Top 10 modern Nordic books | Books

With the cold wave of Nordic literature crashing on UK shores over recent years and Danish, Swedish, Greenlandic, Finnish, Norwegian and Icelandic authors coming to the Southbank Centre in London this month for talks and readings, I am glad to suggest 10 books for those who want to prepare themselves.

Some of the authors I choose here will be appearing at the Southbank Centre and some are featured in the anthology that I have edited with Ted Hodgkinson, The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat and Other Stories from the North. Others are to be found at all hours of day and night in their books.

Never in history have so many diverse books from the north been translated, and in the last five years in the UK and the USA the list has been growing. This can be seen in the success of contemporary authors such as Karl Ove Knausgaard and Sofi Oksanen, of crime novelists such as Arnaldur Indriðason and Henning Mankell. And then we have the old guard: Strindberg, Ibsen, Hamsun, Lagerlöf, Blixen/Dinesen and the Sagas, to provide us with an impeccable pedigree.

While working on the the anthology, I was more than ever convinced that the literatures of the region have more in common that not. The dry wit, the willingness to dwell in melancholia and look at the world through its blue-tinted glasses, the social criticism that comes with bringing to light the stories of the marginalised, the exploration of style and form as integral part of diving into any given theme, the deep-felt belief in literature’s role in keeping our societies humane.

The books I’ve chosen here have all been recently published in English or are about to be. There should be something here for every boreal-minded reader to cherish in the coming winter.

1. Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðbergur Bergsson (translated by Lytton Smith)
Bergsson is the grand old man of Icelandic literature and this is the novel every Icelandic author must love and resist. Written in 1966, when biographies of turn-of-the-century greats were dominating the bestseller lists in Iceland, the novel pretends to be the autobiographical musings of its ageing protagonist. Having nothing to his name but the fact that he is descended from Vikings, and the small flat where he lives in one room, renting the rest out to lodgers, Tómas does his best to prove worthy of a book of his own. Only recently translated into English, it is a fabulous feast of wilting light, with a whiff of Beckett’s Unnamable’s underpants.

2. Novel 11, Book 18 by Dag Solstad (translated by Sverre Lyngstad)
If there is a motto to the books I have read by Solstad, it is: “We are born to embarrass ourselves before our destruction.” Here we follow the slow but sure decline of one Bjørn Hansen who leaves his wife and infant son for life in a small town where he becomes involved in amateur theatre, with all its petty in-fighting and jealousy. When his son turns up 18 years later, things take a darker turn.

3. The Endless Summer by Madame Nielsen (translated by Gaye Kynoch)
At once the foremost stylist of contemporary Danish literature and the most provocative one, Nielsen shocked readers with the sudden beauty and tenderness of this novel. The reader is swept away by the flow of the narrative, the warmth and wit of a storyteller who presents modern tales of destiny with a fearless presentation of the bittersweet melancholy of existence.

4. Not Before Sundown by Johanna Sinisalo (translated by Herbert Lomas)
This is a beautifully constructed fable for our times, where Sinisalo addresses humanity’s changing relationship with nature. So, if you have been waiting to discover a novel about a young and lovesick photographer named Angel who finds and takes in a catlike, feral troll kid, this is your book. But it is far from whimsical, and a subplot about a Filipino mail-order bride kept locked up in one of the flats of Angel’s building poses questions about our human to human relationships as well.

Tomas Tranströmer.



Speaking to all times … Tomas Tranströmer. Photograph: Scanpix Sweden/Reuters

5. New Collected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer (translated by Robin Fulton)
A collective cheer could be heard from the north when this Swedish poet was awarded the Nobel prize in 2011. He was the first Nordic laureate in decades and the one we all hoped for. His poems are never sentimental but always full of emotion, never sweet but always beautiful — always rich in images while appearing minimal, always of their time while speaking to all times and the people at their mercy.

6. Crimson by Niviaq Korneliussen (translated by Anna Halager)
Korneliussen’s novel tells the story of a group of friends living in modern-day Nuuk, Greenland’s capital city of 18,000 inhabitants. Like young people anywhere, they are grappling with coming of age in world they never made, discovering their sexual identities and futures. Told in emails, messages, journals, short stories, it transports us to a cold homeland where the blood runs hot.

7. Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (translated by Misha Hoekstra)
Nors’s minimalist, experimental stories read as if they were thorough reports on the complexity behind the everyday situations men and especially women find themselves in. She is a master of the undercurrent, and the simplicity of her sentences makes them magnets for the reader’s own contribution to the reading experience. We can’t help mirroring ourselves in the characters, matching our own attempts at making sense of what has brought us to the moment of truth in similar situations.

