for Goytisolo or Spanish fiction in general, there’s clearly a lot more going on. As far as I know, none of the early Goytisolo has been translated into English; taking the later work on its own might lead to a cockeyed view.