Too Much Marquez?

I think I may have finally burned out on the writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

I know, crazy, isn’t it? That I, of all people, the nerd of the surreal, could possibly have read too much of him who is the Bob Dylan of magic realists, the eternal classic, the tentpole of his genre? Stranger still that it would be Love in the Time of Cholera—what I perceive to be one of his best-loved works—that did it.

I got my wife a copy of Cholera for Christmas, knowing that since it was undoubtedly a lush and evocative romance, and that a movie version had recently come out starring the oh-so-hot-right-now Javier Bardem, she would have to read it. And then I could read it, and we would have a fiction book to talk about—a rare pleasure. Sadly, now I am wishing it could have been One Hundred Years of Solitude or even something by another magic realist author with whom I am less intimately familiar. Isabel Allende maybe. Love in the Time of Cholera keeps reminding me of House of the Spirits, her first novel and the only one I’ve read, the publication of which predates Cholera by three years. Not that I think Marquez is cribbing—it also evokes much of his own stuff. He does star-crossed love in Solitude as well as Of Love and Other Demons, both of which I loved. So I’m not quite sure what the deal is, whether I have just read too much of Marquez, seen all the tricks he has to show me, or whether I am finding Cholera to be objectively sub-par.

Part of the trouble may be that Cholera is set in a period more demonstrably modern than his usual conflations of the mythic with the real, that for vehicles of magicality he relies on the technological wonders of the car and the telegraph. But I have seen technology wielded to astonishing magical effect many times before: the fatal Trueba family car in House of the Spirits, the monumental block of ice that opens One Hundred Years of Solitude, the cursed Coca-Cola bottle in The Gods Must Be Crazy, the vampiric television set in Lucius Shepard’s “The Jaguar Hunter”.

Maybe it has more to do with the fact that there just isn’t that much of the magical in this story at all? Intentionally or not, with Cholera, Marquez has turned out his closest thing to a mainstream, mimetic novel I’ve encountered, and I’m disappointed. But no, that can’t be right either: I loved The General in His Labyrinth, and its only fantastic element is the general’s stubborn unwillingness to die in spite of the fact that the whole of the world has arrayed itself for his funeral. The collection Strange Pilgrims, Marquez’s nod to European surrealism—I don’t think there’s a single story in there that includes an explicitly magical element, yet many of those stories reassert their influence on my unconscious on a regular basis.

So I don’t know. It seems to me, certainly, as if there’s something lacking in the prose, an absent transcendence I expect to rediscover on every page, which could easily be a result of my having learned all his tricks to the degree that they no longer work on me. Maybe it’s that the translator, Edith Grossman, just can’t muster the fluidity of language I’ve come to expect from Gregory Rabassa, with whose translations I am more familiar. Or maybe it really is just that Marquez is phoning it in.

Here’s part of an uncharacteristically decadent passage (for this novel anyway) that raised my hackles in an oddly unsettling way:

Fermina Daza shared with her schoolmates the singular idea that the Arcade of the Scribes was a place of perdition that was forbidden, of course, to decent young ladies. It was an arcaded gallery across from a little plaza where carriages and freight cars drawn by donkeys were for hire, where popular commerce became noisier and more dense. The name dated from colonial times, when the taciturn scribes in their vests and false cuffs first began to sit there, waiting for a poor man’s fee to write all kinds of documents: memoranda of complaints or petition, legal testimony, cards of congratulation or condolence, love letters appropriate to any stage in an affair. They, of course, were not the ones who had given that thundering market its bad reputation, but more recent peddlers who made illegal sales of all kinds of questionable merchandise smuggled in on European ships, from obscene postcards and aphrodisiac ointments to the famous Catalonian condoms with iguana crests that fluttered when circumstances required or with flowers at the tip that would open their petals at the will of the user. Fermina Daza, somewhat unskilled in the customs of the street, went through the Arcade without knowing where she was going as she searched for a shady refuge from the fierce eleven o’clock sun.