8. The Tower at the Edge of the World by William Heinesen (translated by W Glyn Jones)
Heinesen is the last of the 20th-century masters of Nordic letters still to be discovered by a global readership. A match with Iceland’s Halldór Laxness, Denmark’s Karen Blixen and Norway’s Knut Hamsun, he was the one who wrote from the smallest of the northern worlds, the tiny community of Tórshavn in the Faroe Islands. I use every opportunity I get to bang the drum for his books. Now his poetic evocation of life on an island that to the vast ocean is “just about the same as a grain of sand to the floor of a dance hall” is being published in a new English translation. I hope some readers of these words will follow him there.

9. The Gravity of Love by Sara Stridsberg (translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner)
This novel’s protagonist is the daughter of a suicidal alcoholic living in a deteriorating mental hospital. If one believes, as I do, that investigating the harshest things in life through the literary use of language – where vulnerability and cruelty, confusion and determination, are described with equal precision – is one of our main tools to keep ourselves grounded and humane, then Stridsberg’s story is vital reading.

10. Inside Voices, Outside Light by Sigurður Pálsson (translated by Martin Regal)
Inspired by the dark surrealism of the Atom Poets – the group of modernists who broke Icelandic literature out of the confines of tradition in the years after the second world war – Pálsson’s poetic world is at once highly lyrical and playful. Everyday life inspires contemplations of the tragic optimism of the human being; for at the core of man’s many balancing acts – dancing, slapstick routines, staying in love, keeping the head high – there is always the threat of destruction, and the only antidote to our awareness of our fatality is poetry as it was practised by Pálsson.

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Robert Langdon in Catalonia: Dan Brown’s Origin picks bad day to launch | Books

A Dan Brown launch usually goes like this: critics sneer a bit, the media swarms to a rare author appearance (he is known for only occasionally deigning to meet press), readers buy the book in their millions, and the cities he’s chosen to set the Indiana Jones-style adventures of his protagonist, symbology professor Robert Langdon, subsequently see an influx of conspiracy-keen tourists. It will be interesting to see if this pattern is repeated with his latest book Origin, which is entirely set in Spain, its publication coinciding with the full-on crisis that has followed the Catalan referendum and the police violence that tried to repress it.

Origin, the fifth book following Langdon running around the world in his repeatedly described “collegiate cordovan loafers”, is set in Spain, starting in Bilbao’s Guggenheim museum, then moving to Barcelona’s Sagrada Família and Madrid’s Royal Palace.

Brown himself is set to visit Barcelona on 17 October – but with the Catalan president set to present his post-referendum plans to parliament on Tuesday, and potentially declare independence, local readers may have more pressing concerns.

“The book will probably climb straight to the top of the bestseller lists,” says Jordi Nopca, critic and literary editor for Catalan newspaper Ara. “But the uncertainty the city is living these days […] has made the news of this novel pretty much go unnoticed in Catalonia.”

Tourists famously flocked to the locations in France, the UK and Italy mentioned in previous books. In France, most notably, staff at the Louvre have grown fed up with tourists asking to be pointed towards the room where a curator was found dead, naked and with a star drawn on his chest, as depicted in the first scene of The Da Vinci Code. The Lost Symbol, centred on freemasons in Washington DC and a conspiracy that could be somehow traced in many of the city’s architectural structures. All of which annoyed the real freemasons, who were preemptively annoyed at the imagined flood of visits they would have to endure, with tourists hunting for the secret ancient portal supposedly hidden by the Founding Fathers in the Capitol (and like the Louvre’s dead curator, placed there by Brown).

In Catalonia, Brown’s sales will almost certainly be fine – but, despite Barcelona’s tourist machine remaining pretty indifferent to the political climate, it’s possible that the city will receive the book with a shrug at best, as politics fills the horizon.

For comparison, Nopca saw firsthand the excitement around Brown’s previous book Inferno, the launch of which he attended in Madrid. “Four years ago, the launch of Inferno gathered more than 150 journalists at Madrid’s National Library. The buzz was huge, and Planeta printed 1m copies of the novel’s first edition. The print run for Origin is – despite still being an impactful figure – much inferior: 600,000 copies.” At least Sagrada Família staff can probably be relaxed about Origin-related questions, for now.

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Colm Tóibín: ‘Catalonia is a region in the process of reimagining itself’ | Books

In September 2015 as Catalonia faced elections in which the question of independence was at the top of the agenda, the Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy held a press conference with Angela Merkel, at which the German chancellor made clear her opposition to Catalan independence and her support for Rajoy.

