Marks of Identity

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Marks of Identity

by Juan Goytisolo


A novel set in Spain and France, recalling events from 1936 to 1963; published in Spanish as Senas de Identidad in 1966; in English in 1969.


An experimental novel that traces the national, cultural, and individual development of Spain and a Spanish ex-patriot in the twentieth century.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Juan Goytisolo was born January 5, 1931, to a bourgeois family in Barcelona. The infant Goytisolo became quickly acquainted with tragedy when his mother was killed by anti-Franco forces in a bombing raid during the Civil War (1936-39). Goytisolo came of age during Franco’s rise to power and attended conservative Catholic schools, followed by the University of Barcelona and University of Madrid (1948-52). His literary career began with the publication of Juegos de Manos (The Young Assassins) in 1954, which earned him critical acclaim and a reputation as a voice of the “restless generation” (Jones, p. 235). An outspoken critic of the Franco dictatorship, Goytisolo believed writing should have social implications, and he used his novels to raise consciousness and challenge the status quo. He, however, grew increasingly frustrated by the repressive climate and extreme censorship in Spain, emigrating to Paris in 1957 to pursue his literary and journalism career with greater freedom. Goytisolo worked as a photographer for Agence France Presse and penned realist novels and politically oriented travelogues until he abandoned the realist style and began experimenting with form. Marks of Identity is the initial volume in his Mendiola Trilogy (the remaining two are Count Julian, 1974, and Juan the Landless, 1977). It is also his first novel to employ nontraditional literary styles and experiment with technique. A complex, introspective work, it won international praise both for its scope and content, daring to take on controversial issues such as the short-comings of anti-Francoists and the “selling out” of Spain by the bourgeoisie. With Marks of Identity Goytisolo seeks to unmask his own as well as Spain’s identity as both have developed since 1898, exploding myths and manifestos of the left and the right in the process.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

Past glory, present disaster

The loss of Spain’s remaining colonies (Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines) in 1898 after nearly four centuries of imperial rule gave rise to nationwide soul searching. The so-called “Disaster of 1898” was not a sudden nor an unforeseen calamity, for Spain’s Golden Age had long past and the country had been in decline since the seventeenth century. But this final loss of power and prestige was a blow to the nation’s ego. “The loss of the remaining Spanish colonies happened just when the great European powers—among which Spaniards naturally considered themselves—were carving up the world, and their victories or defeats were interpreted in terms of racial and national superiority or inferiority” (Junco in Gies, p. 75). Spaniards felt they had been embarrassed, had “staged a pathetic show of incompetence in front of the whole world” and immediately set out to discern the causes, re-evaluate, and recreate their national identity (Junco in Gies, p. 75).

Politicians, writers, and thinkers of the Generation of 1898 searched for answers, trying to understand how Spain had gone from a world leader to an impoverished, defeated nation just as her European neighbors were on the rise. Spaniards revisited history—to the era of Ferdinand and Isabella (c. 1492) when Spain dominated Europe and was conquering the Americas—in an effort to restore Spain to her former glory. Many reasoned that Spain had lost her way; that she had been corrupted by foreign influences and kings, such as the Enlightenment, the Bourbons, and the Hapsburgs. They argued that in order to regain power and prestige Spain had to return to the successful fifteenth-century model: a strong centralized state with Catholicism as its moral and educational foundation. The regions that comprised modern Spain—Asturias, Galicia, León, the Basque Province, Navarre, Aragon, Catalonia, Castile, Estramadura, Valencia, Murica, and Andalusia—maintained longstanding distinctions. Reformers asserted that Spain’s fragmentation into regions that maintained separate customs was detrimental to national unity and that homogenization and emulating the model of Castile (the seat of Philip II’s sixteenth-century empire and already a thriving urban center) would be the key to modernization. Contrary to what Goytisolo is arguing for in Marks of Identity, these men favored stasis rather than progress, maintained the need for social hierarchy, and feared democracy. Essentially elitist, many of the Generation of 1898 held the Golden Age Castilian imperialist as the ideal and not only discounted the contributions of the Moors, Jews, and Protestants but blamed them for Spain’s decline. When Francisco Franco came to power nearly 40 years later, he would use the ideology of the Generation of 1898 to his advantage, to cement his power and further his own agenda.

Civil War

When the democratically elected Second Republic was attacked in a coup d’état in 1936, civil war erupted in Spain. In broad terms, it sprung from a power struggle over differing models of progress: democratization vs. centralization; creating a new Spanish identity vs. returning to the Golden Age imperial model. “Spaniards had come to conceive of national politics as a Manichean struggle between the ‘true’ Spain and the ‘anti-Spain’; at stake was the identity of the nation itself, threatened less by external rivals than by the enemy within” (Boyd in Gies, p. 86; Manichean refers to a dualistic philosophy taught by Persian philosopher Manes). Nationalists (the land-owning elite, military, monarchists, and conservatives who wanted a centralized government) and Republicans (the lower, landless classes, workers, students, and intellectuals who wanted a republic) fought over the “two Spains” in a brutal, three-year conflict that tore the nation apart. At stake was land reform, regional autonomy, and representative government on the one hand and maintaining the social hierarchy, the feudal system, and State control on the other. Supporting the Republicans became a cause célèbre among the world’s intellectuals and social activists, many of whom joined the Republicans in combat. But without aid from Europe or the United States as the Nationalists were receiving from Germany and Italy, the Republicans eventually lost the war and a new and even more brutal battle began.

