Gabriel García Márquez

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Mabel Moraña (essay date winter 1990)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6370

SOURCE: Moraña, Mabel. “Modernity and Marginality in Love in the Time of Cholera.Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 14, no. 1 (winter 1990): 27-43.

[In the following essay, Moraña provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of Love in the Time of Cholera.]

The brilliant and complex prose of Gabriel García Márquez has still not been sufficiently analyzed for its ideological implications. His “paper human beings” (to use Roland Barthes's term for literature's men and women) both evokes and surpasses other prototypical literary representations as well as the actual protagonists of Latin American history. His patriarchs and matriarchs, his colonels, the lyricism and solitude of his lonely characters, his legendary and magical families, tenuously evoke known reality. At the same time, it is obvious that they are not susceptible to a literal reading. They victoriously transcend mere referentiality and at times appear to be figments of poetic license.

Criticism has generally identified the Latin American question in his work with certain elements related to basic political and economic problems. In this case, critics frequently limit themselves to demonstrating explicit references to a particular period which then would seem simply to lend authority to the documentary basis that supports the second term of the well-known formula, “magic realism.” It is true that the discourse of transnational capitalism, the themes of civil war, of power, the failure of institutions, repression, and popular resistance constantly surface in García Márquez' texts, but they constitute more a background, an inevitable referential framework that is nevertheless mediated by the excesses of fantasy. Even “la violencia,” the period of violence in Colombia in the forties and fifties, is absorbed into his stories much in the way that the Mexican Revolution is absorbed into the stories of Juan Rulfo. This is compatible with the statements that García Márquez has made on more than one occasion—that he wishes to focus on the repercussions of violence rather than on its causes or its application.1 In any case, attempts at ideological analysis have not yet tackled the structures underlying the narrative as a whole nor the deployment of this ideological structure within contemporary Latin America.2

The world of García Márquez is both familiar and remote to the reader. It is influenced on the one hand by the Cuban Revolution and yet at the same time, it is focussed on the turn of the century. On the one hand, García Márquez's narrative obeys the stylistic requirements of “high art,” and yet it comes under the diverse influences of popular culture. To literature, it restores its time-honored mission of entertaining by means of the mere act of narrating, suggesting that the texture in which the real and the imaginary, the autobiographical and the collective, are intermingled has no justification beyond the revival of the “forgotten art of telling stories.”3

No other work illustrates this so completely as Love in the Time of Cholera, for what is instantly obvious in this novel is the manner in which the author reworks in an incredibly fresh style the clichés of romanticism or rather, as he himself acutely puts it, “the late romanticism of the Caribbean.”4 In fact the novel can be seen as a kind of frieze on which are displayed all possible stages of love—in youth and old age, Platonic and erotic, lawful and unlawful, ephemeral and eternal, childlike yet sublime.

The story details the “sentimental education” of Florentino Ariza, a prototype of the “mad hero,” and his faithfulness to a youthful love which can be consummated only after half a century.5 The linking of love and old age...

(This entire section contains 6370 words.)

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constitutes a distinct thematic emphasis of the narrative. What distinguishes the novel would thus appear to be the challenge of taking on a seemingly worn-out theme—one that has had such as significant role in Western culture especially in the nineteenth century, and the insertion of this theme into the “third age,” which has been so poorly represented in literature. This “mise en abîme” at the thematic level is counterbalanced by the deceptively simple plot and structure. Once again García Márquez's narrative seems to float off in a sumptuous exercise of virtuosity into the freedom of lyrical pleasure.6 In this essay, I wish to offer a different reading of the Colombian writer's novel. I am, however, less interested in probing beneath the “surface structure” of the work than in exploring the scope of a narrative method that I hope will illuminate elements to be found in the rest of García Márquez's writing.


García Márquez has himself commented intuitively (but with some accuracy) on the symmetrical construction of Love in the Time of Cholera:

The novel tends towards symmetry. It has an axis and as the axis moves towards the left or the right, the structure is reflected in the two parallel parts. [The structure], therefore, tends towards symmetry until it finds its center, though I do not know exactly where this lies—perhaps at the moment when Fermina who is already an old woman comes back from a journey, meets Florentino in a movie theater where he for the first time realizes that she is an old woman.7

On the temporal level, there is an obvious symmetry because the novel generally follows the structure of biography, but there are other forms of symmetry with wider implications.8 The most obvious of these is the thematic symmetry provided by the love triangle of Fermina, her husband and Florentino. At various moments of their lives and in different ways, Fermina answers to the needs of both men and in great measure their lives are shaped by this response. Her “regulating function”9 rests on her capacity to control the laws that rule the lives of the other two people to such an extent that García Márquez himself was able to summarize her narrative function thus: “she is the strong one, Fermina Daza. She is the novel.”10

However this central role of the female character is no more than the anecdote that underlies a “deeper” symmetry. In effect, the novel juxtaposes beneath the thematic surface not only two different male characters with different world views, but also the tense coexistence of two social projects.

In Love in the Time of Cholera, García Márquez to some extent reworks the suspense novel. The conflict between the two projects is latent, for the author sacrifices the dramatic possibilities of conflict to a temporal development whose melancholy overtones are a sign of the times. The fin-de-siècle nostalgia sublimates violence and possible antagonisms by suggesting that there is a time and a place for everything and by means of a well-defined individualism which has the effect of a false consciousness. As Dr. Urbino remarks, “the century changes for everyone except for us,” a class vision that is validated by the author himself.11

In any case, the text offers the reader two diverse articulations between the individual and the social reality of the historical period in the Caribbean cultural area which is the setting of the novel. Both are symmetrically arranged around the female character whose function as link and catalyst I will explain later on. The first of these articulations corresponds to the project of modernization and is actualized in Dr. Urbino, a professional man of refined tastes educated in Europe who enjoys great social prestige. The second articulation is that represented by Florentino Ariza, the exaggerated criollo romantic who is actualized in the novel through progressively more archaic models.12 Non-productive, a dilettante, self-centered, Florentino incarnates the values of the past, which he perpetuates and projects with moving persistence. His status as a “problematic hero” consists precisely in that persistence of romantic attitudes in an era of change and in his marginality with respect to manners and characters through whom the social order and dominant values are expressed. Both projects coexist in the “time of cholera,” an expression that refers to a period of natural violence when progress had not yet managed to control social evils (city sanitation, political turbulence) or natural evils (sickness). Because of this conventional link between love and illness, the novel again conceals its basic problematic.13

The theme of love allows the representation and the confrontation of two different cultural orders which are revealed through taste, values, language, and attitudes. Along with the theme of old age, this adds a temporal element that not only carries the representational possibilities to the extreme but also converts conflicts into processes and stages into cycles.

The exploration of love takes place both on a vertical and a horizontal plane. The vertical aspect consists of a detailed demonstration and in-depth exploration. The horizontal aspect unfolds the evolution of the affair. The exploration of both horizontal and vertical axes corresponds to the “problematic hero,” Florentino Ariza, who is committed to no project other than himself. At the same time, both masculine heroes are ideological representations. Each one incarnates a social project expressed through different symbols. For Dr. Urbino, cholera demonstrates the vulnerability of a social order that he struggles to ameliorate and that demands progress and modernization. The cholera epidemic is the objective proof both of his limitations and his need for a Utopian project. For Florentino, navigation symbolizes his marginalization. His constant passage across the boundaries of a social system into which he is never integrated, which he crosses or passes through without ever staying in one place, provides a continuous and intuitive life apprenticeship. Secondly and significantly, there is his writing which is a mode of expression, of persuasion or pretense and which provides the strategies by means of which he seeks access to the system, while displaying romantic faith in the word.14

The class origins of both characters, the social and private spaces in which they move, their ways of living over a period of time, their pleasures, their relationship to convention, their place within the workforce, their connections with the community all indicate the varied levels on which separately and symmetrically they are articulated with the social system. Both come together in relation to a woman whose character deliberately represents upward social mobility into a higher class and the consolidation of a social position through marriage. Fermina acts both as nexus between the two male characters and as a stabilizing mechanism because of her ability to operate in both registers and to use time in her favor. The ideological structuring of the novel and its reconstruction of the fin de siècle aesthetic apparatus thus correspond to this two-fold scheme by which the social division that heralded the new century is revealed.


In his important book, The Poverty of Progress, E. Bradford Burns calls attention to the importance of modernizing projects as well as to “the ideology of progress” as catalysts in a devastating cultural struggle that took place in Latin America during the second half of the nineteenth century. The elite, spurred by the desire to emulate the developed countries, encouraged projects of urbanization and industrialization which were opposed to national reality, to tradition and to the needs of most of the population. This created a dramatic split between the potential wealth of the continent and the people's daily lives. As Burns indicates, progress and modernization were the words most commonly used in the political vocabulary of the period:

Both words, used interchangeably hereafter, implied an admiration for the latest ideas, modes, values, inventions, and styles of Europe and the United States and a desire to adopt—rarely to adapt—them. The elites believed that “to progress” meant to recreate their nations as closely as possible to their European and North American models. They felt they would benefit from such a recreation, and by extension they assumed that their nations would benefit as well. They always identified (and confused) class well-being with national welfare.15

Nevertheless, as a consequence of the tension produced by the conflict between the modernization project and the alternatives that manifested themselves at the popular level, “violence emerged as a leitmotif of the nineteenth century. …”16

The period of technological change, political violence and uneven development of different social classes is well represented in Love in the Time of Cholera in the role of the elites in putting into effect a European model which was firmly underpinned by the ideology of positivism. Dr. Juvenal Urbino functions within the novel as the flagbearer of ideas and values associated with modernization. Educated in Paris, involved in public works, he is a rational man who at the same time loves the arts; he functions in the novel as the prototype of that sector of the privileged class that accepts the ideology of “order and progress” that it considers to be above sectarian party politics:

Although he had always been considered a Liberal and had been in the habit of voting for that party's candidates, it was more a question of tradition than conviction, and he was perhaps the last member of the great families who still knelt in the street when the Archbishop's carriage drove by. He defined himself as a natural pacifist, a partisan of definitive reconciliation between Liberals and Conservatives for the good of the nation. But his public conduct was so autonomous that no group claimed him for its own: the Liberals considered him a Gothic troglodyte, the Conservatives said he was almost a Mason, and the Masons repudiated him as a secret cleric in the service of the Holy See. His less savage critics thought he was just an aristocrat enraptured by the delights of the Poetic Festival while the nation bled to death in an endless civil war.


His expeditions to Paris (from which he returns steeped in rationalism and dazzled by the latest technological inventions) reaffirm his Messianic role with respect to the dispossessed classes—a role that corresponds to the enlightened paternalism of the elites of the period.

The cholera epidemic brings him, as a guardian of social health, into contact with his social milieu. His incursions into the marginal are rapid and infrequent, but they serve to corroborate his values and his belief that “the city, his city, stood unchanging on the edge of time: the same burning dry city of his nocturnal terrors and the solitary pleasures of puberty, where flowers rusted and salt corroded, where nothing had happened for four centuries except a slow aging among withered laurels and putrefying swamps” (16).

The promiscuous vitality of the slave quarters, that “death-trap of the poor,” which Juvenal Urbino visits at the beginning of the novel, contrasts with the “European coherence” of his mansion furnished with Turkish carpets, Sèvres porcelain, and boasting a music room and a splendid library in which a parrot sings French as a sign of the symbiosis of Europeanization and Caribbean culture.

Around the figure of Juvenal Urbino the author weaves a socio-economic network that is the index of modernity. The inauguration of air mail, balloon rides, the progress of navigation, of ground transport and the media, register the practical effects of fin-de-siècle modernization. The ideas of progress and development were conflated, so that progress was generally measured against external factors or by means of quantitative indices that did not take into account with any precision the privileging of certain social sectors because of development and the relation between these sectors and the potential wealth of the nation.17

Modernization presupposes social order, but nevertheless it coexists with violence. Cholera, violence and modernization form a representational triad that is early perceived in the novel. Thus, for example, at the beginning of the fifth section, when Dr. Urbino and his wife make their first trip in a balloon for the celebration of the new century, they observe through a telescope the banana plantations and discover a number of dead bodies which they attribute to the cholera epidemic.

“Well, it must be a very special form of cholera,” [Urbino] said, “because every single corpse has received the coup de grace through the back of the neck” (117).

The ideas of reason, progress, social prestige and integration and public duty come together in the character of Juvenal Urbino and the social sector he represents; his social origin and vital experience, stand in physical and psychological contrast to Florentino Ariza, who serves as a kind of anti-model.


Florentino Ariza represents not so much a coherent and conscious alternative to modernization as, on the one hand, a vitality that escapes the control of instrumental reason and, on the other hand, a neo-romanticism that marks the persistence of tradition. As a synthesis of both these aspects, he actualizes the values of national culture as against European-style modernization which imposes its model of progress without respecting national identity.

In a social medium dominated by the ideology of progress, elite supremacy, and technological change, his character develops as an implied challenge to these hegemonic values. Florentino moves in marginal spaces (the lower-class neighborhoods of the city and brothels): he is a bastard and his vulnerable and somber appearance symbolizes his social condition. In describing him, the author invokes a racial aspect that reinforces the marginality that he shares with broad sectors of Latin America which are thrust towards the periphery of the system along with the “poor mulattos” who inhabit the city slums. In contrast to the dashing and worthy image of Dr. Urbino, Florentino Ariza was “bony and erect, his skin dark and clean-shaven, his eyes avid behind round spectacles in silver frames” (44).

The motif of the journey (which implies change and displacement, whether of a positive or negative nature) is constantly associated in the novel with his character and function. Yet, he only makes two journeys, the first after Fermina's wedding, when he is “raped” and thus arrives at the conclusion that “his illusory love for Fermina Daza could be replaced by an earthly passion” (p. 143). The second journey takes place at the end of the novel when he sails with Fermina Daza. However, his job with the shipping company constantly associates him with movement, an association that is also suggested (though more symbolically) by the promiscuity of his love life, which is a process of constant displacement from one woman to another, a kind of pilgrimage in which he goes through all the variations of sexuality and all of its transgressions. In his case, travel does not signify cultural and rational enlightenment as it does for Urbino on his expeditions to Europe, nor does it signify an escape as it does in the case of Fermina Daza's “journey of forgetting.” For Florentino, the journey is the affirmation—and towards the end of the novel the perpetuation—of marginality.

Like the succession of casual affairs that make up his life and which coexist with his love for Fermina, transition implies for him the centrifugal move to a space on the periphery which, however, is always governed by its center. Florentino moves in the underworld of clandestine love affairs that provoke social censorship while at the same time he simultaneously conducts a constant courtship of Fermina, who, along with the aura and the values that surround her, is transformed into the permanent object of his desire. Florentino's ambition is to overcome his anonymity, and to gain access (however minimally) into the social system governed by principles and norms that are alien to his class and that systematically exclude him. His very constitutive articulation of love and old age situates him on a vital frontier which is beyond the limits established by a society whose governing principle is productivity (associated with the values of youth and social integration). Love at the age when Florentino and Fermina consummate theirs is “revolting” (323), a comment that speaks eloquently of the rigidity of the dominant conventions. The final journey up and down the river concentrates the motifs of love, old age, boat-travel, plague, marginality, social rejection and political violence, in a summa that is prolonged endlessly: “Forever” (348).

But love, in any form, is always somewhat marginal, for it is a rebellion against the conventions and values of a society entering rapidly into modernization. Its secrecy acts as a stimulus; obstacles make it more intense; even promiscuity makes it flower with extraordinary vital energy. It is alternatively “cataclysm,” “lightning,” “a deathly fall.” It implies voracity, excess, and its symptoms are similar to those of “the disaster of cholera.” Even Fermina associates “pleasure with secrecy” (128) and devotes herself to “solitary love,” which awakens pangs of conscience (153-54). Only the domesticity that comes with marriage sets bounds to all the excesses of instinct and feeling, transforming love into something that might “almost be love” (205)—which is certainly not true of Florentino Ariza. In his case his singularity and his marginality are a way of life and a style that he cultivates by appropriating all the apparatus of romanticism as a parodic reconstruction which combines the romantic fin-de-siècle novel and women's popular romances. Here he is on the eve of the journey that will separate him temporarily from Fermina:

At midnight he put on his Sunday suit and went to stand alone under Fermina Daza's balcony to play the love waltz he had composed for her, which was known only to the two of them and which for three years had been the emblem of their frustrated complicity. He played, murmuring the words, his violin bathed in tears, with an inspiration so intense that with the first measures the dogs on the street and then dogs all over the city began to howl, but then, little by little, they were quieted by the spell of the music, and the waltz ended in supernatural silence.


Florentino reveals his eccentricity, by using all the resources of romantic tradition to court the woman who is the center of his interest. Serenade, poems, roses, love letters, perfume, all possible forms of compliment are transformed by a character who “could not avoid lyricism” (171) into an obsessive and singular form of communication.

Writing is one of his main strategies and it ranges from the telegraphic network he controls because of his work to the letters he writes, first as a personal expression and later, when he becomes the secretary of “unlettered lovers,” as a clandestine profession allied to pretense and anonymity.

The world of Florentino is tinged by his exaltation of passion which parodies the self-centeredness of the romantic hero (“Florentino Ariza wrote everything with so much passion that even official documents seemed to be about love” [167]). He eventually becomes “involved in a feverish correspondence with himself” (172), sublimating his own sentimental energy by becoming an adviser to those in love: “he had so much love left over inside that he did not know what to do with it, and he offered it to unlettered lovers free of charge in the Arcade of Scribes” (171). But he is once again marginal and he practises a vicarious activity.

Along with commercial and amorous writing, he participates as a creative writer in the poetry competition and he also compiles a record in a coded book which is given the title “Women” and which recounts the story of his amorous adventures. There were “some twenty-five notebooks, with six hundred twenty-two entries of long-term liaisons, apart from the countless fleeting adventures that did not even deserve a charitable note” (152).

Florentino carries to the extreme attributes that are also present in other characters of the novel who are still marked by traces of romanticism. And it is he who actualizes the model that is developed in contrast to the dominant ideology of modernization. It is precisely this expansion of individualism and passion almost ad infinitum—the rebellion against social conventions and the impositions of age, the marginality assumed and transformed into a trump card by Florentino Ariza—that constitutes a counterpart to positivistic quantification and the exclusionary “progressiveness” of the elites.

In this disjunction, Fermina Daza represents a link that permits the confluence of those two visions of the world which, though in many ways incompatible, still never explode into open conflict. Daughter of a nouveau riche mule trader, a coarse man who is concerned with transforming her into a great lady, Fermina Daza consolidates her social situation by means of her marriage to Dr. Urbino. She thus enters a social circle that, however, never completely accepts her and that imposes its conventions on her. Because of her origin, her “untamed character,” her tastes, her language, Fermina is always presented to the reader as a character who is identified with the popular sectors. Her social rank after her marriage with Urbino does not prevent her rejection by the upper-class families and her feeling of “always being in someone else's house” (207), nor her awareness of the fact that “[s]he had been caught up more quickly than she had believed in the tangle of conventions and prejudices of her new world” (208). The conflict with the manners and customs of the upper class is obvious:

She was ashamed of their custom of setting the banquet table every day with embroidered table cloths, silver service, and funereal candelaba so that five phantoms could dine on café con leche and crullers. She detested the rosary at dusk, the affected table etiquette, the constant criticism of the way she held her silverware, the way she walked in mystical strides like a woman in the streets, the ways she dressed as if she were in the circus, and even the rustic way she treated her husband and nursed her child without covering her breast with a mantilla.


Although she shares her husband's way of life and throughout their marriage is a loyal companion, Fermina is “an irrational idolater of tropical flowers and domestic animals” (21), and up to the end rejects the oppressiveness of city life. Her ability to function—despite reservations—within the local elite and at the same time to understand the code of anachronistic popular romanticism that is closely linked to national tradition makes her not only an intermediary between two social projects and two clearly differentiated lifestyles but also the privileged witness to the conflict between tradition and modernity that was part of that period of transition. Her upward social mobility also illustrates an inter-class dynamic that attenuates latent antagonisms, revealing the possibilities of order and coexistence that appeared at the beginning of the century as an indispensable requirement for the realization of the projects of the dominant class. Thus, the ritual manner in which she approaches Florentino during the commemorative mass for Juvenal Urbino in the cathedral signifies a transgression not only of convention but of the social boundaries:

Throughout almost the whole ceremony, Fermina Daza stood in the family pew in front of the main altar, as elegant as when she attended the opera. But when it was over she broke with convention and did not stay in her seat, according to the custom of the day, to receive the spiritual award of condolences, but made her way instead through the crowd to thank each one of the guests: an innovative gesture that was very much in harmony with her style and character. Greeting one guest after another, she at last reached the pews of the poor relations, and then she looked around to make certain she had not missed anyone she knew. At that moment Florentino Ariza felt a supernatural wind lifting him out of himself: she had seen him. Fermina Daza moved away from her companions with the same assurance she brought to everything in society, held out her hand, and with a sweet smile, said to him:

“Thank you for coming.”



The final message of the novel is not however one of universal harmony. Rather it depicts “an unstable equilibrium” and a precarious correlation between the almost definitive breakdown of the romantic novel and its conjunction with modernity. Florentino is victorious in his quest as a survivor of a cultural system in open retreat, thanks to the fact that he had accepted his own marginality within a system that consistently relegated him to that position. Despite his outward appearance towards the end of the novel (bald, toothless, “a lame old man whose back burned with a burro's saddle sores” (327), he is nevertheless an example of defiant vitality and ready to affirm his rights to the end and even from the limits of the system and under the plague flag. He and Fermina are witnesses to the definitive collapse of the romantic framework on their final journey along a devastated river that was “only an illusion of memory”:

Captain Samaritano explained to them how fifty years of uncontrolled deforestation had destroyed the river: the boilers of the riverboats had consumed the thick forest of colossal trees that had oppressed Florentino Ariza on his first voyage. Fermina Daza would not see the animals of her dreams: the hunters for skins from the tanneries in New Orleans had exterminated the alligators that, with yawning mouths, had played dead for hours on end in the gullies along the shore as they lay in wait for butterflies, the parrots with their shrieking and the monkeys with their lunatic screams had died out as the foliage was destroyed, the manatees with their great breasts that had nursed their young and wept on the banks in a forlorn woman's voice were an extinct species, annihilated by the armored bullets of hunters for sport.


The nostalgic and emotional tone of this evocative description reaffirms the value of a culture in which nature and the human are identified. The practical, the aesthetic and the moral appear increasingly as diverging paths determined by what—from a critical perspective on modernity—could be considered the supremacy of “instrumental reason.” Everyday life is definitely colonized by new patterns of behaviour and values that mark a break with tradition. The practices of exploitation and economic penetration conveyed through images of violence are a sign of the new times: “In a few years, we'll ride the dry river bed in luxury automobiles” (337). The advent of modernity also includes political violence: “the larval wars that governments were bent on hiding with distracting decrees” (337) or the swollen bodies floating down the river that the captain is ordered to explain as victims of drowning accidents (336).

This progressive yet decadent vision of the end of the century is thus not homogeneous. Rather it is constituted thanks to the coexistence of social projects (one emergent and dominant, the other in retreat, linked to tradition and national values) which are intertwined like life and death at the beginning of the new century. The narrative achievement of Love in the Time of Cholera thus consists very largely in the representation of diverse forms of individual and collective consciousness articulated to the social imaginary by means of diverse cultural links and aesthetically dependent on the parody of the romantic code. Vitalism and rationalism, modernization and tradition, Europeanization and popular culture, integration and marginality thus constitute poles in an ideological complex basically composed of Utopian projects that raise the question of the imposition of or resistance to foreign models, a question that is still basic to contemporary nations.

With the affirmation, towards the end of the novel, that “it is life, more than death, than has no limits” (348), the novel seems also to raise the question of what life-forms Latin America has received from modernity. Clearly the text ultimately reveals cultural and ideological heterogeneity to be the characteristic of social development in the nations of Latin America, revealing the diversity of projects not only as ideological and political programs but also as differentiated forms of knowledge and deconstructions of reality. It is also evident that this heterogeneity does not imply pastiche (eclectic and uncritical coexistence), but rather the simultaneous existence of alternative projects, each one of which represents diverse sectorial interests and follows its own operative and representational logic.

In this sense, the novel is, like other texts in the narrative saga of García Márquez, a reflection on power. Except that here, more than in his other works, underlying the pleasurable anecdotes that compose the novel, the ideological field is clearly marked. The dominant project alone enjoys the privilege of legality and it alone becomes institutionalized. Florentino achieves a late, private and clandestine happiness thanks to the persistence of an invincible subjectivity which achieves a relative victory on the margins of the system and at the very threshold of death. This treatment of a “limit situation” represented by the character who confronts change, the passage of time and conventions is significant. On the one hand, it is obvious that the work constitutes a reflection on the social order and, specifically, on the neopositivist and liberal rationalism that guided the organization of national states during the second half of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. It is also evident that this reflection does not lead to a focalization of concrete and well-known aspects of the society represented, nor does it lead to an investigation of the basic causes that gave rise to the transition to modernity. Rather on various levels, it reveals the conflict between diverse articulations of the individual within the cultural horizon of the time. García Márquez projects this problem through the representation of a world fragmented not only by class stratification, but also by showing a process of cultural dismemberment that gradually transforms the social totality into a plurality of spheres (economic, political, moral, administrative, aesthetic, scientific, emotional [21]). The break that for García Márquez marks a new stage is not only between past and present but between the different areas that constitute social totality and which are in a process of disintegration. Each sphere functions according to its own logic in a world of increasing specialization and professionalization exemplified in the practices of both male characters. Through Urbino, medicine reveals its Messianic public task, its integration into the logical of modernization and progress; it is a universalizing practice that applies the formulae of a European model to a different reality, thus furthering to a great extent the breakup of national identity. In Florentino, “professionalism” takes the form of the extreme exploration and extension of his skills as an epistolary writer, lover and romantic hero who is integrated into the labor system under the principal rubric of the modernizing project—transport and communications. It is true that these sectors take on a parodic aspect that reinforces in him the idea of marginality and not of integration, and are more of a celebration of his eccentric and anachronic characteristics. The critique of modernity thus takes the form of loyalty to the past, to individualism, the questioning of the effects of modernizing praxis, and a defense of national identity.

By romanticizing the force of the tradition and the vitality of the popular sectors, by showing the delayed effect of an anachronistic individual heroism, by glorifying voluntarism and by relativizing the effects of marginalization, García Márquez depicts in a personal way the drama of modernity. The challenge of interpreting the real ideological implications of an America that has gradually taken shape in text after text of the continent's best known writer is left to the reader.


  1. On the theme of violence in the work of García Márquez, see, for example, Ernesto González Bermejo, “García Márquez: ahora doscientos años de soledad,” in Peter Earle ed. Gabriel García Márquez (Madrid: Taurus, 1982); Angel Rama, “Un novelista de la violencia latinoamericana,” in Mario Benedetti et. al. Nueve asedios a García Márquez (Santiago: Editorial Universitaria, 1972); Lucila Inés Mena, “Cien años de soledad: Novela de ‘La Violencia’” Hispamérica 13 (April 1976): 3-23.

  2. Page references are to Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera, tr. Edith Grossman (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989). Despite the vast bibliography on Gabriel García Márquez, there is as yet no global study of the Latin American question, that is, no exploration of what image of America is projected in his narratives, what are the ideological consequences of this “tropical” vision of history and the social reality of the continent. However, new perspectives are opened by Victor Farías in Los manuscritos de Melquíades. Cien años de soledad, burguesía latinoamericana y dialéctica de la reproducción ampliada de negación. (Frankfurt: Iberoamericana, 1981).

  3. The phrase comes from Ricardo Gullón, “García Márquez o el olvidado arte de contar,” in Peter Earle, Gabriel García Márquez.

  4. Francisco Arroyo, “El amor, la vejez, la muerte” in El País.Libros 321 (Dec. 12, 1985): 2.

  5. Arroyo, El País mentions the links with Flaubert's L'Education sentimentale. The idea of the “mad hero” is developed by José Miguel Oviedo, who in several novels identifies as a prototype the individual who throws himself into a cause that enslaves and sometimes destroys him. See “El amor en los tiempos de cólera de Gabriel García Márquez”, Vuelta 114 (Mayo, 1986): 33.

  6. Oviedo, Vuelta, 37.

  7. Arroyo, El País, 3.

  8. In his Teoría de la novela (Barcelona: Edhasa, 1971), 80, Georg Lukács privileges biography because of its organic structure. The relation between this organic and vital development of the “problematic hero” of the novel and the search for an ideal that exposes the system of concepts and values that motivates him may be applied to Florentino Ariza. García Márquez, however, takes to the extreme of parody the possibilities of this genre.

  9. Oviedo, Vuelta, 37.

  10. Arroyo, El País, 2.

  11. Arroyo, El País, 1.

  12. Arroyo, El País, 2.

  13. The association of love and plague is a tradition in literature, Death in Venice being one example. In Arroyo, El País (3), García Márquez also points out that plague was still common in the area described by the novel until the end of the last century.

  14. René Girard's notion of triangulated desire is relevant here. See Deceit, Desire and the Novel, tr. Yvonne Freccero, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965), although it would have to be historicized in the case of the novel under discussion.

  15. Bradford Burns, The Poverty of Progress: Latin America in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980): 8-9.

  16. Bradford Burns, Poverty of Progress, 17.

  17. Bradford Burns, Latin America: A Concise Interpretive History (New York: Prentice Hall, 1982): 87.


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Gabriel García Márquez 1928-

(Full name Gabriel José García Márquez) Colombian novelist, short story writer, journalist, playwright, critic, autobiographer, screenwriter, and children's writer.

The following entry presents an overview of García Márquez's career through 2003. See also Gabriel Garcia Marquez Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 2, 3, 8, 15, 27.

Nobel laureate García Márquez is included among the group of South American writers who rose to prominence during the 1960s, a period often referred to as the “boom” of Latin American literature. Like several of his peers, including authors Julio Cortázar and Ernesto Sabato, García Márquez wrote fiction for many years before gaining international recognition. The almost simultaneous publication of major works by these three authors—Cortázar's Hopscotch (1963), Sabato's On Heroes and Tombs (1961), and García Márquez's Cien años de soledad (1967; One Hundred Years of Solitude)—together with the appearance of first novels by Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa and the newly acknowledged importance of such writers as Jorge Luis Borges and Pablo Neruda, led to a renewed recognition of Latin American letters as a potent force in contemporary literature. The enthusiastic critical reception of García Márquez's works is usually attributed to his imaginative blending of history, politics, social realism, and fantasy. He frequently makes use of the literary style known as “magic realism,” embellishing his works with surreal events and fantastic imagery to obscure the distinctions between illusion and reality which, he implies, define human existence.

Biographical Information

García Márquez was born in Aracataca, Colombia, where he lived with his grandparents for the first eight years of his life. His grandmother's storytelling and the myths and superstitions of the townspeople all played major roles in shaping his imagination. He enrolled in the University of Bogotá in 1947 to study law, but when civil warfare in Colombia caused the school to close in 1948, he transferred to the University of Cartagena, simultaneously working as a journalist for the periodical El universal. Devoting himself to journalistic and literary endeavors, he discontinued his law studies in 1950 and moved to Barranquilla to work for the daily paper El heraldo. During this period, he began writing short stories that were published in regional periodicals, and through a circle of local writers, he became acquainted with the works of such authors as Franz Kafka, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce. García Márquez returned to Bogotá in 1954, serving as a film critic and reporter for El espectador, and the next year his novella La hojarasca (1955; Leaf Storm) was published. He worked as a foreign correspondent for the Espectador in 1955. A year later, however, the military government of Colombia headed by Gustavo Rojas Pinilla shut down the periodical and García Márquez subsequently traveled as a freelance journalist in London, Caracas, and Paris. In May 1959 he was instrumental in launching a branch of Prensa Latina, a news-wire service started by Cuban President Fidel Castro, in Bogotá, Columbia. In 1961 he moved to New York City with his family, finally settling in Mexico City in 1963. In 1982 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. García Márquez has received numerous awards and accolades throughout his career, including the Prix de Meilleur Livre Etranger in 1969 and the Romulo Gallegos prize in 1971 for One Hundred Years of Solitude, the Books Abroad/Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1972, a Los Angeles Times Book Prize nomination for fiction for Crónica de una muerte anunciada (1981; Chronicle of a Death Foretold), and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction for El amor en los tiempos de cólera (1985; Love in the Time of Cholera).