While in Berlin and Madrid this might have seemed like a good idea, in Catalonia, a region in the process of reimagining itself and thus deeply involved in the legacy of its own oppression, it was deemed ill judged and unfortunate. And even though the comparisons are unfair and unfounded, it escaped nobody in Catalonia that the last time a German chancellor had sided with a rightwing Spanish politician against the Catalans was when Franco was seeking to win the Spanish civil war.

As I write this, the Spanish attorney general, José Manuel Maza, has refused to rule out the possibility of arresting Carles Puigdemont, the president of the Catalan government, who is organising the 1 October referendum on Catalan independence. While, once more, this might seem a good way for the Madrid government to establish its credentials with the rest of Spain, it merely reminds Catalans of the arrest of the Catalan president Lluís Companys in 1934, when he had declared a Catalan state, and his second arrest by the Nazis in 1940 and his subsequent torture and execution at the hands of Franco.

In threating Puigdemont and arresting Catalan politicians and sending the Guardia Civil into the streets of Barcelona last week, the Madrid government is driving a further wedge between Spanish centralism and Catalan separatism and increasing the long-held sense of grievance in Catalonia.

In any normal situation, Puigdemont would be a gift to Europe. He is a pragmatist, a centre-right politician, close in ideology to Emmanuel Macron and Merkel. His party has traditionally been pro-Europe, pro-business. Across from Puigdemont’s seat of power in Plaça Sant Jaume in Barcelona, in the town hall Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, is a popular and committed leftwing politician, also part of the European political mainstream.

Since both are known to be calm, thoughtful, rational democrats, and since both are vehemently in favour of holding the referendum, as indeed are more than 70% of the Catalan electorate, it might seem difficult to fathom the strategy of the Madrid government as it seeks to demonise all those who support the referendum.

Ada Colau and Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont.



Ada Colau and Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont. Photograph: Quique Garcia/EPA

Madrid is not itself prepared to make a detailed case against the vote being held, but rather is insisting that it is illegal, as though the law were something that could not be changed.

It is curious also that Madrid politicians have not been travelling the length and breadth of Catalonia – as, say, Gordon Brown did in Scotland in the runup to the independence referendum there – to make the argument against the referendum and against Catalan independence.

Why have these politicians stayed in Madrid? Why did we not hear from them on the independence question in Catalonia this summer? Why have they offered coercion rather than argument?

One reason is the work of a woman named Aina Moll, who was born in Menorca in 1930. A philologist, she was director-general of linguistic policy for the Catalan government between 1980 and 1988. She worked with Miquel Strubell, who had studied linguistic psychology and bilingualism, and who from 1980 was head of what was known as linguistic normalisation in Catalonia. With their team, they became convinced that the only way Catalan as a language would survive was total normalisation and immersion. Unlike Irish, for example, Catalan was not associated with poverty. It was spoken by middle-class urban people as much as in the villages and in the foothills of the Pyrenees. In the years between 1939 and 1975, however, the use of Catalan in public was banned by Franco. In those years it became a private, family language.

This began to change in the 1980s, with Catalan radio and television, with the publication of a daily newspaper in the language. Many books were translated, and lessons in schools and lectures in universities were given in Catalan. Slowly, it became possible to live and work in Catalonia without having to bother too much about Spanish.

When I interviewed Moll in 1980 I noted her determination and almost scientific approach to restoring the full and extensive and, if possible, exclusive use of Catalan in the public realm. The project was to make it the first language of Catalonia. Spanish would be there too – all Catalans are bilingual – but it would essentially have a secondary role.


The Catalan fight for independence explained – video

One day in the mid-1980s, when I was having lunch in a Barcelona restaurant with one of her advisers, he asked for the menu in Catalan to be told that it was only in Spanish. He smiled, and said to me that the restaurant would get a warning within a week and would be threatened with closure within a month unless it printed a menu in Catalan.

In 1988, as I came out of mass in the monastery at Montserrat, to the north of Barcelona, I met a couple from Madrid who were fuming. The mass had been celebrated in Catalan. Since this was a popular place of worship, they said, why could mass not be in Spanish so that everyone could understand?

Such rage against Catalonia became common. The bar-room version is that Catalans are clannish, mean with money, and filled with nationalist bigotry and effrontery. The Catalans, in turn, have a horror of bullfighting and view people from Madrid as less than hard working. They also take the view that they are paying more money into the central coffers than they are getting back, and that there is a policy in Madrid to undermine Catalonia as an industrial and financial powerhouse.

But there is also the numinous question of identity and emotion around nationality. Many Catalans do not “feel” Spanish. They have spent the years since the death of Franco recreating their country, taking what power they can and using it to consolidate the idea of Catalonia as a place as worthy to be a state as any other European country.

