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