Generation Gap

The Generacion del ‘98 (Generation of 1898) was a group of novelists, poets, essayists, and thinkers who, in light of the Spanish-American War defeat of that year, set out to define the essential qualities or “soul” of Spain in order to help plot the course for a better future. Named by José Martínez Ruiz (a.k.a. Azorín), the disparate group proclaimed a cultural rebirth for Spain after the defeat. They engaged in a common quest to solve Spain’s problems, discover her “true” identity, and plot her next course, aiming in the process to shake Spaniards out of their apathy and restore national pride. In many ways, Goytisolo’s novel seeks to do the same, or at least to relaunch a type of national soul-searching. But it argues for revolutionary, radical change, and, in direct opposition to the Generation of 1898, asserts that the identity of Spain needs to be broad and all-inclusive, taking into consideration all its multicultural, religious, and racial components. Part of a generation born amidst another national calamity, the Civil War, Goytisolo represents a later, mid-century generation, whose members distinguished themselves for “their reaction against social, political, religious, and moral conformity” (Jones, p. 28).

With the Nationalist victory in 1939, General Franco was swept into power and immediately established himself as Spain’s absolute ruler. The question over Spain’s future identity was answered definitively, and those who had or continued to oppose his viewpoint were imprisoned or executed. The total number of deaths that can be attributed to the war remains open to question. While the government spoke of one million deaths, recent estimates place the total closer to 500,000, by battle, bombing, assassination, and execution. Executions and political killings from 1939-43 have been estimated at 200,000, the peak prison population at 213,000 (Beevor, p. 266). From mid-January to early February 1939, a half million refugees fled to France; some 60,000 “failed to make the border in time and were rounded up by the Nationalists,” the “gaunt, shivering masses” becoming subjects of postwar reprisals (Beevor, p. 250). In the novel, though Alvaro (like Goytisolo) is just a child during the war, he realizes that the “terrors and frights of the war” and its aftermath have deeply affected his life (Goytisolo, Marks of Identity, p. 43). Fear and violence rooted in this conflict continue to haunt him and the nation, to the extent that they have not only blighted Alvaro’s (and Goytisolo’s) personal existence but had also become part of the national identity.

The shaping of a national identity

In 1939 Franco proclaimed that he had been ordained by God to save Spain from atheists and communists (those fighting for the republic in the civil war) and that his war victory had confirmed it. Convinced that Spain’s downfall had come as a result of emulating other Europeans and adopting ideas of the Enlightenment, he established a totalitarian dictatorship closed to outside influence. Franco enacted the Law of Political Responsibilities (1939, retroactive to 1934) and the Law for the Suppression of Masonry and Communism (1940) condemning to death or prison those whom he termed “bad Spaniards.” He outlawed sedition, which included any anti-Christian or anti-Franco activity (including before and during the Civil War), and deemed that traditional Spanish identity was rooted in the Golden Age, Catholicism, and a hierarchical social order with one supreme authority: Franco.

To perpetuate his ideology and eliminate opposition, Franco created a climate of fear and repression. He divided the nation into the victors and the vanquished, rewarding the victors and severely repressing the vanquished. His regime imprisoned and executed Republicans and sympathizers, devastating, in particular, the intellectual community. The regime closed newspapers, censored the press, and persecuted all whom it considered threatening to the stability of the government, including teachers, artists, and politicians (particularly socialists, communists, and anarchists). By 1940, 270,714 anti-Francoists were political prisoners and those who were not jailed or executed either concealed their beliefs or went into exile abroad.

Spain was thus deprived of many of her bravest and most capable sons, driven by defeat to foreign lands … the demographic loss due to the war and its consequences must be assessed at nearly 1,500,000 inhabitants; for a country with a population of 26,000,000 this meant a deep gash that bled it white.

(Gallo, p. 70)

Media mind control

Franco used the Church, the media, and carefully selected fragments of history to legitimize his rule, further his objectives, and forge a national identity. He picked and chose the historical data he allowed to be taught, taking examples from the Golden Age of the conquistadores, Ferdinand and Isabella, the Counter-Reformation, and the Re-conquest (when Spain defeated the Moors) to prove his claims that Spain was successful when she rejected other European influences and forged her own path. He basically erased the entire nineteenth century from textbooks, as well as the Second Republic democracy, and insisted that Spain, like Sleeping Beauty, had been a sedated princess who was only awakened from her poisoned slumber when Franco came to her rescue in 1939. “The providential mission of the Nationalist ‘Crusade’ was to restore the spiritual and political unity of the imperial Golden Age and thereby rescue the nation from the humiliation and moral debasement to which it had been condemned by ‘bad Spaniards’ and their foreign allies” (Boyd in Gies, p. 94).

