Strange Pilgrims: Twelve Stories
Gabriel García Márquez: Solitude and Solidarity
Films can more easily be truly international than modern novels. A film’s appeal is less parochial, more immediate, more comprehensive. Publishers are shy of translating and trying to sell the latest fictional masterpiece from Portugal or Turkey or Bulgaria: they know all too well how limited its appeal will be, and how limited a grasp of its real virtues will be achieved by the most sympathetically disposed reader. Even Mark Kharitenov, the first winner of the Russian Booker Prize, and an accomplished novelist in the classic Russian tradition, has still to see an English version of his work.
But Latin America has been somehow different. The local characteristics, which so often inhibit the success of a novel when it is translated into a quite different culture, have somehow served miraculously to popularize One Hundred Years of Solitude. Critics and literary theorists, in Europe and in North America, hailed the advent of a new vision and a new technique in novel writing, and dubbed it “magic realism.” The author, Gabriel García Márquez, who was already well known as a journalist and story writer in his native Colombia and in the Spanish-speaking world, became as famous and respected a name in literary circles as the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges.
It may be of significance that Márquez had been working in the Mexican film industry in the late Sixties when he produced on paper, in an eighteen-month burst of creative energy, a project for a novel on the history of a family in South America which had been maturing in his head for years under the general title of La Casa, “the house.” He was then approaching forty. The great critical and commercial success of One Hundred Years of Solitude transformed his life, and enabled him to produce his subsequent work in economic security. The Autumn of the Patriarch came out in 1975; and there followed Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981), Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), and The General in his Labyrinth (1989). While none of these has achieved the spectacular success of One Hundred Years of Solitude, all have broken fresh ground in their outlook and technique, and all have been received with praise and attention. Márquez has never repeated his own formula, no matter how much it may have been taken up and exploited by later novelists.
Always an enthusiast for the movies and an admirer especially of the Italian masterpieces of the genre, such as de Sica’s and Zavattini’s Umberto D, Márquez himself would probably be the first to suggest that the apparently freewheeling world of magic realism owed a great deal to this always experimental medium. For the rest, there is the opinion of the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier, who absorbed the precepts of surrealism during the interwar period in Paris, and who maintained in a famous essay that it was the only appropriate artistic form in which to express the actuality of the Latin American landscape and historical experience. Latin American reality, he observed, is itself magical. But while what might be termed classic, or pure, surrealism is carefully devoid of any expressions of emotion, in its new form, as heightened actuality, it could have all the love, style, and feeling in the world: above all love as style, as the celebration of the beauty, cruelty, and extraordinariness of the true world. Thus it might be said that Márquez popularized surrealism by making it such a pleasure to experience surrealist moments in his own lovingly exotic paragraphs. Here is an author who really enjoys what he writes about, and can be felt and seen to be enjoying it.
His other sources were more simply literary ones, English and American. Faulkner he took to early, but even earlier he took to Virginia Woolf. He once remarked that he would have been a different writer altogether if he had not read, at the age of twenty, one of the single long sentences in Mrs. Dalloway. It struck him like a thunderclap, and it is worth quoting in full for that reason. The sentence describes the progress of an official car, with some Great Man inside it, down one of the fashionable streets of London.
But there could be no doubt that greatness was seated within; greatness was passing, hidden, down Bond Street, removed only by a hand’s-breadth from ordinary people who might now, for the first time and last, be within speaking distance of the majesty of England, of the enduring symbol of the state which will be known to curious antiquaries, sifting the ruins of time, when London is a grassgrown path and all those hurrying along the pavement this Wednesday morning are but bones with a few golden wedding rings mixed up in their dust and the gold stoppings of innumerable decayed teeth.
