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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Marx Family Saga

Juan Goytisolo

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Title: The Marx Family Saga
Author: Juan Goytisolo
Genre: Novel
Written: 1993 (Eng.: 1996)
Length: 182 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Marx Family Saga - US
. La saga de los Marx - US
. The Marx Family Saga - UK
. The Marx Family Saga - Canada
The Marx Family Saga - India
. La Longue vie des Marx - France
. Die Marx-Saga - Deutschland
Karl Marx Show - Italia
La saga de los Marx - España
  • Spanish title: Saga de los Marx
  • Translated by Peter Bush
  • Peter Bush won the Ramón Valle-Incan Prize in 1998 for this translation.

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Our Assessment:

A+ : superb -- one of the most significant novels of the 1990's

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe B+ 29/4/1999 Bill Marx
The Guardian A 19/12/1996 Andrew Biswell
Le Monde Diplomatique A 4/1994 Ignacio Ramonet
New Statesman A 9/8/1996 Abigail Lee Six
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Fall/1999 Sophia A. McLennan
TLS A 7/6/1996 Michael Kerrigan

  Review Consensus:

  Clever, entertaining, wise, and a lot of fun.

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)his romp is an exercise of the anarchistic imagination that, for Goytisolo, is the essential duty of the independent artist in an age of "new forms of orchestrated tyranny." " - Bill Marx, The Boston Globe

  • "Many of the experimental features of the writing, such as disrupted chronology and syntax, will be familiar to readers of (Goytisolo's) previous novels (...) but here they are deployed with a greater sense of purpose -- and to wickedly entertaining effect." - Andrew Biswell, The Guardian

  • "La chute du mur de Berlin a déjà inspiré plusieurs écrivains; nul mieux que Goytisolo dans cette Saga de los Marx n'a su si brillamment traduire l'atmosphère intellectuelle et politique de cette fin de siècle." - Ignacio Ramonet, Le Monde Diplomatique

  • "The novel dramatises the way in which Marx's philosophy was traduced by the Soviet empire -- but also the cruelty, vacuousness and nastiness of present-day consumer society." - Abigail Lee Six, New Statesman

  • "(T)he novel intersperses a wry sense of humor with a biting attack on transnational capitalism." - Sophia A. McLennan, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "(T)he biographical record lays claim to the status of archaeological dig but is at best a feat of engineering. The image -- and the dilemma -- is Goytisolo's own: this novel is as much about him as it is about Marx. (...) Marx remains as unencompassable a man as any. This difficult, dysfunctional Familienroman, this abrasive, argumentative anti-biography is perhaps the most fitting tribute he could have been paid -- short, that is, of a kinder world." - Michael Kerrigan, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The author's head peeping out from the pages, the publisher's critical comments regarding the text in progress, slipped in as the reader turns the pages of selfsame text -- it all threatens to be a bit too clever, it is all something we think we have seen before. It takes a fine author to pull off this stunt in this day and age -- but good news: Juan Goytisolo, master practitioner of the fictional arts, manages. More than that, he uses this worn form and reinvigorates it.
       Juan Goytisolo is not the most approachable of authors. Spanish, but living in a self-imposed exile since the 1950's, many of his works have been translated into English -- but published haphazardly by too great a variety of publishers, translated by too many different translators. He generally does not make it all too easy for the reader under the best of circumstances (i.e. in the Spanish original), and this novel is no exception. In The Marx Family Saga he plays with paragraphs, indentation, and capitalization; fortunately this is only initially off-putting and turns out, in fact, to be relatively transparent (and almost sensible). More challenging -- and more worthwhile -- are not the stylistic embellishments, but the nuts and bolts of the novel.
       The opening scene is of Albanian refugees storming Italy's fancy beaches in search of that TV El Dorado, Dallas (as happened, more or less, in the early 1990's). It is a scene watched on TV, as it turns out -- watched on TV by the Marx family. Yes, the Marx family -- Karl, Jenny, the whole brood. Marx has been transposed to modern times, left in the wake of a world that has just renounced him and his teachings as the regimes that professed to follow these teachings crumbled one after the other.
       Goytisolo plays with his characters freely, situating them in the past and the present, describing how Marxism came to be the ideology of these failed states, bringing in other revolutionaries (the anarchist Anselmo Lorenzo, for example) There are scenes with Goytisolo's publisher, Mr. Faulkner, who provides a consultant, insists that the reading public only want Facts, and gives voice to many possible complaints by the readers ("why all those long, unpunctuated paragraphs (...) it upsets the punters, puts them off reading your books"). Goytisolo provides facts aplenty, but he also dresses them up in unusual fashion. Carefully balanced between the freewheeling text the book always threatens to become and the more traditional narrative the publisher insists on, Goytisolo writes a riveting analysis of the rise and fall of Marxism, and its sorry current state.
       Goytisolo travels far and wide in this surreal fiction: Marx, unrecognized in modern day Paris, at a Communist Party meeting. Marx in post-Soviet Moscow, at an exhibit of Socialist Realist art, berated and cursed by the figures in the paintings. A talk show which finds Goytisolo among a crowd of telegenic sound-bite ideologues. A screenplay of Marx's life. Goytisolo weaves it cleverly together, never letting the diverse threads stray too far. His sense of humor -- sharp, absurd, to the point -- also helps to focus the reader's attention.
       The political novel is a rarity in the English-speaking world: in the US race is practically the only political issue, in England it is mainly class, in the Third World Imperialism. Goytisolo offers something different, and that is an important part of the great (and refreshing) success of The Marx Family Saga. This is a deeply political novel, but beyond a great sympathy with Marx and his family Goytisolo takes none of the obvious sides. He acknowledges that the states under Soviet influence failed, with the reminder that they were hardly "Marxist" in the literal sense of the word. He sees a certain validity in true Marxism, while acknowledging its apparent weaknesses and the dangers it can pose. He places a particular emphasis on Marx's own bourgeois lifestyle, from his acceptance of his wife's considerable inheritance, to his attitude towards the family's longtime servant, Helen Demuth.
       Shifting between Marx's historical life and scenes from the present, Goytisolo presents a virtuoso performance. The novel reads with the pace of a thriller, it is intellectually gripping at every turn, utterly absorbing, Goytisolo has written a superb novel. (We have not read the Spanish original, but Peter Bush's prize-winning translation reads very, very well.)
       Novels have come out of the new Eastern Europe, but few have successfully tackled the complex transition that has taken place -- at least not beyond their own, very limited locales. Goytisolo's work, written from a vantage point sufficiently far removed, is truly global in scope. Marx is not a popular figure now, and Goytisolo captures exactly why that is so -- and why it is also an estimation that is likely, in time, to change again.
       Few books encapsulate an era. This one does. Beyond that it manages not only to describe this historical moment, but also to analyze it. And all that in the guise of an entertaining (though literarily self-conscious) story.

       We can not recommend this book highly enough. Eminently readable, there is no doubt in our minds that this is one of the most significant texts of the 1990s.

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The Marx Family Saga: Reviews: Juan Goytisolo: Other books by Goytisolo under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Spanish author Juan Goytisolo (1931-2017) lived in voluntary exile since 1956, mainly in Paris and Morocco. He is the author of numerous highly regarded novels.

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© 1999-2021 the complete review

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