Friday, January 07, 2005

What thou lovest well is remaindered #1

Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Living to Tell the Tale

by William Severini Kowinski

Though this is out in paperback now, I waited until I could get a bargain copy of the hardback. This is one of my favorite authors--- and always my favorite when I'm reading him.

Author of One Hundred Years of Solitude and other novels, stories, reportage and screenplays, this is his first memoir (with perhaps two more volumes to come.) The framework of the first two chapters or so is a trip Marquez took as a young impoverished writer with his mother back to his childhood home in Aracatata, Columbia to sell their house. As I read his narrative of revived childhood memories, I had a curious sense of recognition, and finally a kind of shock. Marquez achieved international fame with One Hundred Years of Solitude, probably the greatest novel of the second half of the twentieth century, which sparked a fashion for Latin American fiction and sired an entirely new genre, called magical realism.

But according to his memoir, many of the enchanted characters of mythical singularity in that novel were actual people, and many of the transcendent and dreamlike events really happened. It wasn't a magical realism, it was realism about an innately magical reality.

Can you believe it? The shy girl who didn't speak or take food, but silently stole into the garden at night to eat earth, was real. The noble Colonel in his workshop between wars, fashioning little gold fishes, was his grandfather. The sons who show up from all over the country on the same day with ashes on their foreheads---that happened. Even the moment of seeing ice for the first time that opens the novel happened to young Gabo, though a little differently. The girl so beautiful and pure that one day she simply ascends into heaven while hanging clothes was only a slight exaggeration. Even Macondo existed, although it was the name of an abandoned banana plantation rather than his town.

It also turns out that another of his novels, Love at the Time of the Cholera, is an almost exact account of the courtship of his parents. It seems that Marquez was a bit more of a magical journalist than many readers might expect.

It was almost disillusioning. But fortunately, when his account turns to his days as a young writer and earlier as a student, the narrative breaks new ground and we are free of comparisons. Of course he is just as much a word magician in memoir as he is in novels and stories.

I am as transported by his accounts of his student days, his love of poetry, his skill at song (I knew he had to be musical; the mystery for me is how his translators, Gregory Rabassa and now Edith Grossman, can transpose his sonorous Spanish into English sonatas, cantatas and symphonies.) And then there are the blazing sentences that come out of almost nowhere, that transcend any possible specific, earthly meaning: " The boarders from the coast, with our well-deserved reputation for rowdiness and ill-breeding, had the good manners to dance like artists to popular music and the good taste to fall in love forever."

He poured out his heart in song but as a poet he was more scholarly, first memorizing and then imitating the poets of the day, become skilled at form and expressing sentiments he hadn't yet experienced. But his elders encouraged him, as did his schoolmates, as besotted with literature as he was. Even as an adolescent student he met some of the poets he read, and they also encouraged him. Sounds magical to me.

In both the childhood and student memoirs, something that is added to the worlds built in the novels is a more specific sense of place within the real geography and history. And the quality of otherworldliness of the novels, even with the violence and death that is nevertheless on an otherworldly scale and told in the rhetoric of wonder, is grounded in recognizable references, as in his young fascination with Flash Gordon serials, or his spontaneous schoolboy oration at the end of World War II in which he praised FDR as being "like El Cid, who knows how to win battles after death."

I am writing this when only halfway through the book, not because I'm abandoning it, but because I intend to savor the rest for as long as possible.

UPDATE: Alas, I've finished it. The second half is fully as absorbing as the first, which is interesting because the narrative interest must carry it completely, as there is little reference to incidents that recur in some form in his fiction. These pages are about his life as a young man, practicing journalism of the time (and place) while learning to be a literary writer. (Marquez has always maintained there is a close connection, not a widely held sentiment here these days.) He continued to be blessed with friends, a necessity in the political chaos of Colombia. His literary talent was recognized early, another near necessity for a young man from a provincial area and a family that slips in and out of near-poverty. There are more wonderful sentences and observations. But Marquez takes nothing for granted, even as an eminence writing his memoirs: he ends this first volume with a cliffhanger.

Hardcover edition by Knopf, 2003. Paperback is Vintage 2004.

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