There’s the bizarre-yet-endearing image of those exotic and borderline-magical condoms, the intriguing notion of an antique time when skill with the pen was both rarer and more abased than in the era of Marquez himself, but also that weird repetition of the both-times-unnecessary “of course”—and the element which is perhaps most shocking to me, the fact that the things we’re shown and the character through whom we experience them move on entirely separate tracks, each seeming to bear no influence on the other. Compare this (perhaps unfairly, but what the hell) with an early passage from One Hundred Years of Solitude:

“It’s all right,” Jose Arcadio Buendia would say. “The main thing is not to lose our bearings.” Always following his compass, he kept on guiding his men toward the invisible north so that they would be able to get out of that enchanted region. It was a thick night, starless, but the darkness was becoming impregnated with a fresh and clear air. Exhausted by the long crossing, they hung up their hammocks and slept deeply for the first time in two weeks. When they woke up, with the sun already high in the sky, they were speechless with fascination. Before them, surrounded by ferns and palm trees, white and powdery in the silent morning light, was an enormous Spanish galleon. Tilted slightly to the starboard, it had hanging from its intact masts the dirty rags of its sails in the midst of its rigging, which was adorned with orchids. The hull, covered with an armor of petrified barnacles and soft moss, was firmly fastened into a surface of stones. The whole structure seemed to occupy its own space, one of solitude and oblivion, protected from the vices of time and the habits of the birds. Inside, where the expeditionaries explored with careful intent, there was nothing but a thick forest of flowers.

The discovery of the galleon, an indication of the proximity of the sea, broke Jose Arcadio Buendia’s drive.

See what I mean about the involvement of the character with the setting? The patriarch Jose Arcadio is a stubborn, driven man, but when faced with an insurmountable truth, he succumbs. Fermina Daza, on the other hand, is an almost entirely reactive figure who manages somehow to remain unaffected by everything that is shaping her life.

And maybe that’s the bottom line: that Love in the Time of Cholera just doesn’t give its characters or their conflicts the depth and weight they need in order to compete with and justify the setting. They seem rote to me, in a way. They’re in love, and hampered in that goal by the personal hang-ups of their parents, and by certain hang-ups of their own, inherited or developed in reaction to their parents. What I don’t see is how these lovers are influenced or changed by each other, by the supporting characters or any of the events of the story. In the passage above, Fermina Daza is about to come to a pivotal realization, that her star-crossed fiance, with whom she has been finally reunited, is not, after all, the man for her. And I get nothing out of it, no thrill, not even any real understanding of how or why she comes to this decision, except that (as was revealed very early on) this was an inevitable occurrence, ordained by a Fate far too diverted by what strikes me as a very ordinary pathos.

Which I guess means that it is Marquez, and not just me after all.

I’m curious to see how the movie will deal with all this, it being a rather convoluted storyline, and movies being far more dependent than novels (decadent period romances anyway) on the clarity of character transitions to keep the audience wrapped up in the story.

The Surrealism of Asturias

Judging by the time I’ve had trying to find translated copies of his work, Miguel Angel Asturias seems to be a writer who has fallen from the public eye, at least in the English-speaking world. I can’t quite figure out why. Born in Guatemala in 1899, he began his career as a political dissident, fled persecution to Europe, where he became heavily involved in the surrealist movement, and eventually returned home, where in 1967 he received the Nobel Prize in Literature for the novel Men of Maize. He also seems to have been the first person to apply the term “magic realism” to the written word rather than to art. All of which suggests he ought to have been a prime candidate for competition with Borges, Garcia Marquez, Allende and Fuentes as exotic magic realist bestselling Oprah favorites. Instead, the reading of Asturias has been relegated to obscure academic pursuits. Case in point, the fact that the only places I’ve been able to read his work in English are university libraries. If I really wanted to own a copy of Men of Maize, I could get one used on Amazon—but it would cost me $100. No thanks.

