Friday, June 19, 2009

An Interpretation of Strange Pilgrims by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

A Latin is always a Latin, Nobel Prize-winning writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez implies in his new short story collection, Strange Pilgrims. Even if a Latin is transplanted to a seedy Swiss boardinghouse or a lavish Italian palazzo, he carries his unique cultural baggage with him. The protagonists of the twelve stories that compose Strange Pilgrims are all Latin Americans living abroad, but they are prey to the same demons, natural and supernatural, that haunted them at home. Political tyrants and bungling bureaucrats take their places next to apparitions, wraiths, and specters in this bizarre world, where everything is larger than life and there is no real distinction between the real and the magical.

Garcia Marquez grew up with ghosts, so it's not at all strange that his fiction is permeated by them. Born in 1927, he spent his early childhood in the province of Santa Marta, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, in the home of his highly superstitious maternal grandparents. He recalls that they had an enormous house, full of spirits and ghouls that inspired terror. His grandmother walked around like a crazed woman, talked in code to delude the spooks, and declared the family residence dangerous after a certain hour, but she was a brilliant storyteller whose tales of magic and horror would be an important influence on her grandson's writing.
Her husband, a Liberal who had fought in the last of the bloody civil wars that racked Colombia during the nineteenth century, was Garcia Marquez's hero and served as a model for several of his characters. Having killed a man, he abandoned his village and founded another, a situation reflected in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the author's best-known novel. When his grandfather died, the family moved to Sucre, where Garcia Marquez finished high school in 1946. He began his university studies in Bogota at nineteen and shortly thereafter published his first story in the weekend section of a local newspaper. Other stories followed, several of which would be included in the collection Ojos de perro azul (Eyes with blue dog; 1972), but at the time, the young writer had other concerns.

In 1946, the Liberal Party, which had governed for years, was defeated in the elections when rival Liberal candidates split the vote. By the end of the following year, the rural conflicts between Liberals and Conservatives that came to be known as la violencia had started. The strife had its origin at least partially in the banana battles that took place around the time of Garcia Marquez's birth, when the army, supported by the Conservative government, massacred workers in its efforts to protect foreign fruit-exporting companies, another situation reflected in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The Liberals were rebuilding their party and planning their comeback when their leader, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, was assassinated on April 9, 1949, unleashing a new wave of violence. To escape the lawlessness and brutality, Garcia Marquez's family left the capital and moved to Cartagena, where the young writer continued his studies at the university and began working at El Universal, a recently founded newspaper.

In 1955 he published La hojarasca (Leaf storm), his first novel, from which many of his later short stories and novels derive. That same year El Espectador sent him to Geneva as a correspondent; later, he was posted to Rome, where he was able to take courses at the Centro Sperimentale Cinematografico, an experience that influenced his literary style and provided him with the preparation he would need to write scripts and direct films. At the end of 1955 he left for Paris, where he wrote La mala hora (In evil hour) and El coronel no tiene quien le escriba (No one writes to the colonel). In 1962, after traveling extensively through Europe and working for various newspapers, he published Los funerales de la mama grande (Big mamma's funeral), eight stories that depict a rural society controlled by a legendary matriarch who governs the region with an iron grip until her death.

Magical realism

Although the title character, Mama Grande, is a mythical, larger-than-life figure, these are essentially realistic stories. However, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the novel that catapulted him to international fame, Garcia Marquez emerges as a master of the style that became the hallmark of the "boom generation": magical realism. Based on the notion that there is no inherent division between the natural and the supernatural, magical realism juxtaposes detailed descriptions of mundane events with fantastical occurrences. According to some critics, it was inevitable that magical realism develop in Latin America, where Indian and African belief systems have imbued the culture with a sensitivity to invisible, hyperphysical forces. During the boom--the Latin American literary explosion of the sixties and early seventies--Garcia Marquez and other writers adopted a technique characterized, in part, by the narration of wondrous or outlandish happenings in the same deadpan tone as the most trivial incidents.