The success of the policy on language is the main reason why Spanish politicians have not been visiting towns and villages in Catalonia, and not speaking on radio or TV to make the case against the referendum. Catalonia, for them, has become terra incognita. If Rajoy or his attorney general were to visit the heartland, they would find that no one had heard a political discussion in the Spanish language before, and they would notice also a strangeness, a sense that they themselves were in a foreign country.

The argument Catalans make is simple: why should the right to be a state not extend to them if the majority of them should wish to be no longer part of Spain?

Unlike Northern Ireland and the Basque country, Catalonians have sought to win the argument using constitutional methods. They have not resorted to violence. Thus the arrival of the Guardia Civil in Barcelona last week, the arrest of politicians and the threat of further coercion from the Spanish state seem disproportionate. Instead of frightening people, however, it has steeled their will. Instead of weakening Puigdemont, it has strengthened his position.

Although the polls say the independence side would not win a referendum, the Catalans, watching Brexit, have seen how easy it is for polls to be wrong, especially on voting intentions. One connection between the situation in Britain and Catalonia is that just as David Cameron felt impelled to call a referendum because of forces within his own party and to his right that were against Europe, Puigdemont is sharing power with parties who are even more fervent and militant than he is on the subject of Catalan independence.

Were he to stand down on this issue, Puigdemont knows how easily he and his party would be marginalised.

If he is prevented from holding the referendum, and if the scenes of coercion thus created are graphic, it will serve to reinforce the idea in Catalonia that the only future the region has is as a fully independent state. Indeed, the more Madrid gets to know Catalonia, courtesy of this stand-off, the more it will come to realise that, in many ways, Catalonia is already quite independent and separate from it, and more different as each year goes by.

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German writer held in Spain on Turkish warrant granted conditional release | World news

Germany welcomed the release on Sunday of a German writer detained in Spain on a Turkish warrant and accused Turkey of abusing the international system used to hunt down fugitives.

Turkish-born writer Doğan Akhanlı, who has German citizenship, was arrested on Saturday while on holiday in southern Spain. Akhanlı was conditionally released after a court hearing on Sunday, but ordered to remain in Madrid while Turkey’s extradition request is considered, his lawyer said.

It was not immediately clear what Akhanlı is accused of, but the author has in the past written about the mass killing of Armenians in Turkey in 1915. The killings are a sensitive subject in Turkey, which rejects the widespread view that they constituted genocide.

In a statement, the German foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, praised Akhanlı’s release and said “it would be terrible if Turkey could get people who raise their voice against [Turkish president Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan imprisoned on the other side of Europe.

“I have complete faith in Spain’s judicial system and know that our friends and partners in the Spanish government understand what’s at stake,” Gabriel said.

Erdoğan hit back while speaking to supporters in Istanbul, attributing Ankara’s souring relations with Berlin to next month’s German election and warning Germany to “mind its own business”.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said the arrest of Akhanlı was wrong.

“We mustn’t abuse international organisations like Interpol for this,” she told German broadcaster RTL.

German chancellor Angela Merkel



German chancellor Angela Merkel has called Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s remarks on the German election ‘unacceptable’. Photograph: Sebastian Kahnert/AP

The already high tensions between the two countries hit another peak on Friday when Erdoğan said all of Germany’s mainstream parties were enemies of Turkey and urged Turkish-Germans to not vote for them in the upcoming election.

Merkel called Erdoğan’s comments “completely unacceptable”.

“I invite everyone to vote, here in a free country,” she said.

Merkel said she would work hard to improve prison conditions for a number of Germans currently detained in Turkey on accusations of supporting banned organisations.

Akhanlı emigrated to Germany in 1991 after spending years in a Turkish prison following the 1980 military coup in the country.

The German section of the writers’ association PEN called the arrest warrant against Akhanlı politically motivated.

Spain is also holding Turkish-Swedish reporter and writer Hamza Yalcin, who was arrested on 3 August in Barcelona on a Turkish warrant for alleged terrorism.

PEN and Reporters Without Borders have demanded his release. The Swedish branch of Reporters Without Borders said Yalcin’s arrest was an attempt by Erdoğan to show he can reach critical voices abroad.

Spain’s Freedom of Information Defence Platform said it welcomed the decision on Akhanlı, but reiterated that it expects Yalcin to be let go and Spain to explain both arrests.

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Peter Varey obituary | Education

My father, Peter Varey, who has died aged 75, was a chemist, publisher and writer who had a passion for other cultures and languages.