So why the obscurity? I think it’s because of the kind of story Asturias tells, as well as how he tells it. My limited experience with surrealist fiction suggests a tendency, as in slipstream, to abstraction. The speculative element in a surrealist story often has the effect of hyperbole, with the implication that it can’t be taken at face value. Asturias’s fiction tends to draw from the structure and the tropes of the most primal of myth, but to depict these things with a complexity and abstractness of language that comes on like a synesthetic hurricane. The reader is left to find his own way through a soup of mythic symbols superimposed on top of an interpretation of the mimetic world whose structure only occasionally becomes visible through the soup, and which may or may not be what Asturias actually intends us to see.

Because of the very nature of his prose, this tendency to whirling chaos, it’s hard to pull out a concise quote that conveys what Asturias is all about. But I’ll give it a shot. I’ve been ruminating on The Mirror of Lida Sal: Tales based on Mayan Myths and Guatemalan Legends. These stories concern themselves with doomed sorcerer-artists, beings possessed of mythic, godlike creative power, but mortal, laughably fragile, who must inevitably be destroyed if not by their creations then by their very devotion to the creative act, which blinds them to the world’s dangers. In “Legend of the Crystal Mask”, a poor sculptor goes into hiding to escape the Spanish conquerors, and by his art transforms the cave of his refuge into a subordinate world, distorted and savage, whose population turns upon its creator and destroys him. This is the beginning:

Yes, Nurse Rain, he who made the idols and prepared the heads of the dead, leaving their cast-off bones in the lime-pit nearby, had hands thrice-golden!

Yes, Nurse Rain, he who made the idols, the custodian of skulls, fled from the men of worm-white skin, when they put torch to the city, and he took refuge in the most inaccessible of mountains, there where the earth turns into cloud!

Yes, Nurse Rain, he who made the gods that made him was Ambiastro, who had two stars in place of hands!

So we get this folkloric chantlike repetition, and we see Ambiastro treated like a god but acknowledged as a man. In everything I’ve read by Asturias (all of which deals in some way with the interaction between the modern Guatemala and its mythic past), there seems to be the implicit understanding and acceptance that the conquest is inevitable, has always already happened, and that thus Guatemala’s history can only be understood through the metaphor of conquest, of dismantling, destruction, rebirth, the piecemeal reassembly of heterogeneous fragments, without a blueprint, into something vibrantly alive and entirely different from either of its antecedents. All of which makes the abstraction, the willing incomprehensibility of Asturias’ writing an essential part of what he’s trying to do.

Which again raises the question of why his writing hasn’t stood up to the passage of time. It seems like, what with the upsurgence of slipstream in the genre publishing world, what with Kelly Link and Cat Valente and Matt Cheney and Dora Goss winning all this recognition, what with all the respect garnered by little slipstream zines like LCRW, Electric Velocipede, Flytrap, that Asturias ought to fit right in.

It probably has to do with the fact that as much critical acclaim as the edgy and poetical obscure seems to garner within genre, it doesn’t actually draw as much popular readership. For Asturias to catch on with that crowd, he would have to find a patron, a small press probably, somebody willing to front the cash and hype the hype. Small Beer managed it with Angelica Gorodischer…but they had Ursula Le Guin to translate.

I do actually own a Spanish-language copy of Hombres de Maíz my sister brought me back from Spain. Maybe someday, if my skills as a reader of Spanish skyrocket to one hundred times their current state, I’ll try and translate it myself.

El Gaspar Ilóm deja que a la tierra de Ilóm le roben el sueño de los ojos.

Hombres de Maís, first line. Roughly (I think):

Gaspar Ilóm leaves the land of Ilóm robed in the dream of his eyes.

Narrative Art and Magic

Reading the non-fictions of Jorge Luis Borges is eerily like reading a blog, despite the fact that the one I’m in the middle of was written in 1932. Like most of his writing, none of these articles get much longer than one or two thousand words. His virtuosity is apparent as always, but the indulgence he allows himself in traversing his vast and esoteric interests, without the enforced structural rigidity of narrative, makes these essays feel like things hammered out in an hour before breakfast and thrown slapdash before the public eye—complete with citations from the five most relevant translations of whatever work upon which he has happened to turn the ponderous focus of his wit. It’s reassuring, in one sense, to see how much the process of human cognition has remained the same from one lifetime to the next, in spite of all this technological fragmentation of focus. On the other hand, the astounding subtlety and unity of purpose in these essays is a humbling reminder of his genius.