Major Works

García Márquez's early short stories were written in the late 1940s and early 1950s and are collected in such retrospective volumes as Leaf Storm and Other Stories (1972), Ojos de Perro Azul (1972; Eyes of a Blue Dog), La increíble y triste historia de la cándida Eréndira y de su abuela desalmada (1972), and Innocent Eréndira and Other Stories (1978). In his novella Leaf Storm García Márquez introduces Macondo, the fictional village based on García Márquez's hometown of Aracataca that would become the setting for several of his subsequent works. Leaf Storm recounts the story of a colonel and the inhabitants of a small town, dominated by a banana company, who come into conflict over the death of a solitary and unpopular doctor. The story's multiple narrative perspectives contribute to its theme of solitude and reflect the influence of author William Faulkner. In El coronel no tiene quien le escriba (1961; No One Writes to the Colonel) García Márquez presents a retired military officer who waits in a rural village for the mail to arrive with his government pension check. With its depiction of stifling social and political institutions, the novella has been taken to represent Columbia in general, and in particular, the state of the country during la violencia, a period of violent social and political crises that culminated during the 1950s. In his first novel La mala hora (1961; In Evil Hour) García Márquez uses a montage-like narrative style to depict a backwater town torn by political oppression and moral corruption.

García Márquez won immediate international acclaim and popularity with the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude. The novel chronicles the history of Macondo, from its harmonious beginnings under founder José Arcadio Buendia to its increasingly chaotic decline through six generations of descendants. The novel presents Macondo as a microcosm of Colombia and, by extension, of South America and the world. In addition to reflecting the political, social, and economic ills of South America, the novel is replete with fantastic events—for example, a baby is born with a pig's tail. Characterized by nonlinear narration and long, free-flowing sentences, critics have hailed One Hundred Years of Solitude as a masterpiece for its labyrinthine structure, epic scope, and stylistic complexity. García Márquez's next novel, El otoño del patriarca (1975; The Autumn of the Patriarch), depicts the evils of despotism as embodied in an unloved dictator. Blending aspects of journalism and literature, the novel represents a powerful political statement against totalitarianism and a poignant evocation of loneliness. The novel is written as a phantasmagorical narrative in which shifting viewpoints and extensive use of hyperbole enhance comedic and horrific effects.

Following a six-year hiatus, García Márquez published Chronicle of a Death Foretold, a fictionalized journalistic investigation embellished with the stylistic devices typical of his fiction. The story centers upon a murder that occurred twenty-seven years earlier and reportedly involved people with whom García Márquez was acquainted. Presenting eyewitness accounts that ultimately prove unreliable within shifting time sequences and a surreal atmosphere, Chronicle of a Death Foretold examines a tragedy that is fostered rather than averted by the inhabitants of rural community. In Love in the Time of Cholera, García Márquez explores various manifestations of love and examines themes relating to aging, death, and decay. Set in a South American community plagued by recurring civil wars and cholera epidemics from the late nineteenth century to the 1930s, the novel vividly details the emotional states of the three principal characters. The nonlinear narrative depicts poignant events in ordinary life and the history of the region, blending social realism with elements of sentimental literature and soap opera. The narrative is replete with witty epigrams and playful associations between the physical symptoms of cholera and the intense emotions of anger and love, as well as García Márquez's exploration of the motivation and interpretation of human behavior. In El general en su laberinto (1989; The General in His Labyrinth), García Márquez fictionalizes the last days in the life of Simón Bolívar, who led revolutionary armies to oust the Spaniards from the former South American colonies between 1811 and 1824. Despite his dreams of a unified South America, Bolívar sees his hopes for unification destroyed as alliances crumble due to intrigues, secessions, and military coups.

Del amor y otros demonios (1994; Of Love and Other Demons) was inspired by an event García Márquez witnessed as a reporter in 1949. Assigned to watch the transfer of burial remains from a convent in Cartagena, García Márquez was intrigued by the remains of a young girl with twenty-two meters of human hair attached to the skull. In the novella, he reconstructs the life and death of the girl, whom he names Sierva Maria. His interest in journalism and events in his native Colombia led to Noticia de un secuestro (1996; News of a Kidnapping), a nonfiction account of a series of abductions engineered by the Medellin drug cartel in 1990. The work explores the political situation in Colombia and the repercussions of the drug trade on its citizens. In 2002 García Márquez published his first volume of autobiography, Vivir para contarla (Living to Tell the Tale), which follows his life from his early years to the publication of Leaf Storm in 1972.

Critical Reception

García Márquez has developed a reputation as one of the most influential living world authors. Although his recent works have not garnered the near-universal acclaim of his masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude, his prose has still attracted an eager popular and critical audience. John Bayley has commented that, despite the success of One Hundred Years of Solitude, García Márquez's subsequent works “have broken fresh ground in their outlook and technique, and all have been received with praise and attention. Márquez has never repeated his own formula, no matter how much it may have been taken up and exploited by later novelists.” A number of scholars have debated the merits of García Márquez's continuing fusion of social issues and magic realism. While some have argued that García Márquez's unique perspective on political issues allows him to create imaginative and insightful metaphors, others have asserted that his elements of fantasy distort his social commentary, turning his subjects into grotesque caricatures. García Márquez's richly imagined locales, particularly that of the fictional village Macondo, have frequently drawn critical comparisons to Yoknapatawpha county, the mythical setting of William Faulkner's novels. His short stories and novels have also been favorably compared to the works of Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce.

David Buehrer (essay date fall 1990)

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SOURCE: Buehrer, David. “‘A Second Chance on Earth’: The Postmodern and the Post-apocalyptic in García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera.Critique 32, no. 1 (fall 1990): 15-26.

[In the following essay, Buehrer discusses Love in the Time of Cholera as a postmodern novel that utilizes a traditional thematic structure.]

On a day like today, my master William Faulkner said in this very place, “I refuse to admit the end of mankind.” I should not feel myself worthy of standing where he once stood were I not fully conscious that, for the first time in the history of humanity, the colossal disaster which he refused to recognize thirty-two years ago is now simply a scientific possibility. Face to face with a reality that overwhelms us, one which over man's perceptions of time must have seemed a utopia, tellers of tales who, like me, are capable of believing anything, feel entitled to believe that it is not yet too late to undertake the notion of a minor utopia: a new and limitless utopia for life wherein no one can decide for others how they are to die, where love really can be true and happiness possible, where the lineal generations of one hundred years of solitude will have at last and for ever a second chance on earth.

—Gabriel García Márquez, Nobel Address, 1982. Trans. Richard Cardwell

In John Barth's seminal 1980 essay on postmodernist fiction, “The Literature of Replenishment,” he singles out Gabriel García Márquez and his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude as quintessential examples of the postmodern genre. For Barth, what distinguishes García Márquez's fiction is its “synthesis of straightforwardness and artifice, realism and magic and myth, political passion and nonpolitical artistry, characterization and caricature, [and] humor and terror” (71)—all elements that characterize him as “an exemplary postmodernist and a master of the storyteller's art” (71). Yet prior to the publication of Love in the Time of Cholera, García Márquez stated in an interview that his forthcoming book would deal with the rather traditional themes of the “consciousness” of “old age, love and death” (qtd. in Simons 18). An obvious aesthetic contradiction seems to present itself here: how can a writer of contemporary fiction be perceived as an innovative postmodernist and a traditional storyteller at the same time? A provisional placement of García Márquez and his fiction into the broad social and cultural contexts of literary postmodernism also opens numerous critical trapdoors because a number of recent commentators, ranging from David Lodge to Gerald Graff,1 have attempted to define this contemporary “school” in terms of its specific characteristics. However, many of these defined traits—fictional self-reflexiveness, ironic commentary, fragmentation of the individual character, and various manifestations of literary recombination, recycling, and repetition of forms and genres—may seem more typical to that handful of North American postmodernists (Barth, Barthelme, and Pynchon are the usual designates) who have received a plethora of critical attention. In García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, this brand of literary postmodernism exists, but within the context of more traditionally expressed themes.

One such traditional theme that pervades the novel and serves to counter what theorists such as Gerald Graff and Todd Gitlin see as the inevitablist and fatalistic tendencies of much postmodern fiction2 is a certain counterstrain of “left-over” humanism that García Márquez employs. That is, if the climate of a postmodern culture encourages a kind of “cultural anesthesia” and the fictional chronicling of contemporary anxieties of “aftermath, privatization, [and] weightlessness” (Gitlin 36), García Márquez's new novel seems vehement in dismissing such options of literary escapism. Instead, he chooses to look beyond the apocalyptic impetuses of a “numb, recombinant” (Gitlin 36) postmodern fiction and to present a novel refreshingly traditional (or, one might say, post-apocalyptic) in its assumption that “old age, love and death” as human virtues can survive the “blast” (here, the metaphor for apocalypse being the cholera epidemic), that subsurface feeling can incubate in and be unearthed from the fallout ashes, that the resources for self-renewal, contrary to the inevitablist theories, are possible. To all of these assumptions the fifty-year, nine-month, and four-day love affair of Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza surely attests. Love in the Time of Cholera thus becomes García Márquez's answer to the seemingly apocalyptic ending of his One Hundred Years of Solitude: now, some twenty years later, humanity is endowed with the respite of “at last and for ever a second chance on earth,” and what to the postmodern theorists may seem an inevitable despair becomes to the fictional creator of the “world” of the novel a humanistic finality and hope.

The humanistic question that Love addresses, however, seems crucial to the future of contemporary fiction, postmodern or otherwise: if “the end is near” or has already enveloped us, is it possible for a “new and saving post-fiction” (Bradbury 17) to emerge, one capable of retaining a “whole” depiction of the individual and of rescuing art from its presently corrupted status, “hip deep in debris” (Gitlin 35)? With this question in mind, a possibly misguided effort of attempting to pigeonhole García Márquez and Love in the Time of Cholera into one or another critical camp—modernism, postmodernism, magical realism, or others—may be valuable only inasmuch as it helps illuminate the novel as the product of a progressively humanistic contemporary sensibility. By the standards of Gitlin's above-cited argument, García Márquez would have to be grounded in something closer to a modern, and not postmodern, literary tradition because it would seem to be the modernist belief that art serves as some kind of “declaration of faith”—in God, in philosophy, or at least in the defined aesthetic of the work itself. As Raymond Leslie Williams sees it, García Márquez and other Latin American “boom” writers of the past two decades clearly follow a modernist “shaping” aesthetic of employing literary techniques “to seek order and express the ineffable in a world lacking order and waiting to be named” (7). The problem with this analysis, as Williams readily admits, is that García Márquez is not “consistently” modern—that is, in much of his fiction he at times seems to “cross-over” to a postmodern mode of writing that “subverts rather than seeks order, and has language as its primary subject” (Williams 8-9). Certainly the “language-as-subject” definition of postmodernism is valid for all of García Márquez's novels; and Love, with its lyricism and highly stylized embellishments, is no exception. But we should weigh this definition against more seemingly pessimistic analyses of postmodern fiction: if, as Gerald Graff claims, the postmodern mode represents a corrupt aesthetic based solely on “narcissism and artistic self-contempt” (“The Myth” 398) and has as its only objective the “conscious subversiveness of [the] literary past” (“The Myth” 403), is it possible to find an appropriate niche in such a hard-nosed “school” for the often blatantly humanistic García Márquez?

Love in the Time of Cholera may indeed qualify as and cross-over into postmodernism because of García Márquez's “living off borrowed materials” and his recycling of past cultural debris (Gitlin 36). In fact, Robert Fiddian's analysis of the novel finds García Márquez consciously parodying the nineteenth-century follétin,3 hence producing a postmodern novel in which literary stereotypes are repudiated both in character and style and a lachrymose love story “masquerad[es] as a nineteenth-century work” (Fiddian 192). But such a reading assumes quite a bit—that García Márquez did set out systematically to burlesque a specific past literary genre, that Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza were deliberately framed in comic-parodic terms, that García Márquez's language was purposely melodramatized and hence is reducible to a form of obvious farce that comments on a hackneyed former genre. Yet this seems overly reductionistic to the other extreme: the novel not as broad-minded humanism but merely as a postmodern ironic pastiche—a statement of anti-humanism—of such forms of ridiculous emotional high-mindedness. A modified approach between these extremes of literary branding—that is, the novel as modern declaration of faith or as postmodern “trashing” of faith—might be suggested by García Márquez's apparently fatalistic brand of humanism4 as it surfaces in the novel, or by a faith in the renewal of human emotions that is partially tainted by the author's foreknowledge of death. Such a compromise positioning of Love—neither pure faith in the immutability of man nor outright debunking of his pretentious nature—may better serve its authorial intent and relieve it from an “either/or” status in terms of its “place” in the contemporary literary canon.

The novel is loosely “about” one of those conventions of the nineteenth-century follétin: the “love triangle,” here of Dr. Juvenal Urbino, his wife, Fermina Daza, and Florentino Ariza, the love-sick poet who has waited “fifty years, nine months, and four days” to restate a pledge of “eternal fidelity and everlasting love” (50)5 to Fermina, the now elderly sweetheart of his youth. Certainly the tone for a melodramatic, lachrymose portrayal of the trials of unrequited love is established (as Fiddian suggests), but perhaps García Márquez wants us to take him, and his seemingly stereotypical characters, more literally than we at first want to or believe we can (late twentieth-century wallowers in the “debris” and disillusionment of postmodern culture that we are). What are the implications, for instance, of a character like Florentino Ariza, a hopeless romantic who takes on the obstacles of both cultural restrictions and the finite nature of time—in this case, a half-century of his life—like a “stubborn warrior against age and death, and in the name of [eternal] love” (Pynchon 47) for a fickle teenage girl who long ago jilted him? To turn such a character into an absurd, parodic model of a past literary “type” would be the knee-jerk postmodernist response. After all, most insightful postmodern fiction writers have realized that literary “characters” are little more than “sentimental attachments [which have] decomposed” (see Gitlin 35) like the culture around them, or that such writers with their savage wit are helping to disassemble. Who in our contemporary cultural milieu would take seriously (or with a straight-face) the description of a female “heroine” (even this word betrays a “sentimental” bias that has by now been overwhelmingly abandoned) like Love's Fermina Daza, a “beautiful adolescent with … almond shaped eyes” and with the “natural haughtiness … [of] her doe's gait making her seem immune to gravity” (56)? Most characters of postmodern literature are hardly so defined, if they are defined at all.6 Without any clear bearings within the massiveness of society, the postmodern character is not a quester after any individual definition of the self (as may be true for a modern character like Jay Gatsby) but instead exudes complacency and, like Barthelme's bored Snow White, embodies “the comic impossibility of heroism in a world paralyzed by self-consciousness” (Graff, “Babbitt” 326).

But taken seriously in a traditional sense as well as comically in a postmodern one, Love's characters, specifically Florentino and Fermina, stand as ideal projections of the possibility of human emotionality, even within a drab postmodern society that stifles “the real news of subsurface feeling” (Gitlin 36). It is as if García Márquez has endowed his characters with enough traits of traditional humanistic belief to balance whatever postmodern features may be working to disassemble them.7 Unlike his contemporary, Robbe-Grillet, who believes that the “death of character” is the necessary end result of a fiction that, like the culture that bore it, is morally defunct and socially fragmented, García Márquez feels that the resources for “self”-renewal are possible, that the human character and its fictional counterpart need not be sucked into the vacuum of a cultural entropy, that the “resurrection of the human body” (Pynchon 47) and a corresponding faith in human immutability, though at present fashionably scoffed at, are achievable, albeit only in a created “minor utopia.” Such a traditional humanistic faith is “revolutionary,” as Pynchon puts it (47), because it stands in dogged resistance to the “cultural anesthesia” (Gitlin 36) that a postmodern society is supposed to foster. The audacity of a character's actually believing in a concept as ephemeral as “eternal love” (and surely Florentino does, though his life-long series of sexual liaisons somewhat lessen or make comic his sincerity)—a concept we all assumed long ago dead, or at least ripe presently for parodic debasement—in essence challenges the belief that a postmodern culture necessitates emotional dearth.

Similarly, the defined “wholeness” of García Márquez's characters, complete with broad-ranging human feelings and desires, suggests that he is not willing to “coast down the [postmodern] currents of least resistance” (Gitlin 36) as far as man's transformative power over himself and his present environment is concerned. Florentino's fifty-year wait for “everlasting love” seems to be the strongest metaphor for this authorial thrust: the depiction of a post-“cultural anesthesia” stage in which, after years of having to refuse to feel, the character converts his deprivation into an all-the-more acute, cathartic emotional response. Instead of taking us down those currents of least resistance like a good postmodernist should, García Márquez tosses the readers of Love upon the rapids of the “reborn” emotional response: we drift from an apocalyptic freeze or cauterization of emotions to the tropical heat or vitality of a finally consummated, long-incubating love affair. If Florentino and Fermina can be called “postmodern” characters, therefore, it is only in the role they play as embodiments of the “saving post-fiction” that García Márquez, much like Saul Bellow in his character-dominated, humanistic novels (Bradbury 17-19), seems determined to create. “Aftermath, privatization [and] weightlessness” (Gitlin 36) may be the milieu of our postmodern culture, but the post-state to the deprivation of feeling seems to be a more intense counter-response to the years of emotional subterfuge, a state tied intrinsically to García Márquez's “minor utopia” of history and setting that is his fictional world of the novel.

What is particular about the setting and history of Love, unlike its predecessor One Hundred Years of Solitude, is the sense in which “magical realism”8 is no longer a necessary prerequisite to the making of the Garcíamárquezine novelistic environment. As Pynchon sees it in his review of the novel, the “reality” of love and the possibility of its ultimate extinction become Love's “indispensable driving forces,” whereas magic in all its guises and forms becomes peripheralized or “at least more thoughtfully deployed in the service of an expanded vision, matured, darker than before but no less clement” (49). This is not to say that all trace of “magic”—i.e., the plague of insomnia, the ascension of Remedios the Beauty in One Hundred Years—is missing in Love: there is something ultimately “unreal” and comic in the narrator's casual calculation of Florentino's 622 “long-term liaisons, apart from … countless fleeting adventures” (152) during the romantic's life in seclusion from his “real” love, Fermina, for example. But this novel of “aftermath” presents more definably a sequel or follow-up stage to what Gerald Martin sees as García Márquez's switch to social (and, hence, traditional) reality as opposed to magical reality, a switch that occurs with the so-called “apocalyptic” ending of One Hundred Years (111). Certainly in Love García Márquez is “creating” his own fictional world in that ontological sense that Brian McHale sees as requisite to any postmodern novel (10),9 yet in terms of the post-apocalyptic thesis suggested earlier, Love can be viewed as symbolic of a particular period of historical de-evolution in Latin America. In the setting of a small Colombian coastal town, a rough composite of Cartagena, the home of the author's parents, and Baranquilla, during the half-century of Florentino Ariza's incubating love, significant social and historical changes transpire in Latin America's perception of itself as a dream-land at last awakening to form a new reality from the fragments of cultural debris that remain. Here, then, the postmodern and the traditional are colliding on the same fictional plane: although the characters must employ so-called postmodern methods of recycling and recombination to revitalize their environment, they must do so in a less than magical world and through the power of their own human potentialities. In this sense, as Aureliano Babilinia's “deciphering” of the manuscripts of history at the close of One Hundred Years signals the end of historical era of neo-colonialism and the apocalyptic starting point for a people's new definition of themselves (Martin 112), so the finally consummated love of Florentino and Fermina in old age as the climax of Love signals the beginning of a “new era,” a post-apocalyptic one that sees the return to traditional humanistic values as its wellspring of hope.

In this far-reaching cultural sense, therefore, it is possible to see why García Márquez chose the period 1880-1930 in which to shape his allegory of “aftermath and privatization” and the possibilities for cultural continuation that proceed it. The “environment” of Love concerns the antitheses of this volatile and changing history and the characters that embody it. There is Dr. Juvenal Urbino, figurehead for the “last” nineteenth-century hero, well-born, arrogant, but along with his venerable family showing signs of the decay of an old order—possibly the era of neo-colonialism itself—and its progressive deterioration into shabby genteelism. There is Florentino, who is born in poverty but rises to social prominence as a self-made man and president of the River Company at the precise period that one century turns over and collides with the nouveau riche next one. Finally, there is Fermina, another last of a dying breed, this time of youthful debutantes with shady family histories, who eventually throws personal pretension and social prominence to the wind by accepting the sexual but “everlasting” love of Florentino even in old age. Within this historical conflux looms that central symbol for one age threatening the obliteration of a former one: the “cholera” epidemic, the apocalyptic proliferation of death over a half-century, which, by the ambiguity of García Márquez's native Spanish, can be perceived as either the fatal disease itself—el colera—or as the general condition of choler, anger, and finally warfare—la colera—that in its more sweeping sense signifies “a devastating force, a plague, whose only meaning is death on a massive scale” (Pynchon 47). For those who survive it as well as those who fight it (Urbino through medicine, Florentino through faith in erotic love), it is the world-ending plague of the era, out of which either the culture will persevere amidst increasing increments of decay or will succumb to eventual, unalterable disintegration. Such a period of microcosmic apocalypse thus becomes the atemporal setting of García Márquez's “historiographic metafiction” (Hutcheon 285)—a fiction that comments not only upon the social conditions that can or cannot make self-renewal possible, but that also accepts the integral role the creation of the fictional world plays in “surviving” (albeit in an only “minor utopia”) the effects of the apocalyptic “fallout.” The symbol of the phoenix, though grossly overused to the point of cliché, nevertheless seems most applicable to the general tenor of the question inherent in García Márquez's narrative: after decimation—environmental, cultural, social, even personal—what can possibly remain to revive a world spent by abuse and its own historical exhaustion?

Fiddian reduces the answer to such a question to “heterosexual love” (197), but in a broader sense what survives is a more general “love among the ruins”—that is, the indomitable quality of human emotion in the face of historical and cultural forces bent on forcing its demise. It thus becomes a question of whether the extinction of a “world”—by a physical as well as what might be termed a modern socio-economic “plague”—necessitates the extinction of that world's underlying “dominant,” which, in García Márquez's humanistic ideology, is human love, in all its manifestations. This then is how and where the trans-generational milieu of Love takes on its postmodern “maker's” formation and “recombination of hand-me-down scraps” (Gitlin 35)—those remains or ashes of historical apocalypse, no matter its specific form—into a “new” world, or the resurrection of a “new Eden.” The “blast” may have devastated the environment, but paradoxically, it has served only to purify the emotions that have endured. This ontological perspective of a “new world” salvaged from the shards of an old one is beautifully displayed in the description of the turn-of-the-century balloon trip taken by Fermina and her husband:

From the sky they could see, just as God saw them, the ruins of the very old and heroic city of Cartegena de Indias, the most beautiful in the world, abandoned by its inhabitants because of the sieges of the English and the atrocities of the buccaneers. They saw the walls, still intact, the brambles in the streets, the fortifications devoured by heartsease, the marble palaces and the golden altars and the viceroys rotting with plague inside their armour.


Fermina and Florentino later are to become the unchosen proprietors of this new world of post or after-history, therefore—after neo-colonialism, after the “progress” of industrialization (that is supposed to bring with it “order” and “moral clarity,” yet such virtues, in a postmodern culture, have progressively disintegrated [Gitlin] 36]), but before what?

García Márquez firmly embeds his new “heroes” in the “aftermath” of history that is the twentieth-century, but he is not so idealistic as to confess that “love conquers all” and in all situations, because his humanism is one tempered by the realities of human existence in a corrupt, decrepit age. For instance, while professing his state of “virginity” to the aged Fermina (339), Florentino's idealization of love is blemished by our knowledge not only of his lifetime of countless sexual trysts, but especially of that one that concludes with the suicide of his 14-year-old charge, América Vicuña (336). This, then, seems to be García Márquez's mature brand of humanism at work: the “new Eden” that his old lovers resurrect from the ashes (or the dry riverbed) will not be a purely Pollyannaic one—Florentino's profession to Fermina of his spotless nature is farcical—but one tempered by the cold reality of imminent human death (América Vicuña's is a mere foreknowledge of the lovers' own). It is as if García Márquez's faith in and hope for a “minor utopia” and “second chance on earth,” however liberating, must always remain clouded by the ominous threat of self-destruction: after all, if the earth itself (evidenced at the novel's close by the setting of deforestation on the Magdalena River) can be permanently destroyed, what is to stop human emotionality, with the death of the body, from succumbing possibly to a similar fate?

It is the river, finally, the Great Magdalena (in Spanish, the “river of life”) on which Florentino Ariza had made his livelihood but left one day on a journey of forgetting only to return, regardless of the cost, to wait for the day that the widowed Fermina Daza would be his, that García Márquez uses at the close of Love to consolidate his vision of humanistic hope amidst the fallout of historical apocalypse. As they board the New Fidelity (a name loaded with the weight of the lovers' re-established vow to each other) for what will be a journey without end, Florentino and Fermina at once evidence the signs that a half-century of apocalyptic waste has wrecked on a formerly Edenic setting:

… the Magdalena, father of waters, one of the great rivers of the world, was only an illusion of memory. … Fifty years of uncontrolled deforestation had destroyed the river: the boilers of the riverboats had consumed the thick forest of colossal trees. … The hunters for skins … had exterminated the alligators that, with yawning mouths, had played dead for hours on end in the gullies along the shore as they lay in wait for the butterflies, the parrots with their shrieking and the monkeys with their lunatic screams had died out as the foliage was destroyed, the manatees with their great breasts that had nursed their young and wept on the banks in a forlorn woman's voice were an extinct species, annihilated.


Confronted by this ecological wasteland, partly of their own making (after all, Florentino's ships have “consumed” much of the lumber), by “the nauseating stench of corpses floating down to the sea” and the “vast silence of the ravaged land” (336), the lovers and their at-last-sanctioned desire seem to have arrived too late. They now find themselves the sole inheritors of a world raped beyond recognition, where vague emotional longings like “love” and “fidelity” have little right or place to exist. This is the world-stage of post-apocalypse that García Márquez last left us with at the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude, as Aureliano Babilonia, deciphering the cryptic manuscripts, discovers at the same moment the cold realization that his “history” is over, the Buendia house ravaged by the cyclone of dogged time, his own and his family's lineal heritage of “one hundred years of solitude” left in the devastated state of never being endowed “a second opportunity on earth” (383). Hence, the time (or reality) after such apocalypse can no longer be conceived of as “magical.” In Love, it is the time and setting of the “other” America, scarred by its own complacency and the exploitation of others, but it is also a time beyond time, beyond apocalypse, and therefore a mythical past that García Márquez must conceive (as his Nobel address surely suggests) as a projected, possible future. But if physically drained and exhausted by the forces of its own history, a postmodern “heart of darkness” from which there seems no return, the river of Love is also, paradoxically, the depthless reservoir that symbolizes the rebirth of human emotions. “By the time he [Florentino] realized the truth, there was nothing anyone could do except bring in a new river” (337). If this environmental option seems practicably impossible, García Márquez does seem to be admitting that a “new river” or source of emotional renewal is possible—one that is conceived or created by immutable human potentialities. Just as modern man's reckless “progress” is capable of ecological destruction, his postmodern successor—blindly, naively, but yet necessarily—must remain (or survive) to reconstruct from the debris a vestige of human faith and hope. Here, then, is postmodern man serving a decidedly positive function: instead of drifting ignorantly down those “currents of least resistance” that Gitlin perceives as our self-evident fate both in art and life, Florentino and Fermina confront, at a time when they should know better (as Fermina's daughter smugly implies), the turbulent waters of life head on, overwhelmed finally, like the captain of the New Fidelity, “by the belated suspicion that it is life, more than death, that has no limits” (348).

The force of ontological, world-creating “suspicion” alone, however, does not make them the postmodern characters of a postmodern author. In the vague but significant sense that both characters and García Márquez himself recognize that they are left with only the cultural debris or fragments of a world (real or fictional) to reconstruct, they are postmodern. But García Márquez is hardly content to wallow and eventually drown in such suffocating debris: face-to-face with the “reality” that is nothing less than the “scientific possibility” of the end of the world, a human writer admits (and prays for) “at last and forever” the second chance for man on earth that Florentino and Fermina are granted in their old age. Such traditional faith in human immutability could quite easily be perceived, especially in our postmodern culture, as naive utopianism that human reality every day persistently contradicts. But if a passive hopelessness in feeling historically stranded is the typical postmodernist's response, García Márquez and the fictional characters who speak eloquently for him cannot accept such trendy resignation: whether it is specifically that “other” America, his Latin America that has just awakened from its nightmare of twentieth-century history, or whether through this sleepy, tropical setting he is evoking a universal condition, García Márquez in Love in the Time of Cholera is willing to take the daring “leap of faith” on the side of man himself over the inevitablist theories or possibilities man can create for himself. In taking such a seemingly unpopular but obviously essential stand, García Márquez is responsible in the process for creating that brand of “new and saving post-fiction” that has as its subject “not … the death of the self or the collapse of the referential” (Bradbury 18), but a character of broad humanistic vision who is capable still of “love,” the most elusive of all emotional abstractions, in a world of past and ever-impending “cholera”—plague, war, apocalypse. Although “forever” (348) is a long time to believe man can survive, especially in an atomic age, García Márquez would have nothing less for Florentino and Fermina, for nothing but that love he bestows to them is capable of that rejuvenating power of hope that he sees as paramount to our survival as a race.


  1. Lodge, in his essay “Postmodernist Fiction” (in The Modes of Modern Writing: Metaphor, Metonymy, and the Typology of Modern Literature. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977: 220-245), for instance, includes as his “list” of postmodern categories “Contradiction,” “Permutation,” “Discontinuity,” “Randomness,” “Excess,” and the “Short-Circuit,” with corresponding examples (mainly from American fiction) of each. See Graff's seminal essays “The Myth of the Postmodernist Breakthrough” and “Babbitt at the Abyss” (both listed in Works Cited) for his varying “lists” of postmodern characteristics.

  2. In “The Myth of the Postmodernist Breakthrough” Graff, for instance, defines the postmodern as serving the essentially “apocalyptic” function of revealing the destructiveness and uselessness of contemporary art and reality (392). Gitlin's dark analysis of postmodern culture and its productions, in “Hip-Deep in Post-modernism,” continues Graff's apocalyptic thesis: postmodernism (and especially its literary representations) is merely a form of “anticipatory shell-shock” (36), as if “the bomb” has already fallen. Hence, although postmodern fiction must necessarily invoke the recycling of past cultural debris, it tends to leave its reader feeling “historically stranded—after the 1960s, but before what?” (Gitlin 36). In fact, at the close of his article Gitlin seems to be pleading for a kind of contemporary fiction that does not merely “coast down the currents of least resistance” (36), as a postmodern culture might heartily encourage. Perhaps the return to traditionalism in what might be termed a post-apocalyptic fiction—García Márquez's Love—is what Gitlin is desiring.

  3. The follétin was that brand of sentimental romance novel best characterized in Latin America by Jorge Isaac's Mariá.

  4. Fiddian as well cites Fermina's obsession with a newspaper report, as she travels with Florentino on the New Fidelity, concerning the brutal murder of an elderly couple on a similar riverboat as they depart on a second honeymoon (Love 460-61) as evidence of García Márquez's own “intimation of mortality” (199-200) and thus nuance-ridden “humanism.”

  5. All page references are to Gabriel García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, trans. Edith Grossman, New York: Knopf, 1988 (except where otherwise indicated).

  6. In “Babbitt at the Abyss,” for instance, Graff sees the only distinguishable trait of a postmodern character to be his “amiable passivity” and apathy in the face of a constantly changing contemporary society, leading to a “diffuse, unfocused, protean self which cannot define issues in any determinate way” (309).

  7. García Márquez, in fact, seems to be answering with his characters Malcolm Bradbury's complaint that the contemporary novel's depiction of “the complexity of the individual was never more necessary, since in our time so many processes and so many theories are arrayed against it” (see his Introduction to Saul Bellow 18).

  8. John Brushwood in a recent article succinctly defined this term as the “boom” fictional category in which the marvelous “exists naturally; one does not have to invent strange juxtapositions/associations” (see his “Two Views of the Boom: North and South,” Latin American Literary Review 15.29 [January-June 1987]: 19-20). For further definitions of “magical realism” and a brief summary of its history as a movement, see Angel Flores's “Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction” (Hispania 38 [May 1955]: 187-192).