He was born in Watford, Hertfordshire, to Joan (nee Tilley) and Frank Varey, both secondary school teachers. They moved to Brighton, East Sussex, where Peter attended Brighton and Hove grammar school. He studied natural sciences at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he received first-class honours.

It was while doing his PhD at Caius that he met the love of his life and soon- to-be-wife, Irena Michalska, from Łódź, Poland. She was in Cambridge with her father, a visiting chemistry fellow at Churchill College and had come to learn English. After finishing his PhD, Peter went on to do his postdoctorate studies at the Institute of Oncology in Warsaw. He became fluent in Polish within just a few months of arriving.

Back in the UK, he began teaching chemistry at Kingston Polytechnic (now Kingston University). One day he noticed an advertisement recruiting lecturers for Universidad Simón Bolívar in Caracas, Venezuela. Peter, Irena and their young family soon moved to the city. Within six months he was delivering lectures to the students in their native tongue. They remained in Venezuela for five years and while Peter was there he developed a passion for Latin American culture, and in particular folk music, which he retained for the rest of his life.

In 1977 Peter took a job as head of public relations for Fisons near Cambridge. He went on to become the editor and then publisher of the Chemical Engineer, the magazine of the Institution of Chemical Engineers, in Rugby, Warwickshire, where he remained until shortly before he retired in 2007.

Then he decided to follow his passion and began to write books. His new vocation allowed him to pursue his love of travelling extensively to research his subject matter. He used his lifelong experience in chemical engineering to provide the academic and scientific background.

His first book, Life on the Edge (2012), was a biography of Peter Danckwerts, a chemical engineer, war hero and expert in bomb and mine disposal. A few days before he died, Peter’s second book, 100 Octane, was published – it gave an insight into the development of high octane fuel by three petroleum chemists, which ultimately helped the allies to gain superiority in the air battles of the second world war.

He was a lifelong supporter of the Labour party, though he recently cancelled his membership due to his fundamental opposition to its view on Brexit.

He is survived by Irena, my sister, Anna, and me, and his five grandchildren, Emily, Alastair, Ben, Maja and Ella.

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Leading author joins boycott of Swedish book fair due to extremist newspaper’s presence | Books

Kenyan literary icon Ngugi wa Thiong’o, often tipped for the Nobel literature prize, has pulled out of an annual Swedish book fair in protest at the presence of a right-wing extremist newspaper, his publisher said Wednesday.

The 75-year-old author of A Grain of Wheat (1967) and Petals of Blood (1975), wrote an email to his Swedish publisher Modernista informing them he would cancel his attendance at the Gothenburg Book Fair “in solidarity with the writers withdrawing and of course with the concerns behind their withdrawal,” referring to the newspaper Nya Tider, which will be represented at the fair.

“We can confirm that Ngugi wa Thiong’o has cancelled his attendance at the book fair in Gothenburg in the autumn,” Kristofer Andersson, development director at Modernista, said.

Birgitta Jacobsson Ekblom, head of communications for the fair, added they had received this information and were in contact with Ngugi, a fierce critic of post-colonial Kenyan society.

The event, to be held from 28 September to 1 October, is Scandinavia’s largest book fair and draws around 100,000 visitors each year.

On 21 April, more than 200 Swedish authors signed an article in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper saying they would boycott the book fair if Nya Tider is represented.

Additionally, 12 European national institutes of culture – from Germany, France, Romania, Spain and Portugal among others – sent an email to organisers on Tuesday expressing their concern about Nya Tider’s attendance and urging it to bar the publication, which has received state press subsidies since 2012.

“The purpose of the email, for me, was to ask where to draw the line between freedom of speech and providing hatred with a free platform,” Laurent Clavel, head of the French Institute in Sweden, told public broadcaster SVT.

Fair organisers have, however, refused to budge on the issue.

“We believe that an open dialogue is the best way to beat forces involving intolerance, racism and xenophobia,” Ekblom said, adding the newspaper had requested to attend the fair.

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Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist, of Dragon Tattoo and John Wick, dies at 56 | Film

Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist has died at the age of 56. He had been battling lung cancer.

The Stockholm-born actor was best known for his role as Mikael Blomkvist in the original Swedish Dragon Tattoo trilogy, which included The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

He later appeared in Hollywood action thrillers such as John Wick and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.

Nyqvist’s representative released a statement on Tuesday that read: “It is with deep sadness that I can confirm that our beloved Michael, one of Sweden’s most respected and accomplished actors, has passed away quietly surrounded by family after a year long battle with lung cancer.

“Michael’s joy and passion were infectious to those who knew and loved him. His charm and charisma were undeniable, and his love for the arts was felt by all who had the pleasure of working with him.”