Actually, I picked up the Selected Non-fictions hoping that, given how so much of Borges’ fiction carries that dumbfounding air of truth (and at times even presents truth as fiction), the writing he chose to present as fact would operate in similar fashion, perhaps akin to the “non-fiction” of Castaneda. Thus far at least, such is not the case. The non-fictions reveal an entirely different side of Borges, featuring new ideas and profundities, and presenting a new set of tools for understanding Borges as fantasist.

As a young man, Borges seems to have perceived a shockingly clear distinction between reality and fiction—shocking given the grand effort he devoted as an older man to blurring that line, not only in his fiction, but in his public persona. In “Narrative Art and Magic”, he argues that the creation of narrative fiction must be approached as an act of magic, and more specifically, of prophecy. In an example from William Morris’ neoclassical epic, The Life and Death of Jason, he references several moments, prior to the arrival upon the scene of the wise centaur Chiron, in which Morris obliquely prefigures or foreshadows the appearance of this fantastical being, in order, Borges claims, to prepare the reader to accept as fact a figure otherwise inadmissible to reality.

“Chiron appears. We are told that he was a mighty horse, once roan but now almost white, with long grey locks on his head and a wreath of oak leaves where man was joined to beast. The slave falls to his knees. We note, in passing, that Morris need not impart to the reader his image of the centaur, nor even invite us to have our own. What is required is that we believe in his words, as we do the real world.”

–Borges, “Narrative Art and Magic”

In one sense, he’s talking about a concept familiar to most genre writers: the necessity of maintaining a willing suspension of disbelief in the reader. What’s unusual is that Borges presents this process as a form of magic. In applying this principle, he makes no distinction between mimetic and fantastic fiction; his examples come from Melville, Chesterton and Joyce as well as Morris and Poe. And perhaps most surprising to me is the fact that he takes his working definition of magic from James Frazer’s Golden Bough:

“This ancient procedure, or ambition, has been reduced by Frazer to a convenient general law, the law of sympathy, which assumes that ‘things act on each other at a distance’ through a secret sympathy, either because their form is similar (imitative or homeopathic magic) or because of a previous physical contact (contagious magic).”

According to Frazer, all ‘magic’ is a form of narrative. The dawn of magic is coeval with the dawn of cognition—indeed, in a sense they are one and the same. The first cro-magnon who painted a deer on the wall of a cave, in drawing a connection between the shape made out of dye and the flesh-and-blood creature, was performing magic. Borges extends this definition to argue that all narrative is magic, that every writer of fiction is a shaman-sorcerer—or else he isn’t doing his job.

Thought about in this light, Borges’ later efforts to conflate the real Borges with the incarnations of him featured in fictions such as “The Other” and “August 25th, 1983” don’t seem so discrepant after all. Likewise, the discrepancy between his fiction and non-fiction, at least insofar as the non-fiction concerns itself, not with narrative, but the theory of narrative, no longer presents a contradiction.

“I have described two causal procedures: the natural or incessant result of endless, uncontrollable causes and effects; and magic, in which every lucid and determined detail is a prophecy. In the novel, I think the only possible integrity lies in the latter. Let the former be left to psychological simulations.”

For someone like me, a born rationalist, for whom the belief in magic can never be more or less than a transcendent, gripping self-delusion, it is incredibly reassuring to learn that Borges himself, in some fundamental place beneath the labyrinth of fictions that composed him, was also a rational man.

For me, this may be the kernel at the core of magic realism.

Castaneda the Realist

“You must realize,” [don Juan Matus] said, “that it is our cognition, which is in essence an interpretation system, that curtails our resources. Our interpretation system is what tells us what the parameters of our possibilities are, and since we have been using that system of interpretation all our lives, we cannot possibly dare to go against its dictums.”

