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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

State of Siege

Juan Goytisolo

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To purchase State of Siege

Title: State of Siege
Author: Juan Goytisolo
Genre: Novel
Written: 1995 (Eng.:2002)
Length: 155 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: State of Siege - US
El sitio de los sitios - US
State of Siege - UK
State of Siege - Canada
State of Siege - India
État de siège - France
El sitio de los sitios - España
Das Manuskript von Sarajevo - Deutschland
  • Spanish title: El sitio de los sitios
  • Translated by Helen Lane

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Our Assessment:

B+ : clever, interesting fiction

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Express . 28/01/1999 Daniel Rondeau
The NY Times Book Rev. . 29/12/2002 Charles Wilson
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Spring/2003 Megan A. McDowell
VLS . Fall/2002 Ben Ehrenreich
Die Zeit . (16/1999) Iris Radisch

  From the Reviews:
  • "Juan Goytisolo's labyrinthine novel (...) is at once an account of the siege of Sarajevo, a parade of postmodern storytelling techniques and an indictment of Western indifference." - Charles Wilson, The New York Times Book Review

  • "By creating an uneasy tension between the book and its components, Goytisolo exposes the most basic quality of consciousness that both feeds on and creates literature, the part that spawns violence and madness, humor and language." - Megan A. McDowell, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "Goytisolo's narrative contortionism is not mere postmodern showmanship, but precisely the point -- that the reader, like the inhabitants of the besieged city, is "caught in the rattrap," cornered in an epistemological purgatory (…) Seven years after its original publication, the territory expands apace, well beyond the pages of his novels or any one geographical setting. State of Siege now reads like painful literary prophecy." - Ben Ehrenreich, Voice Literary Supplement

  • "Der Verdacht, daß Sarajevo gar nicht mehr der Gegenstand, sondern das schlechte Gewissen dieses Romans ist, daß somit der Krieg auch nicht sein Thema, sondern seine Garnitur abgibt, ist nicht völlig abwegig." - Iris Radisch, Die Zeit

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:

       State of Siege is Goytisolo's Sarajevo-novel, written in 1995 -- a good companion piece to the essay-collection, Landscapes of War (see our review). Appearing in English only in 2002, readers may already have forgotten what happened in what was formerly known as Yugoslavia (and specifically in Sarajevo) in the 1990s. The details do matter some -- the destruction of Sarajevo's national library, for example (a picture of which -- in flames -- adorns the City Lights-cover of the book) -- but Goytisdolo's novel is also a more general exploration of the effects of a modern siege such as occurred in Sarajevo: war in the midst of civilization, largely ignored by the world at large, as well as contemporary alienation in general.
       As he has in his fiction for over a decade now, Goytisolo again mixes realistic description with more fanciful literary approaches. The book begins simply enough: a man is in his hotel room in war-torn Sarajevo, looking down upon the infamous Sniper Alley. Six pages into the book then there is an explosion.
       A shell hit the room, killing the man. This, and more, the reader learns in the next chapters, the first being one of a series of reports by a Major stationed there -- like the victim, a Spaniard. More is eventually learnt about the dead man -- including his initials, J.G. (with a biography much like Goytisolo's own) -- but most remarkable is that the Major can no longer find a trace of him. There is no corpse -- and other traces of him have also disappeared. But he clearly did exist (and die), and some traces remain, including some of his writing.
       Short chapters offer dreams, other siege-scenes, and more reports from the Major. Among the most successful is "District under Siege", imagining a situation identical to that in which Sarajevo found itself in the middle of Paris, a district cut off and besieged while life goes on completely normally elsewhere (to the extent that in a city entertainment guide-book where each Paris district is "marked with one, two, or three asterisks, depending on their interest and importance" this one is marked only "with a little square indicating that a visit to it was not worthwhile".)
       Goytisolo dwells not so much on the simple horror of war as on the numbing absurdity of this type of modern warfare, a complete crushing of humanity which the outside world too willingly permits.
       The second section of the book begins with the burning of the Sarajevo library, and the irreparable loss that came with it -- "our collective past and memory (...) reduced to ashes". An alternate mysterious stranger is at the centre here. The mystery of identities continues to be central in the sections that follow. An Appendix collects a series of poems (several of which also appear in the text proper).
       The novel is presented in short chapters, in many voices, and Goytisolo plays a number of literary games -- as when the Major opens a letter and finds it "corresponded word for word to the contents of the first pages of the present book". There are numerous such stories-within-stories, and the final section even begins with the editing of the material at hand. But it is not all literary games -- Goytisolo also manages true-to-life scenes and moving accounts of the warzone. Indeed, his haphazard approach is meant to be more truthful (by constantly acknowledging -- even emphasizing -- the artifice that is the written narrative), and often comes close to achieving his aims.
       There are bits that are too rough and too simple, but the overall effect is still an impressive one. State of Siege tries to expand on what fiction can do, yet always remains a very readable work. It is also an important document about what happened in Sarajevo.
       An impressive, worthwhile effort.

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State of Siege: Reviews: Juan Goytisolo: Other books by Goytisolo under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Spanish literature 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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