  9. McGrath, in the opening chapter of his study Postmodernist Fiction (1987), uses the Russian formalist concept of the “dominant” to distinguish modernist from postmodernist novels. By his analysis, the essential difference (i.e., common denominator, or “dominant”) between the modern and the postmodern text involves the latter's shifting of the underlying dominant from problems of knowing to problems of “modes of being—from an epistemological dominant to an ontological one” (10). For the postmodern novelist (and McGrath includes García Márquez under this rank), therefore, ontology, or “a theoretical description of a universe” (27)—not the universe, but any universe, real or created—becomes his overriding concern, and his text thus emphasizes questions such as “Which world is this? What is to be done with it? … What is a world? What kinds of worlds are there … [and] what happens when different kinds of worlds are placed in confrontation? … How is a projected world structured?” (10).

Works Cited

Barth, John. “The Literature of Replenishment: Postmodernist Fiction.” The Atlantic January 1980: 65-71.

Bradbury, Malcolm. Introduction: “Saul Bellow and the Contemporary Novel.” Saul Bellow. London, New York: Methuen, 1982. 15-34.

Fiddian, Robin. “A Prospective Post-Script: Apropos of Love in the Time of Cholera.Gabriel García Márquez: New Readings. Eds. Bernard McGuirk and Richard Cardwell. New York and London: Cambridge UP, 1987. 191-205.

García Márquez, Gabriel. Love in the Time of Cholera. Trans. Edith Grossman. New York: Knopf, 1988.

———. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Trans. Gregory Rabassa. New York: Harper, 1970.

———. “The Solitude of Latin America: Nobel Address 1982.” Trans. Richard Cardwell. New York and London: Cambridge UP, 1987. 207-211.

Gitlin, Todd. “Hip-Deep in Post-modernism.” New York Times Book Review 6 November 1988: 1, 35-36.

Graff, Gerald. “Babbitt at the Abyss: The Social Context of Postmodern American Fiction.” TriQuarterly 33 (1975): 305-337.

———. “The Myth of the Postmodernist Breakthrough,” TriQuarterly 26 (Winter 1973): 383-417.

Hutcheon, Linda. “‘The Pastime of Past Time’: Fiction, History, Historiographic Metafiction.” Genre 20 (Fall/Winter 1987): 285-305.

Martin, Gerald. “On ‘Magical’ and Social Realism in García Márquez.” Gabriel García Márquez: New Readings. Eds. Bernard McGuirk and Richard Cardwell. New York and London: Cambridge UP, 1987. 95-116.

McHale, Brian. “From Modernist to Postmodernist Fiction: Change of Dominant.” Postmodernist Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1987. 3-25.

Pynchon, Thomas. “The Heart's Eternal Vow.” Review of Love in the Time of Cholera.New York Times Book Review 10 April 1988: 1, 47, 49.

Simons, Marlise. “Love and Age: A Talk With García Márquez.” New York Times Book Review 1 April 1985: 1, 18-19.

Williams, Raymond Leslie. “Preface” to Special Issue: The Boom in Retrospect. Latin American Literary Review 15.29 (January-June 1987): 7-11.

Principal Works

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La hojarasca [Leaf Storm] (novella) 1955

El coronel no tiene quien le escriba [No One Writes to the Colonel] (novella) 1961

La mala hora [In Evil Hour] (novel) 1961

Los Funerales de la Mamá Grande [Big Mama's Funeral] (short stories) 1962

Cien años de soledad [One Hundred Years of Solitude] (novel) 1967

No One Writes to the Colonel and Other Stories (novella and short stories) 1968

La novella en America Latina: Diálago [with Mario Vargas Llosa] (criticism) 1968

Relato de un náufrago [The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor] (journalism) 1970

La increíble y triste historia de la cándida Eréndira y de su abuela desalmada (short stories) 1972

Leaf Storm and Other Stories (novella and short stories) 1972

Ojos de Perro Azul [Eyes of a Blue Dog] (short stories) 1972

Cuando era feliz e indocumentado (journalism) 1973

El otoño del patriarca [The Autumn of the Patriarch] (novel) 1975

Todos los cuentos de Gabriel García Márquez: 1947-1972 (short stories) 1975

Crónica y reportajes (journalism) 1978

Innocent Eréndira and Other Stories (short stories) 1978

Periodismo militante (journalism) 1978

Crónica de una muerte anunciada [Chronicle of a Death Foretold] (novella) 1981

Viva Sandino (play) 1982

Collected Stories (short stories) 1984

El amor en los tiempos del cólera [Love in the Time of Cholera] (novel) 1985

Diatriba de amor contra un hombre sentado: monologo en un acto [Diatribe of Love against a Seated Man] (play) 1988

Milagro en Roma [with Lisandro Duque Naranjo] (screenplay) 1988

El general en su laberinto [The General in His Labyrinth] (novel) 1989

Collected Novellas (novellas) 1990

Primeros reportajes (journalism) 1990

Doce cuentos peregrinos [Strange Pilgrims: Twelve Stories] (short stories) 1992

The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World: A Tale for Children (juvenilia) 1993

Del amor y otros demonios [Of Love and Other Demons] (novella) 1994

Noticia de un secuestro [News of a Kidnapping] (nonfiction) 1996

For the Sake of a Country within Reach of the Children (nonfiction) 1998

El verano feliz de la señora Forbes [Mrs. Forbes's Happy Summer; illustrations by Carme Solé Vendrell] (juvenilia) 1999

Vivir para contarla [Living to Tell the Tale] (autobiography) 2002

Robert M. Adams (review date 11 October 1990)

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SOURCE: Adams, Robert M. “Liberators.” New York Review of Books 37, no. 15 (11 October 1990): 17-18.

[In the following review, Adams praises the elegiac language of The General in His Labyrinth, contrasting the work with the fiction of Mario Vargas Llosa.]

Some years ago a society of malcontents planted a large bomb under the roadway leading from Colombey-les-deux-Eglises to Paris. They exploded it almost on time, and blew up, instead of General de Gaulle, a car full of his bodyguards and secretaries. The general emerged from his undamaged vehicle, surveyed the carnage with a professional eye, and said simply, “Dommage. Une belle sortie.” In effect: A fine opportunity wasted.

Simón Bolívar, known simply but sufficiently as the Liberator, also suffered from a script writer with a bad sense of timing. Gabriel García Márquez, with more than a few touches of his novelist's art, has improved on history by changing the account of Bolívar's last months from a slow-paced and solemn funeral procession into a panorama of heroic achievements culminating in sardonic and embittered failure.

The General in His Labyrinth begins at the very end of Bolívar's unimaginably adventurous and frequently triumphant career, and lets just enough of its past brilliance shine through to lend pathos and perspective to the slow, inevitable present. When he died in 1830, at the age of forty-seven, Simón Bolívar was penniless, unemployed, and fiercely unpopular; after trekking in the name of liberty through thousands of miles of jungle, fighting hundreds of battles, devising and escaping from plots beyond number, and wearing himself down to an emaciated skeleton, he had resigned all his offices, and was about to leave the lands he had liberated from colonialism. For the moment, he could not get a passport, or enough money for his passage to Europe.

Officialdom still spoke of him with great respect, but the functionaries could barely conceal their eagerness to be rid of him, and his last little cadre of loyal officers had to surround and protect him from mobs of embittered citizens, who wanted to assassinate him before he left Bogotá for the coast.

It is hard to imagine a loftier title than the one he had been given by popular acclaim, and was to bear through the last bitter years of his life. He was the Liberator; millions of people owed their freedom to Bolívar, including those who now scrawled obscene graffiti about him on the walls of his residence, and threw feces at him from around corners. It would be hard to imagine a more ignominious dismissal from the stage of history than his last days at Bogotá. That would have been the moment and those the circumstances to satisfy his bitter sense of historic irony—a fine opportunity to ring down the curtain.

Instead, he left the capital early one morning, traveling muffled up amid his retinue to avoid notice. A few faithful officers accompanied him, but the last faithful mistress was left behind to keep a keen eye on the government. They rode cross country to Honda, and from there on barges floated down the Magdalena River toward Cartagena, the seaport. En route there were contretemps and humiliations for the general. His English aide-de-camp was so much more handsome and imposing than the Liberator that the gifts and compliments were sometimes addressed to the wrong man; in some little river towns, word had not yet arrived from the capital of Bolívar's resignation, so that he was still addressed as the President. Most of the state banquets, however elaborately prepared, went uneaten because the Liberator, who for twenty years had destroyed his digestion with jungle food, could absorb nothing but a few spoonfuls of cornmeal mush.

On the other hand, old comrades in arms turned up every so often to exchange memories, sing songs by jungle campfires, and join in cursing the government. Bolívar even encounters, to the great benefit of García Márquez's narrative, a lady out of his own romantic past. She was an English woman named Miranda Lyndsay, whom he had met years before on the island of Jamaica. Shortly after their encounter, she proposed an assignation—at which, however, she limited their contact to an occasional kiss and promises explicit enough to keep him with her all night long. When he got home next morning, he found that the bodyguard assigned to watch over him had slipped, in his absence, into Bolívar's hammock, and had there been assassinated with multiple stab wounds. On this last journey, Miranda Lyndsay, who had saved his life fifteen years before, turns up to ask a favor in return, which Bolívar was able to grant.

There is so much fantasy in the reality of this climactic journey of a dramatic life that García Márquez has been able to forgo very largely his own vivid inventive powers, and piece together his story from the fully documented biographies, of which there is an almost overwhelming number. All this time the little flotilla of barges is understood to be making slow progress down the Magdalena toward the sea, and Bolívar is understood to be intent on sailing for Europe as soon as a promised passport and some much-needed cash should arrive. Both did in fact arrive while he was staying in the town of Turbaco, just outside Cartagena, and so did a number of possible vessels; yet the general rejected them all, and lingered still, to the great impatience of his entourage, who were all men of action. Evidently Bolívar's ties to South American intrigues—one, particularly, for seizing control of Venezuela, marching on Colombia, and launching a new war for reconquest of all the recently liberated countries of South America—were too hard to break.

Discounting major differences of time and circumstance, this manic passion of the Liberator for freeing yet again all the countries he had recently freed for the first time reminds a reader of Márquez's hero in One Hundred Years of Solitude, Colonel Aureliano Buendía, who after losing a whole cycle of disastrous wars is still ready to put aside his ancient pains, join with a few surviving graybeards, and embark on a whole new set of campaigns. About this point, heroic determination starts to look like simple mania.

Since The General in His Labyrinth has little strong action, its ending contains few surprises. Its mode is elegiac, not explanatory. A reader who pauses a moment for reflection is bound to wonder what possible advantage there would be for South America if all the different tribes, cultures, linguistic and national groups were united, as Bolívar dreamed of doing, in a single national state. That, as he says, was his unwavering lifelong objective, and no man could have striven after it more heroically. But it was too much for flesh and blood, and in the end one is struck with sympathy for a crude, cruel graffito that appeared on the walls of Bogotá during the days of Bolívar's last hesitations: “He won't leave, and he won't die”—it was a tough thing to say about the founder and greatest national hero of Colombia. But he had been a torment to the popular conscience long enough. He had in him more than a streak of General Patton's creed that a man's civic duty is never done as long as he's alive: it was the human thing to rebel against him.

When he broke the South American sound barrier with One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967, García Márquez was almost forty years old, and while he has continued to write new fictions, he has also drawn on his earlier work in his recent publications. The Collected Novellas, just published, includes three stories, one dated 1955, one 1961, and one 1981. The last is the impressive Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which already appeared as a separate volume in 1983.1 Both Leaf Storm and No One Writes to the Colonel recapitulate material used in One Hundred Years of Solitude. No doubt there's a strong sense of economy at work here, as is most apparent in one instance when the same story is reprinted in two different forms. But another consideration is that all the stories of García Márquez are submerged in time and interwoven with allusions back and forth in time. Very frequently the narration glances forward to what a character will recall some time in the remote future about an event that hasn't yet occurred. Prophecies, intuitions, and omens of the future create a web of interrelations as intuitive as anything in Balzac. Though it's not an integral part of this strange and wonderful landscape, Márquez's lament for Bolívar will stand at its center, even as the indomitable, egomaniacal Liberator bestrides the Andean community to this day.

Among the recent, full-length fictions of García Márquez, less imposing surely than One Hundred Years of Solitude, but adding to the sense of a full novelistic achievement, is a fairly recent book, Love in the Time of Cholera (Spanish edition 1985, English 1988), which might well make the reputation of a writer who didn't already have a reputation. The book is another rich chronicle of family relations, this time set among the upper bourgeoisie of Cartagena. Fermina Daza, the central female figure if not the heroine, must reconcile a husband—outwardly important and successful as a physician, actually weak—with a lover, who is far from dashing but devoted and tenacious. Her solution is to take them one at a time.

After fifty-one years, nine months, and four days of ardent anticipation, the lover Florentino Ariza finally achieves an exquisite balance of erotic understandings with his hard-bitten honeybunch. For she is a whiplash lady with a withering tongue and an implacable will—well, almost. When the still-youthful Florentino, after a clandestine courtship, proposes marriage, she takes four months to consider, and then gives him the answer: “Yes, I will marry you if you promise not to make me eat eggplant.” Years later, she eats, without knowing what it is, a dish of which the chief ingredient is eggplant—and finds it delicious. But that's a García Márquez character for you, sticking like a limpet to a meaningless point of honor.

People needed a lot of backbone to survive in the time of cholera. It was a frightening disease well into the twentieth century, and several times came close to wiping out the city of Cartagena. In the novel it is a constant element of the swampy, squalid Magdalena landscape, but it is a metaphorical doom afflicting a sick society as well. During a pioneering balloon ride over the countryside, Fermina Daza sees corpses scattered along the roads, each with a puddle of telltale white gruel at the mouth; but for good measure each also has a fatal pistol wound in the back of the neck. That may be a glancing allusion to the terrible period of Colombian history (between 1948 and 1958), known simply as the Violence, when people by the hundreds of thousands were slaughtered for no reason that anyone has been able to formulate since.

The region has a dark and bloody history; disease mixes with murder, each befouling the other. It is a major test of the novelist's craft to handle this awful material without fudging it and yet without rubbing the reader's nose in it. That the characters, and with them the sympathetic reader, reach a conclusion of qualified and half-exhausted triumph is an even greater triumph for the author. The newly united lovers must be nearly in their eighties; on an endless cruise to nowhere up and down the ravaged Magdalena River, the vessel of their liberation flies the sinister flag that warns of cholera abroad. It is a false signal that removes crew and passengers alike from all contact with the truly pestilent society of the bankside—a kind of precarious safety snatched from the jaws of ultimate danger. They have worn their happiness very much the hard way. And the reader too will have worked for his satisfactions, which by no means diminishes them.

A second and very different South American writer is Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru. Eight years younger than García Márquez, he is a more urbane, and more European. Both men have practiced writing stories in the difficult form of a labyrinth—and from whom could they have picked up that trick but the old master, Jorge Luis Borges? Vargas Llosa is a deft and inventive craftsman—sometimes, it would appear, at the expense of creating character; in addition, his appeal is limited by a sardonic, sometimes sour, view of human nature as cruel and brutish. Reading García Márquez, one is often disgusted, but it is a warm, human disgust; Vargas Llosa, by contrast, is cold, gray, and a bit reptilian in his intelligence.

The present narrative, In Praise of the Stepmother, concerns a congenial family in contemporary Lima, that dark and now mostly squalid city. Living with the elderly sybarite Don Rigoberto and his second wife, the voluptuous Doña Lucrecia, is Alfonso, his near-adolescent son by a previous marriage. Fearing that as an intrusive successor to the boy's real mother she may be unwelcome, Doña Lucrecia sets out to ingratiate herself with the youngster—in which she succeeds all too well. Don Rigoberto, being a completely self-centered voluptuary—his scrupulously sensual toilet habits are described in agonizing detail, down to the last nuances of a successful bowel movement—one anticipates that the happy threesome will settle down to a congenial, incestuous ménage.

But for some reason the father is not pleased that his lady and his son, Alfonso, have got on so well—or perhaps what he dislikes is the disconcerting frankness and apparent innocence with which the boy describes what they've been doing. In short order Doña Lucrecia is discarded. It remains for the maid to discover that angelically innocent young Alfonso has from the first deliberately and coldly seduced his step-mother in order to get rid of her. His ultimate aim (so he says—but by now how can anyone believe a word he says?) is to have the maid and his father all to himself. In one sense, it's poetic justice. Don Rigoberto is a selfish swine, and his son is no better, morally speaking, than a case of the bubonic plague. So, after a fashion, the moral law is affirmed.

As is common in deliberate erotic fictions, the characters in this little fabliau are mostly sexual engines with few other human characteristics. The story is enlivened and extended by two subordinate narratives involving sexuality, to be sure, but not otherwise strikingly relevant to the main theme. The old fable of Herodotus about King Candaules, who displayed his wife naked to minister Gyges and suffered appropriately for his indiscretion, is related in modified form. And there is a brief interpolation in which the Virgin Mary gives a rather bewildered account of the Annunciation. But apart from emphasizing that modes and degrees of hanky-panky have existed through the ages, it's not clear what end these inserts are designed to serve.

On the accepted scale for porn these days, Vargas Llosa's little book is relatively soft-core. Maybe it is symptomatic that the reader learns more about Don Rigoberto's mastery over his sphincter muscle than about his, or anyone else's, copulative achievements.

From the precocious beginnings of his novelistic career, Vargas Llosa has included in his fictions a strain of cryptic, allusive, and deliberately disorganized writing which, by leaving out a lot of the ordinary clues, challenges the reader to reassemble fragments of the text for himself. Novels like The Green House (1965 Spanish, 1968 English) and Conversation in the Cathedral (1969 Spanish, 1975 English) make a point of not identifying speakers or explaining circumstances; whatever expressive effects may be achieved this way, a reader's sense of having to struggle through artificial obstacles to achieve a thought not very complex in itself is basically depressing. There's a special strain because Vargas Llosa does not seem to have a gift for creating distinctive characters or individual modes of speech; nor do his characters entertain ideas of any complexity or outline.

When the narrative is uncluttered by mannerisms, even though it achieves monumentality, as in The War of the End of the World (Spanish 1981, English 1984), the prose has moments of almost embarrassing flabbiness, the expressions are occasionally makeshift. Overall, Vargas Llosa displays a particular flair for macabre violence. The ending of Canudos, the rebel city of War of the End of the World, is disturbingly reminiscent of the scene in Salammbo where the Carthaginians tie up all their captives, lay them out in a row like cordwood, and march elephants back and forth over them till they are all rushed to paste.

If this seems like strong stuff, the Vargas Llosa canon provides a number of small-scale equivalents; and there are occasional suggestions, some more explicit than others, that prostitution and rape represent positive spiritual values. Machismo is by no means an appealing feature of the Latin American life style, and in Vargas Llosa it comes close to being matter-of-factly, if not uncritically, represented. There is a special problem here for South American writers who are less Europeanized than Borges. A vast heartland of jungle lies at the center of South America, and outlying patches of it can be found not only in Lima and Bogotá but at the core of the region's most artful imaginative achievements. What's more, the savagery is not something to be excised or deplored; it is a vital element of the culture, a birthmark of ugly authenticity with which writers will be wrestling for generations to come.

Vargas Llosa, then, is not an author for the tender stomach or the sheltered sensibility. His is a dark and cruel imagination, unlighted by a genial sense of humor or more than a glimpse of human feeling. Very likely this dour vision is not simply temperamental, but relates to the fact that Peru itself, as Vargas Llosa sees it, is a dismayingly corrupt and disorganized society. Those who have followed closely the recent electoral campaign, in which Vargas Llosa was defeated for president, may have a better idea than his fiction conveys of what Vargas proposed to do about a scene of almost unmitigated squalor.

For some such reasons, I follow what I take to be the general consensus that García Márquez seems the more lasting writer. But both are clearly strong presences. They are not just “South” American authors, they are writers of the Americas—North, South, and preferably without any limiting adjectives at all.

Each writer has almost a dozen books apiece in English translation, amounting in aggregate to something more than seven thousand pages. If one has not been keeping up with each new publication, it's no pastime of a sabbath day to read through them, but I know of no presentable shortcuts. For the “Landmarks of World Literature” series, Michael Wood has written a crisp, compressed study of One Hundred Years of Solitude.2 But it's about only one book, and while it deepens, it doesn't shorten, one's reading of that book. Vargas Llosa recently gave a series of lectures at Syracuse University, mostly about himself and his own writings. They are collected as A Writer's Reality.3 Vargas Llosa writing on himself is downright and sensible. The least satisfactory of his self-explanations are of disintegrated narrations and scrambled conversations, which most need convincing explanation. But the lectures, if they don't heighten one's impression of the writer's originality, give an agreeable impression of an affable personality behind the books.


  1. Translated by Gregory Rabassa (Knopf, 1983).

  2. Cambridge University Press, 1990.

  3. Syracuse University Press, 1990.

Further Reading

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Castro, Fidel. “Chronicle of a Friendship Foretold.” Foreign Policy (March-April 2003): 78-9.

Castro, the president of Cuba, discusses his longtime friendship with García Márquez and praises Vivir para contarla.

García Márquez, Gabriel, and Jon Lee Anderson. “The Power of García Márquez: Can the Nobel Prize-winning Novelist Rescue Columbia?” New Yorker 75, no. 28 (27 September 1999): 56-70.

García Márquez discusses his role in the negotiations between the Colombian government and Marxist guerillas.

Handelman, Jonathan. Review of Of Love and Other Demons, by Gabriel García Márquez. Literary Review 42, no. 4 (summer 1999): 635.

Handelman explores Of Love and Other Demons as a postmodern novel, noting that “there is a strong continuity between this novel and others within the admittedly vague compass of the genre.”

Marting, Diane E. “The End of Eréndira's Prostitution.” Hispanic Review 69, no. 2 (spring 2001): 175-90.

Marting examines the portrayal of prostitution in García Márquez's short story “La increíble y triste historia de la cándida Eréndira y de su abuela desalmada.”

Paternostro, Silvana. “Three Days with Gabo.” Paris Review 38, no. 141 (winter 1996): 220-47.

Paternostro discusses her experience at García Márquez's Foundation for a New Ibero-American Journalism.

Additional coverage of García Márquez's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 3, 33; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 2; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 12; Bestsellers, Vols. 89:1, 90:4; Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 10, 28, 50, 75, 82; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 3, 8, 10, 15, 27, 45, 55, 68; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 113; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Author Modules: Most-studied Authors, Multicultural, Novelists, Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Novels; Exploring Short Stories; Hispanic Literature Criticism, Ed. 1; Hispanic Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Latin American Writers; Latin American Writers Supplement, Ed. 1; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Vols. 1, 2; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Nonfiction Classics for Students, Vol. 3; Novels for Students, Vols. 1, 5, 10; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to World Literature, Eds. 2, 3; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 1, 6; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 8; Twayne's World Authors; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 1; and World Literature Criticism.

Selden Rodman (review date 15 October 1990)

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SOURCE: Rodman, Selden. “The Conqueror's Descent.” National Review 42, no. 20 (15 October 1990): 87-9.

[In the following review, Rodman commends García Márquez's balanced portrait of Símon Bolívar in The General in His Labyrinth.]

A visitor once suggested to Gabriel García Márquez that a novel exploring the life of Símon Bolívar might win him the Nobel Prize. “I'd like to receive it,” he replied, “after I've made enough money to refuse—without economic remorse. The Nobel Prize has become an international lizard hunt.”

So now, twenty years later, with the Nobel Prize already his, the Colombian poet-novelist has indeed written his threnody to the immortal Liberator [The General in His Labyrinth], and what kind of book is it? Dazzling, of course. And with a jacket painting almost as dazzling as the text, showing the great man's hammock (slung between two flowering trees) containing nothing but a few fallen blossoms, and the general's imperial poncho tumbling among the bric-a-brac of his tragic descent into hell. Far in the distance, under a sickle moon, may be seen a snow-capped peak of the Sierra Nevada that this dying 46-year-old with the decayed body of a centenarian could have conquered (and possibly did) in a matter of hours on one of those incredible campaigns from Colombia and Venezuela to Peru and Bolivia that stunned the world.

García Márquez's scenario does not show his hero in the best light, but doubtless it was not intended to. As a way of unfolding Bolívar's whole life, however, it is brilliant. With the last of the capitals he had conquered (Bogotá) in rebellion, the Liberator, sick in body and mind, is beginning the long journey down the Magdalena River to Santa Marta on the Caribbean, where he will die. Along the way there is plenty of time to speculate on the events of his tumultuous life—Caracas to London, Paris, and Madrid and back; the great battles from Boyacá and Carabobo to Junín and Ayacucho; the dozens of women he conquered and the famous vow to his tutor, “Robinson,” on the Monte Sacro in Rome; the celebrated Jamaica Letter; his freeing of the slaves after meeting and receiving help from President Pétion in Haiti; and the news that the great Marshal Sucre, the hero at Ayacucho in the final battle against Spain, had been murdered on a lonely road in Ecuador.

Is this a novel? Perhaps. Definitions have shifted drastically since Ulysses appeared in the Twenties. But since this one is wholly devoted to research quoting Bolívar's last thoughts on everything from life and love to his chronic constipation and dislike of tobacco smoke, it seems only fair to criticize its protagonist for what García Márquez reveals of the political shortcomings that led to the failure of democratic rule in Latin America.

No one will deny that the Liberator was a romantic hero of irresistible charm. But what did he do, or think? José Antonio Páez, the half-breed cowboy whom Bolívar left to rule Venezuela while he was installing himself in Bogotá, called him in 1828 “the singular genius of the nineteenth century … the man who for 18 years has suffered sacrifice after sacrifice for the public happiness.”

García Márquez himself is a lot more frank about some of his hero's huge flaws. After mentioning the body of song that grew up about Bolívar's ambiguous dictum that his first day of peace would be his last in power, he writes: “In the years that followed, his renunciations were reiterated so many times, and in such dissimilar circumstances, that no one ever knew again which to believe.” After the assassination attempt of September 25, 1828, in Bogotá, when his mistress, Manuela, saved him by hiding him under a bridge near the palace, he proclaimed that there would be no investigation, that no one would be prosecuted, and that he himself would leave Colombia forever. “Nevertheless,” the novelist wryly notes, “the investigation took place, the guilty were judged with an iron hand, and 14 were shot in the main square. The Constituent Congress of January 2 did not meet for another 16 months, and no one spoke again of his resignation.”

On one occasion, walking the streets of Bogotá by night, Bolívar had had manure flung in his face. But when a soldier assigned to guard him reacted by drawing his sword to pursue the insulter, Bolívar turned on him in a flash of anger. “‘And what the hell are you doing here?’ he asked.

“The officer snapped to attention. ‘I'm following orders, Excellency.’

“‘I'm not your excellency,’ he replied.

“He stripped him of his ranks and titles,” García Márquez adds, “with so much rage that the officer considered himself fortunate that the general no longer had the strength for a more savage reprisal.”

The novelist cites the general's irritation on another occasion with a French diplomat who had dared criticize New Granada. García Márquez has Bolívar say: “During the War to the Death [with Spain], I myself gave the order to execute eight hundred Spanish prisoners in a single day, including the patients in the hospital at La Guayra. Today, under the same circumstances, my voice would not tremble if I gave the order again, and Europeans would not have the moral authority to reproach me, for if any history is drowned in blood, indignity, and injustice, it is the history of Europe.”

Does García Márquez, with a novelist's appropriate desire to explore every facet of his protagonist's character, exaggerate Bolívar's despotic and anti-democratic tendencies? Consider the seven-hundred-page biography in which a celebrated Spanish historian, Salvador de Madariaga, wrestles with the character of South America's hero. He begins by saying that Bolívar “was too swift, too much of a man of action to have pored over Locke or Hobbes, Rousseau or Helvetius. … In his conscious moods he was a materialist and a rationalist.” Five hundred pages later, Madariaga concludes: “[H]e had destroyed that which had worked with the weight and prestige of centuries; but he had proved unable to build up anything instead. … His mind saw the aim clearly; but his will was Machiavellian and tortuous. And as he was swift and therefore devoured by impatience, he became easily despotic. … ‘I was all my life a slave to my passions. The essence of liberty is precisely that one can liberate oneself.’”

By 1830 the floundering government in New Granada (Colombia) was trying to avert civil war by making Bolívar king in all but name. But Bolívar, happily for his own future reputation, was too ill in body and soul to give much heed. He resigned, and began his descent into death.

García Márquez's compassionate novel has little to tell about this unflattering phase of Bolívar's last days in the Colombian capital, except to have him say to his aide, Iturbide, son of Mexico's ill-fated Emperor, “Don't stay with Urdaneta [Bolívar's friend and successor in Bogotá] and don't go with your family to the United States. It's omnipotent and terrible, and its tale of liberty will end in a plague of miseries for us all.” Perhaps the novelist, who now lives in xenophobic Mexico, will deal with this typically Latin American hobgoblin (us) in his next poetic extravaganza.

John Bierman (review date 22 October 1990)

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SOURCE: Bierman, John. “The Playboy Liberator.” Maclean's 103, no. 43 (22 October 1990): 63.

[In the following review, Bierman offers a positive assessment of The General in His Labyrinth, noting that “García Márquez has painted a memorable picture of greatness in decay, both physical and moral.”]

In South America, heroic equestrian statues attest to the glory of Simón Bolívar—“The Liberator,” as he grandiosely but accurately called himself. In North America, Bolívar's name carries fewer resonances, but Gabriel García Márquez's new novel seems likely to help redress that situation. The General in His Labyrinth should certainly make Bolívar (1783-1830) better known than a conventional biography might, if only because any new book by the Nobel laureate is a literary event and assured of wide circulation. Still, García Márquez's new work is more demanding than his richly textured and accessible last novel, Love in the Time of Cholera. It is labyrinthine in parts.

García Márquez traces, and reflects upon, the life and career of Bolívar through an intricate and feverish series of flashbacks and occasional flash-forwards. As the book opens, the protagonist—driven out of power by his onetime comrades and ravaged by a wasting disease—is travelling down the Rio Magdalena to Cartagena on the coast of Colombia. He is on his way to an intended exile in Europe. It is his “return trip to the void,” as García Márquez puts it, the void being death, which overtakes Bolívar before he can finally tear himself away from the scene of his triumphs and disasters.

In leading the fight to free Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia from Spanish rule, Bolívar evolves a vision of a unified Latin America as “the most immense, or most extraordinary, or most invincible league of nations the world has ever seen”—a counterbalance to the United States in the North. It is one of history's unrealized dreams. The Americans went on to overcome all obstacles, up to and including history's most devastating civil war, to forge a cohesive nation, while the Latinos fell apart almost as soon as Bolívar brought them together.

García Márquez, the 20th-century intellectual, is at one with the 19th-century man of action, Bolívar, in castigating Americans' continual interference in the affairs of nations south of their border. Inviting them to send a delegation to the 1826 congress of newly independent Latin states in Panama “was like inviting the cat to the mice's fiesta,” says Bolívar. The cat is still on the prowl, as recent and current events in Panama, El Salvador, Nicaragua and elsewhere attest.

But Bolívar's, and García Márquez's, strongest condemnation is reserved for the Latin Americans themselves, whose jealousy, bickering and easy corruptibility combined with the problems of geography and economics to destroy his dream of unity. “[Latin] America is ungovernable,” declares Bolívar as, at 47, he lies dying in his hammock of “moral torment [and] physical calamities.” In a bleakly prophetic political summing-up of the region's prospects, dictated to a secretary, he adds, “The man who serves a revolution plows the sea, this nation will fall inevitably into the hands of the unruly mob and then will pass into the hands of almost indistinguishable petty tyrants.”

Flashes of humor, warmth and frank sexuality lighten the fevered recollections and dark introspections of Bolívar's last days. García Márquez's protagonist is as heroic in bed as on the battlefield, and claims a total of 35 mistresses—“not counting the one-night birds, of course.” The most durable of his lovers is the swaggering, cigar-smoking Manuela Saenz. Manuela is combative but unfailingly loyal. But it is not until almost the end of García Márquez's narrative that the author reveals the love whose loss changed Bolívar's life.

To his other women, in proper Latin American macho style, Bolívar “would not commit the least part of his life,” García Márquez writes. But Bolívar is so affected by the death of his aristocratic young bride that he feels impelled to put her out of his mind, never recalling her until he is on his deathbed, and never trying to replace her. While her death after only eight months of marriage devastates him, it does eventually set Bolívar, “a rich young gentleman from the colonies, dazzled by mundane pleasures and without the slightest interest in politics,” on the path to glory and eventual disaster.

