Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Short Form
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
Published: October 15, 1993
Strange Pilgrims Twelve Stories
By Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Translated by Edith Grossman
Alfred A. Knopf, 188 pages. $21.
There are moments in these 12 stories that are instantly, incontestably recognizable as the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In "Maria dos Prazeres," an aging prostitute picks out her own cemetery plot and teaches her little dog to cry at her grave. In "I Sell My Dreams," a Colombian woman finds permanent employment as the interpreter of dreams for a wealthy family. In "Light Is Like Water," an entire fourth-grade class drowns in an apartment flooded with light.
Such bizarre, hallucinatory scenes in "Strange Pilgrims" will remind the reader of the plague of insomnia and the rain of yellow blossoms in "One Hundred Years of Solitude," the 1970 masterpiece that first made Americans aware of the astonishing magic acts Mr. Garcia Marquez could perform. The fact remains, however, that that novel -- like such later ones as "The Autumn of the Patriarch" (1976), "Love in the Time of Cholera" (1988) and "The General in His Labyrinth" (1990) -- grounded its more spectacular acts of sleight of hand in a Faulknerian sense of the past. In these commodious novels, Mr. Garcia Marquez mapped out the spiritual geography of a fictional Latin America, creating history out of the tangled, overlapping stories of his characters' lives, and conjuring myths out of their troubled dreams.
As "Strange Pilgrims" unfortunately demonstrates, the shorter form of the story does not lend itself to such huge, looping narratives. What's more, the tales in this volume are all set in Europe -- they more or less concern Latin Americans traveling or living abroad -- and most of them lack the fierce, visionary senses of time and place that distinguish Mr. Garcia Marquez's strongest fiction. Indeed, these stories tend to feel like disembodied fairy tales: flimsy, oddly generic tales that for all their charm fail to impress themselves upon the reader's imagination.
In a prologue to the book, Mr. Garcia Marquez points out that the stories were written intermittently over a period of 18 years: some began as journalistic notes, some as screenplays, and one as a television serial. They were written and rewritten in starts and stops: some were lost or temporarily abandoned before being reconstructed; all were revised after the author revisited several European cities last year.
This peripatetic history perhaps explains why these stories are so uneven. "Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane" -- which concerns a traveler's crush on the beautiful woman he's sitting next to on a plane -- is a silly sketch that belongs in a notebook, not a published book. And "The Ghosts of August," which concerns a family's encounter with a haunted house, reads like a mediocre parody of Edgar Allan Poe. As for "I Only Came to Use the Phone" and "The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow," both are highly contrived O. Henry-like stories that pivot around the same device: a woman's mysterious disappearance into the bureaucratic clutches of an institution -- in the first case, an asylum; in the second, a hospital.
The more persuasive stories in "Strange Pilgrims" unfold delicately, like complicated origami constructions, to delineate a character's entire life. Each of these tales is written from the vantage point of old age, and each of them possesses a tone of melancholy wisdom reminiscent of "Love in the Time of Cholera."
"Bon Voyage, Mr. President" movingly depicts the shabby exile of a former Latin American ruler in Switzerland, and his incongruous friendship with an ambulance driver who had hoped to exploit his nonexistent riches. "The Saint" recounts the story of a persistent pilgrim from Colombia, who has come to Rome with the eerily preserved body of his late daughter, hoping to persuade the Pope to make her a saint. And "Maria dos Prazeres" relates the story of a whore who has spent decades trying to transform herself into a respectable Barcelona lady.
These tales knit together Mr. Garcia Marquez's natural storytelling talents with his highly tuned radar for images that bridge the world of reality and the world of dreams. Gracefully written as these stories are, they lack the emotional depth of field found in Mr. Garcia Marquez's novels. They leave the reader beguiled, but hungry for something more.