The way Woolf invoked, in her deceptively helpless and wayward prose, the vision of a vista of time and a culture’s gradual destruction, became the germ of One Hundred Years of Solitude. What may seem to many English or American readers today a rather banal piece of Woolfian indulgence was for the young Márquez a revelation. It must have been a fascinating moment. As Michael Bell points out in his brilliant study of Márquez in the St. Martin’s Press Modern Novelists series, Woolf’s characteristically throwaway phrase—“will be known”—becomes in Márquez the more fateful Spanish ” ‘había de’/ ‘was to,’” whose formulaic use keeps recurring in One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Bell goes on to point out that Woolf’s seriousness, as so often with Bloomsbury authors—Aldous Huxley would be another case—has to take a frivolous form, a conscious rhetorical extravagance which skirts the edge of self-parody. This too became important to Márquez. It is abundantly evident in the twelve tales which make up his latest collection, some of which have appeared in The New Yorker, Playboy, and the Paris Review. All might be called slight, but the verdict which might seem unfavorable—indeed slighting—if applied to most famous novelists is to Márquez a kind of accolade, the most delicate of all compliments, as the most sincere. Much of his genius resides in a seeming unawareness of that plodding Anglo-Saxon distinction between a “serious” writer (and how that adjective still gets overworked in a book’s publicity) and a popular, lightweight one. Of the Márquez oeuvre it would be no paradox to say: the slighter the better; or perhaps, rather, the more joyous the more meaningful.
Thus in “Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane” the narrator sees a beautiful girl at the Paris airport, with “an aura of antiquity that could just as well have been Indonesian as Andean.” The plane is delayed in taking off for hours by a snowstorm, and when they at last get aboard he finds himself beside her in the First Class section. No word passes between them, and she asks the attendant only for a glass of water.
She placed a cosmetics case with copper corners, like a grandmother’s trunk, on her lap, and took two golden pills from a box that contained others of various colors. She did everything in a methodical, solemn way, as if nothing unforeseen had happened to her since her birth. At last she pulled down the shade on the window, lowered the back of her seat as far as it would go, covered herself to the waist with a blanket without taking off her shoes, put on a sleeping mask, turned her back to me, and then slept without a single pause, without a sigh, without the slightest change in position, for the eight eternal hours and twelve extra minutes of the flight to New York.
Meanwhile the narrator drinks a lot of champagne, saying to himself, “To your health, Beauty” as he downs each glass. “The lights were dimmed, and a movie was shown to no one, and the two of us were alone in the darkness of the world.” The narrator murmurs to himself a sonnet by Gerardo Diego, and remembers, as they lie “closer than if we had been in a marriage bed,” a novel by Kawabata “about the ancient bourgeois of Kyoto who paid enormous sums to spend the night watching the most beautiful girls in the city, naked and drugged, while they agonized with love in the same bed.”
Beauty’s sleep was invincible…. She awoke by herself at the moment the landing lights went on, and she was as beautiful and refreshed as if she had slept in a rose garden. That was when I realized that like old married couples, people who sit next to each other on airplanes do not say good morning to each other when they wake up. Nor did she. She took off her mask, opened her radiant eyes, straightened the back of the seat, moved the blanket aside, shook her hair that fell into place of its own weight, put the cosmetics case back on her knees, and applied rapid, unnecessary makeup, which took just enough time so that she did not look at me until the plane door opened,… she left without even saying good-bye or at least thanking me for all I had done to make our night together a happy one, and disappeared into the sun of today in the Amazon jungle of New York.
Amazon jungle…. We are seeing here Márquez’s Latin American magic becoming cosmopolitan, and the marvelous richness of his sense of objective and solitary movement transposed from towns and histories lost in the jungle into what has become the equally strange world of modern traveling. The effect is not unlike Nabokov’s transposition of the rich Russian domesticity of Turgenev’s novels into the world of Lolita, where gym socks and a half-chewed apple core lie on the floor. The magic is not so different. The difference, and distinctively Márquez’s, is in the wholly unartificial and unemphatic dignity of the composition, its natural poise of understanding what lies beneath the surface of things. Sexual experience is always solitary to some degree, and in its solitude can lie one of its greatest rewards and consolations.
