118 years of Trust Modern Classics THE TRIBUNE
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Sunday, August 16, 1998
modern classics
Bollywood Bhelpuri


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Gabriel Garcia Marquez- II
Dream-like mix of fantasy and realism
By Ashok Chopra

THE Latin American novel is like nothing else. Rejecting European models — literary, parliamentary, psychological — and the linear Anglo-American ones, it has created a genre entirely of its own with its magic realism and fabulations. In the novel, the future (the notion of that which is yet to happen) is set at the back of the speaker. The past which he can see because it has already happened, lies all before him. He looks back into the future unknown; memory moves forward, hope backwards. And the greatest spokesman among the many is the Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who mixes fantasy and realism in a dream-like tapestry, in which the fantastic is treated as matter-of-fact and reality is invention. This method which Garcia Marquez had developed into a fine art allows ordinary events to acquire moral and imaginative density "by a process of accretion, as divisions and subdivisions cluster around the nucleus."

All memory is grist to Garcia Marquez's grill. The pleasure and pain experienced by his characters, the euphoria of happiness, the ache of grief is all of his own. It cannot be otherwise and in that sense all his stories have autobiographical roots, spreading through the provincial world of his childhood in Aracataca, a village in the tropical Caribbean region of Colombia's north coast. Because of the unusual circumstances of his upbringing, Garcia Marquez was to experience solitude from an early age. His mother, the daughter of one of the region's long-established families, had married a humble telegraphist, against her parents' wishes, but to placate them she returned home for the birth of her first child and left the boy behind to be brought up by them.

In his grandparents' large rambling house shared by three aunts, he grew up as a solitary boy among elderly people. Later experiences were to reinforce the deep-rooted sense of gratitude that runs through all his writing. Nonetheless, his childhood was a happy one, in which he enjoyed a close and a deep relationship with his grandparents, particularly his grandfather. He was raised in a story-telling environment in which the elders were constantly reliving the past and recounting anecdotes about the history of the family and the town. His grandmother and aunts were credulous and superstitious, who believed in the supernatural, and recounted all sorts of magical happenings as if they were everyday events, and Garcia Marquez has claimed that it was from his grandmother that he learned the narrative manner. That experience was to end with the death of his grandfather in 1936.

For Garcia Marquez no other period in his life matched the years spent with his grandparents for the richness of experience. And that perhaps explains why his works, be it novels or short stories, are valuable not only because of the exotic austral scenery, but essentially because of the infinite wealth of the characters who sustain them. In each work, he rises as a great Colombian writer — a renewed writer, strong and youthful, with an inexhaustible contagious poetic spirit. And one such classic is The General in his Labyrinth.

This book is about Latin America's most famous and most glamorous historical figure of all time, about his last journey towards his early death the " Autumn of Another Patriarch"?

Whether in love or in war retreat is the most difficult of operations. It is difficult, because you can't decide what to take or leave behind, because memories intercede. The General in his Labyrinth is essentially about the politics of retreat, the dreams and hallucinations that come after the game is all over. The General in his Labyrinth is Simon Bolivar (1783-1830) described as "The Liberator", the dreamer fired by the vision of a unified Latin America which he often described as "a very small mankind of our own." Bolivar was a man of many parts — a military strategist, of course, but also a lover, a libertine, and above all a romantic who in 20 years had driven out the Spaniards from Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia and Equador. He won the war but lost the peace — to be finally driven out of his own country by his own countrymen. Garcia Marquez talks about the last days of Bolivar — an old man at 46, struck by an unknown wasting disease ("he was not only losing weight but also height") and rejected by the elite and the rabble alike. Bolivar leaves the Colombian capital Bogota for a meandering journey by boat down the Magdalena river with the stated intention of making it to Europe.

Of course, he never makes it. First, it's the weather — floods, heat, epidemics — and then the machinations of his enemies, particularly fellow revolutionaries, and then his own failing health and his reluctance to leave the scene of his past glories. Bolivar wanders from city to city along the river and so does his entourage. In some places he is treated with respect and veneration; in others with scorn and ridicule.

Difficult as all withdrawals are, Bolivar made it all the more difficult for himself because he was dogged by memory. Would he be able to recapture the presidency in order to suppress the anarchy and civil war that were threatening to tear the continent apart? Was he willing to compromise with his ideas of a united, autonomous and democratic Latin America? Bolivar keeps waiting like Godot for the right moment to come, to make his comeback. But the right moment never arrives, because in life it never does.

As I mentioned in the beginning, as in most great Latin American novels here too "the future — the nation of that which is yet to happen — is set at the back of the speaker. The past which he can see, because it has already happened, lies before him. He backs into the future unknown; memory moves forward, hope backwards." Bolivar is wracked by his memories — and what memories! And when memories can't take the burden of the past we have dreams and hallucinations and the wildest imagination. In the process the novel itself becomes labyrinthine, twisting and turning the thread of time because time is a circular not linear concept for him. It is the margins of Bolivar's life that Marquez works on, because "it is the loose ends that matter most in this phenomenal world, for they interweave."

First, here is the deeply suppressed image of his young wife, dead after eight months of marriage; there is his devoted, cigar-smoking mistress, who saved him once from assassination; and also the 35 serious affairs "not counting the one-night birds, of course." Maybe the clue to Bolivar's complex personality lay in his numerous affairs with women. He approached each woman as a challenge: "Once satisfied he (would) send them extravagant gifts to protect himself from oblivion, but with an emotion that resembled vanity more than love, he would not commit the least part of his life to them."