Franco used the Catholic Church structure and Christian concept of Original Sin to justify hierarchy within the social order and to warrant his dogged persecution of those who opposed his rule. For example, he insisted that atonement for past sins (such as fighting for the Republic) could be made only through obedience to authority. The Catholic maxim of “expiation through suffering” was used to condone the regime’s use of anti-Francoists as unpaid laborers. Sacrifices had to be made for the betterment of the State, the Franco regime insisted, and “only those ‘capable of loving the Fatherland, of working and struggling for it, of adding their grain of sand to the common effort’ would be tolerated” (Graham and Labanyi, p. 176). Those who profited from the suffering and unpaid labor were the State and bourgeois business people whose industrial base was built on the backs of the poor and powerless masses. The complicity by the bourgeoisie in Franco’s national exploitation earns total condemnation from Goytisolo in the novel. He sees their profiting from un- and low-paid labor as the ultimate “anti-Spanish” act.

As in all dictatorships, censorship was a key ingredient to maintaining control. Franco’s 1938 Press Law established the media to be “at the service of the state” and stated (ironically), “All Spaniards may express their ideas freely provided they do not contravene the fundamental principles of the state” (Graham and Labanyi, p. 209). In other words, citizens were free to agree with Franco and support his platforms. All written and artistic material was censored, from romance novels to restaurant menus, with an average 500 books per month passed through committees that eliminated anything that “offended Catholic dogma, morality, the Church, the regime, and its associates” (Graham and Labanyi, p. 209). Books were publicly burned and double versions of films were made: heavily censored for Spain, uncut for export (this to give false testimony to the outside world of Franco’s support of the arts and tolerance of dissent). As evidenced in the novel, opposition voices were silenced and the Nationalist cry, “Death to Intelligence!” epitomized what Franco wanted: a sedate, unthinking, and obedient populace willing to conform to his notion of national identity (Graham and Labyani, p. 208).

Political and cultural autarky

The 1940s were known as the “years of hunger” in Spain for myriad reasons. First, there was drastic poverty and physical starvation due to the ravages of war, drought, and economic isolation from the rest of Europe and the United States. The system of autarky deemed that Spain be entirely self-sufficient—that is, pursue a policy of economic independence with trade and price protection for national industries. After World War II that policy was reinforced by the Western Allies who excluded Spain from the Marshall Plan and cut off all diplomatic and trade ties because of Franco’s dictatorship and ties to the Axis powers. Thus Spain was deprived of all potential trading partners except in South America and forced to solely provide all daily essentials for her overwhelmingly rural, poor population, which the country could not.

On a second level, there was extreme cultural and intellectual deprivation during these years, as Franco re-painted history and attempted to “white-wash” the citizenry. Centuries of Moorish rule and Jewish presence were denied, as were any varying viewpoints, and, again, the Golden


In 1942 Franco formed the official film company, NO-DO, which made news reels and documentaries that ran at obligatory screenings in all the nation’s cinemas. He personally appeared in 900 productions, typically touting his regime’s tremendous achievements, i.e., opening factories, building cheap housing for the working class, or heralding his favorite professional soccer team, Real Madrid. When he finally allowed the topic of the civil war to be broached in 1959, it was depicted by NO-DO as El camino de la paz (The path to peace)—a film in which he insisted the war had been necessary to restore peace, order, and morality destroyed by the wanton chaos of the Second Republic (Graham and Labanyi, p. 202). Pure propaganda, NO-DO films and documentaries also showed segments of the outside world that served the regime’s purposes. They depicted strikes in France and Britain, starvation in Russia and China, and routinely rallied around one theme: the evil of communism. NO-DO also produced films on the glory of the Crusades, women’s sacred duty as wife and mother, the glorious defeat of the Moors by the great Catholic kings, and expulsion of the Jews. The movies reinforced Franco’s chauvinistic and racist viewpoints and promoted his definition of the ideal Spaniard and the “true” character of the country. Goytisolo’s novel is a direct attack on the NO-DO film monopoly and its forced definition of the Spanish people. Alvaro is making his own documentary on the reality of Spanish life—unearthing characteristics, events, and influences the regime would never acknowledge or allow—and the author himself is documenting the history and hypocrisy the regime would never tolerate to be publicized.

Age model was promoted as the only acceptable Spanish identity. The regime decreed that “Spanish national identity and purpose had crystallized in sixteenth-century Castile with the fusion of the ‘Catholic-ideal’ and the ‘military monarchy’” (Gies, p. 93). Franco cleverly veiled his propaganda in popular songs and entertainment: “The reinforcement of national-patriotic values was … pursued via forms of mass commercial culture, such as musical comedies and popular song, which promoted the superiority and wholesomeness of all things Hispanic” (Graham and Labyani, p. 237). He made Castilian the official Spanish language, outlawing all regional dialects, such as Galician, Catalonian, and Basque, even though 25 percent of the population spoke these languages (Gies, p. 93). Franco’s autocratic system sought to homogenize the country, rewarding those who played the “good Spaniard” (spoke Castilian Spanish and worked diligently for the regime) and severely punishing those who clung to regional customs, asked for better working conditions, or in any way questioned their role.