As with other kinds of post-modernism, the danger of the approach may be that “anything goes”; anything may happen and mean as much, or as little, as anything else. Some of his readers and critics have found Márquez too facile, in spite of the elegance with which each of his literary projects is shaped, considered, and carried out. In contrast and response to magical realism, whose danger, as Michael Bell puts it, is that of lending itself when in the wrong hands to “a sentimental blankness,” there has grown up a more rigorous school of postmodernism, of what might be called the Flaubertian rather than the Woolfian kind. Flaubert’s celebrated severity, the reductive and repressive gaze which seeks to analyze human and worldly phenomena, is certainly very different from the tropical profusions of new Latin American writing. In his concisely clever and enigmatic novel, Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes has supplied an obliquely telling parody of the kinds of weakness to which magical realism can give rise.
Ah, the propinquity of cheap life and expensive principles, of religion and banditry, of surprising honor and random cruelty. Ah, the daiquiri bird which incubates its eggs on the wing; ah, the fredonna tree whose roots grow at the tips of its branches, and whose fibres assist the hunchback to impregnate by telepathy the haughty wife of the hacienda owner; ah, the opera house now overgrown by jungle. Permit me to rap on the table and murmur “Pass!”
But if the danger of magical realism is overluxuriance, that of Flaubertian rigor is sterility, the atmosphere of “La vie est bête”; and Márquez’s whole approach to life is not that of an ideological but of a purely sensuous optimist.
This optimism is demonstrated in a story like ”‘I Only Came to Use the Phone,’” in which an ordinary girl from Barcelona has her car break down on a country road in a rainstorm, and manages eventually to hitch a ride in a truck full of sleeping women. They come to a large building where she asks to use the phone to call her husband, but is put off with excuses, and finds herself under sedation in a female lunatic asylum. Her attempts to escape are frustrated, and when she finally manages to get through to her husband he calls her a whore and puts the phone down. She is so angry that she becomes reconciled to life in the hospital, and to the lesbian devotion of a herculean female warden. Things drift along; finally her husband, who turns out to be a professional magician, comes to see her, but the visit is not a success, except that he brings her much-needed cigarettes.
The atmosphere of the story is absurdly cheerful, not nightmarish as it would be in Kafka. One notes again the situation’s resemblance to a film comedy-thriller, and the effectiveness of a cinematic reality when a story of this sort is transposed into language. It is worth noting, too, that Kafka’s nightmares are much more cast-iron, as it were, than those out of which Márquez constructs his supple and disconcerting entertainments. The man who wakes up turned into a large beetle can never, ever, do anything about it; whereas we expect the misunderstandings of ”‘I Only Came to Use the Phone’” to be cleared up, as in comedy. But the twist to Márquez’s technique is that the misunderstandings in the story are not cleared up, just as when things start to go wrong in life they are not cleared up. The comedy or magic trick we expect to take place (and the professional magician in the story is of course exceedingly helpless) does not come off: it cannot avoid the ordinary breakdown and the wear and tear of things. (We never know just what happened to Maria since the last person who tried to visit her found “only the hospital in ruins.”) Márquez’s sense of detail is in every case as telling and as funny as it is in Kafka’s tales. And in neither case is the humor self-consciously black, in the modern manner.
One of the best details in ”‘I Only Came to Use the Phone’” is the wonderful comfort given to Maria by the director of the asylum, after her first wild seizure of panic and despair has caused her to be attached to the metal bedstead by her wrists and ankles. When she is released and led into his presence he lights a cigarette for her, gives her the rest of the pack, and talks to her for an hour in a manner so comforting that she knows she can never be unhappy again. In her mind she contrasts the solace he gives her with that offered by her lovers and husband to reward her for letting them make love to her. This man expected nothing. At the door, however, “he asked her to trust him, and disappeared forever.” Such a moment is characteristic not only of Márquez but of a writer like Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which suggests not only that magic realism has spread throughout Europe, but that something very like it was, or has become, a part of the literary spirit of our age, in Europe and America.