Thus, in the enigmatic and historical figure of Bolivar, "a man of the people capable of great compassion and integrity, a man capable of extreme ruthlessness in disposing of friends and enemies alike if political requirements prevail," Garcia Marquez seizes the opportunity to explore a theme that has been central to his work: The solitude of power. With Garcia Marquez all literature is politics — politics in the larger sense of the term — of the contradictions and chance encounters of life.

Bolivar, just before his death, proclaims South America "ungovernable... this nation inevitably falls into the hands of an unruly mob and then will pass inevitably into the hands of almost indistinguishable petty tyrants" (a situation we in India should be able to identify with easily).

Garcia Marquez gives us not the icon, but the man — flesh and blood, complex, contradictory, worthy of both adoration and anger. As Bolivar re-examines his life in the fierce light of death's imminence, history rushes in and the reader is immersed in the momentous decades-long adventure that Bolivar set in motion and that ultimately changed the destiny of the continent, but sadly not in his lifetime.

It is a book resonating with tastes and smells that assault the senses: "baths drawn for the dying General scented with oregano, sage leaves and bitter oranges; colognes with which he completes his meticulous ambitions, pouring a large vial over his entire body, trying to purge his body and spirit of years of 20 fruitless wars and the disillusionments of power; orange blossom scented patios; the flavour of river turtle soups; the irresistible, childhood evoking taste of a gourd of yellow guavas and their legacy of fragrant parts; honey-dipped candies; almond paste confectioneries; cheap perfume announcing the arrival of the General's alleged private army of whores; cheap cigar smoke used by a lover to disguise the cologne of the General as he makes his escape from assassins; the pungency of salted meats and smoked meats hung from ropes on the presidential barge."

Garcia Marquez does not question the basis of historical methodology. Although in his acknowledgments he confess his "own absolute lack of experience and method in historical research", it is implicit in his comments, and in his approach to his task that this represents an effort to give us ‘the real Bolivar’.

Why did Garcia Marquez pick on Bolivar for his theme? In an interview with The New York Times he said: "the ideas of Bolivar are very topical. He imagined Latin America as an autonomous and unified alliance, an alliance he thought could become the largest and the most powerful in the whole world. He had a very nice phrase for it: ‘We are a small mankind of our own.’ He was an extraordinary man, yet he got badly beaten and was ultimately defeated. And he was defeated by the same forces that are at work today — the feudal interests and the traditional local power groups that protect their interests and privileges. They closed the ranks against him and finished him off. But his dreams remain valid — to have a united and autonomous Latin America."

Garcia Marquez bases the novel, as far as possible on known facts. There is also " a succinct chronology and a map of Bolivar’s last journey — the least well documented time of his entire life — between May 8 and December 17, 1830. It is this last journey which is the subject of the novel — seven months in solitude? — with a series of flashbacks to earlier periods in the Great Liberator’s life. The result is a stunning piece of literary creation, and certainly Garcia Marquez’s definitive work.

Latin American reality resembled the wildest imagination, journalism — reportage in particular — has remained for Garcia Marquez an essential part of his writing life. Intermittently, he has written a column for the Spanish paper, El Pais, produced a book of reportage in 1987, Claudestine in Chile. Now we have News of a kidnapping — an exhaustive piece of superb reporting that tells the story of kidnappings of Colombians in 1990 by Pablo Escobar, then the most powerful of drug traffickers, and of the negotiations set in motion to release them.

Nine abductions took place at a tense stage in the confrontation between the drug traffickers and the Colombian government. The outgoing government of President Barco had reacted with some force against drug cartels. During the presidential campaign of 1990, Carlos Golan, the candidate of the Liberal party, had promised to take action against the cartels and in particular to extradite the key players to the USA. Golan was assassinated. His campaign manager, Cesar Gavia won the presidency with extradition as one of his aims. The grounds for kidnapping were well and truly laid. In attempting to make the complex story intelligible, Garcia Marquez sets aside the imagination that mark his great novels. But, he uses all his ingenuity as a story-teller — from the mass of detail, he skilfully builds up a narrative on shifting levels, describing the stalemate and inertia of confinement.

"That Martina (she had been kidnapped three months earlier) became all the more depressed with the arrival of the women was understandable. After almost two months in the antechamber of death, the arrival of the other two hostages must have been intolerable for her in a world she made hers, and hers alone... in less than two weeks, she was suffering once again from the same interminable pain and intense solitude she had managed to overcome."

News of a kidnapping carries Garcia Marquez’s stamp — blunt, fevered conversations, the constant back and forth where memory moves forward, hope backwards. One what this did to Colombia, he writes: "Easy money, a narcotic more harmful than ill-named ‘heroic drugs’ was injected into the national culture. The idea prospered: The law is the greatest obstacle to happiness; it is a waste of time learning to read and write; you can live a better, more secure life as a criminal than as a law-abiding citizen — in short, this was the social breakdown typical of all undeclared wars."

With the concentration of detail and the imperturbable style, you need to remind yourself that this is not fiction but the truth which at times sounds eerie, as though the quality of writing detached it from its reality. This masterpiece, which will be thoroughly enjoyed by the common reader, is a must for every journalist or those wanting to join the profession.

(To be continued)

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