A great beneficiary of the system, the Church initially overwhelmingly endorsed Franco’s policies. Officials considered Franco’s campaign “an ideological war in defense of national culture and tradition” and condoned his brand of fascism as “the religion of religion” (Gies, p. 93). They were put in charge of education and “Catholic control of schooling and intellectual production was used to inculcate an exclusionary view of national history and identity that denied legitimacy to the entire national tradition of progressive thought” (Gies, p. 94). In sharp contrast to the regime’s autocratic brainwashing, Goytisolo’s novel is committed to investigating Spain’s hidden history, culture, and identities, such as her African and Arab roots, in order to re-nourish culture-starved Spain. His novel is providing intellectual and cultural sustenance for a country that was denied such food for thought.

1950s Rapprochement

In the 1950s, a rapprochement occurred between Spain and the European and U.S. governments who had previously frozen relations with Franco. When the Western Alliance dissolved and the Korean and Cold wars ensued, Franco used his historic anti-communist stance to curry favor with his European neighbors, and with the United States in particular. Appealing to McCarthyites by campaigning under the slogan “Christians over Communists,” Franco won global support to the extent that the United Nations voted to resume diplomatic relations with Spain. Two weeks later, on November 16, 1950, the United States granted a $625 million loan to Spain and laid plans to establish a U.S. military presence there. In 1952 UNESCO voted to include Spain in its ranks and in 1955 the United Nations followed suit. The major coup for Franco was a deal with the United States in 1953 to allow three American military air bases and one naval base in exchange for economic and military aid. Spain at once became “the sentry of the West” guarding against “Red encroachment in the heartland of Christian civilization” (Gies, p. 99).

With political acceptance came economic liberalization. Spain’s economy was in trouble at the time, experiencing soaring inflation that diminished the value of wages, “which were as little as 35 percent of their pre-Civil War level” (Carr, p. 268). Though illegal, a rash of strikes spread through Spain. In 1957 Franco unhappily assembled some new economic advisors, technocrats who aimed to relax economic restrictions. To this end, the government invoked the Stabilization Plan of 1959, which eliminated price protections, and lifted import restrictions and limits on foreign investment. In short, the autarky was “freed up” and Spain’s economy—and society—began to radically transform.

“Miraculous” change: 1959-63

Primarily agrarian into the 1950s, Spain urbanized and industrialized at a breakneck pace beginning in 1960. Dubbed the “Spanish miracle,” the economic, social, and physical transformation of the country was astounding. Spain’s Gross Domestic Product rose at 7.2 percent annually as 70 percent of the population moved to cities and earned their living in factories, offices, or in the service sector, leaving, by 1975, just 29 percent of the people to continue to farm. Wages rose to an average $2,246 per year from $300 and consumerism became the national pastime. Because the modernization was strictly economic, with little social liberalization, Spaniards exercised the only freedom and power they had: purchasing power. The so-called “culture of evasion” encouraged them to buy television sets and to attend (state-produced or heavily censored) films and soccer games (Boyd in Gies, p. 100).

Though certainly all Spaniards benefitted from the “economic miracle,” clearly the top strata of society reaped the greatest rewards. Illiteracy was eradicated by 1970 (though this is highly suspect given that the ability to sign one’s name was considered proof of literacy) but secondary school remained a privilege of the upper classes. Corruption remained rampant and poverty continued to grip the masses. “The gap was wide” between business ownership and workers and “the domination of private interests ensured that policy was geared to dividends rather than socioeconomic benefit and public service” (Graham, p. 81). By the 1960s the middle class climbed toward 20 percent of the population, but this percentage still lagged far behind the rest of Europe and there remained a vast disparity of wealth. Due in large part to unplanned growth and uncontrolled economic development “social contrasts were intensified—the rich grew richer, the poor poorer” as prices rose and the purchasing power of consumers declined to below what it had been during the Second Republic (Gallo, p. 207). Still, Franco touted his economic achievements, pointing to the “Spanish miracle” as proof that his totalitarian regime was good for Spain. He had brought “twenty-five years of peace and social order along the magnificent and broad path of industry and


It is no coincidence that the bulk of anti-Franco writers of the so-called Generation MidCentury were born into the bourgeoisie. Goytisolo’s parents were landowners and his mother was killed by Republicans. Some have suggested that the Generation’s anti-Franco writing stems from a collective guilt, because as members of the Nationalists or at least of the middle/upper classes, their families were given special privileges once Franco came to power. While disease and misery plagued the bulk of the population, it was the antiFrancoist (former Republicans) who bore the brunt of the suffering. Imprisoned and forced into labor camps, the lower classes also received fewer rations. In the novel Alvaro recalls the “poor children reduced to eating a scanty ration of four ounces of daily bread while the fortunate possessors of a third-class ration card would get a pound” (Marks, p. 25). Though all were deprived, Alvaro feels guilty because he, like Goytisolo, was of the fortunate, bourgeois class favored by Franco with higher rations. The postwar atmosphere of extreme poverty and continued differentiation between classes (Nationalists and Republicans), as Alvaro’s recollections demonstrate, prevented the wounds of the Civil War from healing, accentuated the disparity of wealth, and demoralized the lower classes who had to adjust not only to the loss of the war and their voice but also to that of any chance at social or economic reform. This continued division of the victors and the vanquished may have created in writers such as Goytisolo a “class guilt” that led to activism as adults (Graham and Labanyi, p. 246).

progress,” said the official spokesman, an assertion the novel questions (Marks, p. 307).


