From his house in Marrakech's medina, Juan Goytisolo enjoys the mesmeric drumming and murmur of the nearby Djemaa el Fna, the pulsing heart of the Moroccan city. For the expatriate Spanish writer, banned and exiled under the dictator General Franco, the daily spectacle of the main square makes Marrakech "one of the most beautiful cities in the world, especially in winter, when you can see the Atlas mountains covered in snow. It's the only city where I can live and work at the same time."

Inspired in part by the virtuoso storytellers of Marrakech, and hearkening back to the Spanish civil war era that haunts much of his fiction, Goytisolo's latest novel, The Garden of Secrets, was hailed by the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes as "one of the finest novels in Spain of the last 10 years." Through 28 tales--one for each letter of the Arabic alphabet--Goytisolo explores the uncertain fate of a fictional friend of the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, held captive by Franco's fascists in north Africa for being "a red, a queer and a poet." The novel (published in Spanish in 1997) is out this month from Serpent's Tail in an English translation by Peter Bush, who is also the editor of a new collection of Goytisolo's roving journalism for the Madrid newspaper El Pais, Landscapes of War: From Sarajevo to Chechnya (City Lights Books, Oct. 2000).

Though widely seen as Spain's greatest living writer, Goytisolo has for 45 years been its most scabrous critic. In some 30 books of fiction, autobiography, essays and journalism, he has turned the Spanish language against "sunny Spain," while celebrating the culture's Moorish and Jewish roots, which he believes have been suppressed over the centuries. Passionate about Islamic culture (he speaks Maghrebi Arabic as well as Castilian, Catalan, French, English and Turkish), he has castigated European insularity from his vantage point across the Gibraltar straits, striving to "watch Spain with intimacy but distance."

While Carlos Fuentes likens Goytisolo to Irish writers Swift and Joyce, "exiles condemned to live with the language of their oppressors," Mario Vargas Llosa sees his books as "unsettling, apocalyptic... a strange mixture of pitiless autobiography, passionate exploration of the periphery of the west, and audacious linguistic experiment." For Bush, director of the British Centre for Literary Translation in East Anglia, "no other Spanish writer stands on a par with the best of the Latin Americans, like Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar. Although he writes novels in an avant-garde, modernist style, there's always a political urgency behind them."

The author himself is at pains to separate his fiction from his political writing. "When I write a novel, I put my political ideas on the back burner. It's only books that are not important that have a 'message,'" he says. Yet his work remains controversial, even in Spain after Franco. His latest novel, Carajicomedia (A Cock-eyed Comedy)--a bestseller this year in Spanish--is a Swiftian satire on the Catholic Church and its powerful secret society, Opus Dei.

His lifelong skewering of Catholic, nationalist Spain has been fueled in part by his bisexuality and by an avowed quest for political, moral and sexual freedom without hypocrisy. While Franco's death in 1975 came as a liberation--"the end of the superego that had controlled my life"--Goytisolo was by then living with the French novelist Monique Lange in Paris, and traveling frequently to his adopted land of Morocco. "It would have been impossible to have a third life in Spain," he says. "I love Spanish culture but hate Spanish society; I can't live there."

His "rebirth" at the age of 34with the dawn of sexual openness ("I felt a free man-- suddenly free of ideology, religion, patriotism") was also a watershed in his writing. He divides his uvre into his first eight books--beginning with The Young Assassins (1954)--which he disowns, and those following the autobiographical Marks of Identity (1966), his "first adult novel," which broke with realism. Succeeded by Count Julian (1970) and Juan the Landless (1975), it was the first installment in a shocking trilogy that celebrated 700 years of Moorish Spain and pluralist culture. From the mid-'60s, all his works were banned in Spain until Franco's death, and he was published in either Mexico or Argentina. His groundbreaking and sexually frank two-volume autobiography published in the mid-1980s, Forbidden Territory and Realm of Strife (both published by North Point in the U.S.), traced his life till the mid-'60s, when he ceased to be merely "a writer of my generation" producing conventional, neo-realist novels, and struck out on a path of risk and experimentation.

Goytisolo was 70 on January 5, and he cuts a small, rather frail figure in the courtyard of his 300-year-old house shaded by orange trees. He is growing hard of hearing, but his English remains eloquent, delivered slowly with a strong Spanish accent and traces of impish humor. Young children--the sons of Marrakechi brothers who have worked for him for almost 20 years--play happily at his feet; he has named them his heirs.

An early riser, he writes only in the morning, longhand manuscripts traversed by correcting tape that are sent to Spain for typing. For the past 20 years he has made a living from his books, which have been translated into many languages, including French, German and Arabic; his following extends to Morocco, Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. He has had several publishers in Spain since 1976 (he is worried about his current editor's departure from Seix Barral) and in the U.S., North Point and City Lights among them. But the constant has been his Spanish agent, Carmen Balcells.

His life was shaped by the Spanish civil war of 1936-1939, his family "caught in the crossfire of both sides." Born in Barcelona of "exemplary bourgeois stock," he was seven when his Catalan mother died in a Francoist air raid. Her figure reappears in his recent fiction, where apocalyptic wars and bombardments echo 1930s Spain: Quarantine (1991), in which the bloodshed of the Gulf War makes its way to Marrakech's square, and El sitio de los sitios (Siege of Sieges, 1999), which sees Cervantes held prisoner in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo. His father, a chemical company executive who hated Communists, remained loyal to Franco and was imprisoned by Republican extremists. "My real, tyrannical father was Franco," says Goytisolo. "My mother was killed by his bombs, my family destroyed, and he forced me to become an exile. Everything I created was a result of the civil war."

