Gabriel García Márquez
Odd Men Out
By William Boyd;
Published: November 7, 1993
STRANGE PILGRIMS Twelve Stories. By Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Translated by Edith Grossman. 188 pp. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $21.
"THE thought of suicide," Friedrich Nietzsche observed with baleful cynicism, "is a great source of comfort: with it a calm passage is to be made across many a bad night." This bleak view of the human condition, its basic awfulness, is a quality that almost all great artists, certainly all great writers, recognize and reproduce in their work. It is not always present in sinister Nietzschean misanthropy, of course; often it is a very muted note, a thin melancholy tone somewhere in the background, a hint of minor key. The work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez belongs in this last category, and from time to time in "Strange Pilgrims," his latest collection of stories, we grow aware of it, and find it all the more potent for its obliquity:
In one story we find: " 'There are short loves and there are long ones,' she told him. And she concluded with a merciless, 'This was a short one.' " In another: "Despite her age and the metal curlers she was still a slender, spirited mulatta, with wiry hair and pitiless yellow eyes, who had lost her compassion for men a long time ago." "She" is Maria dos Prazeres, a 76-year-old whore, alone and preoccupied with arranging the logistics of her death and burial. She trains her dog to find her future grave in the cemetery and cry dog tears at its foot. Indeed, death and age figure largely in these 12 stories. Silly accidents occur -- a rose thorn pricks a finger and a young girl bleeds to death -- and so do murders and suicides. But as always with Mr. Garcia Marquez, and perhaps this is his special gift, the marvel is his tone of voice; the overall mood is not somber or misanthropic, but celebratory and full of strange relish at life's oddness, its poetic incongruities.
Consider another set of whores: "They were beautiful, poor and affectionate, like most Italian women in those days, and they dressed in blue organdy, pink poplin, green linen, and protected themselves from the sun with parasols damaged by storms of bullets during the recent war. It was a human pleasure to be with them, because they ignored the rules of their trade and allowed themselves the luxury of losing a good client in order to have coffee and conversation with us in the bar on the corner."
Several Marquesian tropes congregate here: the elegiac tone, the celebration of a simple human exchange and the precise, odd weight of the adjective "human" in "It was a human pleasure to be with them." The refulgent colors too -- blue, pink and green -- make something essentially drab exotic, and perhaps they dazzle us so that we forget to ask exactly how those parasols could become so incongruously bullet-riddled.
That sort of surreal touch is rare in this collection. The one story that is a throwback to full-blown magic realism, "Light Is Like Water," is the only real dud, in my opinion. By breaking a light bulb two boys discover they can liquefy light and turn their parents' Madrid apartment into an aquatic playground. However charming, however "poetic" this seems, you have to go all the way with notions like this or they leave you cold, and in this case the suspension of disbelief is just a little too hard to maintain.
Late Garcia Marquez -- if we may so define the work from "Love in the Time of Cholera" onward -- has tended to eschew this flamboyance and overt fantasy for something altogether more realistic and authentic, and the stories in "Strange Pilgrims" are no exception. Their inspiration comes from Mr. Garcia Marquez's own life as a young man, and as an exile in Europe. All the stories are tales of transplanted South Americans or people from the Caribbean. This dislocation brings with it a particular haunting atmosphere -- of impermanence and strangeness, of nostalgia and regret -- that imbues even the slightest tales. They are set in Geneva and Rome, Paris, Barcelona, Naples and Vienna, cosmopolitan cities filled with transients and tourists, where the characters inhabit cheap hotels or miserable lodgings, and gather with fellow nationals in corner bistros and bars to bicker and chat.
In "Bon Voyage, Mr. President," a deposed head of state pawns his wife's jewelry to pay for a life-saving operation. In "Tramontana," the narrator testifies to the suicidally deranging effect of the dry inland wind that blows off the mountains. In "The Saint," an old man lugs around Rome a coffin containing the miraculously undecomposed body of his daughter for a quarter of a century, desperately seeking an audience with successive popes in an attempt to have her sanctified. The settings are sparely documented (a street name, a monument), but the ambience is wholly authentic, as anyone who has wandered aimlessly around these European cities can testify.
Mr. Garcia Marquez's language also is similarly restrained, and the translation by Edith Grossman seems to me to be excellent. It reads limpidly and fluently: the author's style, as rendered here in English, appears admirably clear and straightforward. The sentences are short and no-nonsense and free of stylistic curlicues and flourishes: "Inside the lights burned in the middle of the day, and the string quartet was playing a piece by Mozart full of foreboding. At the counter the President picked up a newspaper from the pile reserved for customers, hung his hat and cane on the rack, put on his gold-rimmed glasses to read at the most isolated table, and only then became aware that autumn had arrived." There is nothing here that draws attention to itself, nothing remotely strained after; yet its simple efficacy is full of unchallengeable confidence.
The individual stories draw their strength not from any overwrought concentration of language but from Mr. Garcia Marquez's narrative power and his generous feel for character, good and bad, boorish and innocent. In his introduction to the collection he explains its somewhat tortured and drawn-out genesis. Some of the stories were written almost two decades ago; some of them started their lives as movie scripts; but all were rewritten in the months before publication. During which, he goes on to testify, "the writing became so fluid that I sometimes felt as if I were writing for the sheer pleasure of telling a story, which may be the human condition that most resembles levitation."
It is a welcome, not to say blessed, relief to hear a major writer celebrate the "sheer pleasure of telling a story," and a further delight to record that he is largely successful. True, some of the stories in this collection are a little on the light side ("Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane" and "The Ghosts of August" join the aforementioned "Light Is Like Water"), but by and large Mr. Garcia Marquez's sheer ability to hold and enthrall, along with the unifying theme of exile and the pervasive moody atmosphere of "abroad" that characterize "Strange Pilgrims," make it a fascinating and memorable addition to the canon. I Dreamed I Was Attending My Own Funeral
The 12 stories in this book were written over the last 18 years. . . .
The first story idea came to me in the early 1970's, the result of an illuminating dream I had after living in Barcelona for five years. I dreamed I was attending my own funeral, walking with a group of friends dressed in solemn mourning but in a festive mood. We all seemed happy to be together. And I more than anyone else, because of the wonderful opportunity that death afforded me to be with my friends from Latin America. . . . At the end of the service, when they began to disperse, I attempted to leave too, but one of them made me see with decisive finality that as far as I was concerned, the party was over. "You're the only one who can't go," he said. . . .
For some two years I made notes on story subjects. . . . Since I did not have a notebook in the house on the night I resolved to begin, my children lent me one of their composition books. . . . I accumulated 64 ideas with so many detailed notes that all I needed to do was write them. . . . I remember having the composition book on my desk in Mexico, shipwrecked in a squall of papers. . . . One day, when I was looking for something else, I realized I hadn't seen it for some time. . . . Every corner of the house was searched. . . . Not a trace. . . .
My own reaction surprised me: The subjects I had forgotten about for almost four years became a question of honor. . . . I managed to reconstruct the notes for 30 stories. Since the very effort of remembering acted as a purge, I eliminated without pity the ones that seemed beyond salvation and was left with 18. . . . In a little over a year, 6 of the 18 subjects had left for the wastebasket, among them the one about my funeral, for I never could make it the wild revel it had been in my dream. From "Strange Pilgrims."