Ironically the man who previously declared “the breezes of foreign shores are corrupting Spain” began actively encouraging both tourism and foreign investment in the 1950s (Carr, p. 270). When Spain became “the sentinel of the West,” European—and in particular American—culture began impacting Spanish society and the nation’s identity (Preston, p. 594). The country was suddenly overrun by “Frenchmen, Swiss, Belgians, Dutchmen, Germans, Englishmen, Scandinavians who were coming to see bullfights; drink Manzanilla; lie in the sun like saurians; eat pizza and hot dogs in garish cafes” (Marks, p. 129). Critics of this trend, such as Goytisolo, accused the bourgeois and aspiring middle class of selling out to Franco and tourism; some even insisting that “the foreign presence was little short of colonial exploitation” (Graham, p. 69). By 1959, 14 million people per year were visiting Spain and bringing in nearly $1 billion annually. Goytisolo and others viewed the relationship between the tourism industry and Franco’s regime as “incestuous” and fueled by greed—further evidence of the fading cultural dignity of Spain. In the novel Alvaro daydreams about “a real Spain, about fellow countrymen raised to the dignity of people with a human existence maintained in the face of the voracious enemies of life” (Marks, p. 114). For Alvaro (and Goytisolo), Franco and capitalist exploitation are these enemies of life.

Franco’s concept of tourism, while benefitting the tour operators and related businesses, tended to keep the poor impoverished, as their “rustic” lifestyle made for picturesque vignettes. “Life in Spain was easy for the tourist, hard for the Spaniard” and there was “much that the tourist never saw in Spain,” such as police harassment of students, demonstrations and strikes, and the stark reality that Spain had one of the lowest standards of living in Europe. Far from the carefree paradise the travel brochures depicted, “living in Spain meant, for a Spaniard, working harder for less food” (Gallo, p. 252). As Goytisolo depicts in the novel, a little white-washing of the walls was done to cover the dirt but no substantive change, aid, or land reform was provided for the peasants. “The darkness hides the picturesque poverty of the place and the lights from the fair weakly illuminate a livid and disconsolate countryside,” Alvaro observes (Marks, p. 111). Tourism may have been Spain’s “best propaganda,” allowing foreigners to “appreciate the social peace, the public order” but those living in Spain and those like Alvaro who looked below the surface knew better (Marks, p. 249).

Layers of exile

During the Civil War and its aftermath, anti-Francoists fled Spain en masse to avoid imprisonment and slaughter. Initially, the exiles—including socialists, communists, regional autonomists, and anarchists—fled to Paris, New York, and South America and established anti-Franco movements abroad. They were received by legitimate European and U.S. government representatives who were opposed to Franco and his fascist dictatorship. These officials bolstered hope for the ousting of Franco and the re-establishment of a Spanish republic. Particularly during WWII, anti-Francoists were convinced the Allies would militarily depose Franco as they had Hitler and Mussolini. But when that didn’t occur, and then a decade later Franco gained world acceptance, many anti-Francoists abandoned the cause or returned to Spain.

The anti-Franco movement suffered not only from lack of western aid but from disunity. In the novel, for example, Alvaro finds division within the exile community in Paris—even a “geological strata” that ranks exiles in terms of tenure and importance (Marks, p. 204). Not only did exiles and expatriates have differing ideologies but they were of different generations and backgrounds. Those that left Spain in 1939 were revered as the true exiles while those that left, as both Alvaro and Goytisolo do, in the 1950s were seen as expatriates. In exile, this “generation gap” contributed to the stratification within the community and its lack of definitive leadership. It also stigmatised expatriates like Alvaro (and Goytisolo) who unlike the Civil War exiles chose to leave Spain and were thus considered traitors who broke ranks, “a know-it-all in mourning and a mendacious pimp” (Marks, p. 7).

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

In a series of interior monologues, parodies of official jargon, extracts from police reports, political speeches, and free verse, Juan Goytisolo relates his character’s search for identity after 10 years of self-imposed exile. It is 1963—the year marking Franco’s so-called “25 years of peace.” Alvaro Mendiola is returning to Barcelona for three days from Paris after a heartattack. Disillusioned and confronting his own mortality, the journalist is searching for clues in his homeland, and among his family and his friends; he is tracing events chosen and accidental to see how they have shaped his life, marked his identity.

The novel opens with fragmented quotes from newspaper articles citing the way Spanish society perceives him: “an affected little big shot from Paris” coming back to Spain to find fault with the nation (Marks, p. 6). He knows that he is largely disrespected by Spaniards because of his expatriation. Clearly ill at ease with his role, he is trying to figure out how both he and Spain have evolved to this point.

On a previous trip to Spain in 1958 Alvaro filmed a documentary on emigration. He now recalls the trip as other memories also begin to surface. Visiting his childhood home, he recalls his youth and the Civil War. The Republican defeat in the war and the disappearance of his father spring to mind as he tries to piece together details about his father’s death that he has never known. He realizes that in 1939 everything changed—not only for the nation but inside himself—and that the end of the war marked the beginning of what became a life pattern for him of breaking and dispossession. “He knew that everything, including himself, was not definitive and lasting as he had confidently believed up until then, having based his opinion on the continuity of his universe that had been reconstituted after the terrors and frights of the war, but that it was changeable, precarious, governed by a biological cycle against which will and virtue were powerless” (Marks, p. 43).