The "pilgrims" of the title of Garcia Marquez's new book are not only the characters but the stories themselves. The original Spanish title, Doce cuentos peregrinos, means literally "twelve wandering tales"; the word peregrino refers to a "pilgrim" in the religious or political sense and also a "wanderer." In his prologue, Garcia Marquez explains why there are exactly twelve stories and in what sense they are wanderers. The stories sprang forth over a period of eighteen years, some as journalistic notes, screenplays, television serials, or anecdotes. The first came to him in the 1970s, the result of a dream he had while living in Barcelona. "I dreamed I was attending my own funeral," he writes, "walking with a group of friends dressed in solemn mourning but in a festive mood." Everyone was having a great time, especially the author, since his death provided him with a wonderful opportunity to get together with his oldest and dearest friends. At the end of the service, however, they all got up to leave for home except him. "You're the only one who can't go," someone told him. "Only then," writes Garcia Marquez "did I understand that dying means never being with friends again."

As a result of his dream, he became intensely aware of his identity as a Colombian living abroad and began to gather notes for stories about Latin Americans in Europe. Over the years some were lost, then retrieved, then lost again. The stories, like the people they described, were wanderers. Finally, after a long process of unearthing or re-creating some of the tales and eliminating others, he wound up with twelve.

The most effective of these stories feature the combination of fantasy, reality, and tongue-in-cheek hyperbole that characterizes the best of Garcia Marquez's fiction. They capture beautifully the anguish of the transplanted Latin who, accustomed to the color and sensuality of his native land, seeks a new magic in his unfamiliar surroundings.

Garcia Marquez has a knack for exposing the hilarious side of even the most hair-raising abominations of Latin American life, including, for example, political corruption. In "Bon Voyage, Mr. President," Homero and Lazara, a poor couple from the Caribbean living in Switzerland, befriend an ailing compatriot politician who is in Geneva for medical treatments. Homero, an ambulance driver for the hospital in which the corrupt deposed president is being cured, has arranged with a funeral parlor to hawk its services to mortally ill patients and plans to sell the former politician a complete package, "including embalming and repatriation." However, it soon becomes clear not only that the president will hang on a while but that he is dirt poor.

Homero easily succumbs to the president's charisma and finesse, but his practical, tough-minded wife remains skeptical. Lazara is a Puerto Rican-born Yoruba princess with a fierce belief in the stars and uncanny insight. When, at a dinner the couple gives for him, the politician makes a point of showing his contempt for power, Lazara sees right through his pretense. But Lazara has a good heart, and she knows that the old man's days are numbered. In the end, they wind up nursing the president through his illness, even dipping into their meager savings to provide for his needs. Eventually, when the president's death seems imminent, they arrange for him to make a final trip home. The irony is that instead of dying, the president recovers enough to make a stab at returning to politics, attributing his opportunity for a second chance to his providential stay in Geneva.

Supernatural powers

Psychics, oracles, clairvoyants, and mystics abound in Garcia Marquez's writing. In "I Sell My Dreams," Frau Frieda is a Colombian woman raised in Austria, whose ability to foresee the future through dreams is her most marketable skill. During World War II, she makes a living by dreaming at night about her employer's family and determining the members' daily activities in accordance with her findings. After the war she holds a number of other positions in which her only duty is to dream. The charm of the story resides in the absolute naturalness with which Frieda and everyone else accepts her gift and in Frieda's combination of hard-nosed financial acumen and extrasensory powers.

Sometimes clairvoyants make mistakes. Maria dos Prazeres, protagonist of the story bearing her name, is another one of Garcia Marquez's earthy, energetic, no-nonsense women. A Brazilian mulatto living in Barcelona, Maria is an aging prostitute who is planning for her imminent death, which was revealed to her in a dream. She goes about the business of deciding on her funeral with matter-of-fact efficiency. She has already purchased her burial plot and taught her dog, Noi, who sheds real tears, to locate it in the cemetery and cry over her grave. She has also made arrangements for a neighbor girl to take care of him after she dies and to let him loose on Sundays so that he can visit her tomb. Then, one rainy night, she and Noi hitch a ride home to get out of the weather. Maria trembles in the darkness, certain that the mysterious man who gives them a lift and asks to come up to her apartment is the Grim Reaper himself. Then, to her delight, she realizes that he is not Death at all, but just another customer.