Nyqvist got his start training at the Malmö Theatre Academy, one of Sweden’s leading theaters and where Ingmar Bergman would frequently stage productions in the 1950s. His breakout role came years later, in 2000, when he starred in the Swedish comedy-drama Together, directed by Lukas Moodysson. More recently, Nyqvist appeared in Frank & Lola, co-starring Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots, as well as the BET mini-series Madiba, about the life of Nelson Mandela.

Before his death, Nyqvist also completed roles in thriller Hunter Killer with Gerard Butler and Gary Oldman and submarine disaster Kursk with Colin Firth and Matthias Schoenaerts.

Nyqvist is survived by his wife Catharina Ehrnrooth, a production designer, and his two children, Ellen and Arthur.

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Juan Goytisolo obituary | Books

Scourge of racism, sexism and Spanish obscurantism, and defender of Muslim culture, Juan Goytisolo, who has died aged 86, was one of Europe’s most erudite and brilliant novelists.

His impressive, varied body of work – he published 19 novels, two books of stories, five travel books and several essay collections – succeeded in combining beautiful language with emotional honesty and political polemic. He was considered one of Spain’s finest writers, though he fled the country in 1956, stifled by family and the Franco dictatorship, and never returned.

His most popular books are two volumes of autobiography, Coto Vedado (1985, Forbidden Territory) and En los Reinos de Taifa (1986, Realms of Strife). These compelling portraits of his wild childhood and youth in Barcelona are unique in Spanish letters for their personal honesty.

The early novels and stories are in the social realist tradition, coupled with political commitment. As the dictatorship’s press reported nothing true, Goytisolo and his literary generation felt the need to write fiction that expressed Spain’s real degradation and poverty. He supported the Communist party’s underground struggle in Spain, the Algerian war of liberation and the Cuban revolution.

Born and brought up in Barcelona, Juan had a sister, Marta, and two brothers, the poet José Agustín and the novelist Luis, a bourgeois family that became spectacularly dysfunctional after his mother, Júlia Gay, was killed by an Italian bomb in the Spanish civil war. His father, José María, a chemical company executive, was a supporter of the Franco dictatorship.

Goytisolo studied law before his first novel, Juegos de Manos (The Young Assassins), was published in 1954. From 1953 onwards he had made trips to Paris and in 1956 became a reader there for the publisher Gallimard, channelling into translation many Spanish anti-Franco writers and South American novelists. There he met Monique Lange, who was to become his wife, and Jean Genet, who became a key influence on Goytisolo’s development. “Are you queer?” asked Genet, not a man for small talk. “I’ve had some experiences,” mumbled Goytisolo. “Experiences? You talk like an English pederast,” replied Genet.

In the mid-1960s Goytisolo acknowledged to Monique, and publicly, his homosexuality. This difficult, Genet-inspired step forward to greater honesty and freedom applied to his literature, too, which took a sharp turn in 1966 with the publication of Señas de Identidad (Marks of Identity). It was banned in Spain, as was all his subsequent writing until after Franco’s death in 1975. Despite his confession, Monique and Goytisolo married in 1978, and maintained an open relationship until her death in 1996.

With Marks of Identity, both style and content changed. Goytisolo rejected social realism and conventional, tensed language for what he called “narrative free verse”, using stream of consciousness, including street signs, police reports and tourism brochures, and abandoning standard punctuation. It was the first of three linked books that studied how the Franco dictatorship was based on several centuries of a Spanish culture that compulsively rejected its Gypsies, Moors and Jews.

In Reivindicación del Conde Don Julián (1970, Count Julian), an exiled Spaniard rages from Tangier against Spanish nationalism and Catholicism. It was followed by the highly experimental Juan Sin Tierra (1975, Juan the Landless). The ferocious opening words of Count Julian catch the spirit and tone of these three novels: “Harsh homeland, the falsest, most miserable imaginable, I shall never return to you.”

While Goytisolo never again lived in Spain, he often visited and was profoundly involved in Spanish literature, emphasising an alternative, subversive tradition, running from the picaresque novelists to Joseph Blanco White, an exile from Andalucía in 19th-century Britain, paladin of South America’s independence and subject of two Goytisolo books. To ignore the Arab influence on Cervantes or the Jewish origins of most 16th- and 17th-century writers, Goytisolo argued, was “like teaching 20th-century Russian literature as a golden age, without mentioning the gulag”.

He found little comfort in the consumerist democracy that replaced the Franco regime. He followed Genet in his solidarity with the oppressed, rejection of sexual repression and commitment to literary freedom. Paisajes Después de la Batalla (1982, Landscapes After the Battle) is a dreamlike satire on immigration to Paris. Among his non-sequential and parodic later novels, Las Semanas del Jardín (1997, The Garden of Secrets) renders homage to oral storytelling and Carajicomedia (2000, A Cock-eyed Comedy) obscenely and hilariously satirises the Spanish church.