Alvaro is outside Barcelona with his wife, Dolores, when his friends Ricardo and Artigas stop by with two Danish girls. They drink and reminisce, and the foreign girls’ presence prompts speculation on the effects of tourism on contemporary Spain. He ponders the tragedy of the “the people who died uselessly between 1936 and 1939” in order that Spain would become “a fertile and rich nursery of climbing vines and sausages” to feed the appetites of foreign tourists (Marks, p. 129). Clearly, he finds the development contemptible.

Alvaro recalls his university days, meeting his friends, becoming aware of class differences, and coming of age. He fondly recalls the influence of Professor Ayuso—a social reformer who strongly impacted Alvaro’s life. He also recollects Ayuso’s death. “The rebellion of your youth had returned intact and, as you thought about Professor


Examining himself, Alvaro ponders, “Today’s adult was hard to recognize, suspended as you were in an uncertain present, lacking a past as well as a future, with that desolate and intimate certainty of knowing that you had come back not because things had changed and your expatriation had had meaning, but because little by little you had exhausted your reserves of patience, and, in a word, you were afraid of dying” (Marks, p, 10). Like Alvaro and so many expatriates and exiles caught between two worlds—between hope and reality—Goytisolo tries to find meaning in his accident of birth and self-imposed exile. Through a “laughable decree of fate” he was born into the post-Civil War Spanish bourgeoisie—“a promiscuous and hollow order from which you tried to escape, confident, like so many others, of a regenerating change and cathartic which, because of mysterious imponderables, had not come about” (Marks, p. 7). The cathartic experience that Goytisolo’s character asserts would have come from the ousting of Franco has not occurred, and like thousands of others, he is contemplating “the ravages of exile on the soul of the exiled” (Schraibman in Gunton, p. 189). This novel is an attempt to reconcile events past and present, chosen and accidental, so that he may come to terms with his identity, heal the wounds of exile, and discover the purpose of his life.

Ayuso’s posthumous fate, you felt like vomiting” (Maries, p. 63). The thought of school leads to recollections of religious epithets he was made to memorize as a child, after which he muses:

Such a strange religion, your people’s, you were thinking, and so strange what it tells—a god cheated by the fiasco of his own creation to such a degree that he feels obliged to descend to earth to correct and fulfill it; with the well-known results: was it not another obvious failure? What moral lesson can be deduced from a rocambolesque fable like that?

(Marks, p. 64)

He is questioning all that he learned as a child—religious edicts, the lives of saints, and child martyrs—wondering how they have impacted his development. Disparate thoughts come and go, one on the heels of the next, as Aivaro delves deeper and deeper into his quest for truth and answers, into all that has gone into the shaping of his identity.

As he ponders, Aivaro recalls learning to love Barcelona and his first introduction to a liberated woman, Ana, his friend’s mother. The streetcar strike of 1951 then springs to mind, along with the disillusionment he felt at Ayuso’s death, which leads him to consider his father’s death in La Mancha by anti-Franco forces. He envisions the scene and romanticizes the circumstances of his father’s imprisonment and execution, sad that they will never meet again and that he will never know what actually happened.

Next, the annual bull running that he films in 1958 and the violence of the La Graya peasant uprising before the civil war in 1936 merge—both images of struggle and brutality; of slow torturous death. “Violence engenders new violence,” he realizes, “brutal images cross” (Marks, p. 123). More seemingly disparate yet equally brutal images cross, as he compares the “picturesque poverty” of Franco’s New Spain tourism and the tragedy of the Civil War. This leads him to daydream about what would have happened if the Republicans had won in 1939. He passes from dreams to memories to wishes in an effort to make sense of it all, unsure what is fact and what is fiction: “You were still unable to reconstruct the incidents and imagine the situations, dive into the past and emerge in the present, pass from evocation to conjecture, shuffle the real in with what had been dreamed” (Marks, p. 91).

The next major section focuses on his friend Antonio’s arrest. Aivaro feels guilty because he fears he abandoned his friends and the cause when he went into self-imposed exile while they stayed behind, continued to protest against Franco, and suffered arrest and imprisonment. He had a romantic life in Paris, fell in love, traveled the world, and feels he did little to bring about change in Spain. “With your friends caught up in the turmoil of politics, what were you doing?” he asks himself (Marks, p. 175).

Goytisolo illustrates the extreme police state Spain has become by relating the personal history of Alvaro’s friend and fellow reformer, Antonio. Antonio discusses his jail-within-jail status living as a marked man in Franco’s Spain, being constantly watched and monitored—“a free man in that vast and extensive prison” (Marks, p. 194). We see that this is not paranoia, as the proof of surveillance is documented in the police reports that Goytisolo intersperses within Antonio’s narrative. Further, he notes that not only are the police watching but that the citizens themselves “had become changed into a grim and sleepy country of thirty-odd million non-uniformed police” (Marks, p. 190).