Put that baldly, the metamorphosis of Simón Bolívar from playboy into liberator verges on the tritely romantic. As Bolívar himself says, “I am condemned to a theatrical destiny.” But filtered through the creative imagination of García Márquez, the recounting of such historical truths about Bolívar's life has a force that lifts the narrative far above mere theatricality. In The General in His Labyrinth, García Márquez has painted a memorable picture of greatness in decay, both physical and moral.

Lee Siegel (review date 9 November 1990)

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SOURCE: Siegel, Lee. “Writer on the Stump.” Commonweal 118, no. 19 (9 November 1990): 662-64.

[In the following unfavorable review, Siegel argues that, despite García Márquez's skillful prose, The General in His Labyrinth is still a disappointing and unoriginal work.]

Few writers since the beginning of modernism's long slow decline have had such a distinct fictional vision as García Márquez. What some critics neatly refer to as his “magical realism” seems no less than an attempt at historical redemption—extreme imaginative acts meant to retrieve a civilization from an ongoing explosion of extreme events. His trademark metaphor—the solitude his characters wear like a crown of ice—is endlessly expansive. His very paragraphs are Promethean: they characteristically present the beginning and the end of an episode before its telling, as if the author never stopped wanting to show his contempt for time as a transparent artifice.

At first glance the subject of this latest novel, a poetically compressed account of Simon Bolívar's life, might seem to be the pièce de résistance for such a large literary appetite. The “Liberator,” who drove Spain off the South American peninsula, is not only the most important figure in Latin American history, but in many ways the embodiment of the history of Colombia, García Márquez's native land and fictional turf. After carving the country out of Spanish New Granada, the general reigned as its first president—dictator, actually, and of Peru and Bolivia as well—and held it together for as long as he could before it lapsed into civil war and Venezuela and Ecuador seceded from the new republic. Such a career casts a dense symbolic shadow.

The General in His Labyrinth traces Bolívar's desperate last months. Beginning with his renunciation of the Colombian presidency, it follows him on his trip up the Magalena River to the Caribbean coast, where he intends to board a ship for Europe, convinced that his absence will calm the growing factional turmoil. Yet at the port he learns that his close friend and political heir, Antonio José de Sucre, has been assassinated by a rival party, and plunged into grief, he abandons his European plans and starts to head back to Bogotá to shore up the faltering government there. Throughout both legs of his journey he watches bitterly as his vision of a unified continent disintegrates around him; to make matters worse, he is disintegrating as well, slowly being wasted by tuberculosis. Nevertheless, his spirit still afloat on the strength of his illusions, he recalls the people and events of his life: military campaigns and political intrigues; the men who fought under him; Manuela Saenz, his extravagantly willful lover; “countless” indifferent sexual encounters; the ruthless acts he committed in war, which he does not regret. Before he reaches Bogotá he dies, on a plantation owned, ironically, by a Spanish friend.

The situation seems ripe for García Márquez's celebrated wand. Unfortunately, he waves it with half a heart. You soon wonder why the author, who re-created Colombian history so savagely and magnificently in One Hundred Years of Solitude—the character of Colonel Aureliano Buendia in that novel bears a strong resemblance to Bolívar—now covers similar ground in mostly factual terms, despite significant fictional liberties. It's a little like Tolstoy publishing an account of Napoleon's exploits after writing War and Peace. But García Márquez is in the grip of some extra-literary passions (it happened to Tolstoy, too) and the result is a disappointingly weak book.

Of course there is, as there always is with García Márquez, some beautiful writing. One passage, as intensely illuminating as an epiphany, has the dying Bolívar staying the night in a strange house during a terrible storm. As he lies in bed a group of children stand outside his window in a torrential rain and watch him sleep.

One of them woke him with a whispered “Bolívar, Bolívar.”

He searched for him through the mists of fever, and the boy asked:

“Do you love me?”

The General assented with a tremulous smile, but then he ordered the chickens wandering through the house to be chased out, the children made to leave, and the windows closed. …

The question, posed through the storm of history, is at the heart of García Márquez's fiction, where its various fantastic rebuffs can destroy civilizations and leave them to the birds. The general, who married war after the death of his young bride, is momentarily swept up into the dark logic of García Márquez's world and his loveless destiny made to crystallize along its lines.

But the poetry remains strangely unmoored. For at the same time, García Márquez is so earnest about showing the literal facts of Bolívar's life that the novel's two levels—real and invented—never intersect. What we get instead is a very busy narrator, as busy as any world leader, carrying on long-distance conversations with two different categories of existence simultaneously. It is as if García Márquez regrets, as Bolívar himself came to lament, his inability to press his vision onto history, and intends to set the matter straight by direct negotiations between his imagination and actual events.

Fiction, though, cannot bear too much actuality and the novel breaks under the strain. The widest cracks appear in the dialogue, never García Márquez's strong suit and barely present in his other work. Far too much of it fills the pages of The General in His Labyrinth, and the pasteboard characters speak with a you-are-there-in-the-midst-of-greatness quality familiar from Hollywood biographies. (The original Spanish is no better.)

Worse, portions of the novel read as if they had been lifted from a book of trivia: “… some eight thousand documents with [Bolívar's] signature have been preserved.” Others are just plain confusing, mere facts lying in clusters, as if under siege from the intermittent poetry.

Lacking fictional depth, García Márquez's preoccupations have never been so plainly exposed. The symbolically bad weather won't let up; nature gains on decaying civilization on nearly every page; the scatological jokes that were so tenderly played on high ideals in Love in the Time of Cholera are annoyingly overdone. Phrases such as “the magic of his person,” “the wisdom of his heart had taught him the vanity of glory,” “he was starting out on the return trip to the void” are like reinforcements summoned from the other novels that are just too weak to fight. By tale's end, the Garcíamárquesan images of gold, mirrors, and ice litter the battlefield.

It is perhaps Bolívar's greatest victory, this vanquishing of such a splendid writer. García Márquez's singular fictional universe ends up getting transmuted into fact, not the other way round. For ultimately the author stretches a foot out of his alchemist's realm onto the podium. García Márquez's politics have always been voluble and controversial, but this is the first time he has pronounced on the issues of the day, such as debt, in the pages of a novel. He doesn't bring it off. Elsewhere he angrily fabricates an angry general justifying to a contentious French visitor his decision to execute eight hundred Spanish prisoners and hospital patients in one day, on the grounds that the Europeans do that sort of thing, too, so they have no right to criticize. This from the author who once reimagined Colombia's interminable bloody war between liberals and conservatives with merciless irony and disgust.

“Art is the lie that discloses the truth,” Picasso said. Having put his art aside and adopted a public voice, García Márquez has misrepresented his own mythic domain as well as the insufficiently real world he has up to now so marvelously revealed and completed. Vargas Llosa ran for president of Peru; Colombians got The General in His Labyrinth.

Michael Palencia-Roth (essay date winter 1991)

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SOURCE: Palencia-Roth, Michael. “Gabriel García Márquez: Labyrinths of Love and History.” World Literature Today 65, no. 1 (winter 1991): 54-8.

[In the following essay, Palencia-Roth examines the dominant thematic concerns in Love in the Time of Cholera and The General in His Labyrinth, concluding that “taken together, these two most recent novels demonstrate once again the astonishing range of García Márquez's work and the empathetic flexibility of his mind and heart.”]

After his first surprise best seller, Cien años de soledad (Eng. One Hundred Years of Solitude), burst on the literary scene in 1967 and transformed a group of writers (Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, José Donoso, and others) into a phenomenon known as “el boom,” bringing him and them worldwide fame, every work by Gabriel García Márquez has been published to great fanfare and has been widely reviewed. The books under joint discussion here, El amor en los tiempos del cólera (Eng. Love in the Time of Cholera) and El general en su laberinto (Eng. The General in His Labyrinth),1 have been met mostly by laudatory reviews in all three Americas. Differences in the reception are generally of tone and enthusiasm. In North America the reviews, though almost all positive, usually have been elegantly detached and even scholarly.2 In Latin America both the praise and the criticism have been more passionate. “A chain of repugnant and sick sexual passions,” fulminates Francisco Lemos Arboleda in El País, a Colombian newspaper, in late December 1985, on greeting El amor en los tiempos del cólera. In his opinion, the novel is “pornographic” and not worthy of being compared with “the immortal María,” a nineteenth-century Colombian novel. Though María mostly mimics breathy and exclamatory French romances, in the eyes of many Colombian critics and ordinary readers María's author, Jorge Isaacs, is untouchable. Every Colombian, however, seems willing to take on García Márquez. When the subject is a continental hero like Simón Bolívar, the contentious voices, pro and con, are multiplied by many from the rest of Latin America. El general en su laberinto occasioned fierce national and even continental debates after it was published on García Márquez's sixty-first birthday (28 March 1989).

At first glance, Love in the Time of Cholera and The General in His Labyrinth could not be more different from each other. The first chronicles the undying love of an octogenarian, Florentino Ariza, who, having loved Fermina Daza in her youth, secretly worships her for more than half a century and then courts her a second time after her husband dies, triumphantly consummating his passion on a riverboat during a trip on the Magdalena River. The novel celebrates, therefore, the vitality possible in old age, love over despair, health over sickness, life over death. The second novel deals with a much younger but much sicker man, Simón Bolívar, who, one day in May 1830, having renounced the presidency of Colombia, embarks on his final journey down the Magdalena. In The General in His Labyrinth despair, sickness, and death inevitably win out over love, health, and life. The first novel deals with ordinary people, the second with a continental hero. The first comes out of the writer's imagination, its sources being his life and memory as well as his observations of older people in love, including—García Márquez has said—his own parents. The second, though born, of course, of García Márquez's imagination, comes also from the library. A thoroughly researched book, its sources are documents, letters, histories, and biographies. Indeed, somewhat like a graduate student before his dissertation committee, the author proudly parades his research efforts in a three-page afterword entitled “My Thanks.” Here we find out, among other things, how García Márquez learned to take notes, how his friends in many countries helped him with his research, and how he double-checked his facts and eliminated anachronisms, all in the interest of accurately depicting Bolívar's “tyrannically documented life” (272).

Historical accuracy is not an idea one usually associates with fiction, much less with an author like García Márquez. Let us not be misled, however, by the scholarship of his afterword to consider The General in His Labyrinth uniquely “realistic” among García Márquez's works. He has always been—as he has repeatedly insisted—a realist. That is, he portrays life as he has observed it and as he believes it to be Moreover, in seeking the enduring patterns behind the detail, he agrees with the Aristotelian conception of poetic truth. For Aristotle, poetry, since it deals with universals, possesses the deepest kind of truth. Such a spirit of poetic truthfulness has certainly moved García Márquez in The General in His Labyrinth as well as in such major works as One Hundred Years of Solitude and El otoño del patriarca (1975; Eng. The Autumn of the Patriarch), works which presented recognizably “true” though undocumented pictures of Latin American life and of the Latin American dictator type.

This poetic realism is also, in a somewhat different style, the mode of Love in the Time of Cholera. The book reads like a nineteenth-century novel in the grand narrative tradition. That anachronistic approach allies García Márquez with masters like Defoe, Fielding, Balzac, Tolstoy, Conrad, and even the early Thomas Mann. Such narrative traditionalism upset some Latin American reviewers, who somehow expected García Márquez to write something stylistically daring and innovative. Critical expectations are fickle. Earlier, when The Autumn of the Patriarch was published, critics were disturbed because it was too innovative, too different from One Hundred Years of Solitude, a work that some expected him to rewrite forever.3Love in the Time of Cholera may differ stylistically from much of the previous fiction by García Márquez; but it focuses on one of his most enduring themes, love, and the story that it tells is bold, touching, and finally exuberant.

García Márquez was inspired to write Love in the Time of Cholera, he tells Marlise Simons in an interview published in the New York Times Book Review (7 April 1985), by something he once saw: an elderly couple, very much in love, happily dancing on the deck of a ship, oblivious to their surroundings. This image took root in his mind, much like other images which inspired previous novels: a man on a porch in the Colombian city of Barranquilla, waiting for something (El coronel no tiene quien le escriba [Eng. No One Writes to the Colonel]); a small boy being taken by an old man to see a block of ice, exhibited as if it were part of a circus sideshow (Cien años de soledad); an incredibly old man alone in a presidential palace, which is full of cows (El otoño del patriarca). From that image of the dancing couple García Márquez created a story about passion eventually reciprocated, a reflection on old age much in the spirit of Simone de Beauvoir's 1970 work La vieillesse and in the manner of Tolstoy's reflections on death and dying in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and a meditation on the art of love.

Let me list the ways—some of them, at least—in which García Márquez portrays love in this novel: love between old people, love between adolescents, love between an old man and a young virgin, love with prostitutes, love as infidelity, epistolary love, platonic love, interracial love, masochistic love—in fact, almost every kind of love except (so complains Enrique Fernández in his December 1986 review in the Village Voice) homosexual love. In this Colombian Kama Sutra García Márquez even mentions some unusual sexual positions, though he does not describe them: that of the angel on the rack, or that of the chicken on the grill. In some senses also he has produced a taxonomy of love through brief descriptive phrases: love is, for example, a cataclysm, a martyrdom, an instance of madness, a pain in the heart, a rebirth, a fever, a disease, an attack of cholera (these last three showing, in part, how “love as illness” is one of the controlling metaphors of the book). These and other details point to a fundamental quality of this novel. Unlike Jorge Isaacs, García Márquez does not envelop love in a haze of sentimentality. We come away from Love in the Time of Cholera convinced that, indeed, this is what love must be like—or can be like—at age eighty or at fifty, at forty or at twenty, convinced that García Márquez has sounded the depths of the human heart.

For all its surprising freshness in the García Márquez canon, Love in the Time of Cholera nevertheless shares thematic preoccupations with previous works, especially the theme of old age. But there are significant differences. The secret of a good old age, believes Colonel Aureliano Buendía in Cien años de soledad, is an honorable pact with solitude.4 In Love in the Time of Cholera the secret seems to be the ability to love. In earlier works old age itself is a time of wisdom, as in the case of Ursula Buendía, or a time of terrible power, as in that of the deathless dictator of El otoño del patriarca, or a time of decrepitude, as it is in the story of the old man with enormous wings. Before Love in the Time of Cholera García Márquez had not depicted old age very positively. Its zesty portrayal in this novel leads Roberto González Echevarría to conclude that it is “not only a great book, but one of the few optimistic ones to have come along in many years.”5

That optimism, that zest about sexuality and love in old age, has bothered some critics uncomfortable with the idea of physical passion between people whose skin is no longer tight, whose hair (what there is of it) no longer shines, whose bones may now creak with arthritic pain, and whose eyes can no longer see clearly. That, however, is precisely what García Márquez describes in the last fifth of his novel, and the pages devoted especially to the consummation of the passion between Florentino and Fermina are poignant, magisterial, and unforgettable. Moreover, behind the description of that and other loves in the novel lies a deeper love, a love of life itself. It is an attitude which, simply, says “yes” to life and to all that it may bring.

The “yes” becomes a “no” in The General in His Labyrinth. “Let us go,” the general tells his trusted servant José Palacios on the very first page of the novel, “as fast as we can. No one loves us here” (in the Spanish, “aquí no nos quiere nadie”)—words which the Liberator had apparently actually spoken many times in his life and which have also been attributed to his final delirium.6 Bolívar may indeed have died from tuberculosis, as is generally thought (the exact cause of death has never been established conclusively enough for some people), but for García Márquez, Bolívar really dies from a lack of love. Despised by many of his countrymen, abandoned by all but a few aides and associates, left—during the final seven months of his life—without even the companionship of his longtime mistress Manuela Sáenz, Bolívar had no choice but to die of a broken heart. Historically and medically, there may be another explanation. In the world of philosophic universals and poetic truths, however, love, or its lack, can kill.

The General in His Labyrinth seems to me to be a labyrinthine summation in historical fiction of certain of García Márquez's long-standing obsessions and ever-present topics: love, death, solitude, power, fate. Love is but one of the themes that link this novel with previous books. In interviews the author calls attention to some of those links. It is as if, increasingly conscious of the geographic and historical unity of all his previous work, he wishes to make sure that readers understand how intimately, despite appearances to the contrary, The General in His Labyrinth is related to all the other fiction. “At bottom,” García Márquez tells María Elvira Samper in an important interview published in the Colombian weekly Semana (20 March 1989), “I have written only one book, the same one that circles round and round, and continues on.” In that same interview he seeks to ground The General in His Labyrinth in the world of his previous fiction.

El general is more important than the rest of my work put together. It demonstrates that my work as a whole is founded on a geographic and historical reality. That reality is not that of magical realism and all those other things which people talk about. When you read [this novel], you realize that everything else in some way has a documentary, geographic, and historical basis that is borne out by El general. It is like El coronel no tiene quien le escriba all over again, but historically grounded this time.7

Such an avowal of the novel's ties to the past goes hand in hand with numerous details which proclaim its kinship with prior fiction. Like the Patriarch, Bolívar was a dictator (indeed that was one of his official titles for a while) with the power to give absolute commands which were actually carried out. That power was first consolidated—and believed in by others—in 1814, when Bolívar ordered the mass execution of all the captured royalists in the Guayra; and yet, throughout his career, while reveling in such power and not hesitating to use it, Bolívar stated his distaste for it. Such an ambivalent attitude made him into that most contradictory of leaders: the unwilling despot. In this he resembles Colonel Aureliano Buendía, reluctant hero of Colombia's civil wars and never more ferocious a warrior than in his battles to secure peace. Like Colonel Aureliano Buendía, Bolívar escapes numerous assassination attempts, seems to lead a charmed life, and is destined to die of natural causes. Like Colonel Aureliano Buendía, Bolívar believes the wars he has waged to have been “fruitless” (“guerras inútiles” in the Spanish; 13) and the “disillusionments of power” (“los desengaños del poder”; 13) to have been many and overwhelming.

Some phrases either call attention to previous works, both fictional and not, or sound as if they have been lifted from them. Such intertextuality is evident when Bolívar, on coming into a room, is “surprised by the scent of the guavas lying in a gourd on the windowsill” (“sorprendido por el olor de las guayabas expuestas en una totuma sobre el alféizar de la ventana”; 113). (El olor de la guayaba is the title of a book of reminiscences and conversations between García Márquez and Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, published in Barcelona by the Editorial Bruguera in 1982.) The following sentence from The General in His Labyrinth could well have been written for One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Fourteen years of wars had taught him [Bolívar] that there was no greater victory than being alive” (27). The General in His Labyrinth even ends with a sentence whose final rhythmic phrases recall One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Then he [Bolívar] crossed his arms over his chest and began to listen to the radiant voices of the slaves singing the six o'clock Salve in the mills, and through the window he saw the diamond of Venus in the sky that was dying forever, the eternal snows, the new vine whose yellow bellflowers he would not see bloom on the following Saturday in the house closed in mourning, the final brilliance of [the] life that would never, through all eternity, be repeated again.


Such a resemblance is intentional, of course, and it seems to me to be a canny message to his readers: “Look,” García Márquez seems to be saying, “the story of Bolívar is of a piece with that of the Buendías, and both are the story of Latin America itself.”

The message goes deeper than this, however. Here, as so often in his work, García Márquez's sensibility is close to that of the ancient Greeks. For him, Bolívar's is a fated life. That sense of fatality is portrayed through the constant use of sentences which foreshadow an end known to us all (e.g., “The last visitor he received the night before was Manuela Sáenz, the bold Quiteña who loved him but was not going to follow him to his death”; 6), through phrases like “it was the end” (37) and “they never saw each other again” (41), and through such foreshadowing techniques as the repeated appearance of a clock that is stopped at seven minutes past one, the exact time of Bolívar's death. García Márquez also frames the entire novel with an epigraph which might have been written by Homer, Aeschylus, or Sophocles: “Parece,” Bolívar writes to Francisco de Paula Santander, “que el demonio dirige las cosas de mi vida.” Edith Grossman's translation, “It seems that the devil controls the business of my life,” narrows the interpretive range of Bolívar's comment. Bolívar did not write “el diablo” but rather the more suggestive “el demonio.” Demonio comes from the Greek daímon, a term with several related meanings. According to Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon, “divine power” is one of them (theós is the term usually used to personify a god). More often, daímon simply means “fate” or “destiny,” as in “óti daímones thélosin” (what [the] gods ordain). In believing him self to be controlled by the forces of fate, and in submitting to the will of the daímon, the Liberator resembles many of García Márquez's heroes, from the Buendías in One Hundred Years of Solitude to Santiago Nasar in Cronica de una muerte anunciada, (1981; Eng. Chronicle of a Death Foretold).9 It is worth recalling at this point that García Márquez prefaced his very first novel, La hojarasca (Eng. Leaf Storm), first published in 1955, with a long quotation from Sophocles' Antigone.

The theme of fate is also linked to that of love, and both are related in turn to the image of the labyrinth. For this “novelist of love,” as Eugene Bell-Villada has described him,10, or this “nymphomaniac of the heart,” as García Márquez identified himself in an interview for Playboy magazine (February 1983, p. 178), the lack of love pushes Bolívar to his death. García Márquez uses love also as a barometer of Bolívar's heart and health. Bolívar had the reputation of being a womanizer, and books have been written on the subject (e.g., Cornelio Hispano's Historia secreta de Bolívar); but during his final months of life he was really too ill to add to that reputation. The novelist of love, instead of recounting Bolívar's sexual exploits during those months and thereby straining the credulity of his readers, portrays love mostly through Bolívar's memory. Women, most of them beautiful and almost all of them invented by García Márquez (e.g., the charming Miranda Lindsay) but some not (Manuela Sáenz and Anita Lenoit), weave through Bolívar's life like talismanic presences, now protecting him from harm (especially assassination attempts), now comforting him in his solitude. Every few pages García Márquez inserts another woman. Their very presence, since most of them are said to belong to Bolívar's glorious past, allows a labyrinthine exploration of his life before his final journey, and the ebbing of his passion in bed (or in the hammock), as in the episode of the young girl who leaves him in the morning as virginal as she was the night before (181-83), mirrors the ebbing of his life. Inexorably, just as the Magdalena River winds its way to the sea, Bolívar is drawn through the darkening maze of life, until at the end, just before his final moments, he curses his inability to find a way out of “the labyrinth” (267)—the first and only time the word is used in the book. There is no Ariadne's thread for him as there was for Theseus, no thread of love—or of hope—to lead him back to life.

This wise book, superbly translated by Edith Grossman, deserves to be read and reread, taught again and again, and written about—as it will be—for many, many years. By choosing to portray Bolívar's life the way he does, García Márquez summarizes so much: the life of a great man, an era, a culture. However, García Márquez has also portrayed himself in portraying Bolívar, and has admitted as much. “I identify myself in many ways with Bolívar,” he tells María Elvira Samper in Semana. For example, he says that he has “loaned” Bolívar his own “choleric personality, and he [Bolívar] controls his anger as well as I control mine. The truth is that a novelist builds a character with pieces of himself.” Those pieces are both biographical and philosophical in this case. Biographically, both Bolívar and García Márquez are men of the Caribbean; both live much of their lives in high-altitude urban areas; both feel nostalgia for their native haunts; both are uncomfortable among “cachacos,” a pejorative term for Bogotanos used by those from the coastal regions of Colombia. Philosophically, García Márquez is like Bolívar also, he says, in that neither of them “pays much attention to death, because that distracts one from the most important thing: what one does in life” (32-33).11 What García Márquez has done in life is magnificent indeed.

Written in the author's maturity, Love in the Time of Cholera has the freshness of someone looking at old places with new understanding. Here García Márquez seems to be rediscovering joyfulness, reveling in the knowledge that old age can have some of the wonderment and passion of youth. In all this, Love in the Time of Cholera is very much like One Hundred Years of Solitude, despite the apocalyptic ending of that book. By contrast, The General in His Labyrinth is written in an elegiac mode, and critics have commented on its lack of humor. It is a valediction, not forbidding mourning. If Love in the Time of Cholera is high comedy, then The General in His Labyrinth is tragedy. If Love in the Time of Cholera is like One Hundred Years of Solitude, then The General in His Labyrinth is like The Autumn of the Patriarch, dark in its mood, somber in its message. Taken together, these two most recent novels demonstrate once again the astonishing range of García Márquez's work and the empathetic flexibility of his mind and heart.


  1. Gabriel García Márquez, El amor en los tiempos del cólera, Bogotá, La Oveja Negra, 1985; translated by Edith Grossman as Love in the Time of Cholera, New York, Knopf, 1990; and El general en su laberinto, Bogotá, La Oveja Negra, 1989; translated by Grossman as The General in His Labyrinth, New York, Knopf, 1990. Parenthetic page numbers refer to the Spanish-language editions.

  2. For Love in the Time of Cholera, see, for example, Jean Franco in The Nation, 23 April 1988; Walter Clemons in Newsweek, 25 April 1988; Michael Wood in the New York Review of Books, 28 April 1988; David Castronovo in America, 3 September 1988; and Roberto González Echevarría in the Yale Review, Spring 1989. For The General in His Labyrinth, see Joseph Coates in “Tribune Books” of the Chicago Tribune, 9 September 1990; Margaret Atwood in the New York Times Book Review, 16 September 1990; R. Z. Sheppard in Time, 17 September 1990; Tim Padgett in Newsweek, 8 October 1990; and Robert Adams in the New York Review of Books, 11 October 1990. The exception to the elegant detachment in the reviews is the lively, loosely written, and finally negative review by John Leonard in The Nation, 3 December 1990.

  3. It is possibly that difference that led some Latin American critics to denounce El otoño del patriarca on its publication. One critic lamented García Márquez's forgetfulness about the virtues of punctuation (“las virtudes del punto”—Rubén Gamboa, in Handbook of Latin American Studies, 1976, p. 425), apparently himself overlooking such masters of scarce punctuation as Proust and Joyce. Another, Jaime Mejía Duque, delivered himself of a long diatribe entitled El otoño del patriarca o la crisis de la desmesura (Bogotá, La Oveja Negra, 1975). The length of the criticism about García Márquez's excessive length was itself excessive.

  4. Gabriel García Márquez, Cien años de soledad, Buenos Aires, Sudamericana, 1967, p. 174. Unless otherwise noted, the translations in this review are my own.

  5. González Echevarría, p. 478.

  6. See Jean Descola, Los libertadores, Barcelona, Juventud, 1960, p. 306.

  7. From an interview with García Márquez conducted by María Elvira Samper, Semana (Colombia), 20 March 1989, p. 28. The original text reads: “El general tiene una importancia más grande que todo el resto de mi obra. Demuestra que toda mi obra corresponde a una realidad geográfica e histórica. No es el realismo mágico y todas esas cosas que se dicen. Cuando lees el Bolívar te das cuenta de que todo lo demás tiene, de alguna manera, una base documental, una base histórica, una base geográfica que se comprueba con El general. Es como otra vez El coronel no tiene quien le escriba, pero fundamentado históricamente. En el fondo yo no he escrito sino un solo libro, que es el mismo que da vueltas y vueltas, y sigue.”

  8. “Entonces cruzó los brazos contra el pecho y empezó a oír las voces radiantes de los esclavos cantando la salve de las seis en los trapiches, y vio por la ventana el diamante de Venus en el cielo que se iba para siempre, las nieves eternas, la enredadera nueva cuyas campánulas amarillas no vería florecer el sábado siguiente en la casa cerrada por el duelo, los últimos fulgores de la vida que nunca más, por los siglos de los siglos, volvería a repetirse.”

  9. For an analysis of the relationship between Crónica de una muerte anunciada and Greek tragedy, see my article, “Crónica de una muerte anunciada: El Anti-Edipo de García Márquez,” Revista de Estudios Colombianos, 6 (1989), pp. 9-15.

  10. Eugene Bell-Villada, García Márquez: The Man and His Work, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1990, pp. 176 ff.

  11. “Me siento identificado en muchas cosas con Bolívar. Por ejemplo, en esa cosa de no pararle muchas bolas a la muerte, porque lo distrae a uno de lo fundamental, que es lo que está haciendo uno en la vida. … [García Márquez le prestó al personaje Bolívar] lo colérico, que lo controlaba tan bien como lo controlo yo. La verdad es que un novelista hace un personaje con retazos de sí mismo.”

William L. Siemens (review date winter 1991)

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SOURCE: Siemens, William L. Review of El general en su laberinto, by Gabriel García Márquez. World Literature Today 65, no. 1 (winter 1991): 85.

[In the following review, Siemens investigates the techniques that García Márquez uses to demythologize Simón Bolívar in The General in His Labyrinth.]

A common phenomenon of the contemporary literary scene is the tendency to demythologize historical figures, and perhaps the greatest of these for Latin America is Simón Bolívar. In reading El general en su laberinto (Eng. The General in His Labyrinth, 1990), one gains the impression that García Márquez feels the author has no right to compose an epic concerning the founder of a nation that never truly came to be. A myth often concludes with the appearance of a new star or constellation, but in this work one of the general's companions comments that there are now fewer stars than there were eighteen years ago.

Accordingly, the author has left a key element out of the myth of Theseus that appears to underlie his text. As Theseus is about to enter the labyrinth to slay the monster that has been devouring his people, Ariadne gives him a thread to follow in order to find his way out safely. For Bolívar there is no thread; in the penultimate paragraph of the novel he exclaims, “How am I going to get out of this labyrinth!”

Throughout the work the general is haunted by news of the growing anarchy that is making impossible his dream of one great nation in the region. He is forced out of power and toward exile (although he never actually embarks for Europe) by the fragmentation brought about by General Santander and the oligarchies.

El general en su laberinto is a politically committed work. The implied narrator's stance is squarely in the present, and the contemporary sociopolitical distress of the region in question is never far below the surface of the text. The reader comes to feel that unworthy wielders of power not only crushed the Liberator but forced the writing of a demythologizing novel; this may be what García Márquez, at the end of his “Gratitudes,” calls “the horror of this book.”

Edwin Williamson (review date 18 January 1991)

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SOURCE: Williamson, Edwin. “The Myth of the Liberator.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4581 (18 January 1991): 12.

[In the following review, Williamson lauds the poetic narrative and accomplished storytelling in The General in His Labyrinth.]

In The General in His Labyrinth Gabriel García Márquez displays once more his preoccupation with the condition of failure. The novel begins at the point where Simón Bolívar, the great hero of Spanish American Independence, realizes that everything he has fought for is lost; the dream of continental unity, of creating a single nation “from Mexico to Cape Horn,” has been shattered. Spurned and insulted by squabbling demagogues, Bolívar decides to leave the country and seek exile in Europe. The narrative relates his voyage from the highland capital down the Magdalena River to Cartagena de Indias on the Caribbean coast, a fateful journey that, in carrying him to the sea, leads to death.

This is not a historical novel in the conventional sense; it contains no grand scenes, no analysis of major events, few portraits of important characters and it shows little interest in ideas or political beliefs. And yet, intensely focused as it is on the character of Bolívar, the novel presents him entirely from the outside; like the faithful manservant José Palacios, the narrator too can only wonder at the mystery of his leader's motives.

While keeping this reverential distance, García Márquez nevertheless assimilates the General to his fictional world. Around the protagonist he has woven a poetic narrative, a web of stories that mythologizes the historical figure. As always, he takes risks in the story-telling; his narrator is gushing about the beauty of tropical nights, women sparkle and smoulder, and the situations he contrives are often shameless in their indulgence of romantic fancies. These excesses are stiffened by the slyness of his irony and his marvellous sense of timing. As in Love in the Time of Cholera (1988), García Márquez chooses to mimic the tricks of nostalgia by giving rein to old dreams and half-forgotten yearnings only to pull the reader up short in the face of reality.

The novel draws its energies primarily from the mirage of a failed creole utopia, one which is remote from the utilitarian concerns of modern liberal politics. Enveloped in a sacred nimbus of authority, the great republican resembles nothing so much as a tribal king or a medieval monarch—the common people come up to him in the streets to touch him, he dispenses privileges to his favourites, he can count on undying loyalty from his entourage, with whom he is identified by “links of class or blood”. An enslaved mulatta is set free in the act of love with him, and even when physical consummation is beyond him, a pretty girl becomes a woman after a night in his hammock.

