domingo, 23 de dezembro de 2012
Telling the Tale
By PAUL BERMAN
GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ
By Gerald Martin
Illustrated. 642 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $37.50
The single most thrilling event in Gabriel García Márquez’s life, judging from the biography by Gerald Martin, took place in February 1950, when the novelist, who was 22 and not yet a novelist, though he was already trying to be, accompanied his mother to the backwoods town where he had spent his early childhood. This was a place called Aracataca, in the “banana zone” of northern Colombia. His grandfather’s house was there, and his mother had decided to sell it.
García Márquez himself has described this trip in his autobiography, “Living to Tell the Tale.” But Martin supplies, as it were, the fact-checked version — a product of the 17 years of research that went into “Gabriel García Márquez: A Life,” together with the benedictions of the novelist himself, who has loftily observed, “Oh well, I suppose every self-respecting writer should have an English biographer.” In “Living to Tell the Tale,” García Márquez says that, upon arriving at Aracataca, he entered the house and inspected the rooms. The English biographer, by contrast, observes that García Márquez has also said he never entered. Either way, he saw the house. Childhood vistas presented themselves, and vistas prompted thoughts.
García Márquez was engrossed just then in a study of Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner and Proust, in Spanish translation. He was learning to appreciate what Martin calls “the multiple dimensions of time itself.” And with a pensive gaze at the old house, he realized — here was the epiphany — he could invent himself anew. There was a way to become a member of the sleek novel-writing avant-garde, and this was to be the boy from Aracataca. And so he had his grand theme; and he had his writer’s persona, who was himself, as adult and child both; and he had his method of inquiry, which was to gaze back on his own most powerful childhood experiences.
The opening sections of Martin’s biography are clogged with genealogical chronicles of the Garcías (the father’s family) and the Márquezes (the mother’s), snaking into the 19th century — a preposterously tangled story of cousins and noncousins united in wedlock, nonwedlock, near-incest, vendetta-mania and frontier trailblazing in the Colombian wilds, such that, after a few pages, you can hardly remember who is who, and where the murder took place, and what the civil war was about, or the next civil war, or the next. You could even suspect that Martin, having set out to describe García Márquez, has ended up competing with him: where the novelist ornamented some versions of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” with a one-page genealogical table, the biographer has ornamented “Gabriel García Márquez” with seven pages of them.
But what else was a biographer to do? A kind of sea breeze of atmospheric moods blows across García Márquez’s work — a saline mood of unexplained and understated pathos, moods of delicate solidarity and even complicity with everything frail and cracked, a slightly morbid mood. And all of those moody currents seem to converge, in the end, on a single lush and regal emotion, which is nostalgia — García Márquez’s never-exhausted and always tender search for what he is not going to find: his own past, and his family’s, and the universe at his grandfather’s knee.
His childhood touched on one other experience, though, and this had nothing to do with family lore. Martin tells us that, as a child, García Márquez read Alexandre Dumas and “A Thousand and One Nights.” He was a normal boy. Mostly he was a normal Latin American. He read the poets of Spanish literature’s “Golden Age,” the 16th and 17th centuries. And, in this fashion, he appears to have spent whole portions of his childhood dwelling not just in northern Colombia but also in the hyper-elegant universe of Luis de Góngora and the syllable-counting poets of imperial Spain, long ago — whose own memories reached spectrally back into the shadows of Roman myth and esoteric philosophy.
The lucky break in García Márquez’s life was to win a scholarship to an excellent college outside Bogotá, where his studies concentrated on still another of the early modernist writers, the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío. The English-speaking world has never paid much attention to Darío, but that is because his deepest theme was strictly a Spanish-speaking one — namely, the same vexed problem that García Márquez would have to solve: how to reconcile a childhood immersion in the poetry of the Golden Age with an adult immersion in the realities of the modern age. Darío entertained a precise idea of how to do this. It was through a kind of madness. He embraced every last extravagant curlicue of the Golden Age — the Roman myths and esoteric doctrines, the fanatical dedication to the verse structures of Spanish tradition — only he embraced them in a pop-eyed spirit of paradox. He wanted to show how large and heartbreaking is the gap between life as it ought to be and as it actually is. And this idea, too, Darío’s mad embrace of the Golden Age, entered into García Márquez’s imagination — or so it seems to me, though Martin says not too much about this.
