Surely Gabriel García Márquez is the author of some of the oddest books ever.
His Love In The Time of Cholera (my particular favorite) features a man named Florentino Ariza who has been waiting for fifty-one years, nine months and four days for the love of his life, Fermina Daza, to get rid of her husband so that he, Florentino, can pursue her for himself. When that husband does die (the result of an attempt to retrieve a parrot from a treetop), Florentino sees his chance. . . and seizes it.
“I have waited for this opportunity for more than half a century, to repeat to you once again my vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love,” he tells her. Fermina Daza dismisses Florentino Ariza angrily, yet when she awakes the next morning, “only then did she realize that she had slept a long time without dying, sobbing in her sleep, and that while she slept, sobbing, she had thought more about Florentino Ariza than about her dead husband.”
Much has happened in the five decades between the day of her marriage and that of her husband’s demise, and that is what the novel principally is about. We learn about the development of river travel in Columbia in the early twentieth century. We discover the allure that Europe held for those South Americans who had the funds and the education to appreciate that continent in fact. We are allured equally by painted benches in a small Columbian river town, in a tree-lined, sweltering park where the young lover Florentino awaits his paramour Fermina, only to be disappointed in the end by her indifference. We read long letters that have remained otherwise unread over many, many years. We look at the same photograph several times during that half-century, and watch as it turns yellow and brown, slowly riding up at the edges. We read lists of Fermina Daza’s purchases in Europe. We suffer from Florentino Ariza’s habit of applying too much cologne. We are amused by his debauching himself with every sort of willing female (622 of them, actually) – for almost fifty-one years, nine months and four days – including America Vicuña who, when Florentino Ariza is seventy-six, is sixty years his junior.
He does all this while remaining convinced that he’s preserving his chastity in Fermina Daza’s name. We read about the important place of the letter-writing scribe in small-town Columbian culture, in the help he gives to unlettered farmers and business people, to chastened lovers, to overheated lovers and abandoned lovers. We get quick looks into the passing revolutions in Columbia that take place so frequently during the period the novel covers. Liberal politics. Conservative politics. Presidents. Generals. Bishops. Black people. White people. Whores, virgins, grand lovers, destroyed lovers, successful lovers. Rain. Heat. Poetry contests. Song contests. Upriver. Downriver. Aging. Children. Old bones aching.
All of it – and more -- told in a tone of voice that is entirely deadpan and hilarious, and all of it told while Florentino Ariza is waiting for Fermina Daza’s husband to die.
Gerald Martin’s new, fine biography, Gabriel García Márquez: A Life (Alfred A. Knopf, 641 pages) successfully explains where García Márquez got all this information as well as how he developed the now quite famous tone of narrative voice that he has used in almost all of his books. Gabo, as García Márquez is known to his extraordinarily vast reading public, had the good fortune to be born in the coastal Caribbean heat of Columbia, in the town of Aracataca, in which the kind of unnerving occasions that are so prevalent in Gabo’s books in fact seem to take place in real life. Civil wars, murders, visitations from the dead, ecstatic visions, numberless children legitimate and illegitimate, mad dreams, ruined dreams, comic betrayals, maddening love affairs and all sorts of other things appear to be simply normal in the region of Columbia that spawned Gabo. Or at least that is the way he says it is in this biography, and judging from the exhaustive fact-checking research, both literary and personal, that Gerald Martin has done over the eighteen years that it took him to write this book, I have no reason to doubt it. Literally. Martin explains it all.
But of course this can’t be so. There are so many things in Gabo’s books that are impossible that their basis in fact cannot be taken seriously. But that is where the tone of voice comes in. García Márquez’s true comic talent lies in the manner in which such impossibilities are described as though no one could possibly believe them to be impossible. When José Arcadio Buendía and his band of followers – in One Hundred Years of Solitude -- famously encounter a Spanish galleon in the middle of a vast jungle (“a universe of grief,” as García Márquez describes it), I believe it. I do so because the descriptive powers that he uses so remarkably to define places, sites or occasions that are altogether familiar are identical to those he uses to define fantastic impossibilities. He dwells on the illusory, but he does not use illusory language. He is simply telling a story, in more or less straightforward prose, with a smile on his face, about things that could not possibly ever happen.
These mad occurrences take place in contexts that are thoroughly believable otherwise. They are simply more facts in novels that abound in limitless facts, accurate observations made with such conversational informality that they cannot be disbelieved. The appearance of the galleon in the jungle makes complete sense, and therefore is very funny.
Reading Gerald Martin’s biography of Gabo is often like reading one of Gabo’s books because the people in García Márquez’s actual life have so often been like the characters in his books. (You might read García Márquez’s own recent autobiography, Living To Tell The Tale, for a very long and detailed example of what I’m talking about.) His family is vast, and filled with the kinds of willful, idiosyncratic behavior so recognizable to readers of his work. Many of these real people are quite hilarious, not the least of whom is Gabo himself.
I’ve always been a fan of García Márquez’s fiction, especially his short stories, some of which are the finest I’ve ever read. In an age in which the short story form has come on hard times, his have come close to revitalizing it. I’ve been less interested in García Márquez’s politics, though, simply because the creative work that a great writer does so far outshines any political involvements. This is always the case. For those who care about South American politics in the twentieth century, however, particularly those of Columbia, Chile and Cuba, Martin’s biography is also a very welcome guide. García Márquez has been in and out of the Columbian communist party and is a famous apologist for the policies of Fidel Castro in Cuba. He’s been almost a life-long friend of Fidel, and was also quite close to Salvador Allende, the democratically-elected president of Chile who died in the military coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power on September 11,1973. García Marquez’s involvements with these governments and many others (including that of the United States) have changed many, many times. He has frequently declared his politics through headline-grabbing manifesto-like statements. A few years later, he often conveniently forgets about those firmly-held convictions when it pleases him to do so. Nonetheless, a study of García Márquez’s travels through the politics of The Left in South America will give the reader a basic primer in how those politics developed and who the major twentieth century players have been. Martin’s careful analysis of it all, written in such clear prose, provides what you need.
Gerald Martin is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages at the University of Pittsburgh and Senior Research Professor in Caribbean Studies at London Metropolitan University. One of the real beauties of his writing in this book is that it avoids even the slightest hint of academic jargon, that babble that makes most professorial writing unreadable. There is real grace in his work and considerable good humor, humor that does justice to the remarkable comedic undertones of Gabriel García Márquez’s life. Martin has stated that the complete manuscript of his biography, from which this volume was culled, is three times longer than the book we have in hand, and that he fully intends someday to publish the entire thing. I for one can hardly wait.
Causes Terence Clarke Supports