The General in His Labyrinth is written in a style that blends old-fashioned stateliness with a sharp colloquial tone; its rhythms translate well into English (the original was reviewed in the TLS on July 14, 1989), and Edith Grossman captures them with tact and skill. The General's obscenities are a problem, however; some expletives are less harsh and more current in Spanish than their English equivalents, and any translator would have difficulty preventing the foul-mouthed Liberator from sounding like a cop from the Bronx. “Porra” or “peudejo”, for instance, have largely lost their lewd connotations and are misrepresented by “prick” and “asshole”.

Susan de Carvalho (essay date summer 1991)

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SOURCE: Carvalho, Susan de. “Origins of Social Pessimism in García Márquez: ‘The Night of the Curlews.’” Studies in Short Fiction 28, no. 3 (summer 1991): 331-38.

[In the following essay, de Carvalho argues that the short story “The Night of the Curlews” is a turning point in García Márquez's literary development.]

At the end of 1949, the Colombian journalist Alfonso Fuenmayor said of his friend García Márquez: “Gabito parece ser el gran cuentista que con tanto paciencia y con tanto escepticismo ha venido esperando el país” [“Gabito appears to be the great storyteller that the country has been waiting for with such patience and such skepticism”].1 By that date, the young author had published only five short stories,2 toward which later critics have shared little of Fuenmayor's enthusiasm. These early stories were not seriously studied until after the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Even today, however, most critical references to these stories tend to isolate them from the main body of García Márquez's fiction, rather than to note the thematic and stylistic development of preoccupations that would continue to direct the author's literary trajectory. Perhaps the harshest, and most often quoted, critic of these stories is Mario Vargas Llosa; in his study of García Márquez he labels this phase of production “a morbid prehistory” whose common element is “a pattern which we might term metaphysico-masturbatory” (“Morbid Prehistory” 451, 453). He assumes that García Márquez shares his critical assessment of the stories, for he calls them “ten short stories … that would never be gathered together as a book” (452); however, the following year they were in fact published as the collection Eyes of a Blue Dog (1972), later included in the Collected Stories (1984).

It is true that the earliest short stories (1947-49) are completely fantastic elaborations by narrators who are either delirious or in some state between life and death, and the stories occur with no apparent social context whatsoever. The narrators often express surprise or fear at the lack of rationality in their worlds, and the tumbling, erratic narrative style approaches stream of consciousness in its attempt to convey the terrors of the trapped protagonists. However, in the short story “The Night of the Curlews” (1950), the author uses a similar style toward a different end; the protagonists are trapped in a very real Colombian society, facing aloneness not beyond, but rather within, a human context. This shift from existential to social pessimism represents an important development in García Márquez's progression toward his more realistic fiction of the early sixties (In Evil Hour,No One Writes to the Colonel).

In his journalism of the 1950s, García Márquez turns away from creations of pure imagination to explore a world that is in many ways even more difficult to categorize: the interior or isolated regions of his own country. Alejo Carpentier's landmark novel The Kingdom of This World appeared in 1949, postulating in its introduction the concept of “the marvelous reality” of Latin America—not a real world with metaphorical legendary elements, but rather a world in which fantasy and reality are indistinguishable in the perceptions of the native population. While not yet fully realized, the concept of a Colombian folkloric or mythical reality does clearly appear in García Márquez's contemporaneous journalism, for example in the “Marquesita of La Sierpe” series of the early 1950s.

This four-part series describes in a factual tone the customs and superstitions of La Sierpe, described as

un país de leyenda dentro de la costa atlántica de Colombia, donde uno de los episodios más corrientes de la vida diaria es vengar una ofensa con un maleficio como ese de hacer que al ofensor le nazca, le crezca y se le reproduzca un mico dentro del vientre.

(Textos costeños 117)

[a legendary country on the Atlantic coast of Colombia, where one of the most common occurrences of daily life is to avenge an offense with a curse, like that of causing a monkey to be born, grow, and reproduce itself inside the belly of the offender.]

Various critics have detailed thematic relationships between this series and the later short story “Big Mama's Funeral” (published in 1962). However, more relevant to the present study is the change this series reflects in García Márquez's use of the fantastic. In the earlier journalism, as in the first stories of Eyes of a Blue Dog (e.g., “The Third Resignation” [1947], “Eva Is Inside Her Cat” [1948]), the use of fantasy is explicit and artificial; the protagonists' own initial reaction is one of incredulity. The reader is invited to imagine that the fantastic events could occur, but is not told directly that they do happen. It is this more subtle technique that García Márquez begins to explore in the Sierpe series and in the contemporary fictional stories. The incorporation of fantasy into a concrete social context blends subjective and objective realities; it questions the dividing line between empirical reality and individual interpretations of that reality. “The Night of the Curlews,” based on the Colombian legend that these diving birds pluck out the eyes of those who dare to imitate their song, is one of the earliest literary examples of this new focus in García Márquez.

“The Night of the Curlews” is probably the least studied story of the entire collection, scarcely mentioned in Donald McGrady's 1972 article or Raymond Williams's study of this period. Yet Vargas Llosa marks this story as “the dividing line between the prehistory and the history of the fictional reality” because it is the first story to incorporate specifically Colombian folklore and a coastal setting. He says that “only in this text had [the author] begun in earnest his life as a substitute for God,” as creator of his own universe, with its own natural laws (“Morbid Prehistory” 459-60).

In order to evaluate and appreciate this progression from pure fantasy toward magical reality, an accurate chronology of the stories is essential. Surprisingly, of the few critics who deal extensively with this body of fiction, none uses the correct dates of original publication of the stories. They all appear to use as their reference the publication data provided by Vargas Llosa in Historia de un deicidio [History of a Deicide], published in 1971. He can label “The Night of the Curlews” a turning point and the other stories “prehistory” because of the former's supposed publication date of 1952; the date would make “The Night of the Curlews” one of the latest stories of Eyes of a Blue Dog. In fact, however, Jacques Gilard's extensive chronology of García Márquez's journalism establishes that this story was first published in July 1950, in the Barranquilla magazine Crónica, placing it not only earlier than the completion of García Márquez's first novel Leaf Storm, but also before other, less “Latin-American” stories of Eyes of a Blue Dog. Thus, the progression toward a specifically regional focus was not a smooth and consistent one; however, Vargas Llosa is correct in asserting that “The Night of the Curlews” marks a significant step toward the style and content of the later fiction.

The link between Franz Kafka's fantasy and the stories of Eyes of a Blue Dog is obvious and is verified by García Márquez, as well as his friends (fellow members of the literary “Group of Barranquilla”), who mention him in their journalism.3 Both García Márquez and Kafka depict in their stories a nightmarish world, where the separation between dream and reality is as unclear as is the separation between life and death. Reality and fantasy are inseparable, described with no change of tone, no narrative incredulity. As in many of García Márquez's stories, the characters simply adjust their lives to incorporate unforeseen and, for the reader, bizarre circumstances. This clear influence has led some critics, such as Vargas Llosa, to separate the early use of fantasy by García Márquez from that of his mature fiction and to label the former as purely imitative; Vargas Llosa calls this influence “devastating” (“Morbid Prehistory” 451).

Because of the evident Kafkan influence, critics have been satisfied to label the fantasy of both Kafka and the early García Márquez as profoundly pessimistic and to end their comparative analyses with this thematic similarity rather than to note a crucial difference—the early revelation of a perspective that will continue to occupy García Márquez and that clearly distinguishes him from Kafka. The latter author's pessimism reflects a belief that humanity is fundamentally not merely unvirtuous but actually evil. His stories are filled with human falseness, relentless persecution, and sadism. The imagery is often grotesque, even repulsive, and many stories end with death as an escape from the horror of life. García Márquez's stories, especially “The Night of the Curlews,” are no less pessimistic, are equally lacking in possibilities for redemption, and are unmitigated by the humor of his later fiction. However, the pessimism stems not from the cruelty of mankind, but from the isolation of man within his society, a concept that underlies most of García Márquez's subsequent works.

Many of the earlier stories contain only one character who faces alone his terror of the unknown. The characters are also physically immobilized, their fear exacerbated by their inability to escape or act in any way. In “The Night of the Curlews” a relationship among characters is depicted, but it is always unclear, marked by barriers of communication. The dominant atmosphere is one of isolation; the three protagonists exist in their own newly created world, unaided by outsiders.

The sense of self-enclosure is reinforced by the unusual use of narrative voice employed by the author. The story is narrated in a collective first-person. While theoretically one of the three characters is telling the story, a singular “I” form never appears. Many sentences seem uttered by all three, preceded by “we said,” and thus the characters grow indistinguishable. When a protagonist does separate himself from the others, he is referred to only as “one of us” (83), and he quickly moves back to blend with the group again. Even physically the three at times fuse into one; while still in the bar, the newly blinded men recognize each other “in the joints of the thirty fingers piled up on the counter” (83).

This narrative device serves multiple functions. First, it contrasts with the concrete setting to lend the story a more vague, nebulous tone; the reader tries to separate the characters, to sort them out, but finds their reality inaccessible. Second, the use of a collective narrative voice presumably should imply some kind of bond among the characters themselves. Even if the exterior world is hostile or silent, the characters should find some solace in their solidarity. But in fact the narrators are as impassive to each other as the outside world is to them. This impassivity is perhaps the most startling feature of the story, for none of the newly blinded characters ever expresses pain or even surprise. During the three days that they wander, trying to find their way home, not a single emotion is articulated; the protagonists are united only by circumstance, and among themselves they neither seek nor offer comfort. This same narrative technique was used with equal success in the short story “Bitterness for Three Sleepwalkers,” published the preceding year.

The structure of the story is also calculated to undermine the reader's natural surprise at the bizarre incident and to emphasize the aftermath rather than the anecdote itself. The story begins not with the attack of the curlews, but with the moments immediately afterward. The narrators relate how the men calmly found each others' hands, “and we stood up as if nothing had happened. We still hadn't had time to get upset” (83). The reader thus knows from the beginning that the men fumble in the darkness, but discovers only piecemeal that the men have been blinded and how this accident occurred. The entire narrative emphasis shifts away from what traditionally would have been the dramatic climax and deals instead with the struggle to survive afterward in an unchanged and largely unsympathetic real world. After the curlews' attack, there is no reaction from the others at the café; someone plays the usual Wurlitzer record, and the three characters calmly leave the room. As they leave, they pass a woman in a rocking chair who, upon seeing their search for the door, stands up and leaves. Then another voice, apparently that of a waiter, asks them to move out of the way. None of these characters shows any awareness of the characters' need for help, even after the blind men attempt to explain their situation. We later learn that the story was reported in the newspaper, but “nobody wanted to believe it and they say it was a fake item made up by the papers to boost their circulation. No one has seen the curlews” (87).

Finally, when the protagonists ask a boy to guide them home, the youth refuses because other children may tease him; and “Besides, I'm reading Terry and the Pirates right now” (87). The entire story is a chronicle of the inhumanity surrounding the three characters and of their eventual relinquishment of hope. This same image of a hostile society reappears throughout García Márquez's fiction in stories from Big Mama's Funeral (notably “Tuesday Siesta” and “Montiel's Widow”) and Eréndira [Innocent Eréndira and Other Stories] (for example, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” “Death Constant beyond Love,” and “Eréndira”), as well as in many of the novels.

The distortion of time and space in the narration underscores the protagonists' sense of disorientation. The opening lines of the story demonstrate clearly that the narrators have lost touch with their surroundings; without explaining what “it” is, the narrator says, “It happened before we could remember where we were, before we could get back our sense of location” (83). The reader is forced to follow the narrative voice into this darkened world of confused sensations and impressions and consequently to lose track of any objective spatial or temporal measurements. For example, as the characters attempt to leave the café, they hear many doors, but never seem to escape the building. One seems to pass through a doorway, implying that he has reached the outdoors, but then he says: “We must be close. … There's a smell of piled-up trunks around here” (84), contradicting the previous impression. Whether the men move in and out of various buildings or wander through only one is never clarified and in fact becomes unimportant, as the narrative focuses only on identifying “the things that surrounded us” (84).

Time is equally difficult to ascertain in this chaotic narration. After what seems like only moments since the accident, the narrator feels “the harsh, cutting breeze of an invisible dawn” (84). The synaesthesia of this passage connotes a new way of measuring time, a subjective perception impossible to verify. The next woman whom the protagonists encounter has already read the newspaper account of the attack, implying that quite a bit of time has passed; she adds, “The courtyard [of the bar] was full of people the next day” (85). She is privy to a perspective and a level of awareness completely denied to the blind men, who seem not even to wonder at the time that has passed.

At the end of the story, the objective time frame of the young boy is revealed to the protagonists, as he discusses serial episodes of Terry and the Pirates: “That was Friday. Today's Sunday and what I like are the colors” (87). The narrator grasps at this temporal reference and reveals to another of the blind men, “We've been lost for almost three days and we haven't had a moment's rest” (88). This news comes as a complete surprise to the reader, as it does to the protagonists, since there has been no mention of hunger or of fatigue; the quantity of time, three days, seems completely arbitrary.

This narrative manipulation, which undermines traditional expectations about time and place, forces the reader to share the blindness of the protagonists, in effect to see through their eyes. The style of the story creates two separate universes, one external and impassive, and the other consisting only of the three men: “Then the three of us looked for ourselves in the darkness and found ourselves there” (83). Mere contact with the external world provides no real help for the protagonists, who remain trapped in their own senselessly sightless universe.

The bleak ending to the story strikes the deepest note of social pessimism, as the three men slip into physical and emotional abulia: “We sat down. An invisible sun began to warm us on the shoulders. But not even the presence of the sun interested us. We felt it there, everywhere, having already lost the notion of distance, time, direction” (88). Again, subtle changes in the narrative voice underscore the growing sense of isolation and despair, for in the final lines “someone” of the three proposes a course of action, but “the others” prefer to remain motionless (88); for the first time, the speakers are not “we” or “one of us,” but instead are indicated in the third person: “they.” This impression of distance mirrors a new distance among the protagonists themselves; as confusion forces them into passivity and silence, “their heads lifted toward the invisible light” (88). This unrelenting pessimism recurs throughout García Márquez's fiction of social criticism, primarily in the stories of Big Mama's Funeral, and the novels In Evil Hour and No One Writes to the Colonel. This sense of futility underlies the political aspects of One Hundred Years of Solitude as well, for Colonel Aureliano Buendía and José Arcadio Segundo, the two most politically aware characters, also lapse into immobility.

Thus, although this story marks an important shift in García Márquez's use of Colombian legends to depict a unique reality, it is equally important in terms of its introduction of social pessimism. While the content forecasts the future magical realism, the narrative techniques and the story's structure highlight society's impassivity toward the suffering of individuals. The later socially oriented works chronicle the greed and corruption of power figures, but here the sins are those of omission rather than of commission; society is as deaf as the protagonists are blind. The sense of solitude and isolation in the former stories is thus elaborated, casting blame now not on the individuals' physical or emotional inability to reach out, but rather on the hostile society as a whole.


  1. Alfonso Fuenmayor, El Heraldo 17 December 1949: 3; qtd. in Gilard 14.

  2. “The Third Resignation” (1947), “Tubal-Caín Forges a Star” (1947), “Eva Is Inside Her Cat” (1947), “The Other Side of Death” (1948), “Dialogue with the Mirror” (1949).

  3. For a detailed exploration of the literary group and its influences, see Gilard, “El grupo de Barranquilla,” and Rufinelli.

Works Cited

García Márquez, Gabriel. Collected Stories. New York: Harper, 1984.

———. Textos costeños. Obra periodística, Vol. 1. Ed. Jacques Gilard. Barcelona: Bruguera, 1981.

Gilard, Jacques. “El grupo de Barranquilla.” Revista Iberoamericana 50 (1984): 905-35.

———. Introduction. García Márquez, Textos costeños. 7-72.

McGrady, Donald. “Acerca de una colección desconocida de relatos por Gabriel García Márquez.” Thesaurus: Boletín del Instituto Caro y Cuervo 27 (1972): 293-320.

Rufinelli, Jorge. “Gabriel García Márquez y el grupo de Barranquilla.” La palabra y el hombre Nueva época 10 (1974): 23-29.

Vargas Llosa, Mario. García Márquez: Historia de un deicidio. Barcelona-Caracas: Ed. Barral, 1971.

———. “A Morbid Prehistory: The Early Stories.” Books Abroad 47 (1973): 451-60. [First published in Historia de un deicidio, 217-32.]

Williams, Raymond. Gabriel García Márquez. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

Michael Wood (review date 27 September 1991)

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SOURCE: Wood, Michael. “A Bitter Fairyland.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4617 (27 September 1991): 26.

[In the following review of Collected Stories, Wood delineates the differences between García Márquez's short fiction and his novels.]

Walter Benjamin distinguished between stories and novels on the basis not of length or subject or style but of a projected relation to experience. The novel, even if read aloud, is centred on the solitude of the book, offers rich pictures of the “profound perplexity of living”. The novelist is “uncounseled, and cannot counsel others”. The storyteller, even if working in print, remembers and recreates a world of spoken connections, and “has counsel” for his or her readers. Benjamin notes—he is writing in 1936—that the idea of having counsel has “an old-fashioned ring”, but makes clear that counsel is not a separable moral or a lesson: “counsel is less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is just unfolding”. To seek counsel we have to be able to tell a story. To receive counsel is to know how to act on it, but not necessarily to have a formula in which we could summarize it.

With the return of narrative to novels—the High Modernists were deeply disapproving of plot and story-telling—Benjamin's distinction begins to look shaky, but holds, I think, if we follow its argument and shift its location. There could be counsel and lack of counsel in both stories and novels; the distinction would now identify modes of writing rather than traditional labels. This English edition of the Collected Stories of Gabriel García Márquez, that story-telling novelist, invites just such questions, since it shows the author testing various kinds of counsel, none of them much like those in effect in his longer works.

The stories in this volume have all appeared in English before, but not in sequence. They correspond to three volumes in Spanish—Ojos de Perro Azul, 1955, Los Funerales de la Mamá Grande, 1962, La increíble y triste historia de la cándida Eréndira y de su abuela desalmada, 1972—and also to a Spanish collection, Todos los Cuentos de Gabriel García Márquez, 1975. The three books do represent different moments in García Márquez's writing career—although the end of each volume tends to prepare the scene for the next. Thus the “Monologue of Isabel Watching the Rain …” introduces us to the Macondo which figures in several stories of Los Funerales …, including the title one. That story in turn presents the realm of hyperbole and magic which predominates in the next volume. Very roughly, the development is from a form of Gothic or Surrealist nightmare into a laconic, cinematic evocation of a historical place; and from there into a rewriting of that same place as a bitter and difficult fairyland. The progression of the novels is quite different: from historical fiction into historical myth and from there into a historicized and haunting echo of soap opera.

There is not a whole lot of counsel to be found in the early stories. They are tentative and experimental, good on atmosphere, weak in their attempts at the calm but crowded epigrams which punctuate García Márquez's best-known work. People say things like “I'll never smile again”, and you can almost hear the clatter of the failed resonance. There are moments when counsel seems to hover in a phrase or a joke. “The greatest terror of his life” is a commonplace, but “The greatest terror of his life and of his death” is more complicated, unsettling boundaries that seemed stable. Three men whose eyes have been picked out by curlews—the birds were insulted, apparently, by one of the men's imitation of their cry—are accused of believing too readily what they read in the papers. What they are supposed to have read is the story of their own blinding.

The method of the second set of stories owes a lot to Hemingway and the Italian cinema, since they seek to evoke a violent and oppressive tropic through a sparing display of image and incident. The climate is essential here: rain-sodden when it is not dust-laden, unbearably hot, in one story hotter than it has ever been. A mother and daughter arrive to visit the grave of a thief shot a week ago: their son and brother. A dentist extracts, without anaesthetic, the aching tooth of a political enemy. An artisan gives away a beautiful bird-cage he was hoping to be handsomely paid for, and discovers that the difference between the rich and the poor is that the rich can't afford to get angry or they'll die of apoplexy. In the next story, a rich man gets angry and dies. We get our counsel exactly as Benjamin says, by continuing the story in our minds, by taking it further than it goes on the page. Here the epigrams begin to work very powerfully. The dentist extracting his enemy's tooth says “This is where you pay for twenty dead men, lieutenant.” It's a poor vengeance, not a payment at all, but the lieutenant's toothache is something to be grateful for, a faint gesture towards the redistribution of pain.

García Márquez is often thought of as writing fantasy, or some sort of mix of fantasy and realism, but in his novels the fantastic occurs only on the level of our perception of the reported events. No one in the novels thinks what is happening is fantastic, and neither does the narrator. The tone is serenely unastonished, even when astonishment would seem natural, almost obligatory. In the later stories, the frankly fantastic occurs all the time, and is experienced as such: an ageing angel in the backyard, a phantom ocean liner, a drowned giant. The narrative voice is often that of a protagonist, and mimes oral effects far more closely than usually occurs in the novels. “Madre mía”, it says, “ladies and gentlemen”, “now they're going to see who I am”. The most spectacular instance of this style is the story “Big Mama's Funeral”, which takes the form of a gossipy report offered as a desirable, truthful alternative to what “historians” will tell us. Not only is this funeral “the greatest funeral in the world”, the end of a seemingly endless era in the corrupt and credulous realm of Macondo, but Big Mama becomes an emblem of that (all-too-historical) form of political power which rules through fantasy, which is fantasy turned into tyranny. It takes her three hours to enumerate her material possessions, but her “immaterial possessions”, her bienes morales, are even more impressive:

The wealth of the subsoil, the territorial waters, the colours of the flag, national sovereignty, the traditional parties, the rights of man, civil liberties, the first magistrate, the second instance, the third debate, letters of recommendation, historical records, free elections, beauty queens, transcendental speeches, huge demonstrations, distinguished young ladies, proper gentlemen, punctilious military men. His Illustrious Eminence, the Supreme Court, goods whose importation was forbidden, liberal ladies, the meat problem, the purity of the language, setting a good example, law and order, the free but responsible press, the Athens of South America, public opinion, the lessons of democracy, Christian morality, the shortage of foreign exchange, the right of asylum, the Communist menace, the ship of state, the high cost of living, Republican traditions, the disadvantaged classes, statements of political support.

Big Mama owns almost everything that keeps us in our place, and there is a similar joke in a later story, where Blacamán the magician is said to have been so good at embalming viceroys that “for many years they went on governing better than when they were alive”. Counsel is not in the list but in what we know about the phrases on the list, the way they are waved about and used: an appeal to the shared experience we may have thought we had lost. Those dead viceroys, like the live ones, govern with our collusion, and not only in Latin America. Reminders of such facts do seem to have an old-fashioned ring; but they are also, given recent events in Eastern Europe and Russia, absolutely up to the minute.

Iddo Landau (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Landau, Iddo. “Metafiction as a Rhetorical Device in Hegel's History of Absolute Spirit and Gabriel García Márquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude.CLIO 21, no. 4 (1992): 401-10.

[In the following essay, Landau contrasts the use of metafiction as a rhetorical device in Hegel's history of “Absolute Spirit” and García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.]

“Metafiction” has been defined as “fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality.”1 Of course, many literary works include some element of self-awareness or self-reference. However, the term “metafiction” is usually applied only to those cases in which the self-relation is used to undermine our traditional understanding of the distinction between fiction and reality. Metafiction shows the rhetorical power to do so by relating a fictional work to itself, by including discussions of a fictional work as part of it. Thus, the distinction between the actual fictional work we are reading and holding in our hands as part of reality and the fictional world which the work describes is blurred or collapses. But this also gives metafiction the rhetorical power to create a feeling of absurdity, subverting temporal, logical, and literary distinctions of before and after the work's completion, of historical narrative and fiction, of true and false. Further, by relating the fictional work to itself, metafiction can also create an impression of recursive chains. Indeed, it is for such “anarchistic” uses that metafiction is most frequently employed, and it is on them that research on it concentrates. However, research has neglected to see that the blurring of fiction and reality can be used not only to confound these categories, but (retaining these categories) to convince the reader that the apparent fictional narrative being read is real, that the events described have actually been happening. Further, it frequently has been overlooked that metafiction has been used as a rhetorical persuasive device not only in literature but also in philosophy. In this paper I shall compare and contrast two uses of metafiction as a rhetorical device, one philosophical, the other literary. The first is the metafiction at the end of Hegel's history of Absolute Spirit. The second, which illuminates dimensions of the first by both similarities and differences, is the use of metafiction at the end of García Márquez' history of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

In his various writings, Hegel shows how the history of Spirit progressively manifests itself in time as political history, history of legal systems, of art, of religion, and of philosophy. Even the non-temporal, logical categories by which Spirit returns to itself in the Logic are present as the essential, guiding concepts of the philosophical systems which progressively appeared in the history of philosophy. All events in these fields are moments in the process by which Spirit strives, through its different manifestations, to achieve self-realization.

The various moments and categories are interrelated by means of the dialectical movement which synthesizes them into ever more inclusive categories. Near the close of the system the Absolute Spirit itself is discussed. The system first describes the manifestation of Absolute Spirit in art, then in religion, and finally in philosophy, the development of which, as of other fields, is outlined from the earliest and most primitive forms. Thus the discussion progresses gradually through the generations up to the modern era. After dealing with Kant, the system discusses German Idealism and shows how Absolute Spirit expresses itself yet more fully with each successive philosopher. But at the end we realize that the final stage of the complete development of Absolute Spirit and of philosophy is the very system we have just been reading.2 The end of the system (story, narration), then, is the system (story, narration) itself (Phenomenology of Spirit 3:14). The story is the story of itself. In it Absolute Spirit reaches self-consciousness and self-realization. Although we did not realize it at the time, from the very start we were already reading the system from the point of view of final truth.

Thus, the end of all historical (and logical) events discussed in the system is a fuller and richer understanding of the events themselves. In the end of the system there is a return to previous stages and categories understood in a richer, more complete way. The end of the events discussed in the system is the realization of each one's place in the context of all the other events and processes, of the necessity of their development through the dialectical method, and of their being manifestations of Absolute Spirit. In short, it is the recognition of their necessary development in the process which has led to this very recognition.

Hegel uses metafiction at the end of his system to achieve several philosophical purposes. However, I shall first discuss metafiction as a literary device to create in the reader the impression that what is read is true. The metafictional turn imparts this feeling in the following ways:

1. We are in the habit of seeing truth as the congruence between description and described. Thus we see the statement “snow is white” as true if and only if snow is indeed white. Now, at the end of Hegel's system we reach a special situation: what is described in the system is the very systematic description itself. The system includes assertions about something, but this something is these very assertions. Since the description describes the description itself, a discrepancy between them seems impossible. The metafiction creates the illusion that what we read is true. (Note, however, that this perception is not necessarily correct. A description or a sentence can be about itself and still be false as in, “This sentence is in French and has five words.”)

2. The presumption of truth is created not merely by reading a narrative which portrays how a certain system describes itself, but also by the fact that the system about which we are reading is the very same system which we are reading; it is present right before us. Since the system we are reading about is actually held in our hands, we feel that at least part of what is discussed in the system is real. Put differently, when at the end of the system we understand that this end involves our very present understanding of it, we feel that the system is realized. Thus, we are led to feel by association that the rest of the things described are also realized and hence truly described.

3. The system's special relationship with the reader exists from yet another aspect. The different stages and processes described lie along the Absolute Spirit's way toward self-realization. But according to Hegel, Absolute Spirit cannot reach self-realization by itself; it can do so only through human beings. Thus, the full self-realization of Absolute Spirit (through the self-consciousness of human beings who realize the truth of what is said in the system) described in the system is found to be identical with the reader's all too coincidentally similar self-conscious reading, understanding, and accepting of the system. We as readers, then, are led to believe that the system actually describes the act by which we read it and accept it as true. Put differently, metafictional description induces the supposition of an identity of reference between what is described in the system and the reader's experience which contributes to the impression that what is written in the system is true.

4. Because of the metafiction, there is a sense of synoptical recapitulation at the end of the system. When we discover that the end of the system is the whole coherent system we have been reading, this whole is recalled at once. But the cohering of theses and descriptions is taken as a mark of truth. Thus, again, a feeling that what we read is true is aroused.

5. Thanks to the metafiction, the system says of itself some things that indeed are true. For example, it says of itself that it discovers itself in the end and indeed it does. Similarly, it says that it reconciles all previous categories, and indeed it does. Thus, when it says or implies of itself that it is true, we may come to think by association that this too is the case.

6. The metafictional turn also creates the impression of a circular mutual affirmation between things said all through the system and things said at its end. Throughout the system we read that we are to reach the complete truth at the end. Then, at the end, we read that all we have been reading up to now is the complete truth. Thus, we feel that what we have read earlier is true, and hence that what is said at the end of the system is true.

Note that the mutual affirmation as constructed by Hegel creates a stronger feeling of truth than would have been aroused by a simple assertion such as “all you have been reading here is true.” The affirmation as we are given it appears as a natural continuation of what has been happening in the system according to the dialectical method. In a way, it relies on the system. A simple assertion that “all you have been reading here is true” would not be a natural continuation of the system up to that point and would be based on nothing.

All these factors impart a feeling that what we have been reading is true. The feeling is enhanced by the fact that when the system relates to itself all these factors appear at once. Had they appeared one by one, at different stages, the effect would have been weaker. Moreover, the feeling of truth is further enhanced by the fact that these factors are not explicit, and we are less likely to examine critically and consciously whether they indeed are evidence for the truthfulness of the system—an inspection which might lead to a diminution of the impression of truthfulness.

Gabriel García Márquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude3 narrates in a semi-realistic and semi-fantastic way the history of the village Macondo and of a leading family in it—the Buendias. With a few exceptions, the events of this history are narrated chronologically. In the final chapter we learn that one of the last members of the family, Aureliano (lover of Amaranta-Ursula), finds and reads the writings of one Melquiades, composed many years earlier, at the time of José Arcadio Buendia, one of the founders of Macondo. While reading he realizes that these texts discuss the whole history of Macondo and the Buendias. He finds in Melquiades everything that has happened to his family, including the fact that he, Aureliano, has found the book and is reading it, and that this very understanding dawns on him.

Many similarities exist, then, between García Márquez' description of the history of Macondo and Hegel's description of the history of Absolute Spirit. Both works narrate a historical process. In both a metafictional turn appears toward the end of the history, referring directly to itself and reflecting all the other events. In both the metafictional turn takes us back to earlier events, adding to them a dimension which up to that point we had not seen; in the final, metafictional stage we have a richer understanding of the earlier stages.

But most importantly, in both cases the metafictional turn imparts a feeling that what we have read is true. We feel that what we have been reading is not merely a description, but also part of reality. Like Hegel, García Márquez achieves this effect in several ways:

1. As in Hegel, so in the world narrated by García Márquez the description and the described are to some extent one. Aureliano finds a book which describes Macondo and his family, including his finding and reading the book at that very moment. Aureliano is used to the distinction between a description of reality and reality itself. But when he sees that the description of reality is about itself—about the very description he is reading—the description belongs for him to both worlds: the one described and the one he himself experiences. Thus, the events discussed in the book seem more persuasively true to him, and to the extent that we identify with him, to us as well.

2. Again analogously to Hegel, apart from the metafiction that exists inside the narrative, there is also one between the narrative and our actual world. Since what is written in One Hundred Years of Solitude is similar to what is written in the book Aureliano reads, we feel it might be the same book. In other words, we feel that the book we are reading is the book in Aureliano's hands. It is true, our book was written not by Melquiades but by García Márquez, and not in Sanskrit but in Spanish. But there is sufficient similarity between the two to leave us with the feeling that they are nevertheless one and the same book. Hence, we feel that the book we are reading describes itself and thus both belongs to the world of fiction and that of reality. The distinctions between reality and fantasy are to a large extent obliterated.

3. Again, the metafiction at the end of the book creates a recapitulative synoptic feeling. When Aureliano finds and reads a book which narrates all the events we have been reading about (including his very finding and reading of the book), all we have been reading about at once comes together as a unity. And since we frequently take the coherence and unity of theses and events to be a mark of their truth, the unity we feel at the end of the book has the effect of truthfulness.

4. Again, thanks to metafiction Melquiades' book can say of itself some things which are indeed true. For example, it says that it discusses Macondo's history and indeed it does. It says that it was found by Aureliano and indeed it was; it is being read by Aureliano at that very moment and indeed it is. It even says that it says that it is being read by Aureliano and it does. Thus, when the book implies of itself that it is true, Aureliano, and to a certain extent we, come to think that this is so.