In this volume, as in many of his early stories, Garcia Marquez often focuses on the innate goodness of the poor and the cynicism of the elite. Margarito Duarte, protagonist of "The Saint," is a native of the Colombian Andes who loses his seven-year-old daughter to a fever. Miraculously, the body does not decompose, and when the girl is disinterred, she is completely weightless and the coffin still smells of the roses with which she was buried. Convinced that his daughter is a saint, Margarito hauls the coffin to Rome, where he spends the rest of his life trying to convince the censorious Vatican bureaucracy to consider canonizing the girl. Garcia Marquez draws a sharp contrast between the devout, steadfast Colombian peasant, whose profound faith enables him to accept miracles unquestioningly, and the skeptical, scornful bureaucrats, who are reluctant to give him an audience. In the end, the narrator concludes that the saint is really Margarito, whose perseverance, patience, and undying hope make him a model of Christian virtue.

"The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow" depicts the opposite extreme of the social spectrum. Billy Sanchez, the spoiled son of a rich Colombian, is honeymooning with his bride, Nena Daconte, in Europe, when the girl inexplicably pricks herself with a thorn and bleeds to death. When the wound initially occurs, Billy is too self-absorbed to pay much attention, but he finally realizes that something is seriously wrong and deposits his young wife in a hospital in Paris.
Far from his own world, in which the extraordinary and irrational are commonplace but in which he nevertheless feels perfectly in control, Billy is now thrust into the absurdities of the highly rational. (For example, the Parisians park on the side of the street with even-numbered houses on even-numbered days and on the other side on odd-numbered days; hospital visits are permitted only on Tuesdays.) Billy becomes so confused and disoriented that when Nena dies, he is wandering through Paris in a daze while doctors, ambassadors, authorities, and relatives try to locate him.

Billy's search for a sense of direction is a step toward maturation. But Billy is more than an individual; he is an archetype of the wealthy, upper-class Latin. Billy missed out on the only significant event of his life because he was "out of touch," just as the class he represents is missing out on the changes in society because it is out of touch with the common people and with those things that really matter.

Not all of these tales have such obvious political or sociological overtones. Many capture the magic of everyday existence--the enchantment of summer, the mystery of a suggestive glance, the beauty of a sleeping woman. In "Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane," a Latin traveler is captivated by an exquisite, undefinable young woman who "could just as well have been Indonesian as Andean." The flight is delayed because of a snowstorm, and after spending hours contemplating Beauty in the lounge, the Latin American is thrilled to learn, when the passengers finally board, that he has been seated right next to her. However, the minute she settles in, the young woman takes two golden pills and falls into a deep sleep from which she does not awaken until the plane lands. Finding his designs thwarted, the traveler resigns himself to watching over her, pondering her enigmatic loveliness.
From bizarre to grotesque

The bizarre turns grotesque in "I Only Came to Use the Phone," the hair-raising story of a young Mexican woman named Maria de la Luz Cervantes whose car breaks down in the desert on the road to Barcelona. After hitching a ride in a ramshackle bus full of women, she makes her way to a gloomy building where she asks to use the phone to call for help. The building turns out to be a hospital for female mental patients, and once inside, Maria is herded along with the other women by an Amazonian guard who silences her protests with a mighty blow. The realism with which Garcia Marquez describes the prison, the guards, the doctors, and the young Mexican woman herself intensify the nightmarish quality of this story, making Maria's never-ending ordeal seem completely plausible.

Garcia Marquez's penchant for the grotesque is superbly evident in "Seventeen Poisoned Englishmen." Prudencia Linero arrives in Naples on a ship filled with Italian-born Argentines returning to their native land for a visit. On her way to Rome to see the pope, Mrs. Linero is met with a horrifying sight as she reaches Italian soil: An elegantly dressed corpse is floating face up in the water, a sight commented on with chilling indifference by one of the ship's officers.
Much of the humor of the story derives from Garcia Marquez's wicked juxtaposition of extremes--for example, the contentment on the cadaver's face and the grandeur of his attire (his brocade vest, patent leather shoes, fresh gardenia, and the gift package he clutches) with the fact that he is dead, floating cold and abandoned in the ocean; the jubilance of relatives awaiting the arrival of their loved ones with the stench of rotting crabs; the extreme religious devotion of Mrs. Linero with the total cynicism of the ship's officers.

