Book Review: Strange Pilgrims (Gabriel García Márquez)

Reading Márquez is like coming home. The connection of this thinking to the title of this story collection was not an intentional one when I first wrote that line; however, it is, I find now, quite apt. Márquez’s skill at immersing the reader in his places, characters’ situations, and in moments in time is, on reflection, worthy of analysis by any writer looking to hone their own craft. Márquez spends time on his words, and that time rewards his efforts.

In his prologue to this collection (originally published in Spanish as Doce Cuentos Peregrinos, 1992; this English translation by Márquez himself, Penguin Books, 1994), the author delivers the history of the stories. He started with sixty four ideas (notes to form a novel): he wrote some of these ideas up, lost energy on others, lost the notes to many more, reconstructed as many as possible, and whittled those down to the final twelve. As a former reporter and foreign correspondent in various cities across Europe (where the stories are set), Márquez, the Colombian, then needed to check that his memories of places tallied with how those places actually were. He found that they didn’t. He re-wrote the stories, stating that ‘I could not detect the dividing line between disillusionment and nostalgia . . . I had found what I needed to complete the book, what only the passing of years could give: a perspective in time.’ The whole process took some eighteen years, from the early seventies to the early nineties. The stories, these strange pilgrims, had come home.

Reading Márquez is like coming home. His characters, Latin Americans in Europe, spring quickly from the page. Márquez tries to deliver as much hook in the first paragraphs of his stories as he can. This reader’s analysis focuses on some minute but telling details: in his characters, Márquez has a penchant for the full name (immediately giving us some sense of a person; some feel for the possibility of a history; some flavour of the Spanish language flow of the tale that could well be melted into the original language, but which also flows, for the most part, well in English). So, we have María de la Luz Cervantes, Miguel Otero Silva, Maria dos Prazeres, Señora Prudencia Linero, Fulvia Flaminea, Nena Daconte, et al.

This is not all. Márquez’s travels have given him an eye for description of place and how that might feel for his characters: descriptions of the portentous wind at Cadaqués near Barcelona; desolation in the side-streets of Paris; the squalid hotel room of an exiled president in Les Grottes, Geneva. It is this ability to sink the reader down into the fabric of the book, the place and person in the print, that Márquez excels at. To this he also adds to the mix something that every writer ought really to aspire to: that is, the succinct ability to pinpoint a description with a minute but significant object detail (something I have been thinking of for quite a while, and something I currently think of as the ‘specific integrities’ of those objects). Márquez offers up not just ordinary words and phrases, but rather the specific details: ‘he cooked his own food in a can over an alcohol lamp’ (Tramontana); ‘he wore a kind of street pajama made of raw cotton’ (I Only Came to Use the Phone); ‘the glacial factories, the vast fields of Roissy devastated by fierce lions’ (Beauty and the Airplane).

What these stories present, for the most part, is believable patterns of lives, though in sometimes slightly fabulous ways. Could a small wound caused by a rose, such as suffered by Nena Daconte in The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow, really bleed so much on the road trip from Madrid to Paris? Could seventeen poisoned Englishmen in the lobby of a hotel in Naples (‘seated in symmetrical order, as if they were only one man repeated many times in a hall of mirrors’), in Seventeen Poisoned Englishmen, all succumb so to the oyster soup at supper? Could a sea wave issue forth with enough force to embed a car into a hotel wall, in I Sell My Dreams (‘the body of a woman found secured behind the steering wheel by a seat belt . . . [the blow having been] so brutal that not a single one of her bones was left whole’)?

It doesn’t matter. This is the beauty and the power of Márquez’s immersive abilities. As we get to the final stages of the collection, Márquez plays more with the fantastical. Toying with the knowledge that Madrid has no river, landlocked, Márquez tells the tale (with a slight detour into authorial explanation), in Light is Like Water, of two boys, bought an aluminium boat by their parents as a reward for school work, who break a bulb and flood the apartment with light. They invite their classmates when their parents are out and a party ensues, though thirty seven classmates end up drowning in the light there. ‘[Light] spilled over balconies, poured in torrents down the façade, and rushed along the great avenue in a golden flood that lit the city all the way to the Guadarrama.’

Though such beautiful arrangements above are evident in this collection, I can’t help wondering if Márquez’s writing is better suited, on balance, to the longer form. Certainly on the odd occasion in this collection, such as in The Ghosts of August, Márquez ends abruptly and seemingly on the cusp of an idea. That we might wake in a room different to the one we went to sleep in is, for this collection at least, not so satisfactory a tale. Márquez seems to enjoy the ‘folding in’ of characters in his stories: that is to say, he delivers a promising opening; he offers us place and character and a rough idea of where those characters are heading in the piece; then he folds in some extra details to give further colour to the whole, before often folding in further still by delivering some back story details to the personal histories of those characters. Sometimes this works and sometimes it’s a distraction. Sometimes the reader is left a little frustrated but then, wait, Márquez knows what he’s doing and this back tale here is needed later, we find. This folding, as I call it, needs space, and that space in the short story is precious.

There are some other minor aspects of this particular translation that cause slight pause for concern, for this reader at least. There is the odd occasion of tortured syntax, the dogged insistence in not splitting the infinitive, and the American English use of such stylistic decisions as capital letters following colons. These quibbles could be a result of translations for the American English version, and/or due to the author’s own writing choices in the original Spanish (the latter I won’t know). That said, in the case of punctuation, even in matters of house style there ought to be some consistency and there are occasions where this does not follow in this collection. Of sentence structure, moments such as ‘we had bathed in a steaming pool of waters so dense you almost could walk on them’ (Miss Forbes’s Summer of Happiness) cause some small irritation.

These moments, however, are more than offset but the abundance of beautiful arrangement, skilled immersion, and the odd flash of wry humour in this collection. Márquez writes, for example, ‘we ate under a mauve sky with a single star’ (The Ghosts of August); ‘We would ride on his Vespa, he driving and I sitting behind, and bring ices and chocolates to the little summer whores who fluttered under the centuries-old laurels in the Villa Borghese’ (The Saint); ‘The functionary who received him in the name of the ambassador looked as if he had just recovered from a fatal disease’ (The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow).

Reading Márquez is like coming home because, once encountered and if immersed, he and his writing are far-flung friends for life.
 
 

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