Note that since it is not completely certain that the book Aureliano is reading is the same as ours, some of the things the book says of itself are true only for his and not for ours. For example, we cannot be sure that the book's saying of itself that it was found by Aureliano is true of our book as well as of Aureliano's.

5. Again as before, the metafictional turn creates a feeling of mutual affirmation between the things said all through the system and those said at its end. At the end of the story a book is found that implies that everything that has happened in the story is true; but the book itself is also part of the story, and hence it also is again true. (And again, the affirmation can be taken to continue: since it says, or indicates, that the whole story is true, and since it is part of the story, it again seems true, and thus what it says is true.)

Note that here again this mutual affirmation creates a stronger feeling of truth than a simple assertion that “all you have been reading up to now is true” would have done, since the former seems a natural continuation of the story we have been reading, and the latter would have been foreign to it.

6. In García Márquez, the book found by Aureliano toward the end of the narrative was already fully written out a few generations earlier, at the time of Macondo's founder, José Arcadio Buendia. Thus, both Aureliano and we feel that the events that took place after the writing of the book but which are narrated in it and in One Hundred Years of Solitude, were necessary. If the book described events which happened after it was written, then it seems that these events had to happen as they did. Thus, there seems to be not only a simple congruence between what was written in Melquiades' book and what happened outside it, but also a necessary, magical congruence. And this enhances our feeling that what was described in the book (which is by and large what is described in One Hundred Years of Solitude) was true.

All these factors impart a feeling that what we have been reading is true, a feeling enhanced by the fact that when the book refers to itself all the factors appear at once. Had they appeared separately, their effect would have been weaker. Moreover, none of these factors are explicit. Thus, we are less likely to investigate whether they are indeed evidence for the truth of what the book says—an examination which might weaken the impression of truthfulness.

The similarity between Hegel's history of Absolute Spirit and García Márquez' history of Macondo is clear. It lies, for example, in the appearance of metafiction toward the end of the histories and in the use to which it is put, viz., enhancing the feeling that what is written in them is true. Moreover, even the ways in which metafiction is used to enhance the feeling of truth in these two works are almost similar.

But there are also differences between metafiction in Hegel and in García Márquez. In almost every way, Hegel uses metafiction more fully. Whereas García Márquez uses metafiction only for a literary purpose—to create an aesthetic effect—in Hegel it also advances philosophical purposes. For instance, it allows him to avoid unfounded axioms. The starting point of the system is grounded when the end relates back to it, certifying its necessity in the complete system. Likewise, Hegel uses metafiction to avoid infinite regress. The dialectical method does not go on infinitely, continuously pushing the end forward, but, by relating to itself, overcomes the notion of the end altogether. Similarly, through metafiction Hegel keeps the system continuously dynamic. The movement does not stop once self-consciousness of Absolute Spirit has been reached, but, through the self-relation, continues circularly. Hegel also uses metafiction to help synthesize all the notions contained in the system, yet, since he is an anti-reductionist, without endangering their individual uniqueness. Thus, whereas in the previous phases of the dialectic each inclusive category does not represent the unique natures of the categories included in it, the final category in the system—i.e., the system itself—does.

But even rhetorically, i.e., only in imparting a feeling of truth, Hegel employs this self-relation more fully than García Márquez. First, whereas at the end of Hegel's system we feel that its reading is both experienced by us and implied in the system, we do not feel at the end of García Márquez' novel that our reading of it is mentioned or implied in any way. The literary “hero” of Hegel's system—the Absolute Spirit—is taken to exist not only in the system but also in the real world and to achieve self-realization through human beings. Hence we feel that there is a congruence between the acceptance of the system by human beings as described or implied in the system, and our actual acceptance of the system in the real world. The literary “hero” of One Hundred Years of Solitude—the Buendia family and Aureliano himself—is not taken to exist in the real world, nor to be connected to our reading of the book in any other way. Thus we are not tempted to feel that our reading the book is described or implied in it.

Second, at the end of Hegel's system we feel that the system we are reading about is similar to the system we actually hold in our hands, whereas at the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude we are less certain that the book we are reading about is similar to the one we actually hold. Although the book we are reading about is similar in some respects to the one in our hands (both discuss the same events, including Aureliano's finding and reading it), they are different in others (composed by different authors in different languages). Thus, whereas readers of Hegel's system feel that there is a complete similarity between the system they are reading and the system they are reading about, readers of García Márquez feel that there is only a partial similarity between the book they are reading and the book they are reading about. Hence, the feeling of truthfulness in García Márquez' novel, although still aroused, is weaker.

Third, Hegel's system says of itself a greater number of true things than Aureliano's find does of itself. Hence, the propensity to feel that other things said in these works are also true is shakier in García Márquez than in Hegel.

Fourth, although mutual metafictional affirmation exists in both works, it is stronger in Hegel's, where the final, metafictional stage is clearly anticipated. Moreover, this stage is taken to be a logical continuation of the previous ones. In García Márquez, on the other hand, Aureliano's finding and reading the book is not anticipated. Moreover, it is not seen as a logical, necessary conclusion of the previous stages, but as merely one event among many. Thus in García Márquez the end of the book and the events which precede it still mutually affirm each other, but less powerfully than in Hegel.

All in all, then, Hegel uses metafiction more fully and to achieve stronger effects of truthfulness. There is one way, however, in which García Márquez' use of metafiction creates a stronger feeling of truth than Hegel's: the fact that Melquiades' book describes events that happen after it was written creates a feeling that the congruence between it and the events it (as well as One Hundred Years of Solitude) describes is a necessary one. In Hegel's system, on the other hand, the historical realization of the system is taken to be completed only at the end of the narration. It is true that at the end of the system we see that in a sense its end is present also in the beginning; but not in its full form, as is Melquiades' book.

How can the differences between Hegel's and García Márquez' uses of metafiction be explained? Why does the latter not follow Hegel's model of the use of metafiction in all respects, but only in some and less emphatically? The differences have to do with the different natures of their works. Hegel aims at presenting a philosophical, scientific account of the history of Absolute Spirit. The reality or truthfulness of his account is very important to him. García Márquez, on the other hand, is consciously presenting a literary work, and thus he does not aim at convincing his readers that what he is writing is true. His book balances on the fine line between reality and fantasy and he wants to avoid “crossing the border” to reality, as Hegel did. In other words, he does not wish to convey a sense of complete reality, but to leave an impression that the border between fantasy and reality is blurred. Hence, unlike Hegel, he does not use metafiction in all the ways he could.

But if Hegel is interested in using metafiction to achieve the strongest possible effect of truthfulness, why does he not also use García Márquez' method and take his system to exist in its full form already at the beginning of his narrative? This is not possible; Hegel's system is directional. It starts with categories which in themselves are wrong insofar as they are partial, but through an ordered process (the dialectical movement) become incorporated into larger and larger contexts which add to their understanding. Completeness and truth are achieved only at the end of the system, when the development of Absolute Spirit reaches its final stage. Hence, for Hegel the final point could not fully exist at the beginning. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, on the other hand, there is no feeling for a gradual philosophical progress. The plot does not seem to go in any specific direction, and at the end of the saga there is a marked feeling of decadence. Hence, there is no difficulty in taking Melquiades' book to exist not only at the end of the story, but also at the beginning.

To sum up, Hegel uses metafiction both as a philosophical device, a structure which fulfills genuine philosophical functions, and as a literary device, a rhetorical tool used to impart to the reader a feeling that what is read is true. Does the unmasking of Hegel's use of metafiction as a rhetorical device undermine the philosophical cogency of his system? The answer is no. The existence of a literary device in a philosophical system is in itself irrelevant to the philosophical cogency of the system, which should be measured only by philosophical standards (e.g., the consistency of its theses, the tenability of its assumptions, or the soundness of its arguments). However, identifying the rhetorical devices present in a system is helpful in assessing its philosophical cogency; it enables us to distinguish between philosophical elements in the system (including the philosophical use of metafiction) and rhetorical ones, and thus not to be affected by the latter when only the former should be taken into account.


  1. Patricia Waugh, Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction (London: Methuen, 1984), 2.

  2. Lectures on the History of Philosophy, 20: 460 ff.; all references to Hegel's works are from the Suhrkamp edition, ed. Eva Moldenhauer and Karl Markus Michel, 20 vols. (Frankfurt am Main: 1969). See also Phenomenology of Spirit 3:80, 582-83, 589, 591; Science of Logic 6:549-50, 567-69, 573; Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences section 577.

  3. Trans. Gregory Rabassa (New York: Harper and Row, 1970).

Adelaida López Mejía (essay date March 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8912

SOURCE: Mejía, Adelaida López. “Burying the Dead: Repetition in El otoño del patriarca.MLN 107, no. 2 (March 1992): 298-320.

[In the following essay, Mejía examines the relationship between the dictator and populace as portrayed in The Autumn of the Patriarch.]

Of course, there is no need of a signifier to be a father, any more than to be dead.

—Jacques Lacan1


The figure of the unburied corpse, which Gabriel García Márquez evokes with an epigraph from Antigone in his first novel La hojarasca, returns in El otoño del patriarca (OP) with the force of an obsession.2 In the later novel, at the beginning of each chapter, a first-person-plural narrator describes the dead body of the dictator. Although this narrative voice repeatedly splinters into first-person singular and third-person narrators, it never fails to recompose itself into the first-person plural, whenever a new chapter begins and at the jubilant end of the novel. Such unstable, polymorphous narration might conceivably issue from what Julia Kristeva terms the semiotic chora, “an essentially mobile and extremely provisional articulation constituted by movements and their ephemeral stases” (25). For Kristeva, the chora serves as a model with which to interpret the unruliness of the avant-garde text. The Protean narrative voices of García Márquez' most difficult and experimental novel could be viewed as articulating the struggle of pre-Oedipal drives within the text, drives that Kristeva describes as “semiotic functions … that connect and orient the body to the mother” (27). Even a Kristevan interpretation, however, would not answer the question that plagues most critics of the novel: does a collective narrator gather together and give unity to the multitude of individual narrating voices?3 According to Stephen Minta, the impossibility of determining “the identity of the people who lie behind the omnipresent first-person pronouns … is part of the novel's psychological project” (106). Angel Rama and Julio Ortega find in the recurrent first-person-plural narrator a collective subject that speaks for that elusive political and cultural entity, the people of a nation.4 Yet the voice of the people repeatedly confesses an almost pathological dependence on the dictator, a troubling reliance on him for a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives:

lo único que nos daba seguridad sobre la tierra era la certidumbre de que él estaba ahí, … invulnerable al tiempo, consagrado a la dicha mesiánica de pensar para nosotros, sabiendo que … era el único de nosotros que conocía el tamaño real de nuestro destino.


This expression of extreme political passivity is not just a reflection of the patriarch's own discourse, a self-delusional justification of his own power. Too many other passages unequivocally suggest that the narrating “we,” as people of the nation, have evaded the responsibility to take control over their lives. Towards the end of the novel, the people-as-narrators explicitly declare their unwillingness to accept his death: “no queríamos que fuera cierto, habíamos terminado por no entender cómo seríamos sin él” (242). At times recognizing their passivity as a flaw best left concealed, the people-as-narrator nonetheless acknowledge that the dictator's presumed immortality reassured rather than stifled them: “No sólo habíamos terminado por creer de veras que él estaba concebido para sobrevivir al tercer cometa, sino que esa convicción nos había infundido una seguridad y un sosiego que creíamos disimular” (143). García Márquez' literary creation of such an inert, apathetic collectivity has elicited varying critical responses, and it is still a matter of debate whether the novel leads us to bleak conclusions about the political history of Latin America and its future.5

Psychoanalysis provides an interpretive guide to the dictator-populace dyad in El otoño del patriarca, as well as to the relations between the patriarch and various strongly individuated characters. Although the very title of the novel demands a provisional interpretation of the dictator as paternal figure, one of the protagonist's most cherished fantasies is that his people love him as unconditionally and intensely as might occur in the idealized relation between mother and child. The dictator's specular identification of himself with the people, of course, also makes for useful political rhetoric: he can justify his actions by stating that they express the people's will. Particularly in the first chapters, he is meticulously attentive to signs of the populace's affection for him. Betrayal from the officers of his army never surprises him, but he refuses to admit that his formidable power may be based on the people's fear of him rather than on their love (85). In the dictator's hankering after the nation's affection, the people act as object or mother to his infantile desire; his own omnipotence over their lives, however, places him in the position of the all-powerful parent. The people themselves never dream of bonding with him as an ambiguous half of the mother-child dyad. They will mourn him not as the desired other, not as the maternal provider of pleasure, but as the repressive provider of law.

Nothing could be more ambivalent than the combination of disorientation and euphoria the dictator's death provokes in the narrators. Although they dub the Monday on which they storm the presidential palace as “el lunes de liberación,” they also describe themselves as anchorless and adrift after his death, fearing the uncertain future thrust upon them. Unrepressed ambivalence towards the dead is uncharacteristic, according to Freud, among recently orphaned sons and daughters: “Hostile impulses towards parents (a wish that they should die),” he writes, “are repressed … at times of their illness or death” (Freud's letter to Fliess, qtd. in editor's note SE [Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud] 14:240). In Totem and Taboo (TT), Freud suggests that our reaction to the death of political leaders allows for more conscious ambivalence than does the death of parents. Yet in spite of the distinction Freud draws between parents and rulers, he clearly views political leaders as paternal surrogates and as the objects of murderous Oedipal fantasies (TT: 69). The entire second chapter of Totem and Taboo is concerned with the “ambivalence of emotions” that the death of the powerful evokes in us.

Many passages of Totem and Taboo owe a considerable debt to Frazer's The Golden Bough. With characteristic insistence on the force of repressed desire, Freud argues that the prohibitions and rituals regulating the daily lives of rulers point to “a forbidden action for which there exists a strong inclination in the unconscious” (TT: 44). This disguised desire is no other than to kill the powerful: “everybody would perhaps like to be king” (TT: 45). Freud also likens the apparently unmotivated behaviour of “compulsive disorders” to the prohibitions of taboo (TT: 36-41). In El otoño del patriarca, the dictator's methodical bedtime ritual (“pasaba las tres aldabas, los tres pestillos …” [67]) resembles nothing if not a compulsion neurosis. The dictator's obsessive revision of palace windows and doors before bedtime seems a useless attempt to ward off or control the circumstances of his own death, which, if he trusts what he saw in a fortune-teller's tea-cup, shall come from natural causes in his sleep (11:26).

Freud, following Frazer, stresses that the restrictions surrounding rulers arise not only to protect the powerful from harm but also to shield others from the evil that contact with the powerful may bring. Taboos evolve out of the belief that “some persons and objects possess a dangerous power which is transmitted by contact … almost like a contagion” (TT: 31). The dictator in El otoño del patriarca also enjoys such lethal, supernatural power. Casual contact with him is particularly dangerous during the early years of his rule, when violent deaths would follow his visits to a villager's house:

él no era consciente del reguero de desastres domésticos que provocaban sus apariciones … aparecía sin ningún anuncio en una cocina cualquiera … sin sospechar que aquella casa quedaba marcada para siempre con el estigma de su visita.


The dictator's youth coincides with the apex of his potentially contagious presence, just as the physical vigor of chieftains, Frazer claims, was directly related to their continuing hold on power (Golden Bough: 309-330). Rituals and taboo were devised to guard the king's life because a nation's agriculture was believed to depend on its leader's physical well-being (Frazer: 340). In the early years of the dictator's reign, before the consequences of his own power immobilized him, the nation's leader was rumored to have precisely such effects upon crops, rainfall, and fertility: “bastaba con que él señalara con el dedo a los árboles que debían dar frutos y a los animales que debían crecer … había ordenado que quitaran la lluvia de donde estorbaba las cosechas y la pusieran en tierra de sequía” (102).

In the catastrophic effects that careless contact with the dictator brings ordinary people, in his alleged abilities to cure the sick and control the cosmos, the patriarch joins the mythical company of monarchs described by Frazer, although the resemblances between García Márquez' fictional dictator and the kings of The Golden Bough fail to completely substantiate the Colombian novelist's rash claim that “the figure of the dictator is the only mythological figure that Latin America has produced.”6El otoño del patriarca cloaks its protagonist with the aura of royalty if only by continuously referring to the dictator as king. A fortune-teller who saw him as an infant predicted he had born to be king (“había nacido para rey” [148]). The patriarch cannot understand the ingratitude of his double, Patricio Aragonés, to whom he granted the advantages of living like a king without the disadvantages of being one (“todas las ventajas de vivir como un rey sin las desventajas de serlo” [16]). At times, García Márquez uncrowns his monstrous monarch, as in the incident when the dictator's wife, Leticia Nazareno, causes fruit to rot and gold to rust at her touch (201). This episode parodically inverts beliefs, described by Frazer and Freud, that wives of high officials may share their husbands' supernatural influence over their country's prosperity.7

Although the novel implies that the dictator's supernatural powers exist only in propaganda and legend, the mendacity of these rumors in no way diminishes his incontestable might. Even the dictator is unsure whether one of the few recollections he has of his childhood, of towns so poor they buried the dead without coffins, was a real or a fabricated memory (188-190). What matters politically, however, is the widespread belief that he lifted his nation out of horrific poverty. To have put an end to coffinless funerals stands as one of the dictator's more memorable achievements, just as indicative of the progressive ideology of his first years in power as his outlawing of public executions and his sponsorship of the national railroads (189). In García Márquez' short story, “El mar del tiempo perdido,” burial without coffins also indicates a village's level of abjection and material poverty. If indeed the dictator in El otoño del patriarca once raised his people's sense of human dignity by ensuring decent funerals for them, the people-as-narrators make a reciprocal gesture when he dies. Whatever ambivalence they express towards their dictator, the narrators do not question their responsibility to give him proper burial. And yet, although El otoño del patriarca can be read as a prolonged preparation for burial, that final rite of passage is constantly deferred, never actually takes place.


Characteristic of the initial phase of mourning, Freud writes, is “a turning away from reality … and a clinging to the object through the medium of a hallucinatory wishful psychosis … in the meantime the existence of the lost object is psychically prolonged. Each single one of the memories and expectations in which the libido is bound to the object is brought up and hypercathected” (“Mourning and Melancholia” SE 14:245). Kathleen Woodward, in her insightful critique of the affectless tone of Freud's writing on loss, sympathizes with his concept of mourning as “a passionate … a hyper-remembering … a dizzying phantasmagoria of memory” (“Freud and Barthes”: 95). Woodward's rephrasing of Freud serves as an apt description of the narrative structure of El otoño del patriarca, where the narrators' obsessive recounting of their encounter with the corpse is followed, in each chapter, by an avalanche of memories or remembered rumors about the dictator's life.

The first sentence of the novel, as Darío Puccini notes, prefigures most of what will follow (“Utopía y antiutopía”: 105). The allusion to the smell of the dictator's rotting body, which seems to have contaminated the entire city, inscribes the hyperbolical magnitude of his power: “la ciudad despertó de su letargo de siglos con una tibia y tierna brisa de muerto grande y de podrida grandeza. Sólo entonces nos atrevimos a entrar …” (5). Both ominous and enticing, the stench lures the people-as-narrators (the people-as-vultures?) to approach the grounds. Once inside the palace, they describe their experience in a repeated, hypnotic series of “vimos,” in other words, through the sense of sight.8 The emphasis on vision, repeated in the second chapter when the crowd rummages through the bedrooms of the dictator's mother and his wife (52-53), is not entirely innocent. As Elizabeth Grosz writes, paraphrasing Sartre, “vision performs a distancing function, leaving the looker unimplicated in or uncontaminated by its object … the look is the domain of domination and mastery; it provides access to its object without necessarily being in contact with it …” (38). The incantatory tone of the narrators' passage through the ruined presidential palace suggests their momentary, vertiginous illusion of control, for they are acutely aware that they have entered a formerly inaccessible space. Even the marginal, outer sections of the palace, with its stables, kitchens, concubines' quarters, and multiple courtyards, constitute a Latin American analogue of the Forbidden City. The sound of the narrators' voice empowers them, as it magically opens the door to the main building, granting them access to the dictator's private residence. “No tuvimos que forzar la entrada, como habíamos pensado, pues la puerta principal pareció abrirse al solo impulso de la voz” (7). In the rambling reconstruction of the dictator's life following the discovery of the corpse, the people-as-narrators remark on their own passive acceptance of dictatorial rule. Such insistent calling attention to their own weakness recalls the ego-hatred of melancholics, who, Freud argues in “Mourning and Melancholia,” turn the anger they feel towards others against themselves (SE 14:246-248). If in Otoño the people's resentment towards the autocrat has turned inwards, the day of the dictator's death proffers a tentative, fleeting opportunity for change. Remembering, telling, and narrating, coincide, at least temporarily, with psychological and political liberation.

The crowd's actual confrontation with the dictator's corpse frustrates their desire to see or know him dead. Whereas the repeated use of “vimos” gave the narrators inside the palace a voyeuristic illusion of control and possession at a distance, touching and turning over the corpse is followed by a painful recognition of limits, by the anguish of this body's unrecognizability. Two apparently irrefutable proofs of his identity (his lineless hands, his herniated testicle) offer no assurance to the crowd, for they remember that an identical but fraudulent corpse has lain in state before (11). With the story of the funeral of the dictator's physical double, the narrative shifts away from the first-person-plural chorus to a predominantly third-person narration. The narrating “we” recedes into the background, and the evocation of the past begins in earnest:

Freud argues that the ego's unwillingness to confront its own mortality plays an important part in bringing the process of mourning to its conclusion, for the ego constantly resists confronting the fact “that the object no longer exists … (and) the question whether it shall share this fate” (SE 14:255). The people-as-narrators in the first chapter are particularly sensitive to the brevity of their life-span, since the dictator's longevity and years of isolation accounts for their inability to remember or recognize his face. Nonetheless, their “work of mourning” is far from over: they have not even begun to remember what they know or have heard about his life.

The anxiety-producing image of the corpse of Aragonés haunts the opening pages of the second chapter, which begins with a first-person-plural voice bemoaning the difficulty of corroborating the authenticity of the dictator's body; the narrators now mistrust any report of the leader's death: “la segunda vez que lo encontraron … ninguno de nosotros era bastante viejo para recordar lo que ocurrió la primera vez pero sabíamos que ninguna evidencia era terminante” (51). Such insistence on doubt and disbelief not only evokes a dictatorial society in which information is always rumor and nothing can be believed, it also suggests the wish to deny the patriarch's death.9 Denial, in fact, constitutes part of the work of mourning (“a turning away from reality … a clinging to the object” [SE 14:244]). Nonetheless, the fear that the dictator has not died coexists with a not-so-unconscious desire that he come back to life and retain control of the nation. The narrators cling to the lost object by dredging up a chaotic series of memories, triggered in the second chapter by the discrepancy between official historical descriptions of the dictator and the body found by the narrating crowd. The second chapter ends with an image that recurs throughout the narrative, the reflection in a fortune-teller's tea-cup of the dictator's face-down body, dead of natural causes in his sleep. This other specular image of his death provides the seamless transition to the third chapter, which once again holds up the memory of the double's body as a caveat against the ingenuous acceptance of any new corpse as authentic.

The reflection in the fortune-teller's tea-cup inverts the relation of subject to image as Lacan describes it in his classic account of the mirror-stage, where the child sees a harmonious visual image of itself while still experiencing its own body as fragmented (Ecrits: 2-4; Grosz: 39). At the height of his power, the dictator glimpses a premonitory image of himself relegated to the final powerlessness of death. Yet since his reflection in the tea-cup shatters any illusions the dictator may have concerning his immortality, it activates the aggressivity and frustration characteristic to the mirror-stage, as evidenced by the dictator's murder of the fortune-teller who showed him the circumstances of his death (Lacan: 14-17; OP: 106). This will not be the only time specular images provoke the dictator's rage.

The last three chapters show the narrators preparing the leader's corpse for public display, and the difficulty of positing the existence of an over-arching narrator in the novel informs Minta's question whether the crowd that finds the corpse is the same as the group that prepares it for embalming. Minta points out that “this latter group, if indeed they are distinct from the former, are clearly interested in perpetuating a patriarchal myth beyond the grave, by ensuring that the body is transformed in accordance with its legendary status” (109). If the mummified dictator is to lie in state indefinitely, deified in death as he was in life, the work of mourning may never end. The political implications of El otoño del patriarca might be more optimistic if the end of the novel pointed to a definitive closure, to a burial of the dictator outside the text. Yet despite the jubilant tone of the last pages, there is no real indication that the people-as-narrators have accepted their own responsibility in the militant creation of a less unjust future.

The narrative's constant return to a description of the dictator's corpse suggests the people's reluctance to bury it as well as the possible satisfaction they derive from gloating over the body of the man who formerly ruled them. In Totem and Taboo, Freud implies that the almost universal dread of touching the dead may hide an unconscious desire to control, retain or become the dead by handling them (46-47; 69-71). Touching and embalming the dictator's corpse manifests an attempt to master the vertiginous vacuum left by the ruler's death and reverses, if only in gesture, the people's centuries-long domination. But it also brings to mind Freud's controversial concept of the death-instinct, described in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (BPP) as the “compulsion to repeat” (10). Freud's initial, deceptively optimistic description of the death-instinct interprets a child's play as an imaginative mastery of loss through an active, voluntary recreation of it (BPP: 8-10). Later, Freud formulates his more somber definition of the death instinct as precisely what its name implies: “a conservative instinct to return to an inanimate state” (BPP: 32), as a recollection of “extremely painful experiences” (BPP: 14), an impulse “to work over in the mind some overpowering experience” (BPP: 10). The narrator's insistent return to the corpse dramatizes their own compulsion to repeat, because in their fascination with the dictator's body they remain under its sway. The momentary clearing (aüfklarung) created by the dictator's death results in the lonely vertigo of responsibility; the narrator-populace averts its gaze from the demanding future, postpones its own responsibility in that future's creation, by its fascination with the remains of the past. The death-instinct informs the narrators' ambivalent mourning: they mourn their political infancy, in a regressive attempt to hold on to their own previous “inanimate state,” passive in their fascination with the body yet active in their vicarious mastery of it. Also pertinent to El otoño del patriarca is the pointed distinction Freud makes in Beyond the Pleasure Principle between repeating and remembering. Freud describes repeating as a sign of remaining trapped in neurosis, whereas remembering is a therapeutic breaking through and recognition of the origin of trauma (BPP: 12). In García Márquez' novel, the return of the dictator's corpse locks the narrating collectivity into a vicious, narcissistic contemplation of the dead political body with which they wish, on some level, to become one, whereas the memories that follow the description of the corpse explore, perhaps cathartically, their own complicit dependence upon him.


The narrators' very capacity to mourn the dictator, however ambivalently, marks the distance that separates them from him. The patriarch is no stranger to loss; he, too, has confronted “the loss of a loved person, or … of some abstraction which has taken the place of one” (SE 14:243). Each of the novel's six chapters, in fact, re-enacts the death or disappearance of a man or woman the dictator allowed to draw close to him.10 In the first chapter, the object of the dictator's desultory affections is his physical double, Patricio Aragonés, who gave the leader the power to appear to be in various places at once and the freedom to roam his beloved city alone (14-19). His double does not interpret the patriarch's decision to accompany him during the last hours of his life as any indication of the leader's affection for him. Aragonés himself takes those hours as an opportunity to express his hatred for his autocratic double. This death-bed confrontation shatters any illusions the dictator may have regarding his double's love for him. It remains unclear whether what moved the dictator to witness Aragonés' death-throes was only cold-blooded curiosity or whether a momentary tenderness towards his dying double led the dictator to feed the other man spoonfuls of painkiller and to entreat him to die with dignity (29-32). What is clear, however, is that practical thoughts about the use to which the leader can put his double's body, namely, to ferret out the dictator's own enemies, quickly take the place of any affection he might have felt for Aragonés.

The problem of what is to be done with a dead body preoccupies the leader as much as it does the narrators, but his reaction to men's death is swift, practical, and unmarked by obsessive recollections. The efficiency and composure with which he disposes of Aragonés contrasts with the narrators' deferral of the dictator's own burial. The group of men who grasp at the dictator's legacy of power are at a loss with what to do with his corpse, unsure how to reveal the news of his death to the populace (186). Roberto Hozven, who also invokes Totem and Taboo in his analysis of El otoño del patriarca, relates the hesitance and anxiety of the dictator's survivors to the guilt that ensues after the slaying of the primal father. Assuming, as does Oviedo, that the corpse at the beginning of each chapter is not necessarily the dictator's own, Hozven argues that the nation's attempt to establish a covenant of morality will fail because its people must contend with an invincible, unkillable corpse.11

Like Amaranta in Cien años de soledad, the dictator proves a “virtuoso” in the rituals of death. In chapter five, the narrators tell of their collective efforts to scrape the patriarch's body of sea scales, wash it with rock salt, and dust and color his face (185). The dictator scrapes and washes Aragonés body with the meticulous attention the narrators give to his: “tuvo que restregar el cuerpo con estropajo y jabón … lo vistió con la ropa que él llevaba puesta, … sintiendo a medida que lo hacía que se iba convirtiendo en el hombre más solitario de la tierra” (32). Although the dictator's piercing loneliness in front of his double's corpse somewhat recalls the people's disconcertion after their leader's death, a practical reason for the dictator's concern is that, deprived of his double, he is more vulnerable to attempts on his life. In order to distinguish his enemies from his loyal followers, the dictator cunningly prepares his double's body to lie in state:

prefiguró a la perfección hasta los detalles más ínfimos que él había visto con sus propios ojos en las aguas premonitorias de los lebrillos, para que al amanecer del día siguiente las barrenderas de la casa encontraran el cuerpo como lo encontraron tirado bocabajo en el suelo de la oficina, muerto por primera vez de falsa muerte natural durante el sueño


The material details of the death of Patricio Aragonés prefigure the patriarch's own. As an archetype of the “people,” the sweepers who find Aragonés resemble the narrating crowd that discovers the dictator; the dictator also positions his double's body in the way that he himself will be found.

The physical differences between Aragonés and the dictator tell us something about the inhumanity of the patriarch's power. The patriarch's lineless hands are a marvelous conceit that suggest his superhuman ability to impose his will on the world. We have incomplete control over our future and our character if these lie coded in the palm of our hand. It is the dictator's lineless hands which lead a fortune-teller to conclude he was born to be a king; the palms of his less than powerful doubled are normal (15). What the double does lack is the dictator's congenitally deformed testicle; Aragonés' is enlarged through torture. That other distinguishing mark of identity becomes a grotesque parodical inversion of the kingly phallus. The vultures, indifferent to every taboo surrounding the dead, peck at every part of the dictator's corpse except the enormous testicle, which consequently becomes a sign of utter pollution and corruption (OP: 10). Freud points out the negligible role of the testicles in popular conceptions of virility: “From all one hears in analyses, one would not guess that the male genitals consisted of anything more than the penis” (“Infantile Genital Organization” SE 19:142). El otoño del patriarca recurrently refers to the dictator's testicle but is significantly mute regarding his penis. Far from enhancing his desirability, his swollen testicle horrifies the first woman he approaches (180-81). Neither impotent nor infertile, the dictator nonetheless fails to satisfy the majority of his sexual partners. The novel repeatedly associates his monstrous appetite for power with his incapacity to love; his deformed testicle seems a physical sign of both.

After Aragonés, the next man to win the dictator's apparent affection is Rodrigo de Aguilar, who becomes the dictator's “right-hand-man” after his physical double dies. To be given permission to win at dominoes functions as the ultimate sign of male bonding with the patriarch (Saturno Santos, the dictator's Indian bodyguard, never wins that sign of the dictator's trust). Like Simón Bolívar in García Márquez's recent novel, El general en su laberinto, the patriarch cannot abide losing; their pathological need for mastery both tarnishes and constitutes their political genius. In El otoño del patriarca, only three men emerge victorious from a game of dominoes with the dictator: Aragonés, Aguilar, and Sáenz de la Barra. The domino game becomes a potential space of play between equals, between masculine specular doubles. In their cold-blooded understanding of the workings of power, Aguilar and Sáenz de la Barra distantly mìrror the dictator's character. Precisely while playing a game of dominoes, the dictator intuits that Aguilar, his “right-hand man” is plotting against him (135-136). The savagery of his revenge dwarfs any pain he may feel at Aguilar's betrayal, which is followed, as with case of the death of Aragonés, by an immediate severing of affect and a politic disposal of the body. In an inversion of the original totemic feast described by Freud, the traitor is served on a platter to the horrified members of the presidential guard. As victorious primal father, the dictator obliterates any thought of rebellion among his remaining “sons” and forces them to ingest the one who dared to turn against his leader, temporarily achieving in life the moral aftermath of the totemic feast in Totem and Taboo: a tacit agreement not to plot again against the father.