Alvaro next recalls his relationship with other exiles in Paris and the strata of that society-within-a-society. He conjures Madame Berger’s café, where they congregated, and mocks the society they formed and magazines they planned but never published. He notes that Paris served as “a rock against which the successive waves of youthful Iberian enthusiasm broke and died” and realizes that in that sobering setting “he had lost his youth forever” (Marks, p. 215). He recalls meeting Dolores, their courtship over the years, her abortion (which symbolically coincided with the virtual break-up of the anti-Francoists at a conference in Geneva), and a brief homosexual affair. Though ambiguous, the affair harks back to an earlier passage where he alludes to being in love with a young man during his youth. Here Alvaro is delving into his personal life, trying to uncover his sexual identity as he begins to realize that his marriage is over.

The novel flips back and forth between events in Spain and France, indicating Alvaro’s undefined role as a man caught between two worlds. Leafing through an old atlas, Alvaro recalls the aspirations of his youth and how at first his exile enabled his dreams to come to fruition. Outside Spain he was able to freely express himself—professionally, sexually, socially. Now, back in Spain, he tries to identify with the country he was born in but can’t—“the city you were looking at, was it yours” he wonders (Marks, p. 338). He walks and searches—even quotes the tourist pamphlets—but he no longer recognizes his homeland:

everything has been futile
oh my country
my birth among yours and the deep love that
without your asking
for years I have obstinately offered you
let us part like good friends while there is still time

(Marks, p. 350)

At 32 Alvaro is born again, “with no marks of identity,” but remains unsure why events have occurred as they have in his life. He strives to uncover his identity from his personal history, his native country and adopted home, his family, friendships, and sexual relationships, but finds no marks there. He questions the purpose of his self-imposed exile, and, hence, the purpose of his life to this point. “Perhaps someone will understand later,” he closes, “what order you tried to resist and what your crime was” (Marks, p. 352).

Identity of an expatriate

In the novel Alvaro seeks to define himself through his accident of birth as well as through the choices he has made. Born during the Civil War and raised under the repressive Franco regime, he left Spain to “bear Parisian witness to aspects of Spanish life that might serve to épater le bourgeois” (Marks, p. 5). But he feels he’s failed in that quest and is experiencing a sense of both loss and guilt at having become an expatriate. Alvaro raises the question that so many of his generation faced: what can be the modern Spanish identity for those who rebel against the regime and, moreover, what can be the identity of an expatriate?

Full of optimism and firm in his convictions, Alvaro left Spain to change it from without. He went to Paris, joined the exile community, and embarked on ambitious projects designed to publicize “the truth” about Franco and oust his regime. But, as so many experienced, his projects either never came to fruition or affected no change. He listened to pseudo-intellectuals, one after the other, drone on about aiding the Spanish rebels as they sipped wine in cafés and did nothing; he attended conferences and meetings of exiles that systematically ended in disputes over leadership and ideologies; he belonged to the editorial board of several magazines “whose essential characteristic consisted in never having been published” (Marks, pp. 214-15). Out of these experiences, skepticism crept in and “as the roots of childhood and the land were broken, Alvaro could feel the forming on his skin of a scaly crust: the feeling of the uselessness of his exile and, simultaneously, the impossibility of his return” (Marks, p. 215). Both through the accident of his birth and the choices he made, Alvaro became a man with no identity—unfulfilled in his goals abroad and at the same time unable to resume life as he had known it before.

Though he realizes he cannot regain his lost innocence, Alvaro returns to Spain to come to terms with his life:

Your efforts at reconstruction and synthesis had run up against a serious obstacle. Thanks to the documents and proofs stored away in folders, you were able to dust off in your memory happenings and incidents that in the past you might have considered lost and which … were able to shed light not only on your own biography, but also on certain obscure and revealing facets of life in Spain.… Your own adventures and those of your country had taken divergent directions: you went one way … your country and that group of friends who were persevering in their noble efforts to change it, paying with their persons the cost that from indifference or cowardice you had refused to pay, coming to their maturity at the price of indispensable mistakes, they were adults, with the concise tempering you did not have.… With an empty memory after ten years of exile, how could you reconstruct that lost unity without doing it mischief?

(Marks, p. 133)

Alvaro desperately wants to reconnect on some level but knows that it is too late. Feeling the guilt of the expatriate, he fears that he was a coward for leaving, not a rebel as he had initially thought. The newspapers call him arrogant and question why he is compelled to paint a bad picture of his homeland and countrymen. Their reaction makes him question the worth even of his documentary (which he believed in); perhaps it served no purpose, or worse yet, offended those to whom he was appealing through it. This only adds to his sense of disillusionment.

In short, Alvaro is somewhat ashamed that he chose freedom while his friends stayed in Spain and fought the regime from within. They sacrificed themselves for the greater good while he traveled the world, pursuing his dream. But, in fact, what did they accomplish? Nothing changed and they are still living “in the middle of a vast and extensive prison” (Marks, p. 194). In essence, Marks of Identity accomplishes what Alvaro and his friends want to achieve: it raises awareness about what happened to the members of his generation, showing there were no optimal choices, none that were even good. There was only loss. Alvaro’s loss of family, friends, country, and, more abstractly, identity, reflect the ravages and cost of rebellion and exile during his era. Though Alvaro meets up with Dolores, a fellow expatriate, and they cling together, each remains “an amputated branch of the native trunk, a plant growing in the air, expelled like so many others, now and always, by the jealous guardians of your century-old heritage” (Marks, p. 283). Alvaro declares to Dolores, “I was born with you…. You’re my past. My marks of identity are false” (Marks, p. 279). Yet, Dolores is also rootless and ultimately cannot be the sole reference point from which Alvaro can define himself.

