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The Virtues of the Solitary Bird.

Juan Goytisolo, one of the most important living novelists from Spain, in his Virtues of the Solitary Bird creates a kind of closet drama about the heritage of Spanish mysticism, traced from its roots in "triple-caste Spain" - Jewish, Moorish, Christian - through its infamous Inquisition to Franco's lost decades and their contemporary aftermath. The theme is exile: Saint John of the Cross, one of the earliest victims of Torquemada's search for heretics (along with

Saints Ignatius and Teresa of Avila), retreated into a version of mysticism that blended the teachings of Teresa with biblical Judaism and Muslim mysticism, resulting in that great classical work, Treatise on the Qualities of the Solitary Bird, the work that haunts the narrator throughout his visions, soliloquies, and ecstatic chants while conversing with Saint John. In his hospital bed, the Browningesque narrator (not unlike Beckett's Krapp or Dostoyevski's persecuted protagonist in Notes from Underground) moves in and out of reverie and conversation with John of the Cross, identifying with the saint as well as many of those heretics who have interpreted differently the way to heavenly bliss. His exile is as real as the author's own exile out of Spain for his anti-Franco stand against political oppression, a subject which became one of the major themes in his writings. Most important is the nightmarish atmosphere experienced throughout this modern Spanish Walpurgisnacht reminiscent of so many modern distopias - The Plague, Fahrenheit 451, 1984, The Devils of Loudun - where heresy in theology and politics are so often commingled.

What Goytisolo has done in his version of John of the Cross's "solitary bird" is to modernize, while not sanitizing, the horror of heresy - theological, political, social, moral - wherever and whenever it appears. Ivan Denisovich lives in the gulag, Camus's plague is in northern Africa, Goytisolo's modern John awaits his auto-da-fe in the nearby soccer stadium. Heresy still has its uses! A haunting, poetic treatment of an old Spanish custom.
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Author:Byrne, Jack
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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