In the 90s he again became very active politically. Numerous articles denounced Chechnya’s suffering under the Russian army and the destruction of multicultural Bosnia in the Balkans war. With Susan Sontag he visited Sarajevo and called for its defence.

After Monique died, he moved to Marrakech, in Morocco. There he lived with an ex-lover, Abdelhadi, and his extended family in a house just off the Jemaa el-Fna Square. He learned the demotic Arabic of the city, stood alongside its poor against the Europeanised bourgeoisie and campaigned successfully for the square to be declared a Unesco masterpiece of oral heritage.

Prizes came late: he was unbeloved by the establishment he flayed. In 2008 he was awarded Spain’s national prize for literature and in 2014 the Miguel de Cervantes prize (often called the Spanish-language Nobel).

In person, this serious man was friendly and talkative, enjoying long chats, gossip and jokes. As the subversive iconoclast did not wish to rest in Spain or in a Christian cemetery, Goytisolo was buried in the civil cemetery of Larache, Morocco, near his adored Genet.

Juan Goytisolo Gay, novelist, born 5 January 1931; died 4 June 2017

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The Moor’s Last Stand and Blood and Faith review – the expulsion of Muslims from Spain | Books

For centuries, visitors from the rest of Europe were disgusted by Spain. The problem was not that city streets remained unpaved, or that its rough mountain roads could not accept wheeled carriages. What turned visitors’ stomachs was the way Spain tolerated religious minorities. Until the end of the 15th century, thriving populations of Jews and Muslims – almost 10% of the population – practised their religion openly and proudly. “We Germans call them rats,” scoffed one visitor.

The insinuation was that Spain was not a proper European country. How could it be, if it put up with such people? Europeans were meant to be Christians. So when Isabella of Castile – the remarkable queen who helped shape Spain’s identity – and her husband Ferdinand of Aragon expelled “their” Jews in 1492, they did so to loud applause from elsewhere. England, for example, had done the same thing two centuries earlier. The conquest of the last Muslim kingdom of Spain in Granada – whose king, Boabdil, is the subject of Elizabeth Drayson’s charming and eye-opening The Moor’s Last Stand – provoked even wilder joy that same year. Isabella and her husband followed this up with forcible conversions of Spanish Muslims. Yet even that was not enough for purists such as Martin Luther or the supposedly saintly Thomas More, who damned Spaniards as “faithless Jews and baptised Moors”. As if in reply, Philip III expelled 300,000 descendants of Spain’s Muslim population who had converted to Christianity, the “moriscos”, early in the 17th century. The human cost was ghastly. But, it was thought, Spain was finally pure.

In the intolerant times of Brexit, Le Pen and Trump, all this might sound familiar. Matthew Carr, whose magnificent Blood and Faith charts the tragic end of the moriscos, sees clear parallels with current “bitter, acrimonious, and often bigoted debates”. The morisco expulsion of 1609 was “a monumental historical crime” from which he seeks lessons for today.

Spain had long hosted the three religions of the book. Jews appeared first, while Roman legionaries brought Christianity and Islam arrived with overwhelming force when north African invaders swept across Spain in the 8th century – giving rise to the long Christian reconquista that Isabella and Ferdinand finished off in Granada. In Muslim Cordoba, scribes produced 60,000 books a year, while the largest library elsewhere in Europe boasted just 600. The inscriptions on the tomb of King Ferdinand III of Castile, who died in 1252, are written in Latin, Arabic, Spanish and Hebrew. Spain, meanwhile, came to boast the world’s largest population of Jews.

Boabdil leaves Granada in 1492.



Boabdil leaves Granada in 1492. Photograph: UniversalImagesGroup/Getty Images

This did not make it a multicultural arcadia. The supposed bliss of Spanish convivencia, or “living together”, has been wildly exaggerated. By Boabdil’s time, for instance, the only Christians in his kingdom of Granada were slaves, refugees and licensed traders. Christian Spain, in turn, “tolerated” religious minorities but never treated them as equals. They fell instead under the personal protection of monarchs, which explains why Isabella believed that “all the Jews in my kingdom are mine”, to do with as she wished. In Aragon, the eastern part of Spain ruled by Ferdinand’s family, “Moors” or “Saracens” (as they were known, and called themselves) accounted for 30% of the population in some places, where their cheap labour kept the great noble estates functioning. “Whoever has Moors has gold,” was a popular saying. Envious Christian neighbours were regularly whipped up into lynch mobs by populist preachers. With violence never far away, “voluntary” conversion was often no such thing. That is why many Jews converted in the 14th century. It also explains why the Spanish inquisition was set up – with Isabella believing, in this case wrongly, that most families with Jewish ancestors were fake Christians. With the moriscos, however, the opposite was true. Few properly embraced Christianity. To contemporaries, then, ethnic and religious cleansers were heroes. Despite the repulsion that it provokes today, the inquisition barely raised eyebrows. It was, in any case, less cruel and bloody than the witch-hunts that swept through much of Europe.