The sinister Sáenz de la Barra impressed the dictator precisely because he dared to win without asking for permission (229-230). Just as Aguilar became the dictator's right-hand-man after Aragonés died, Sáenz de la Barra wins the dictator's confidence in a way no man had after Aguilar. The dictator entrusts a similar sort of power to the two men; both immobilize him and detract from his own authority (110; 230). Even Sáenz de la Barra, however, dies in a lynching instigated by the dictator after provoking the latter's rage by broadcasting reconstructed electronic images of him on television (257-58). In this episode, the leader's fury evokes the “primordial frustration” of the mirror stage in which the child's reflection “prefigures a unity and mastery that the child still lacks” (Grosz: 39). Whereas the dictator's treatment of his human double as if Aragonés were his toy suggests the pleasure specular images may give, Sáenz de la Barra's illicit appropriation of the dictator's imago sparks the jealous aggression of the subject that sees a unified form in the mirror but fails to experience its body as such.

The three men who enjoy the dubious privilege of beating the dictator at dominoes exert a peculiar physical fascination over him. Patricio Aragonés provides the dictator the narcissitic satisfaction of seeing himself reflected in another. What most intrigues the patriarch about Aragonés is the paranoid thought that the lines on his double's hands may hold the key to the dictator's own inscrutable future: “lo inquietó la ilusión de que las cifras de su propio destino estuvieran escritas en la mano del impostor” (15). The dictator's physical attraction to Aguilar and Sáenz de la Barra echoes the homosexuality of some officers of his army. He is not unaware of these men's pull over him nor of the danger that such fascination holds. In Aguilar, what mesmerizes the dictator is the other man's eyes (“hermosos ojos de artillero de mi compadre del alma” (135)). And the dictator perceives Sáenz de la Barra as the most beautiful man in the world: “el hombre más deslumbrante y altivo que habían visto mis ojos, madre” (228). Freud, in his account of the sons' exile from the primal horde, argues that “homosexual feelings and activities which probably manifested themselves among them during the time of their banishment” eventually strengthen the social ties that become law after the death of the primal father (TT: 186). Men's unconscious homosexual loyalty to one another, as well as the identification with their leader, strengthens the power and authority of institutions such as the army.12 The dictator's fear is that if his affection or attraction turn to trust, his power will falter. Not long before Aguilar betrays him, the dictator ruminates on the risks entailed in trusting another man: “el enemigo más temible estaba dentro de uno mismo en la confianza del corazón … los propios hombres que él armaba y engrandecía para que sustentaran su régimen acaban tarde o temprano por escupir la mano que les daba de comer” (127). To conquer the dangerous emotional urge to trust others, the dictator believes, holds the key to power.

The specular relations the dictator has with men prove to be deceptive but he does not mourn their betrayal or their loss for long. His apparent incapacity to mourn them coincides with the absence in his life of what Lacan calls real (genetic) and imaginary fathers. The dictator's fatherlessness is directly related to the Gargantuan dimensions of his power: “era un hombre sin padre como todos los déspotas ilustres de la historia” (56). An imaginary father, often distinct from the real father, “is a person, an other to whom the child may relate … [L]aws and prohibitions must be culturally represented or embodied for the child by some authority figure” (Grosz: 47). A child's identification with the imaginary father eases its passage into the Symbolic, into the repressive order of culture and society (Grosz: 158). Such identification, however, is not the dictator's lot. The imaginary father as loving masculine figure, as he who coaxes the child into culture, is conspicuously absent from any of the dictator's memories. Since there is no mediator for the dictator, no person other than his mother “to whom he could relate,” the question arises as to whether or how the dictator gains access to the Symbolic, that is, to language and the Law.

To have no real or imaginary father means, in the Lacanian model, to forego identification with the Symbolic father and to remain in a psychotic identification with the mother (Ecrits: 199; Grosz 164; 185). For Lacan, as Grosz explains, “castration plays a crucial role in the child's entry into the symbolic” (104). So, too, do real fathers; as Lacan states (with uncharacteristic clarity): “the real father has a decisive function in castration … which is always thrown off-balance by his absence” (seminar, March-April 1957; quoted in Wilden: 271). Real and imaginary fathers force the subject out of its narcissistic, incestuous enjoyment of the mother, positioning the subject in culture under the name of the father and the father's law (Grosz: 101-105). In Otoño the dictator's adoring relation to his mother and his lack of real and imaginary fathers do not precipitate psychosis, unless one chooses to interpret his entire rule as psychotic. Nor is the dictator effectively locked into a vicious specular relation with the maternal. Rather, the fatherless patriarch enters a full-blown and monstrous into the realm of the Symbolic, the realm of the law which he remakes as he pleases. As mythical and dead abstraction, the dictator himself recalls the Symbolic father, defined by Lacan as “he who is capable of saying ‘I am who I am’” (Wilden: 271). The dictator utters that exact phrase (“yo soy el que soy”). But his access to the Symbolic is restricted to the latter as judgement, repression, and law. The Symbolic as art or loving morality remains alien to him.13 He learns how to read very late, only after his mother dies; his envy of Rubén Darío's poetry suggests the dictator knows full well to what extent the artistic dimension of the Symbolic is barred to him.14


The dictator unfeelingly discards the remains of the men who were close to him but the loss of women irrevocably traumatizes him. After his mother's death, the rumor-mongering narrator tells us, he is never the same again: “teníamos noticias verídicas de que él no volvió a ser el mismo de antes por el resto de su vida” (151). When Manuela Sánchez touches him by accident on the night of Halley's comet (89), the dictator, encouraged by that involuntary caress, asks his astronomers to find or stage another disturbance in the heavens. In the darkness of the ensuing eclipse, Manuela vanishes. Memories of the lost object besiege the dictator as they do traditional mourners: “se acostaba en la hamaca bajo los cascabeles del viento de los tamarindos a pensar en Manuela Sánchez con un rencor que le perturbaba el sueño” (107). Unlike the betrayals of Sáenz de la Barra and Aguilar, Manuela's rejection is one he is unable to avenge. The concerted efforts of his armed forces never succeed in bringing Manuela back, a failure particularly infuriating to the dictator in light of his repeated insistence that a man's power is undermined whenever he gives orders that are not carried out (107; 211). At first, the dictator's possession of Leticia Nazareno reverses the humiliation of his courtship of Manuela; he interprets the latter as indicative of his diminishing authority: “estas vainas me pasan por lo pendejo que me he vuelto” (107). In the case of Leticia, the army deciphers the dictator's unvoiced desire for the exiled nun, his future wife, and smuggles her back to him.

The orgasmic intercourse of the dictator and Leticia Nazareno, the only one the novel describes with any sense of ecstasy, culminates not with the ejaculation of semen but with the dictator's expulsion of excrement (184). In anal rejection, as Kristeva reminds us, “Freud sees the sadistic component of the sexual instinct” (149). With Leticia, the dictator regresses to the pleasures of pre-Oedipal sadism. In classical psychoanalytic theory, the anal-sadistic phase antedates the child's perception of the mother as castrated and precedes the phallic stage of the Oedipus complex.15 In Kristeva's gloss on Freud and Lacan, “anal rejection or anality. … precedes the establishment of the symbolic” (149). Leticia Nazareno's acceptance of the dictator's anality (“le apartaba el testículo herniado para limpiarle los restos de la caca del último amor” 192), and her eventual enormous influence over him place her in the position of the phallic mother.

Freud's first reference to the phallic mother in the New Introductory Lectures to Psychoanalysis (NILP) describes her as a maternal figure “of whom we are afraid” (22). In his later lecture on femininity, the phallic mother is synonymous with the pre-Oedipal mother, not yet identified as having a lack (NILP: 112). Leticia Nazareno, stepping into the empty space left by Bendición Alvarado's death, clearly becomes the dictator's surrogate mother. He mistrusts the fleeting memories of his childhood and identifies his only real infancy with his marriage: “su infancia real no era ese légamo de evocaciones inciertas. … sino que en realidad la había vivido en el remanso de mi única y legítima esposa” (190). Leticia herself attempts to efface the public memory of the dictator's real mother: “habían vuelto a poner la lápida al revés en la cripta con las letras hacia dentro para que no perdurara ni la noticia de tu nombre” (195-96). His wife also succeeds in doing what Bendición never did: teach the dictator how to read and write. Whereas Bendición Alvarado impolitically blurted out that her son never learned to read (58), Leticia gives him the gift of literacy. In Lacan's view, it is the symbolic father, represented by a masculine intermediary, who introduces the subject into culture and language. Elizabeth Grosz raises the interesting question whether the phallic mother might be, in certain ways, identical to the imaginary father (159). Certainly Leticia Nazareno acts as both: as imaginary father she introduces the dictator to the spectacle of literature, as phallic mother she wields a power that eventually costs her and her child their life.

The death of Leticia Nazareno places the dictator in the excruciating situation of Antigone: unable to bury his dead. Man-eating dogs, trained to recognize his wife and child, eat them alive. His dilemma resides in that if he kills the dogs who devoured them, he further mangles his family's remains: “despertó gritando de rabia atormentado por los ladridos de los perros que pasaron la noche en las cadenas del patio … preguntándose aturdido si matar a los perros no sería otra manera de matar de nuevo en sus entrañas a Leticia Nazareno y al niño” (220). By killing the dogs, he desecrates his family's only grave. Leticia's remains are as elusive as the body of the live but vanished Manuela Sánchez, an elusiveness all the more terrible because the dictator can see and hear the dogs who ate her. These animals, as tantalizing as they are terrifying, combine the paradoxical attributes of taboo: sacred and untouchable because they contain the remains of the beloved, punishable and guilty because they have murdered them.16

It seems particularly uncanny that Sáenz de la Barra appears as the avenging angel sent by the dictator's dead mother, as an answer to her son's prayer to help him avenge the horrific death of his wife and child (228). To avenge the crime perpetuated by man-eating dogs, the mother's spirit sends an aristocrat inseparable from his own ferocious beast (234). Sáenz de la Barra occasionally restrains Lord Köchel, his vicious Doberman, from attacking the dictator himself (238; 253). Seymour Menton has called attention to the novel's recurrent references to dogs (“Ver para no creer”: 190). These animals, I suggest, materialize the dictator's deepest Oedipal fears. When his dying mother tries to talk to him about his ignoble conception, the patriarch refuses to listen (149). He prefers to remain fatherless, originless, and omnipotent. Freud, arguing that the revered sacrificial animal of the totemic feast functions as a substitute for the murdered primal father, insists that animal phobias manifest an infantile fear of castration by the father.17 Dogs in The Autumn of the Patriarch become the dictator's totem, the father-substitute at its most benevolent and most frightening. The dictator's own resemblance to his totem manifests itself at vulnerable moments, when he sleeps or during orgasm (13;58). But the totem as executioner, as the father so long repressed, returns in the form of a man-eating dog to punish the son who erased the traces of his origin.

For the dictator, senile amnesia follows in the wake of Leticia Nazareno's death. In his extreme old age, the only memory left to him is that of his mother's mortal illness, during which he cared for her pestilent wounds with the assiduity of a lover, in the anomalous role of nurturer and caretaker. The episode suggests his own androgyny, his power to take on feminine, maternal characteristics at will. By ordering his mother's corpse to be put on ice, by hiring men and women who groom her after death, he attempts to stave off the putrefaction he was unable to save her from in life. In an attempt to defer the mother's definitive absence, the dictator orders her body transported to and displayed in the remotest corners of the nation, as if the trajectory of the funeral train could trace her presence onto the living body of the land.

The cult of the mother's body leads only to shameful revelations. Demetrio Aldous, a pivotal figure in the Oedipal drama of El otoño del patriarca, arrives from Rome to investigate the sanctity of the dictator's mother. He discovers that the leader's cronies have enriched themselves by taking the fraudulent preservation of the maternal corpse into their own hands. Aldous acts as the purveyor of truth, a searching, scrutinizing intellect peering into forbidden corners, the most dangerous of which is the primal scene where the dictator was engendered by an unknown father. Aldous' rigorous examination of Bendición Alvarado's past recalls Freud's summary description of Sophocles' Oedipus: “an investigation ingeniously protracted” (Introductory Lectures: 330). The possibility that Aldous may unearth the enigmatic identity of the dictator's genetic father frightens the army even more than the dictator. His officers deliberately and uncharacteristically disobey his orders not to harm Aldous in his investigation (167-168). Just when he is about to decipher the secret of the patriarch's origin (“decifrar el secreto de su origen” [167]), the envoy's mule falls into the abyss, down the varied landscapes of the Andes, evoking a fall through (or back through) the repressed layers of the mind after a glimpse of the original primal scene: that of conception.

In El otoño del patriarca, recurrent references to the dictator's enormous feet suggest his Oedipal lineage. García Márquez' fascination with mother/son incest in One Hundred Years of Solitude needs no elaboration here. What if the dictator's real father, whose identity is too horrible to be mentioned, was another of his promiscuous mother's sons, as Polynices was the son of Oedipus by Jocasta? What if the dictator's real father committed the ultimate transgression: incest with the mother? For the dictator, the authority behind social interdictions would be shattered, and the name of the father, defined by Wilden as “the authority of the father upon which [the mother] calls in her dealings with the child” (296), would vanish. Might this explain the dictator's own monstrous transgressions, his own virtual namelessness, his appropriation of power as law?

The dictator, like Polynices, lies unburied; the death of Leticia and Bendición deprives him of women who had the familial obligation to lay him in the ground. In her essay on Sophocles' Antigone, Luce Irigaray argues that

it is the task of womankind, guardian of the blood tie, to gather man into his final figuration … woman has to take it upon herself over and over again, regardless of circumstances, to bury this corpse that man becomes in his pure state.


Later Irigaray identifies Antigone with “the voice, the accomplice of the people, the slaves, those who only whisper their revolt against their masters secretly” (218). In El otoño del patriarca, after the loss of his mother and wife, the nation's people become the ones who will give the leader decent burial. That the dictator feels his people should naturally take the place of his female blood-relatives is perhaps most apparent in his response to Demetrio Aldous, who attempts to mitigate the inconclusive results of his investigation by telling the dictator he has also discovered the extent of the people's love for their ruler (173). Before that point the dictator seemed to hanker after such reassurance, but after his mother's death he responds as if he were entitled to his people's fealty:

no más faltaba, padre, sólo faltaba que nadie me quisiera ahora … más solo que la mano izquierda en esta patria que no escogí por mi voluntad sino que me la dieron hecha … con este sentimiento de irrealidad, con este olor a mierda, con esta gente sin historia que no cree en nada más que en la vida.


This uncharacteristically overt expression of contempt for his nation, incidentally revealing Eurocentric or Old-World prejudices, represents the dictator's people (Latin Americans) as a people without history. They are the same people who did not resist the patriarch's government, did not work to instigate his downfall nor protested against the imperialist partitioning and plundering of the sea. The history of apparent defeat, passivity, and powerlessness (the history of “femininity”?) becomes no history at all. Yet it is precisely the people's “lack of history,” their “femininity,” which not only places them in the position of Antigone but allows them, far more than the patriarch, to experience happiness. At the end of the novel, the narrating people of the nation proudly differentiate themselves from the dictator by pointing to their ability to reap pleasure from ephemeral moments: “esta vida que amábamos con una pasión insaciable que usted no se atrevió ni siquiera a imaginar por miedo de saber lo que nosotros sabíamos de sobra que era ardua y efímera” (296). Before Aragonés and Sáenz de la Barra die, they confront the dictator with his incapacity for love, an inability directly related to his monumental genius for power. Sánez de la Barra accuses him of not fearing death because he has never felt happiness: “el miedo de la muerte es el rescoldo de la felicidad, general, por eso usted no lo siente” (261). The dictator himself suspects that the roots of his thirst for power lie intertwined with his emotional avarice: “había conocido la incapacidad de amor en el enigma de la palma de sus manos mudas … y había tratado de compensar aquel destino infame con el culto abrasador del vicio solitario del poder” (295). The pessimistic dichotomy of El otoño del patriarca, then, lies in its stark delineation of the incompatibility between the desire for power and the capacity to love.


  1. Ecrits 199.

  2. On Antigone in La hojarasca see Pedro Lastra.

  3. Jo Labanyi (145) and Menton (190) strongly object to the interpretation of the collective narrating voice as the sum of individual voices. Labanyi points out that the collective “we” also shrinks to a smaller, less-encompassing first-person plural, such as the “we” of the treacherous generals of chapter two, or of sycophants, or of apparently loyal followers. Rama, however, in one of the first critical essays on Otoño, states that such an over-arching narrator does exist: “es el mismo pueblo abigarrado, variable, confuso … el que ha estado contando la historia” (63).

  4. Rama 63; Ortega “Texto y cultura” 215.

  5. In “García Márquez on the Margin of Utopia,” Peter Earle comments on the novelist's “grim political overview” (13). In Labanyi's opinion, the collective narrator “shows remarkably little political awareness” (147); Puccini calls the collective narrator “timid” and “malleable” (105); Minta comments on the novel's depiction of “a dangerous submissiveness to an illusion of eternal order” (102). Interestingly, Rama and Ortega as Latin American critics offer a more optimistic reading of the novel.

  6. García Márquez, Olor de la guayaba 89 (my translation).

  7. Frazer 165-75; Freud, TT 62.

  8. For a different interpretation of the use of anaphora and the sense of vision, see Menton.

  9. On the function of rumor in dictatorship, see Minta 98 and Menton 191.

  10. Raymond Williams notes that each chapter of Otoño focusses on the dictator's relation to a different character.

  11. Hozven 51; Oviedo 153.

  12. On identification with the leader see Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego 35; 56-57.

  13. See Alford for a description of Klein's notion of a morality based on love instead of fear.

  14. See Palencia-Roth for an analysis of the patriarch and Darío.

  15. See Freud's “The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex.”

  16. On the paradoxical attributes of taboo, see for example TT 26; Golden Bough 198.

  17. TT 164-71.

Works Cited

Alford, C. Fred. “Melanie Klein and the ‘Oresteia Complex’: Love, Hate, and the Tragic Worldview.” Cultural Critique 15 (1990): 167-89.

Earle, Peter, ed. García Márquez. Madrid: Taurus, 1981; 1987.

———. “García Márquez on the Margin of Utopia.” University of Dayton Review 18.1 (1986): 13-17.

Frazer, James E. The Golden Bough. 1922. Abridged Edition. New York: MacMillan, 1963.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1963.

———. “The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex.” Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. and ed. James Strachey. 24 vols. London: Hogarth: 1953-74. 19:173-74.

———. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1959.

———. “Infantile Genital Organization.” SE 14:142-45.

———. Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Trans. and ed. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1966.

———. “Mourning and Melancholia.” SE 14:243-58.

———. New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Trans. and ed. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1965.

———. Totem and Taboo. Trans. A. A. Brill. New York: Vintage, n.d.

García Márquez, Gabriel. Cien años de soledad. Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1970.

———. El general en su laberinto. Bogotá: La Oveja Negra, 1989.

———. El olor de la guayaba. Bogotá: La Oveja Negra, 1982.

———. El otoño del patriarca. 1975; México: Diana, 1990.

———. “El mar del tiempo perdido.” La increíble y triste historia de la cándida Eréndira y su abuela desalmada. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1972.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Jacques Lacan. A Feminist Introduction. London and New York: Routledge, 1990.

Hozven, Roberto. “Horda, ejército e iglesia en El otoño del patriarca.University of Dayton Review 18.1 (1986): 47-58.

Irigaray, Luce. “The Eternal Irony of the Community.” Speculum of the Other Woman. Trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985. 214-26.

Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. Trans. Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Labanyi, Jo. “Language and Power in The Autumn of the Patriarch.Gabriel García Márquez: New Readings. Eds. Bernard McGuirk and Richard Cardwell. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. 135-51.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits. A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York and London: Norton, 1977.

Lastra, Pedro. “La tragedia como fundamento estructural de La hojarasca” Earle, García Márquez 40-49.

Menton, Seymour. “Ver para no creer: El otoño del patriarca.” Earle, García Márquez 189-209.

Minta, Stephen. García Márquez, Writer of Colombia. New York: Harper and Row, 1987.

Ortega, Julio. “El otoño del patriarca, texto y cultura.” Earle, García Márquez 214-235.

Oviedo, José Miguel. “Gabriel García Márquez: la novela como taumaturgia.” Earle, García Márquez 171-88.

Palencia-Roth, Michael. “Intertextualities: Three Metamorphoses of Myth in The Autumn of the Patriarch.Gabriel García Márquez and the Powers of Fiction. Ed. Julio Ortega. Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1988. 34-60.

Puccini, Darío. “Utopía y antiutopía en Gabriel García Márquez.” Nuevo Texto Crítico 3.2 (1989).

Rama, Angel. Los dictadores latinoamericanos. Mexico: FCE, 1976.

Wilden, Anthony, trans. and ed. The Language of the Self. The Function of Language in Psychoanalysis. By Jacques Lacan. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968.

Williams, Raymond. Gabriel García Márquez. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

Thomas E. Kooreman (essay date spring 1993)

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SOURCE: Kooreman, Thomas E. “Poetic Vision and the Creation of Character in El coronel no tiene quien le escriba.Romance Notes 33, no. 3 (spring 1993): 271-77.

[In the following essay, Kooreman illustrates “how the Colonel's language and intuition reflect a poetic view of his environment” in No One Writes to the Colonel.]

A close reading of García Márquez' El coronel no tiene quien le escriba reveals that structure and language are intricately brought together to create a profound character study. The author moves the Colonel through three stages of development. First, he presents him to the reader as quixotic and unaware of his own power over reality; secondly, he moves the Colonel to a stage of self-doubt, a moment of accepting practical approaches to the problems of old age and poverty; and, finally, he brings the protagonist to a state of self-awareness, in which he discovers that his poet's confrontation with these problems is his only means of survival. In his final stage of development the Colonel projects a sense of peaceful determination, which manifests itself in the very deliberate actions that mark the close of the story.

The objective of this study is to illustrate, through analysis of selected passages from the text, how the Colonel's language and intuition reflect a poetic view of his environment. As the reader comprehends this illusory reality, the difference between the Colonel's personality and that of the other characters becomes obvious. Through the images in his language the Colonel reveals his unique qualities to the reader from the beginning, but he does not discover the strength in them until he is able to accept himself at the end.

The Colonel's strength comes from his creative self, his poet's inner voice, the creative power which the reader sees projected on reality through the Colonel's language. Survival for him depends on transcending the gloom and destruction inferred from the stark facts of poverty, old age and loneliness. The creative act of projecting a poetic vision upon the world, is the Colonel's way of transcending the despair of his condition.

For this reader, Octavio Paz summarizes that process in his essay El arco y la lira when he states: “The possibility of being is given to all men. Poetic creation is one form of that possibility. Poetry affirms that human life is not reduced to the ‘preparing oneself to die’ of Montaigne, nor is man reduced to the ‘being for death’ of existential analysis. Human existence includes a possibility of transcending our condition …” (Bow 138). Poetry, then, reveals an unseen, transcendent reality, what Paz calls the other voice (Free Market 37), and it is by holding to this dimension of his being that the Colonel is able to survive. Therefore, we find in Paz's theory answers to the questions of what poetic vision is and how it functions in the characterization of the Colonel. The Colonel's vision of the world is different from the outer reality that surrounds him and constantly tears away at his sense of hope and faith. It is indeed his other reality that keeps him alive and energized, not the facts of the outer world that would soon drive him to defeat and death. This whole concept confirms that it is his poet's vision of reality, his quixotic confrontation with the impossible that makes survival possible.

The Colonel's existence has been based on illusion and tenuous hopes for years. There are three symbols of that illusion which appear throughout the story; the spiritual presence of Augustín, his late son, the anticipated victory of the fighting cock and the long-awaited pension that never comes. All of these are rendered ineffective by the facts of the Colonel's situation. Nevertheless, they symbolize hope and endurance and bring stability to his life when perceived by the Colonel from his poet's point of view.

An early indication of how the Colonel projects his poetic view onto things comes when he discovers an ancient umbrella stored in the bottom of a trunk. Upon opening the umbrella and discovering that the cloth has been destroyed by time and the inroads of moths, he remarks to his wife, “Mira en lo que ha quedado nuestro paraguas de payaso de circo. … Ahora sólo sirve para contar las estrellas” (10). His wife's rejoinder illustrates the marked contrast in the two characters. She comments that: “Todo está así. … Nos estamos pudriendo vivos” (10-11). This difference in the perception of reality between the Colonel and his wife highlights the contrast between her gloomy realism and his joyful imagery.

This technique of contrasting the Colonel with other characters in order to emphasize his poet's view of the world is even more pronounced in the presence of his friend Don Sabas. While looking out the window of Sabas' office at the town engulfed in a steady rain, the Colonel says: “La lluvia es distinta desde esta ventana. … Es como si estuviera lloviendo en otro pueblo” (55). Magically, the world of his everyday routine is changed when framed in that particular window. The poetic intuition within the Colonel has projected itself over his environment and given it a newness of which he is most aware in that special moment at the window. Sabas, echoing the Colonel's words, immediately destroys any magical dimension when he says in reply: “La lluvia es la lluvia desde cualquier parte. … Éste es un pueblo de mierda” (55).

Another example of the Colonel's talent for seeing things poetically arises when Sabas, a long-suffering diabetic, complains of having to carry saccharin tablets everywhere in order to sweeten his coffee. He invites the Colonel to taste one of the tablets. Upon doing this the Colonel comments that, “Es algo así como repicar pero sin campanas” (57).

From this point on there are a number of events that bring the Colonel to doubt his poet's vision of things and to ultimately surrender to the practical solutions that present themselves through Sabas and his wife. Sabas remarks to the Colonel that he should sell the cock for nine hundred pesos. When the Colonel returns home he is obviously pensive, deep in considerations of the possibility of receiving 900 pesos for the cock. His wife reinforces his thoughts of their need by telling him of an unsuccessful attempt to sell her wedding rings to the parish priest. She confesses this to her husband, saying that the priest pronounced such a sale as sinful. Prior to this even they have been unsuccessful at selling either their parlor clock or the decorative picture from their living room. These unsuccessful efforts coupled with his wife's failing health, cause the Colonel to waver in his determination to wait for the pension and to train the cock in anticipation of the January fighting season. He awakes after a night of unsettling dreams to surrender to these pressures and declares his decision to sell the cock to Don Sabas, marking the low point of his struggle for survival. He has lost faith in his poet's view of the world. He has lost contact with the other voice. His three illusions, Augustín, the cock and the pension have lost their sustaining power.

Urged by his wife, the Colonel returns to Sabas' office to close the deal. There he finds Sabas under examination by the doctor, making a perfect time to talk with him about the sale of the cock. Nevertheless, the Colonel's hesitancy and his sense of internal disintegration are reflected in the author's words describing the protagonist's interior reality at the minute: “El coronel se debatió entre dos fuerzas contrarias: a pesar de su determinación de vender el gallo quiso haber llegado una hora más tarde para no encontrar a don Sabas” (72). He is afraid of what he is about to do and intuitively knows that he is selling his one hope of survival, not the cock but the illusions that sustain his very life and existence.

To make matters worse, the Colonel closes a bad deal with Don Sabas. He accepts only 400 pesos, an amount far less than Sabas originally implied. This incident ends with the doctor's comments to the Colonel, giving clear insight into Sabas' self-interested motives. The Colonel symbolically comments during this conversation with the doctor that, “Es el invierno … A mí me descompone los intestinos” (75). His body and his intuition are telling him that he is approaching life from a dangerous position. The Colonel's refusal to accept his wife's urging to tell their son's friends that the cock is sold, reinforces this underlying, internal doubt concerning the final outcome of the deal. His answer to his wife, “El gallo no estará vendido mientras no venga mi compadre Sabas” (77), shows his refusal to leave the present moment and commit himself to accepting a future without the presence of the cock.

There are two events that mark the third and final stage in the Colonel's development, a change that brings awareness of himself and confirmation of the source of his only hope for survival. A police raid on the gambling hall catches the Colonel with an anti-government pamphlet in his pocket. Confronted by the very police officer who killed his only son, he very coolly excuses himself and walks out. Miraculously, no one detains him. He has gambled for his life and won. The other event occurs the following morning. The Colonel awakes with the feeling of December in his very bones. The rainy, winter season is over. The author describes the Colonel's poetic reaction to the morning as he opens the window onto the patio of his house: “Era un patio maravilloso, con la hierba y los árboles y el cuartito del excusado flotando en la claridad, a un milímetro sobre el nivel del suelo” (79). This image indicates to the reader that the Colonel's world is giving him renewed insight into his poet's soul. He is again in touch with the other voice, where his real strength lies. The poetic nature of this moment is further revealed by the Colonel's comment to his wife: “Asómate a la ventana y olvídate del gallo. … En una mañana así dan ganas de sacarse un retrato” (80).

Although the Colonel starts this special day by directing his steps to Don Sabas' office there are ongoing clues to his change of determination, clues indicating that the sale of the cock will not take place. First, the Colonel chooses to wear his old patent leather shoes, not the new ones purchased with advance money from Don Sabas. He calls these new unbroken shoes, “zapatos de paralítico” (81). Secondly, he enters Sabas' office where he is told that Don Sabas will not he back until Monday, confirming in his own mind that he still has time to reverse his decision to sell the cock to Sabas. Reentering the street, his perception of the magical qualities of the morning is made patently clear by the author's description: “… se dirigió al puerto en un instante prodigioso, hecho de una claridad todavía sin usar” (81). The Colonel himself comments on his perception of this moment, saying: “Se siente uno como si fuera de vidrio” (81).

Having established this magical ambience in both the climate and the Colonel, the author brings his character to a realization that this moment coincides with the beginning of the traditional pre-season training period for the fighting cocks. The Colonel is motivated to immediately enter the fighting arena where he discovers his prize cock in a practice bout. As he observes the maneuvers of the combatants, the Author's description of the cock's reaction to his opponent's attacks becomes a powerful symbol of the process of self discovery and change that has been taking place within the Colonel. After the opposing cock's many assaults the author emphasizes that: “Su gallo no atacó. Rechazó cada asalto y volvió a caer exactamente en el mismo sitio. Pero ahora sus patas no temblaban” (83). The reader sees the power of this symbol as a reflection of the precise process that has been taking place in the Colonel from October to December. He has repulsed every attack on his poet's perception of things and he has firmly retaken his original stance vis-a-vis life. Since October the Colonel has been struggling to maintain that stance. Just as the cock's legs trembled, so did the Colonel's, almost to the point of surrender before his attackers. The decision to capitulate to his wife's arguments and to Sabas' offer marks the point of greatest trembling. Nevertheless, December has inspired him to resume his old position. But this time his legs are firmly planted. He has made a decision to be himself, a decision based on his other voice, a faith in his poet's illusions, which project themselves upon his world and make it different for him. Just like the fighting cock, he always knew what and where his position was. Now the trembling has left his legs. He is certain that survival lies in his vision of life, not in life's material substance.

At this climactic juncture, the Colonel enters the ring and retrieves the fighting cock, carrying it through the crowds in the streets to his house. The Colonel has physically reasserted his ownership of the cock and symbolically his ownership of his own sense of hope and future. By extension he has inspired the public to awaken to its own sense of direction and power.

The return of the cock to the Colonel's house marks both his moment and the town's moment of becoming self-aware. Both appear to have discovered their driving forces, which were always there, on the inside, but simply needed to be confirmed and awakened by an act of faith. The Colonel's assertion of ownership over the cock is the outward manifestation of that act of faith. He knows that his survival has always come from faith in those things that seemed to be illusory, impractical and foolish to the people around him, his dead son's inspiration, the arrival of the pension and the anticipated victory of the fighting cock.

It is from this newfound position of strength that the Colonel is able to respond to his wife's objections concerning the removal of the cock from the house by Augustín's friends. With calm assurance he asserts: “Hicieron bien” and immediately afterwards: “El gallo no se vende” (85). Neither his wife's arguments nor her tears can any longer affect the Colonel. The strength of his resolve is such that he is able to respond to every argument with the same strength seen in the steady legs of his fighting cock. All of this determination comes together in the final word of the novel, the Colonel's ultimate response to his wife's question of, “Dime, qué comemos.” He simply and coldly answers “Mierda” (92).