“Miss Forbes’s Summer of Happiness” begins with a characteristic Márquez sentence—“When we came back to the house in the afternoon, we found an enormous sea serpent nailed by the neck to the door frame.” The story is of two little boys, whose father no doubt is fabulously rich (several of these stories concern the very rich), having a Mediterranean holiday, skin diving and all, in the care of their horribly upright German governess, who in the magical world of Márquez naturally has an English name. The sea serpent, a moray eel, sacred in the ancient world, is soon forgotten about; but Miss Forbes is found with multiple stab wounds, inflicted by one of the many lovers to whom her fanatical virtue dementedly yields by night. Her charges have themselves tried to poison her with some old wine they have found in a sea-encrusted amphora, but that is by the way—or is it? With Márquez, as with Borges, one can never be sure. Indeed, the longer story that ends the collection, “The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow,” suffers from being less enigmatic in this respect.
The quality of all the tales is greatly enhanced by Edith Grossman’s admirable translation. Márquez himself contributes a prologue, “Why Twelve, Why Stories, Why Pilgrims,” which explains in a not entirely unpretentious manner how and when they came to be written over the last eighteen years. His remarks on his own compositions, however, are very revealing.
The effort involved in writing a short story is as intense as beginning a novel, where everything must be defined in the first paragraph: structure, tone, style, rhythm, length, and sometimes even the personality of a character. All the rest is the pleasure of writing, the most intimate, solitary pleasure one can imagine, and if the rest of one’s life is not spent correcting the novel, it is because the same iron rigor needed to begin the book is required to end it. But a story has no beginning, no end: Either it works or it doesn’t.
Márquez’s most notable success lies in persuading the reader to share that pleasure. And for both it does indeed become a solitary, even a solipsistic, activity. The texture of his work is invariably more pleasing than any “philosophy” that can be got out of it, for as Michael Bell rightly suggests, his work is “specifically designed both to invite and to resist interpretation.” That is to say, unlike Conrad for example, or Hardy, or Thomas Mann, he would much rather we didn’t bother ourselves trying to formulate his ideas or philosophy. These are not, in fact, to be formulated, to be clenched into the project like a liana into a tropical tree Still, Bell aptly notes the resemblances of Chronicle of a Death Foretold to Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, where fate is engaged in the same trick of compelling the victim and her persecutors alike to play their roles in the manner prescribed by usage and custom.
The liberator Simón Bolívar, in The General in His Labyrinth, represents Márquez’s most ambitious character and concept; and significantly this is his most recent novel. The theme again is solitude—Bolívar actually died in a little town called Soledad, which shows that history and geography can behave as magically as fiction, and the vision of what he tried and failed to achieve is powerfully and movingly presented. And yet one doubts that Márquez is really in the end a political animal, for all that he has been supportive of Fidel Castro and was reluctant to condemn the Russian invasion of Hungary. Admiration for authoritarian policies and figures is very often the sign of a political outsider, unwilling to take much interest in the boring ambiguities of liberal or administrative problems.
One of Michael Bell’s subtitles is “Fiction versus Politics?” and Márquez’s fellow novelist the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa has himself written an excellent critique of Márquez’s work, in which he suggests that like all writers of fiction, only much more so, Márquez has created a substitute world of “subjective reality,” which in practice drives out God, history, and politics from the affective world of the novel. Though he is less well known as a writer, Vargas Llosa’s own monumental histories, like The War of the End of the World, emphatically do not do this, but, where history and society are concerned, use more modestly the methods of Tolstoy and the nineteenth-century realists. This is no reflection on Márquez, who has to his credit a different kind of invention altogether; but it shows the way his books resemble Lolita or The Castle, or even Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, rather than a novel by Balzac or Galdos or War and Peace. And why not? The fact remains that most of his works are undoubted masterpieces; and that may be true particularly of his novellas and stories, like most of the ones in the present collection.