García Márquez’s readers sometimes imagine that supernatural events and folk beliefs in his novels express an all-purpose spirit of primitivist rebellion, suitable for adaptation by progressive-minded writers in every region of the formerly colonized world. Martin endorses that interpretation in the opening sentence of his biography, where he flatly defines García Márquez, encyclopedia style, as “the best-known writer to have emerged from the ‘third world’ and the best known exponent of a literary style, ‘magical realism,’ which has proved astonishingly productive in other developing countries.” But I think that, on the contrary, magical events and folk beliefs in the writings of García Márquez show how powerfully the Golden Age has lingered in memory. Instead of a postcolonial literary rebellion against Western imperialism, here is a late-blooming flower of the Spanish high baroque. Gongorism disguised as primitivism. And, being a proper son of Darío, García Márquez has gone on to embrace in his mad spirit the glories of Spanish rhetoric at its most extreme.
Martin tells us that in García Márquez’s own estimation, his greatest book is “The Autumn of the Patriarch,” from 1975 — a book that is an extended homage to Darío, who is invoked at the beginning and again at the very end, and who, somewhere in the middle, shows up as a character, sailing into port on a banana boat to deliver a poetry recitation. Every last sentence in “The Autumn of the Patriarch” offers a heroic demonstration of man’s triumph over language — unless it is language’s triumph over man. The sentences begin in one person’s voice and conclude in someone else’s, or change their subject halfway through, or wander across the centuries, and, even so, conform sufficiently to the rules of rhetoric to carry you along. To read is to gasp. You want to break into applause at the shape and grandeur of those sentences, not to mention their length. And yet to do so you would need to set down the book, which cannot be done, owing to the fact that, just when the impulse to clap your hands has become irresistible, the sentence you are reading has begun to round a corner, and you have no alternative but to clutch onto the book as if steering a car that has veered out of control.
Those are gorgeous sentences, but they are also tyrannical — and tyranny, in the conventional political sense, is entirely the novel’s theme. “The Autumn of the Patriarch” tells the story of a despot ruling over an unnamed and benighted Caribbean land. It is a dictator novel. The marriage of plot and prosody makes it a masterpiece — a greater triumph even than Mario Vargas Llosa’s marvelously brilliant “Feast of the Goat,” which is likewise a Caribbean dictator novel, and likewise invokes Rubén Darío. “The Autumn of the Patriarch” does have a puzzling quality, though. The dictator whose portrait emerges from those tropical-flower sentences is monstrous and despicable — yet even his creepiest tyrannical traits are presented as signs of the human condition, deserving of pity and compassion, maybe even a kind of sorrowful love. I have always wondered what sort of political attitude García Márquez meant to convey with those peculiar ambiguities.
But now that I have read Martin’s biography, I know. The book is 642 pages long, and the first half of it, after completing the genealogical survey of northern Colombia, records the dreadful poverty that García Márquez and his wife and two sons endured before 1967, when “One Hundred Years of Solitude” finally lifted him into the comforts of multiple-home ownership and, in 1982, the Nobel Prize. But the second half mostly recounts the novelist’s subsequent career as hobnobber among the powerful — a man who, according to his biographer, has labored hard and long to get himself invited to the dinner tables of presidents, dictators and tycoons around the world. And among those many table companions, no one has mattered more to him than the maximum leader of the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro, with whom García Márquez has conceived a genuine friendship, based on shared vacations, a part-time career promoting Havana as a movie-industry capital and a history of defending the Castro dictatorship against its detractors in the Hispanic literary world. Here is the real-life Caribbean tyrant. García Márquez does lead you to think about Castro in some of those spectacular sentences in “The Autumn of the Patriarch.” And the novelist plainly loves his dictator.
Martin gushes over nearly everything that García Márquez has ever done, yet, even so, he concedes that friendship with Castro has sometimes aroused criticism. The biographer mentions twice that Vargas Llosa (who at one point punched García Márquez in the face, for reasons possibly bearing on marital honor) has described García Márquez as Castro’s “lackey.” Martin emphasizes the insult mostly to show the indignities that García Márquez has undergone out of fidelity to Fidel. And yet, the biography’s account of the friendship will make readers pause thoughtfully over that word, “lackey.” Martin tells us that, on an occasion when Castro visited Colombia, García Márquez volunteered to be one of his bodyguards. The world’s most popular serious novelist does seem to be a flunky of the world’s longest-lasting monomaniacal dictator. Why García Márquez has chosen to strike up such a friendship is something I cannot explain — except to point out that, as Martin shows, the great novelist has never veered from the epiphany that came to him at his grandfather’s house in 1950, and he has always been fascinated by the grotesque, the pathetic and the improbable.
Paul Berman is a writer in residence at New York University and the author of the forthcoming “Flight of the Intellectuals.”
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 10:26