There were literary antecedents on his mother's side, and his elder brother, José Agustín, who died last year, became a poet; his younger brother, Luis, a novelist. Their Basque-descended father forbade his late wife's parents from speaking to them in Catalan ("My mother tongue vanished forever with my mother"). Goytisolo, who writes in Castilian, says, "I only learned Catalan in France in the '60s. But I was always on the periphery of Castilian; I have the freedom of someone not in the center."

He studied law in , but moved to Paris in 1956. As a reader for Gallimard, he became a conduit for writers of the Latin American "boom"--including Fuentes, Guillermo Cabrera Infante and

Manuel Puig--with whom he feels greater kinship than with his fellow Spanish writers ("I invent my language as the Latin Americans invent theirs"). He and Monica Lange were active supporters of the Algerian independence movement, the FLN. He threw himself behind the 1959 Cuban revolution, partly out of guilt at discovering that his Basque great-grandfather had made his fortune from slaves there. But he last visited Cuba in 1967. "I discovered the repression against African religions, censorship and persecution of homosexuals. I felt estranged from the revolution after that." He also broke with the Spanish Communists. "I found myself banished by Francoists in Spain and attacked by the Communist Party in exile."
He knew writers in Paris, from Camus ("cold and distant") and Sartre to Hemingway, whom he met at a bullfight. But Jean Genet was his mentor--"moral more than literary; he was alien to all kinds of vanity. Because of him, I discovered I was interested in literature, not in literary life. I try to take my work seriously, but not myself." Genet may also have been a catalyst for his exploration of bisexuality in Barbés, an Arab quarter, and then in Morocco. He confessed his homosexuality in a letter to Lange, included in his autobiography, and the couple began an "open" relationship--each accepting the other's affairs--which lasted till Lange's death four years ago. They had married in 1978.

"That letter to Monique was the most difficult act of my life," Goytisolo recalls. "I was afraid her reaction would be to cut our ties. But she knew there was no possible rivalry between the men I went with and her. I think she was sad, but she took a strong moral position--it was a kind of victory, to establish a new relationship against social prejudice. We tried to live without lies."

Count Julian, conceived in Tangier, was once described as a "poison pen letter to Spanish society." It scurrilously sent up the Catholic cult of virginity and an obsession with "purity" that extends to denying the Arabic origins of many Spanish words. "For centuries," the writer says, "Spain was a frontier between the Christian and Islamic worlds. Anti-Muslim sentiments are very profound."

For Goytisolo, the Catholic monarchy behind the Inquisition and the later expulsion of Spanish Muslims in 1609 was the first modern totalitarian state, bringing intellectual sterility and Spain's "long holiday from history." A culture, he says, is "the sum of all its influences over the centuries. Its vitality is in its capacity to assimilate foreign influences. The culture that's defensive and closed condemns itself to decadence." He revels in the polyphony, diversity and "reciprocal contagion" of cityscapes, celebrated in his novels Makbara (1980)--a hymn to sex as freedom--and the darkly funny Landscapes After the Battle (1982). For him, the "Babelization of great capitals" is a sign of modernity. He wrote The Virtues of the Solitary Bird (1988) as a "declaration of solidarity" with AIDS sufferers, and all those feared as "not being of pure blood or pure Christians, infected by a foreign or alien ideology."

"When I was a child," says Goytisolo, "the Catalan language was forbidden. I realized that to have two languages and cultures is better than one, three better than two." He made a Spanish television series on the Islamic world--from Algerian rai music to Turkish wrestling. But he despairs of post-Franco Spain, which he calls "newly rich, newly free and newly European." In 1998, he was declared persona non grata by the mayor of the southeastern boom town El Ejido for likening the conditions of north African migrant workers to those of Cuban slaves. He is also proud to be an "honorary Gypsy" for his defense of Spaniards "still classified as immigrants after five and a half centuries."

In Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian nationalism, Goytisolo found a strong echo of Spanish fascism of the '40s. "They use the same language," he says. His Sarajevo notebooks form part of Landscapes of War, together with reportage from Algeria, Chechnya, the West Bank and Gaza. Spain's expulsions of Jews and Muslims were, for Goytisolo, a precursor of today's ethnic cleansings. In a lecture, "We are all Bosnians," he called for intervention. Where, he said, were the Hemingways and Orwells to defend secular citizenship--"the most important part of the French revolution? I was convinced that after the Second World War and the Holocaust, some things were impossible in Europe," he says. "But I discovered in Yugoslavia that my conviction was wrong--everything is possible."

The Garden of Secrets is an homage both to Jorge Luis Borges and to Cervantes, who was held captive in north Africa and drew on One Thousand and One Nights in inventing the modern European novel. Goytisolo questions the idea of authorship. "We don't possess the truth, only fragments," he says. "Fiction is the best way to escape from dogmatism. If there's no reliable author, there's no authority. I'm against authoritarianism."

Jaggi is an award-winning journalist and critic based in London who writes for the Guardian newspaper.