Review Of Gabriel
Garcia Marquez’s Collected Stories
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/12/06
I have never thought that Gabriel Garcia Marquez deserved his 1982 Nobel Prize for literature. I think that it was manifestly an award given because of the politicized nature of the author’s work. The three novels of his that I’ve read- Love In A Time Of Cholera, The General In His Labyrinth, and One Hundred Years Of Solitude- are examples of occasionally poetic phrases and images trying to tidy up nonexistent narratives, cardboard caricatures, and a puerile imagination and understanding of the world. In short, they are vapid interminable wordstreams with little deeper meaning. While no great fan of the also overrated Jorge Luis Borges there is little doubt that Borges was the more original and creative of the two writers. In short, without Borges there would have been no Marquez, and like all copies of things, the copies are always less clear and crisp than the originals. I say this merely to admit that I had a bias going into the reading of Marquez’s Collected Stories, translated by Gregory Rabassa and J. S. Bernstein, and I’m afraid that my bias was accurate, and eerily prescient.
This is not to say that Marquez is a bad writer, merely that he is vastly overrated, and nowhere near a great writer. There are fleet moments of wonderful description and poetic phrasing, but these are the exceptions. Marquez tends to gizz at the mouth, and his descriptions become curlicues of superfluity. His politics tend to override his narrative and character development, he used heavy-handed and very obvious symbolism, and despite the cliché that anything with a good start and end cannot not be good, Marquez disproves that canard over and again, as many of his tales start and end well, but they have no core, no substantive middle. This book consists of twenty-six stories, culled from his three prior collections: Eyes of a Blue Dog, Big Mama’s Funeral, and The Incredible And Sad Tale Of Innocent Eréndira And Her Heartless Grandmother.
The most famous of the tales, A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings, is a good example of this. Basically, it is an allegory on religion, as an old angel- or not? (the tale plays on the assumptions of the villagers and reader) is somehow discovered having fallen from the sky after a violent storm, and is held captive in a village until, after many months, he somehow makes his escape as the bored villagers lose interest in him. It starts off interestingly:
On the third day of rain they had killed so many crabs inside the house that Pelayo had to cross his drenched courtyard and throw them into the sea, because the newborn child had a temperature all night and they thought it was due to the stench. The world had been sad since Tuesday. Sea and sky were a single ash-gray thing and the sands of the beach, which on March nights glimmered like powdered light, had become a stew of mud and rotten shellfish. The light was so weak at noon that when Pelayo was coming back to the house after throwing away the crabs, it was hard for him to see what it was that was moving and groaning in the rear of the courtyard. He had to go very close to see that it was an old man, a very old man, lying face down in the mud, who, in spite of his tremendous efforts, couldn’t get up, impeded by his enormous wings.
But, the whole bulk of the moralizing middle kills the tale, so much that even a wonderfully poetic ending cannot redeem it, as the angel endures the injustices of mortal life, mostly capitalistic exploitation by his captors, who charge admission for others to glimpse the angel. Yet, it endures:
And yet he not only survived his worst winter, but seemed improved with the first sunny days. He remained motionless for several days in the farthest corner of the courtyard, where no one would see him, and at the beginning of December some large, stiff feathers began to grow on his wings, the feathers of a scarecrow, which looked more like another misfortune of decrepitude. But he must have known the reason for those changes, for he was quite careful that no one should notice them, that no one should hear the sea chanteys that he sometimes sang under the stars. One morning Elisenda was cutting some bunches of onions for lunch when a wind that seemed to come from the high seas blew into the kitchen. Then she went to the window and caught the angel in his first attempts at flight. They were so clumsy that his fingernails opened a furrow in the vegetable patch and he was on the point of knocking the shed down with the ungainly flapping that slipped on the light and couldn’t get a grip on the air. But he did manage to gain altitude. Elisenda let out a sigh of relief, for herself and for him, when she watched him pass over the last houses, holding himself up in some way with the risky flapping of a senile vulture. She kept watching him even when she was through cutting the onions and she kept on watching until it was no longer possible for her to see him, because then he was no longer an annoyance in her life but an imaginary dot on the horizon of the sea.
Yet, even worse than when Marquez is dealing with religion is when he, as so many Latin American writers have before and after him, tries to deal with politics. In One Of These Days, whose very title suggests a reckoning to come due, a progressive dentist finds he has no choice but to attend to the whims of a corrupt Mayor, whose very essence is the epitome of all that is wrong with politicians worldwide. Look at how caricatured a presence the Mayor is, in contrast to the dentist. Such at-odds characterization rarely works:
"Good morning," said the Mayor.