While Alvaro’s self-imposed exile has left him rootless, his friends’ rebellious activities have also severed their ties to mainstream society. They are under constant surveillance, to the point of being periodically jailed. They have no freedom. Their experiences are something Alvaro can only imagine and piece together from reports; there is now a permanent division between them, yet another reality ravaging Alvaro’s soul. Comparing his activities to those of his friends, he realizes that neither has accomplished anything. His own exile has to this point accomplished nothing, yet he feels no compunction to return to Spain or rejoin his compatriots, even if he could. Alvaro emerges a man with no marks of identity—a homeless expatriate guilty, he feels, of a nameless crime for an unknown reason. His sense of futility and loss is the blame the novel lays on a regime and society that allowed—even forced—a generation to deny themselves, whether they stayed or left.

Sources and literary context

Goytisolo based Marks of Identity on personal experience and historical facts. He uses the real incidents of the Civil War and its aftermath, the tramway strike of 1951, student uprisings, and his adolescence in Barcelona, mixing the events with fictional characters based on himself and his friends who were part of the mid-twentieth-century generation of Spanish writers and activists. He incorporates into the novel his personal experience of exile, as well as his travels in Europe, Africa, and Cuba. Like Alvaro, Goytisolo took refuge in Paris, worked for Agence France Presse, and traveled the world. But Goytisolo left Spain in 1957 and Alvaro in 1952 and, unlike Goytisolo, Alvaro returns in 1963 to mock Franco’s so-called, self-proclaimed “25 Years of Peace.”

Marks of Identity has been called Goytisolo’s “most personal novel” in respect to its emphasis on the police state of Franco’s Spain and its scathing comments on the tourism industry and Western capitulation to Franco in the 1950s (Jones, p. 235). He likewise derides both the Generation of 1898 and contemporary reformers, both in Spain and abroad, for their failure to forge a coalition to defeat Franco or alter Spanish society. Also woven into the novel is his personal struggle with sexual identity as well as the death of a parent during the Civil War. Finally, Alvaro and Goytisolo share a similar Catholic and Barcelona education and their role as “that strange species of writer claimed by none and alien and hostile to groups and categories” (Jones, p. 235).


Some critics originally panned Marks of Identity, accusing the novel of having an imbalance between its themes and experience, and of confusing fact with fiction. It was also criticized for “imprecise use of language, replete with errors” which the author acknowledged resulted from excessive concern with “vital experiences” rather than creating a “truly harmonious work of fiction” (R. Schwartz in Gunton, p. 181).

The bulk of the literary community, however, acclaimed the novel for its controversial themes as well as experimental style. Goytisolo was praised in particular for his “courageous” denunciations of “anti-Franco emigres, their empty talk, petty intrigues and political inefficiency” as well as for his willingness to take on such taboo subjects as homosexuality and the moral decay of Spanish society (R. Schwartz in Gunton, p. 181; K. Schwartz in Gunton, p. 182).

Upon the novel’s publication, Goytisolo became a leading voice of his generation. Along with Luis Martín-Santos and Juan Benet, he was credited with creating a “new novel” and re-ordering “the full-length narrative, often destroying former models” in the process (Brown, p. 18). The novel is widely considered an example of “a startlingly new kind of Realism” with a political edge reminiscent of James Joyce (Gunton, p. 181). Joseph Schraibman, writing for World Literature Today, added, “There is little doubt that this [novel’s] attempted dialogue has enriched the cultural background of younger Spaniards (and others)” (Schraibman in Gunton, pp. 189, 181).

Marks of Identity earned Goytisolo renown as a “pitiless satirist” and an outspoken critic of “the injustice, inequality or rigidity that exist[ed] in society” under Franco (Jones, p. 235, Brown, p. 16). It is considered a milestone in Spanish literature, a “thrilling, ironic, trenchantly pessimistic, brilliant novel” that has helped cement Goytisolo’s status as “the best Spanish novelist of his generation” (Gunton, p. 181).

—Diane Renée

For More Information

Beevor, Antony. The Spanish Civil War. New York: Peter Bedrick, 1982.

Brown, Joan Lippman. Secrets From The Back Room: The Fiction of Carmen Martín Gaite. Mississippi: University of Mississippi, 1987.

Carr, Raymond, ed. Spain: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Gallo, Max. Spain Under Franco. New York: Dutton, 1969.

Gies, David T. Modern Spanish Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Gilmour, David. The Transformation of Spain. New York: Quarter Books, 1985.

Goytisolo, Juan. Marks of Identity. London: Serpent’s Tail, 1990.

Graham, Helen, and Jo Labanyi, eds. Spanish Cultural Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Graham, Robert. Spain: A Nation Comes of Age. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984.

Gunton, Susan, ed. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 23. Detroit: Gale, 1983.

Jones, Daniel, ed. Contemporary Authors. New Revision Series. Vol. 61. Detroit: Gale, 1998.

McKendrick, Melveena. Horizon History of Spain. New York: American Heritage, 1972.

Preston, Paul. Franco. New York: Basic, 1994.