–Carlos Castaneda, The Active Side of Infinity

It’s a funny thing, my addiction to Carlos Castaneda. He’s not even a particularly good writer, really. I think if you gave me any one of Castaneda’s books and a red pen, I could go through it the same way I would any manuscript of my own and cut 10-20 percent. And it’s not as if his books are long to begin with–I doubt even the hardcovers ever get much past 300 pages.

Most of what I read ‘for pleasure’ can be ascribed by one means or another to my overarching goal of becoming a better writer. Normally, this means reading great writers of fiction, great prose stylists. I went through The Active Side of Infinity with an eye for interesting excerpts I could cull for the purpose of this entry. But I had a hard time at it, because his prose makes it impossible to pull out the meat of any idea without dragging some element of klunk along with it–passive voice, repetitive structure, superfluous wordage–some of it’s forgivable as a form of teaching strategy, but a lot of it feels like the rookie mistakes of a writer less interested in writing than in what he’s writing about.

I wonder about those mistakes. Clearly Castaneda was making bank for some editor somewhere. His stuff has a cult following like no other. Why, then, did that editor choose not to put a little more work into cleaning up the language? Was it a conscious choice? Did this editor believe, perhaps, that not bothering to produce a cleaner manuscript would contribute to a sense of authenticity which, in the case of a crackpot anthropologist writing about the teachings of a fantastical native American sorcerer, was sorely wanting?

I pull down from the shelf the five Castaneda books nearest to hand. From the bindings and front matter, it looks like the two mass-market paperbacks are both from Washington Square Press. The hardcover was put out by HarperCollins, and of the two trade paperbacks, one is Penguin, the other Simon & Schuster–which I believe are the same thing now anyway–but the point is, that’s a lot of imprints. A lot of different hands in the cookie jar. I imagine Castaneda might have made himself rather a difficult talent to work with, what with his insistence on concealing his source, his mysterious disappearance, not to mention the complete irrational implausibility of most of what he asserts to be the truth.

Could something have occurred between Castaneda and his publisher, back before 1968, akin to the conversation that must have taken place between James Frey and some shrewd, impatient businessperson at Random House sometime in 2002?

“Damn, this is a great story. I can’t believe this stuff actually happened to you.”
“Well, it didn’t actually. This is a work of fiction.”
“What? I didn’t buy a work of fiction. Nobody reads fiction anymore. You’re telling me none of this is true? Why the hell didn’t you say that in your cover letter?”
“I was trying to get a foot in the door. I thought I could hook you better if you thought it was true. I mean, it did happen to me. Some of it.”
“Well, you were right. So right, in fact, that I’m not buying it unless you swear on camera in front of God and Oprah and everybody that everything you wrote in that cover letter was true.”
“Uh. Okay. Guess I can do that.”

Of course, I don’t really like this hypothetical. I’d much prefer to assign all the cleverness to Castaneda, just as much as I want to believe there really was an 80-year-old Yaqui sorcerer called don Juan Matus who taught this obsessive, insecure academic how to silence his inner monologue, expand his perception, gain control of himself, kick ass, take names, and transcend time and space. But it’s impossible for me to know one way or another. I can doubt the existence of don Juan all I want; I can even doubt Castaneda the man, at least as his books present him. But there remains a possibility that all of it is real. And that ambiguity is actually a big part of why I keep reading.

I read him for the opportunity to see the line between reality and fiction move. To learn how such things are achieved.

He had said that everything I did had to be an act of sorcery. An act free from encroaching expectations, fears of failure, hopes of success. Free from the cult of me; everything I did had to be impromptu, a work of magic where I freely opened myself to the impulses of the infinite.

Mia Couto

“And listening to Tuahir’s dreams, with the noises of war in the background, he begins to think: they should invent a gentle, more affable gunpowder, capable of exploding men without killing them. An inverse powder, which would generate more life. And out of one exploded man, the infinity of men within him would be born.”
Mia Couto, Sleepwalking Land