"Morning," said the dentist.
While the instruments were boiling, the Mayor leaned his skull on the headrest of the chair and felt better. His breath was icy. It was a poor office: an old wooden chair, the pedal drill, a glass case with ceramic bottles. Opposite the chair was a window with a shoulder-high cloth curtain. When he felt the dentist approach, the Mayor braced his heels and opened his mouth.
Aurelio Escovar turned his head toward the light. After inspecting the infected tooth, he closed the Mayor's jaw with a cautious pressure of his fingers.
"It has to be without anesthesia," he said.
"Because you have an abscess."
The Mayor looked him in the eye. "All right," he said, and tried to smile. The dentist did not return the smile. He brought the basin of sterilized instruments to the worktable and took them out of the water with a pair of cold tweezers, still without hurrying. Then he pushed the spittoon with the tip of his shoe, and went to wash his hands in the washbasin. He did all this without looking at the Mayor. But the Mayor didn't take his eyes off him.
It was a lower wisdom tooth. The dentist spread his feet and grasped the tooth with the hot forceps. The Mayor seized the arms of the chair, braced his feet with all his strength, and felt an icy void in his kidneys, but didn't make a sound. The dentist moved only his wrist. Without rancor, rather with a bitter tenderness, he said:
"Now you'll pay for our twenty dead men."
And, the piece goes steadily downhill from there, until it ends with such a heavy-handed thud that it amazes one to read it and think that Marquez could ever believe that anyone reading it could think there was any depth to it:
While the dentist washed his hands, he saw the crumbling ceiling and a dusty spider web with spider's eggs and dead insects. The dentist returned, drying his hands. "Go to bed," he said, "and gargle with salt water." The Mayor stood up, said goodbye with a casual military salute, and walked toward the door, stretching his legs, without buttoning up his tunic.
"Send the bill," he said.
"To you or the town?"
The Mayor didn't look at him. He closed the door and said through the screen:
"It's the same damn thing."
Now, I want to really make sure you get what Marquez meant. You see, the
Mayor was stating that there was no difference between himself and the state-
it’s all about that total power corrupting totally thing. Just wanted to make
sure you were paying attention. Boy, it’s fun to condescend, isn’t it?
Let me now give an overview of some of the other tales in the book, and see how fantastical elements that start the tales almost always descend into lowest common denominator political screeds. In Death Constant Before Love a politician with a terminal disease falls in love with a girl given to him as a political favor. Politicians- bad. The Third Resignation- the earliest tale in the book, and a bad one, is about a seven year old boy who falls into a coma and grows to adulthood in a coffin in his psychotic mother’s house. The allegory of an oppressive regime and colonial powers is made manifest within. The Other Side Of Death has nothing but refried Edgar Allan Poe nightmare imagery in it. There Are No Thieves In This Town follows a fool who steals three billiard balls from a pool hall and loses his family over it. Moral- if you’re going to be corrupt, have power behind you, as in One Of These Days. Dialogue With The Mirror has a nice idea that sets it up; as do many Marquez tales- someone’s introspection as they are shaving, but he does absolutely nothing with it. In Eyes Of A Blue Dog the whole tale is a dream which laments a failing relationship between two people who know each other in dream, briefly, but not the real world. Another good setup, but the piece descends into clichés:
Now, next to the lamp, she was looking at me. I remembered that she had also looked at me in that way in the past, from that remote dream where I made the chair spin on its back legs and remained facing a strange woman with ashen eyes. It was in that dream that I asked her for the first time: 'Who are you?' And she said to me: 'I don't remember.' I said to her: 'But I think we've seen each other before.' And she said, indifferently: 'I think I dreamed about you once, about this same room.' And I told her: 'That's it. I'm beginning to remember now.' And she said: 'How strange. It's certain that we've met in other dreams.'
In The Sea of Lost Time
an isolated island where time has little sway is enthralled by the rose
fragrance of the sea. The smell helps trigger changes on the island and is a
none too subtle allegory on colonial misdeeds. Similarly, The Monologue Of
Isabel Watching It Rain In Macondo is about a town destroyed by incessant
rain- which, as the rose scent in The Sea of Lost Time, has no rationale
explanation, and the tale founders for its ham-handed correlation of Latin
American woes with acts of nature, or God. In The Handsomest Drowned
Man In The World children playing by the sea see a corpse approaching them.