Few years, or places, have packed so many pivotal events into a single year as Spain in 1492. Christopher Columbus set off on his madcap voyage of discovery, seeking Asia but finding the Americas – where he planted the flag of Isabella’s Castile. He began a world-transforming exchange of plant and animal species between continents, while exporting the terrors of gunpowder, sharpened steel and smallpox. His voyage also started a centuries-long shift of global power away from the sophisticated, non-Christian east to the rugged seafaring nations of the Atlantic rim (which soon engaged in transatlantic slavery). Yet, for a Christendom traumatised by the loss of Constantinople to the Turks, the key event in 1492 was the conquest of Granada.

Drayson does a splendid job of putting flesh on Boabdil’s story. The Nasrid dynasty’s spectacular home in the Alhambra palace complex overlooking Granada had long been a place of intrigue and bloodshed. When his father took a Christian slave girl as his new wife, Boabdil’s aristocratic mother Aixa felt humiliated. Her sons eventually turned against their father, other relatives took sides and control of the fractious kingdom passed from one group to another. Boabdil was a magnificent sight, riding into battle on a white horse, dressed in brocade and velvet, with a dark red and gold helmet. But he was a bad general, who was twice captured by his Christian opponents. On both occasions he bought his freedom with a pledge to make war on his relatives.

The final conquest of Granada had as much to do with Nasrid infighting as with the vast array of Castilian cannons which meant that castles and walled towns could no longer just lock their doors and dig in for long sieges. “These are the keys to this paradise,” Boabdil said as he surrendered Spain’s most sophisticated city. Legend has it that he then trotted off up what is now known as the Slope of Tears and across the Pass of the Moor’s Sigh while his mother rebuked him for weeping: “You do well, my son, to cry like a woman for what you couldn’t defend like a man.”

Isabella of Castile: the remarkable queen who helped shape Spain’s identity.

Isabella of Castile: the remarkable queen who helped shape Spain’s identity. Photograph: Hulton Getty

The terms of surrender were generous, allowing Muslims to practise their religion and guaranteeing that “no moor be forced to become a Christian”. Boabdil did less well; Drayson reveals the many ways in which the Nasrid monarch, who was originally given lands in the rugged Alpujarra sierras near Granada, was pushed into leaving for north Africa a few years later.

With Boabdil out of the way, Isabella and Ferdinand reneged on their promises and Castile’s Muslims were forcibly converted. Yet these moriscos were always treated and taxed as if they were not “real” Christians, with their cultural customs – songs, dances, clothes and henna dye – subject to strict restrictions. Even washing could get them into trouble. A secret, banned literature – written in Spanish, but with Arabic letters – helped keep Islam alive. Many, if not most, moriscos were still secret Muslims when Philip III carried out his final act of ruthless religious cleansing.

Over the previous century Spain had fashioned the world’s first global empire and some see in the expulsion of the moriscos – who left behind abandoned villages, untilled lands and depleted towns – the seed of future decline. Pro-fascist 1930s British historians Louis Bertrand and Sir Charles Petrie nevertheless praised an expulsion that, to them, stopped it becoming “one of those bastard countries which live only by letting themselves be shared and exploited by foreigners”. Carr, instead, sees an example of “a powerful majority seeking to remake or define its own cultural identity through the physical elimination of supposedly incompatible minorities”.

And therein lies a problem, since the 20th century provides more obviously relevant examples of such elimination. It also indicates, since the examples include Turkish Armenia as well as Nazi Germany, that this is not a purely western, Christian phenomenon. Perhaps the finest piece of wisdom to emerge from Spain came from the Count of Cabra. “Since the good things of the past were not constant,” he reportedly told Boabdil after his capture, “present misfortune can also change in a similar way.”

Giles Tremlett’s Isabella of Castile: Europe’s First Great Queen is published by Bloomsbury.

The Moor’s Last Stand: How Seven Centuries of Muslim Rule in Spain Came to an End is published by Profile. To order a copy for £15.29 (RRP £17.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain 1492-1614 is published by Hurst. To order a copy for £12.99 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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