Although Mrs. Linero's eldest son had made arrangements for her to be met by the consul, she is abandoned at the port because, as one of the seamen informs her, "Even God goes on vacation in August." She makes her way to a small hotel, which she finds enchanting until the elevator stops at a floor where seventeen English tourists are dozing in easy chairs, "seated in symmetrical order, as if they were only one man repeated many times in a hall of mirrors:" Mrs. Linero is mortified at the "row of pink knees that [look] like slabs of pork hanging from hooks in a butcher shop" and demands to be taken to another floor.

As she waits for the chance to leave for Rome, omens accumulate and the carnivalesque atmosphere outside her window grows more intense. Finally, she is mortified once again by the sight of the seventeen Englishmen--only this time they are dead, poisoned by the oyster soup served to them at supper.

In "Tramontana," Garcia Marquez builds a sense of impending tragedy by announcing repeatedly the arrival of the tramontana, "a harsh, tenacious wind" that blows in the vicinity of Barcelona and "carries in it the seeds of madness." The story's characters define themselves by their attitudes toward the tramontana. The rowdy, vulgar, icily rational Swedish tourists mock the locals' terror of the wind, while the young Caribbean who once made his living singing Antillean songs in a fashionable bar is paralyzed with fear. Having survived the tramontana once before, the young man is convinced that the next time he is caught in it, he will die.

As a Caribbean who has witnessed raging hurricanes, he knows the power of nature and other forces beyond human control, but the cerebral Swedes are determined to cure "him by force of his African superstitions" by taking him back to Cadaques, where the windstorm is about to hit. As often occurs in Garcia Marquez's fiction, belief is more potent than reason. The tramontana achieves its deadly end, although in an unexpected way.

Popular belief has it that children are especially receptive to magic, and so it is not surprising that several of Garcia Marquez's stories revolve around youngsters. In "Light Is like Water" two Colombian boys living in Madrid beg for a rowboat so that they can row and skin-dive just as they did in their native Cartagena. As there are no navigable waters in the vicinity, the parents at first resist, but in the end, they buy the boat, complete with sextant and compass. The parents assume that the children will keep the gift for their return home, but the boys soon discover that by filling the apartment with electric light, they can actually float because "light is like water."

In "Miss Forbes's Summer of Happiness," two Colombian children spend an enchanted summer in Sicily, where the folktales and superstitions of the locals ignite their imaginations and fill their heads with mischief. Their freedom comes to an end, however, when an austere German nanny named Miss Forbes arrives to supervise their activities. Obsessive and militaristic, Miss Forbes endeavors to turn every experience into a lesson. But behind the harsh exterior, she hides a passionate nature that the boys never suspect. Finally, they discover that all the while she has been carrying on a torrid love affair.

Parents, kids, and ghosts

Whereas Garcia Marquez's adult protagonists sometimes strive to be rational, the children are usually joyfully intuitive and open-minded. In "The Ghosts of August," a Latin American couple and their children visit a Renaissance castle in Tuscany owned by the Venezuelan writer Miguel Otero Silva. The husband and wife pooh-pooh the idea that the place is haunted, but their two young sons thrill to the idea of meeting some authentic ghosts.

According to local legend, Ludovico, a great patron of the arts and a former resident of the castle, stabbed his lover to death in one of the bedrooms, then turned his dogs on himself and was torn to bits. After midnight, Ludovico's ghost supposedly roams the corridors trying to find peace. When the foreign couple visits the bedroom where Ludovico was reputed to have committed his crime of passion, the husband is impressed by the scent of fresh strawberries that seems to hang in the air.

After a sumptuous lunch and dinner, the children suggest wickedly that they spend the night in the castle. Despite their fears, the adults sleep well. "What foolishness," concludes the father upon awaking, "to still believe in ghosts in this day and age." But then he is shaken by the scent of strawberries and the realization that they are not in the first-floor bedroom, to which they had retired the night before, but in Ludovico's room, where the sheets are still soaked with his ladylove's blood.

Although some of these stories would certainly suffer in comparison with Garcia Marquez's earlier fiction, in which the biting irony, political perspicaciousness, and descriptive power combine to re-create a world that is convincingly both magical and real, Strange Pilgrims demonstrates that the Nobel Prize winner is still a consummate storyteller whose sensitivity toward the undefinable and mysterious in the humdrum extends beyond the limits of his own hemisphere.