The kids pull him into town and all the women swoon. They clean him up and name
him Esteban. The men are jealous about their women’s infatuation with a
cadaver and their myths over what he was like when alive. Then, after a proper
funeral, he is tossed back to the sea. And in Eva
Is Inside Her Cat the lead
character is a spirit who can take over any living thing. Eva is clearly a
psychologically unbalanced being and the story is basically an allegory over the
consequences of oppression to the psyche, or spirit of the oppressed. Had the
tale merely stuck to the psychology of an individual it could have been great,
but Marquez trashes any hope for a complex portrait for a simplistic political
screed. The promise of a great psychological study is revealed in this engaging
opening to the story:
All of a sudden she noticed that her beauty had fallen all apart on her, that it had begun to pain her physically like a tumor or a cancer. She still remembered the weight of the privilege she had borne over her body during adolescence, which she had dropped now--who knows where?--with the weariness of resignation, with the final gesture of a declining creature. It was impossible to bear that burden any longer. She had to drop that useless attribute of her personality somewhere; as she turned a corner, somewhere in the outskirts. Or leave it behind on the coatrack of a second-rate restaurant like some old useless coat. She was tired of being the center of attention, of being under siege from men's long looks. At night, when insomnia stuck its pins into her eyes, she would have liked to be an ordinary woman, without any special attraction. Everything was hostile to her within the four walls of her room.
But it quickly goes downhill from there. Yet, the most noticeable thing that one finds while reading the book is that, while the tales are presented in chronological order there is virtually no growth in the subtlety nor diminishment in the way Marquez feels he needs to hammer home his points. They read, sometimes, as if they are fables or fairy tales, yet the danger in that approach is that real character development is sacrificed. The way to counterbalance that is to be far more subtle with whatever the moral is the fable is trying to expound. Marquez first oversimplifies his characters and situations, and then has to advertise what the tale is about before it ends. This is the fatal flaw with Magical Realism on a whole- its magic is little more than gimmickry that does not flow naturally out of events, and its realism is not so real. Instead of portraying rich, vivid, flawed characters, too often Marquez, and other occupants of that niche think that a few odd set ups and a flurry of quasi-poetic musings is enough to sweep readers off into Neverland.
Marquez never quite gets his fiction into focus- there is something that remains forever blurry in the frame, and that is usually a deeper engagement with his readership. Even in the last story in the book, The Incredible And Sad Tale Of Innocent Eréndira, there is no real attempt to put up a tale of substance, and like most Latin American writers, concision and pointedness are not seen as virtues, as that tale rambles on for forty-nine pages. The story dream-like follows fourteen year old Eréndira, who is haunted by winds of misfortune. Oh, did I mention Marquez and his ilk tend to be a tad melodramatic, too? In response to this breeze she torches her grandmother’s posh villa. Instead of bitterness, her grandmother tells Eréndira it would take a lifetime to back the debt you owe me. Thus, Eréndira turns to prostitution, with her grandmother as her madam. Why? To propel the story. This is a classic sign that the tale is not doing well; when the only way to move the plot forward is by its characters doing the dumbest things possible. Then, she meets Ulises, and hope dawns. Really, this is how the tale goes. I won’t spoil the rest. Needless to say, the relationship between Eréndira and her grandmother is obviously an allegory for the corrupt and manipulative systems that dominate Latin American politics.
For all of the praise that has been tossed Marquez’s way I don’t think anyone has ever commented on these two most important facts: a) he is a boring and repetitive writer with very little range, and b) the Magical Realism that has been said to have blossomed with him is nothing new. Similar claims have been made about Postmodern techniques, yet just as PoMo had antecedents going back to Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, and arguably to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, likewise Magical Realism is nothing new- only the term is. The entrance of the magical into the real has been done for centuries, and much better and more subtly than Marquez does it. Think of Nikolai Gogol’s satires, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s fables, or even Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Even the best of science fiction and fantasy qualifies as Magical Realism- what else is Flowers For Algernon, or Dracula?
I think that Gabriel Garcia Marquez could have become a good, possibly great writer, and one whose fantastical writers challenged readers, but he, as so many of the other Latin American writes, got too swept up in the delusion that their writings could change the world by political means. This is often the folly of many artists, not content to merely influence individuals. It is sad, but perhaps the greatest fantasy he wove, and that he never grew out of it, was that one; from his really horrid early tales through his later merely repetitive and mediocre ones. Only the easily gulled will rhapsodize over this dull and predictable writing. But, just watch the glazed eyes shine.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Yet Another Book Review website.]
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