Some readers may think of this response as an expression of the Colonel's frustration in the face of poverty and old age. It is rather an expression of determination to have faith in the one sure source of power, hope and direction for his life, his internal vision, his poet's perception of things. It is this greater and more intimate internal reality that puts him closer to the transcendental power Octavio Paz calls the other voice. The Colonel realizes that victory over the adversities of life and the world comes not from external acts and practical plans but from faith in his own creative forces that emanate from within.

Works Cited

García Márquez, Gabriel. El coronel no tiene quien le escriba. Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1974.

Paz, Octavio. The Bow and the Lyre. Trans. Ruth L. C. Simms. New York: McGraw Hill, 1973. Trans. of El arco y la Lira. 1956.

———. “Poetry and the Free Market.” New York Times Book Review 8 Dec. 1991: 1, 36-38.

John S. Christie (essay date June 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4385

SOURCE: Christie, John S. “Fathers and Virgins: García Márquez's Faulknerian Chronicle of a Death Foretold.Latin American Literary Review 21, no. 41 (June 1993): 21-9.

[In the following essay, Christie examines the work of William Faulkner in order to expound on García Márquez's various allusions in Chronicle of a Death Foretold.]

It might seem risky to attempt to piece together a puzzle embedded in a novel's plot when so much critical focus celebrates that novel's fragmentation, its indecipherable artifice, and its purely textual, metafictional focus. Although, as is said of one of its characters, Chronicle of a Death Foretold tends “to conceal rather than reveal” its secrets, this in no way implies that answers to the novel's mysteries cannot be found or that such an exploration is without reward in understanding the work beyond the level of story line. Gabriel García Márquez's technique of dissociating biblical and mythical allusions from their referents (Penuel 188), his patterns of undisclosed information, and the general unreliability of his detective narrator all contribute to critics' hesitation to draw conclusions concerning the central mystery of the story. Yet the existence in the novel of narrative ambiguities, such as the frequently cited detail that no two characters agree about the weather on the day of Santiago Nasar's murder, is insufficient reason for the reader to abandon investigation into the central narrative questions: who is really responsible for Angela's loss of virginity and why does she blame Santiago?

Just as García Márquez's political satire tends to be underestimated by critics who are overly fascinated by his magical realism, so the clues to his mystery/detective story are usually de-emphasized in favor of interpretation of his narrative technique. Setting aside for a moment the novel's “generic ambiguity and intractability” (Alonso 155), we recognize that the novel also stresses the townspeople's inability to transcend the mystery of Santiago's murder, the “single common anxiety.” At the same time the intensity of the narrator's interest seems to encourage the reader to “give order to the chain of events that makes absurdity possible” (Chronicle 133). Like the narrator wading through flooded offices, retrieving partial records of a twenty-seven year old crime, and searching through a “lagoon of lost causes” (Chronicle 116), readers need to reconstruct the motives of the murder, and like the narrator's mother, can, I think, “through superfluous detail … get to the heart of the matter” (Chronicle 29).

The beginning of such an investigation lies outside the novel itself, within certain aspects of William Faulkner's influence upon García Márquez. My purpose here is not to trace that influence, nor to document the source of the Colombian writer's literary technique; neither do I wish to duplicate what has been discussed in essays by critics such as Escobar, Snell, or Oberhelmann. Rather, I am searching for particular clues to the single undisclosed mystery in Chronicle of a Death Foretold—and I believe a look at Faulkner will help.

Much of the Faulkner/García Márquez comparative work seems to concern itself with two large areas of interest: Faulkner's stylistic or narrative influence upon García Márquez and the similarities between the social and historical worlds of decay and corruption with which the two writers concern themselves. The combination of these large patterns of similarity is particularly useful in examining Chronicle of Death Foretold since both writers break down narrative authority through innovative use of multiple perspectives, and each describes an atmosphere of deterioration in the crippled societies of post-civil war south or coastal Colombia after United Fruit (see Escobar). The events of the major works occur within places of heat and dust and the vanishing traditions of a people locked into a lost past.

The work most easily connected to Chronicle might well be Faulkner's Light in August. Both tales are told almost entirely through the words of individual characters, and in neither does the authority of the author assert itself. Both novels depict a murder in a small-town (saturated with gossip, tradition, and custom), and focus upon a victim who is strangely removed from the reality of his own world, who has obvious Christ-like characteristics, and who is judged by others to be foreign. Santiago Nasar walks through his labyrinthine pueblo with the same oblivious attitude that Joe Christmas demonstrates as he runs in circles through Jefferson. The murders are equally ritualistic: Christmas escapes from the central square and a crowd of people, while Santiago is surrounded by people who have brought chairs to the plaza to watch the event. The latter scene recalls Hightower's misadventure with the townspeople who seem to him to be “performing a play,” acting out the roles of their society's codes (Light 67). Both murders are gory, and both victims seek out in vain a “sanctuary” from the crowd: Christmas runs to Hightower's house and Santiago to his own home and his mother. Further comparison shows that Lucas Burch is actually guilty of committing the same dishonorable crime for which Santiago is murdered, and there is something of Lena Grove, removed, silent, and somehow responsible for events, in the character of Angela Vicario.

In both novels, the power of the spoken word carries such weight that each man is “nailed to the wall” (Chronicle 53), not because he is unquestionably guilty, but because he has been accused. Christmas is labeled a “nigger” by Lucas Burch and Santiago is accused of rape by Angela. Once the word is spoken, the facts become secondary; the telling creates the reality. In Light in August, Mrs. Hines learns of her own story as she tells it to Hightower (Light 422). The tendency for a town to collectively manipulate fact is of particular interest to both writers. In Faulkner's story “Dry September” the town predetermines the guilt of the black man (another innocent Christ figure, a “black son”) in much the same way that Jefferson condemns Christmas, and the town in Chronicle allows (and is responsible for) the murder of Santiago.

Small towns where “men [not women] folks … take talking seriously” (Light 397) can breed prejudice and gossip, that “single idle word blown from mind to mind” (Light 65) in a small town where evil is invented. The Colombian pueblo condemns the “Turk” Santiago (Chronicle 120) while Jefferson condemns the “nigger” Christmas (Light 91). The southern town forgives the murderous Hines for “that which in a young man it would have crucified” (Light 323), just as the Colombian town crucifies Santiago for sexual behavior that it forgives in his father Ibrahim. The customs of both communities tend, as Byron Bunch remarks of all habits, to “get a right good distance from truth and fact” (Light 69). Thus we find that Pedro and Pablo Vicario are as locked into their ritualistic revenge as they are to their “duty” of shaving, even when the rest of their appearance, after “hours of bad living,” would seem to make such an act pointless (Chronicle 16). This kind of small-town concern for reputation and tradition leaves Angela terribly afraid of being jilted while dressed in a wedding gown. The final ritual of a town full of people watching a murder like spectators at a bullfight is the gruesome extension of a small community's obsession with public honor and social codes.

In Absalom, Absalom, where the events are never verifiable since they are only filtered down through various narrators (one of whom—Shreve—could never really have known the true events to begin with), Faulkner's narrative control is intentionally relinquished. García Márquez is equally concerned with denying narrative authority since the natural extension of multiple perception, multiple point of view in these works is the notion that no one truth exists, that all fact is relative. Those characters who latch on to a single idea become one-dimensional zombies: Percy Grimms or the Vicario brothers.

The question of authority is essential for both writers. It is perhaps not so vital for understanding the female characters who either abandon themselves to male authority, live beyond it, or rebel against it, as it is for comprehending the men—specifically, the fathers. A full study of fathers in Faulkner is beyond the range of this essay, but briefly, one notes the presence of Jason Compson and his drunken advice to his son Quentin, Temple Drake's inadequate father/judge, Lena's father whose law she must escape, the pathetic and lazy Anse Bundren, and the dictatorial, fanatical stepfathers of Joe Christmas. These are authority figures subjected to implicit and explicit ridicule.

Central, paternal, authoritative rule is associated with the authority of a past, the mythic past of some religious or moral order which has now dissipated and which controls only those characters who remain secluded in a lonely “backwater” (to borrow the word García Márquez often borrows from Faulkner), isolated from reality, fixated upon an illusory past. The reader may recall Emily Grierson in the Faulkner story; the unnamed woman in García Márquez's “Bitterness for Three Strangers”; the doomed Joanna Burden; Hightower himself; Rebecca in One Hundred Years of Solitude; the dying dictator in Autumn of the Patriarch. In reality, no authority holds a central truth. The father figure, once the focal point of honor, power, and truth, becomes inadequate.


Keeping in mind these large parallels between the two writers, we can now go beyond descriptions of influence to focus upon how the problem of paternal authority relates to the unanswered questions in the plot of Chronicle of a Death Foretold. To begin examining the question of paternal authority, the reader must first recall the wedding night festival which the narrator attempts to “rescue piece by piece from the memories of others” (Chronicle 48). In this carnivalesque scene of reversal where a drunken nun dances the merengue, García Márquez goes out of his way to deflate the lofty position of the father figure. A character appropriately named Dionisio Iguaran (which is not just incidentally the last name of Ursula—the supreme matriarch—in One Hundred Years of Solitude) plans his escape from the Bishop (a religious father), who is to arrive the following day. Military authority is often undercut in the book, and, during this scene, the women's velvet dresses attract more attention and therefore supersede the “plumed hat and row of medals worn by [the] father of the groom” (Chronicle 49). The reader recalls that earlier in the book, in an image that could allude to Faulkner's military heroes Sutpen or Sartoris, Bayardo's father's medals are covered with dust upon his arrival (Chronicle 37), that Pedro's military experience has left him with the clap, and that he will later die in guerrilla territory singing whorehouse songs (Chronicle 96). During this festival, the narrator's own father becomes a child and takes up the violin (Chronicle 48). More importantly, in the center of this chaotic, indecorous festival of people “cast adrift over an abyss of uncertainty” (Chronicle 49-50) is the narrator's own “most intense image” of the blind father of the bride (Angela) sitting uselessly on a stool: “they had placed him there thinking perhaps that it was the seat of honor … happy in his circle of oblivion” (Chronicle 49). Readers of One Hundred Years of Solitude will recall the figure of José Arcadio Buendía, the founding father of Macondo, “the first of the line” (Solitude 420) tied to a chestnut tree in the rain and “sunk in an abyss of unawareness” (Solitude 109), isolated and alienated. Since the narrator of Chronicle can hardly remember the events of the night to begin with, we need to take note of the vivid image this decrepit figure makes for him. Directly following this festival, two pages later, Angela Vicario names Santiago Nasar as the man responsible for her deflowering.

If the carnival world can be used to highlight and mirror the institutions and laws, the codes and restrictions of the “real” world, then what is happening here is no less than an undermining of the authority of certain traditions within small-town Colombian life. The father figure is the custodian of family reputation and honor. This is why Pura Vicario and “el padre ciego la acompañaron para custodiarle la honra” (Crónica 52) which becomes a sort of pun in English: “she and the blind father accompanied her [Angela] to watch over her honor” (Chronicle 41). The religious precepts, so strenuously observed by (at least outside the home), are here abandoned. The novel debunks the rigidity of organized religion by the narrator's sarcastic criticism throughout. This is why the Bishop never comes ashore, and why his blessing is a “fleeting illusion” and why his boat spews out a baptismal steam upon those waiting on the dock with their offerings (Chronicle 19). Similarly, a bullet from Santiago's gun, accidentally fired, goes through a wall or two and winds up destroying a statue of a saint. The murderers flee the scene of butchering to the church and ironically state: “We killed him openly … but we're innocent” (Chronicle 55). Finally, Father Amador, a less sympathetic Hightower figure who, like Hightower, has an opportunity to alter events by warning Santiago, leaves that responsibility to the authorities, ultimately claiming that all he can do is “save his [Santiago Nasar's] soul” (Chronicle 127). Symbolically, Father Amador becomes the medical examiner in place of Dionisio—religious authority being closer to death than is Dionysian instinct.

Meanwhile, the authorities to whom Father Amador decides to relegate responsibility are equally deflated by the text in García Márquez's sarcastic ridicule. Colonel Lazarus Aponte, the “barbarian” mayor (Chronicle 83) who gets his “spiritual practices … through the mails” (Chronicle 66), is more concerned about the date of his domino game than he is about the brothers (Chronicle 130). His punishment for this neglect is to have liver for breakfast and then, upon seeing the disemboweled corpse (sliced up like liver) of Santiago Nasar, become a vegetarian (Chronicle 88). The unnamed magistrate is young and inexperienced; the judge is also unnamed and prone to “lyrical distractions that run contrary to the rigor of his profession” (Chronicle 116). The authority of Law, like that of religion and the military is undercut.

Circling back to Angela's father, then, we perhaps come to the answer to the novel's central question: who, if not Santiago, is responsible for Angela's loss of virginity? Perhaps it is not entirely true that “the novel constantly thwarts all expectations of revelation” concerning this mystery (Alonso 152). Obviously, the general authoritarian institutions, the morality connected to these paternal rules and regulations as well as traditional ethnocentric hatred are all to blame. But more interestingly, a case can be made that Angela's biological father is the offender: a case of incest. Although one critic excludes Angela's father from a short list of possible culprits, he gives us no reason why we should do so (Díaz-Migoyo 81). Another, citing a connection between Sophocles's Oedipus Rex and Chronicle, argues that the narrator himself is the culprit (Rama 15-18). The Oedipal story, however, serves as a secreta guía for García Márquez (Rama 10) not only because of its narrative structure, but also because of its emphasis upon the taboo of incest. Several critics (Levine, McMurray on García Márquez and Hall on Faulkner) have noted, in both writers, the use of incest as a metaphor for original sin, the final degradation of a sordid society, whether filled with amoral Snopeses or children with the tails of pigs. Oedipus, according to Hall “the great tragedy from which the bulk of literary treatments of incest descends” (Hall 8), is also a story of “alienation and isolation” symbolized by this particular taboo (Hall 8). A more recent influence however would be La Casa Grande, a novel written in 1962 by García Márquez's literary companion Alvaro Cepeda Samudio which in addition to containing the obvious parallels to García Márquez in dealing with the famed Banana workers' strike of 1928 also demonstrates Faulknerian influences and explicitly revolves around paternal incest, paternal authority, gossip, and the guilt (the “wide and everlasting wound”) (Casa 57) of an entire town.

The biblical names in the novel are not gratuitous. The name Poncio alludes to Pontius Pilate and thus suggests the father's washing of his hands of the matter, his forsaking Christ (Santiago, dressed in white, crucified against the door, trying to “rise up out of his own blood” (Chronicle 141) in his “bewilderment of innocence” (Chronicle 118), and his moral responsibility to save an innocent man. When Poncio dies, according to Angela, who as victim of incest would be the one to know, he is “carr[ied] off” by “his moral pain” (Chronicle 96). He has lost his sight doing fine work in gold in order “to maintain the honor of the house” (Chronicle 33) as the incestuous Oedipus will lose his eyesight for the same reason. Poncio's state is indicative of the total depravity of fallen man. The reader wonders further why one Vicario daughter has “died of nighttime fevers” (Chronicle 33), and is mourned only outside the home (Chronicle 34), or why the two older daughters are “predisposed to find hidden intentions in the designs of men” (Chronicle 34). It is clear throughout that Angela, the prettiest of the daughters, has had no boyfriends and has been raised “under the rigor of a mother of iron” (Chronicle 41) in the strictest fashion. Moreover, we recall that the father of another fiancé, Flora Miguel, enters the locked bedroom of his own daughter, as well as the parallel scene in which Cristo Bedoya enters the bedroom of Plácida Linero which at least one critic suggests carries intimations of “sexual taboos” (Boschetto 127). According to Hall, father/daughter incest may indicate the man's need to “exercise his authority” (Hall 4) which is interesting language when we remember that the drunken narrator of the novel is “most impressed” by the “immense” Nahir Miguel's “glow of authority” as he commands his daughter to open her door (Chronicle 134).

Angela's mother, having failed to convince Angela that “love can be learned,” takes her anger out on her disgraced daughter, and then tries to bury her alive in the upper Guajira (Chronicle 101). Aware of her husband's behavior, perhaps she is a mother trying to maintain the true “honor” of the family by guarding the secret. Pura Vicario (the pure vicar, or religious deputy of the house), is a woman whom Angela, at the moment of her epiphanic “rebirth,” recognizes as “a poor woman devoted to the cult of her defects” (107). It is important then that, as Boschetto points out, the narrator often repeats the words “secret,” “secrecy,” and “secretly” (Chronicle 129) when referring to certain women, especially when the reader recalls that Pura Vicario goes “to her grave with her secret” about what exactly happens the night Angela is returned to her family. If public disgrace were Pura Vicario's only concern, then why the intensity of her private beating of Angela with such “rage” and “such stealth that her husband and her older daughters” do not hear it (Chronicle 52). Pura Vicario, who has a darker secret to conceal, becomes the most blatant example of what happens when one's individual will, like Pedro's or Pablo's (and finally unlike Angela's) bows to the codes of authority at the expense of human emotion.

Angela cannot reveal the identity of the man responsible, because that revelation would entirely destroy her family's honor. Acting as all the townspeople do, basing her actions upon gossip and prejudice (she is not above a bit of anti-Semitism, see Chronicle 132), she pins the blame on a man with a reputation as a rich playboy. Santiago is first seen grabbing for the girl named “Divina Flor” [Divine Flower]. Like Fuasta López, Angela resorts to the stereotype that all Turks are alike (120) and symbolically strikes out with her “well-aimed dart” (53) at all men and at society's control over her.

The reader has trouble seeing Angela Vicario as heroine, even though, like Joe Christmas in Light in August, Angela rebels against the male authority of her father, and by implication, against organized religion, the honor of the military and the authority of the texts of doctors and scholars and lawyers and judges. The reader is all the more aware of Angela's being “reborn” (108) when she discovers that she loves Bayardo truly, and, becoming “mistress of her own free will” (like no one else in the novel), finally recognizes “no other authority than her own” (109). She rejects the rules of paternal domination, as Flora Miguel cannot, and it is because she can escape both the traditions of her culture and the authority of her own father that she can love and be “reborn.” She rejects both the custom of faking her virginity and of fleeing to the widower's house, which might trap her as a southern mansion often traps Faulkner's southern belles. Like the Benjy-type figure of the girl in García Márquez's short story “Nabo,” Angela Vicario refuses to live the socially restrictive life of her male counterparts and masters. The problem here is that her rebellion, like that of Joe Christmas, provokes the murder of an innocent person. No matter how justified Angela may be, her accusation perpetuates a negative form of “feminine macho” (Boschetto 133).

The importance of the novel's deflating of authority in general brings the reader back to the central metaphor of the book, the image of Poncio at the wedding party (usually the crowning moment for the father of the bride), blind and powerless, deprived of all his control and influence, in a false seat of honor, confused with other people, stumbled over, responding to gestures made for others, and humiliated during this carnival of anti-authority. This image of the decrepit father figure is not uncommon in the writings of García Márquez. There is also the dying father of Prospero Arango, whose need for care distracts Cristo Bedoya from warning Santiago, and the pitiful widower (a male counterpart to Faulkner's Emily) who dies from “tears bubbling inside his heart” (Chronicle 41) because he has given in to his own greed and sold his precious house to Bayardo San Roman. Seen metaphorically, Poncio the fallen father, suggests both the corruption of the society's institutions of authority as well as the impossibility of an authoritative narrative truth. Where Faulkner has undermined the authority of a central voice in his narratives, García Márquez has done so on the literal level of plot by questioning the truth of the central voices. Light in August duplicates the story-telling narrative structure, but raises fewer questions concerning the reliability of the speakers. The limited perspective of this kind of “panoptical” narration (where the teller has access to only one individual at a time, where characters have limited knowledge of each other and where no attempt is made by the author to step back and view character relationships as part of a whole) Rodríguez 263) is one of the most important similarities between Faulkner and García Márquez. It goes beyond what Karl claims is Faulkner's “disregard” for facts (Karl 738) because the implications are (as the tall-tales of Faulkner's late works make clear), that no truth exists beyond the perception of individuals and that all is mere storytelling. Like Santiago, the reader of these works is left confused by “so many voices at the same time” (Chronicle 136).

I would argue, furthermore, that neither Faulkner nor García Márquez has a specific interest in creating Metafiction, because no matter how complicated and intricate the narrative strategy becomes, there are sophisticated patterns of imagery, of allusion, and of hidden information which point eventually to some basic concern of the writer. In this particular case, the decay and fragmentation of society falls under what Hall claims is often the symbolic meaning of the incest metaphor in Faulkner: the “tyranny of authority” (8). For García Márquez, “tyranny of authority” manifests itself in one instance of paternal incest, and in the traditions and customs that maintain its secrecy.

Works Cited

Alonso, Carlos. “Writing and Ritual in Chronicle of a Death Foretold.” McQuirk (1987): 151-167.

Boschetto, Sandra María. “The Demythification of Matriarchy and Image of Women in Chronicle of a Death Foretold.” Shaw (1986): 125-137.

Cepeda Samudio, Alvaro. La casa grande. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991.

Díaz-Migoyo, Gonzálo. “Truth Disguised: Chronicle of a Death (Ambiguously) Foretold.” Ortega (1988): 74-86.

Escobar, José Luis Ramos. “Desde Yoknapatawpha a Macondo: un estudio comparado de William Faulkner y Gabriel García Márquez.” Hernández de López (1985): 287-313.

Faulkner, William. Light in August. New York: Garland, 1987.

García Márquez, Gabriel. Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Trans. Gregory Rabassa. New York: Ballantine, 1982.

———. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Trans. Gregory Rabassa. New York: Ballantine, 1967.

———. Crónica de una muerte anunciada. Bogotá: La Oveja Negra, 1981.

Hall, Constance Hill. Incest in Faulkner: A Metaphor for the Fall. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1986.

Hernández de López, Ana María, ed. En el punto de mira: Gabriel García Márquez. Madrid: Editorial Pliegos, 1985.

Karl, Frederick R. William Faulkner: American Writer. New York: Ballantine, 1989.

Levine, Suzanne Jill. “La maldición del incesto en Cien años de soledad.Revista Iberoamericana (July 1971): 711-724.

McQuirk, Bernard and Richard Cardwell, eds. Gabriel García Márquez: New Readings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

McMurray, George R., ed. Critical Essays on Gabriel García Márquez. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1987.

———. Gabriel García Márquez. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1977.

Oberhelmann, Harley D. The Presence of Faulkner in the Writings of García Márquez. Lubbock: Texas Tech Press, 1980.

———. “William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez: Two Nobel Laureates.” McMurray (1987): 67-79.

Olivares, Jorge. “García Márquez's Crónica de una muerte anunciada as Metafiction.” Contemporary Literature 28 (Winter 1987): 483-492.

Ortega, Julio, ed. Gabriel García Márquez and the Powers of Fiction. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988.

Penuel, Arnold M. “The Sleep of Vital Reason in García Márquez's Crónica de una muerte anunciada.” McMurray (1987): 188-209.

Rama, Angel. “García Márquez entre la tragedia y la policial o Crónica y pesquisa de la crónica de una muerte anunciada.” Sin Nombre 13 (Oct-Dec 1982): 7-27.

Rodríguez, Aleida Anselma. “La construcción panóptica en Crónica de una muerte anunciada.” Hernández de López (1985): 261-269.

Shaw, Bradley A. and Nora Vera-Godwin, eds. Critical Perspectives on Gabriel García Márquez. Lincoln, Nebraska: Society of Spanish and Spanish-American Studies, 1986.

Snell, Susan. “William Faulkner, un guía sureño a la ficción de García Márquez.” Hernández de López (1985): 315-326.

M. Keith Booker (essay date summer 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6497

SOURCE: Booker, M. Keith. “The Dangers of Gullible Reading: Narrative as Seduction in García Márquez' Love in the Time of Cholera.Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 17, no. 2 (summer 1993): 181-95.

[In the following essay, Booker asserts that Love in the Time of Cholera is a more complex book than most critical readings suggest and links the novel with Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita.]

Initial critical reaction to Gabriel García Márquez' Love in the Time of Cholera has been positive, even rhapsodic, and most readers have found the book to be an uplifting affirmation of the human spirit, the author's kindest and gentlest work. Gene Bell-Villada is typical: even while recognizing that overly romantic attitudes are sometimes the subject of satire in the book, he still concludes that Love is basically “a good old-fashioned love story” (191). Indeed, Bell-Villada goes on to applaud García Márquez for his “courage and originality in writing a novel of love (a subject traditionally thought of as the preserve of younger authors) when on the verge of old age” (202). But Love is a complex work, and as García Márquez himself has said of it in an interview, “you have to be careful not to fall into my trap” (Williams 136). Love in the Time of Cholera is indeed a novel of love, but it is also much more, and Mabel Moraña probably gets closer to the heart of the matter when she suggests that it is “like other texts in the narrative saga of García Márquez, a reflection on power” (40).

The theme of love in the novel focuses on the lifelong fascination of Florentino Ariza with Fermina Daza, a fascination that is strongly informed by Ariza's own excessively romantic attitude toward life. This attitude derives largely from Ariza's gullible reading of bad literature, and the echo here of Flaubert's Madame Bovary is surely more than accidental. But there are more links between the texts of Flaubert and of García Márquez than this obvious one. In particular, the association with Flaubert provides a useful entry point into Love as a meditation on power as well as an exploration of romanticism. Near the end of Madame Bovary the sinister and self-promoting pharmacist Homais compiles a list of the credentials that he believes qualify him for the cross of the Legion of Honor, which he will in fact eventually win. Among these accomplishments, he congratulates himself for the “devotion” he showed doing his professional duty “in the time of the cholera” (253).1 Perhaps one should not make too much of the fact that García Márquez verbally echoes this passage from Flaubert in the title of his novel, especially as the title functions on a number of levels within García Márquez' own text.2 The echo may even be coincidental. But in the richly intertextual work of García Márquez such correspondences often bear surprising fruit when harvested carefully, even when the seeds have not originally been planted by the author. For example, García Márquez himself has identified “allusions” in One Hundred Years of Solitude to works he had not even read at the time he wrote his book (Janes 7). In any case, it is clear that Madame Bovary is of major importance as a source for Love, and the illumination provided by reading García Márquez through Flaubert is considerably enriched by bringing Homais into the picture, since Flaubert's manipulative pharmacist-vulgarian calls attention to the quests for power and domination that constitute a central theme of García Márquez' novel as well.

Most obviously, Homais is a representative of the philistine impulses that Flaubert so abhorred in the society of his contemporary France. But more than that, he is a generalized figure of the bad aspects of Enlightenment thinking. He prides himself on his education, his knowledge, and his scientific approach to things, and—following the Baconian dictum that “knowledge is power”—he puts his talents to use in furthering his own ambitions and in manipulating those around him for his own ends. As such he recalls the critique of Enlightenment thinking put forth by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in The Dialectic of Enlightenment. Horkheimer and Adorno suggest that the scientific impetus of the Enlightenment is informed by a quest not for a liberating truth, but for a power that ultimately enslaves: “What men want to learn from nature is how to use it in order to wholly dominate it and other men” (Dialectic 4). In particular, they suggest that the emphasis on the power of the individual in Enlightenment thought is related to a drive to dominate nature, a drive that inevitably turns back upon itself and leads to the formation of individuals who are internally repressed and of societies consisting of individual subjects who strive for domination of each other.

The Horkheimer/Adorno critique of the Enlightenment is also clearly relevant to the concerns of García Márquez' fiction. In One Hundred Years of Solitude José Arcadio Buendía insists on putting the scientific knowledge of the gypsy Melquíades to work for practical technological use, but his attempts to dominate nature through science invariably fail—and often in ways that recall Horkheimer and Adorno quite directly. For example, when José Arcadio attempts to use the gypsy's magnets to locate gold he finds instead an ancient suit of Spanish armor, with its associated echoes of imperial domination. In general, the citizens of Macondo find technological progress to be not liberating, but enslaving.3 Science and technology also figure as negative forces in Love, particularly in the way that technological “progress” has led to the degradation of Colombia's natural environment and to the destruction of the Great Magdalena River that figures so centrally in the book. But García Márquez is no Luddite, and his argument is not with technological progress per se.4 Instead, the link to Horkheimer and Adorno (courtesy of Flaubert's Homais) indicates that the real target of García Márquez' criticisms of the negative side of progress is the kind of ideology of domination that informs not only Enlightenment science, but a whole variety of other mechanisms of power as well, including imperialism, totalitarianism, and the Latin American tradition of machismo. A look at Love through the optic of these issues shows a book far more complex than the sweetly sentimental love story it is often perceived to be.

The character in Love whom Homais resembles most is Dr. Juvenal Urbino. Urbino is, on the surface at least, a rather admirable figure, if a little stiff and conventional. He is intelligent, educated, successful, an image of the kind of enlightened man who might bring hope of a better life to the benighted inhabitants of García Márquez' fictionalized Colombia. But a comparison with Homais helps to reveal certain ominous cracks and fissures in the surface of this depiction of Urbino. For example, one begins to wonder whether Urbino's rise to social and professional prominence might partake of some of the ruthlessly self-serving ambition that drives Homais onward toward the cross of the Legion of Honor. Indeed, Urbino himself is not above accepting honors, including being granted the rank of Commander in that same Legion (43). Finally, especially if Homais is read through Horkheimer and Adorno, aspects of Urbino's character such as the fact that he is so thoroughly “in control of his nature” begin to take on undertones of a drive for domination that may inform all of the good doctor's activities (105).

When we first meet Urbino at the beginning of the book we learn that he is a man very much accustomed to being in charge of whatever situation he may encounter. He arrives on the scene of the suicide of his friend Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, bullies the police inspector, and orders that the press be told that the death occurred due to natural causes (5-6). These actions, of course, can be interpreted as a perfectly understandable attempt to protect the memory of his friend, though it is telling that Urbino refuses to intercede with the Archbishop so that Saint-Amour can be buried on holy ground. And Urbino shows another negative side to his character when he reads Saint-Amour's suicide note and learns that his friend had been not a political exile as he had thought, but an escaped convict. Further, he discovers that Saint-Amour had been carrying on a clandestine sexual relationship for years. These revelations offend Urbino's self-righteous sense of propriety, and he shows not understanding, but disgust, rejecting his friend's memory. And when Urbino's wife Fermina Daza expresses sympathy for the dead Saint-Amour, Urbino violently explains to her the reason for his revulsion: “What infuriates me is not what he was or what he did, but the deception he practiced on all of us for so many years” (32). In short, what angers Urbino is the knowledge that he has been duped, that he has not been so thoroughly in charge of matters as he has believed—and of course there is the irony of the fact that Urbino himself has a past clandestine sexual history of which he may not want to be reminded.

Being in charge is clearly important to Urbino. Though he conducts numerous civic projects that are to the benefit of the local community it is not at all clear that he does so out of purely selfless motives. He does not hesitate, for example, to utilize the fire department that he has organized on European models for personal needs such as catching his escaped parrot. Urbino shows his typical imperious style when he sends for the firemen: “Tell them it's for me,” he says (25). Indeed, in looking at Urbino's organization of the fire department one might keep in mind that Flaubert's Homais tops off the list of his own projects with which he lays claim to the cross of the Legion of Honor by noting that “there is always the assistance I give at fires!” (253).

It is also worth noting that not just the fire department, but all of Urbino's innovations tend to be based on European models. In Love, as in One Hundred Years of Solitude, scientific knowledge is something that comes to Colombia from the outside, as a sign of European technical and cultural superiority. But García Márquez consistently suggests in his work that such European imports often result not in improvement, but in degradation of living conditions in Colombia. The local aristocracy in Love are mocked for their fascination with European consumer goods (an image of foreign economic domination), even though those goods may be useless and out of place in Latin America. On her various trips to Europe even the practical Fermina Daza buys massive amounts of commodities in an attempt (again echoing Emma Bovary) to fill the emptiness in her life. Most of these goods (like heavy European coats) simply get stored in trunks and closets when she returns to Colombia. And García Márquez indicates the dehumanizing impact of this invasion of commodities in Fermina's own attitude: “she was dismayed by the voracity with which objects kept invading living spaces, displacing the humans, forcing them back into corners” (301).

In this vein it is important to note that, though Urbino reads extensively, he has no interest in the literature of his native Latin America. Instead, he reads the latest books ordered from Paris and Madrid, “although he did not follow Spanish literature as closely as French” (8). This sense of disengagement from his local context perhaps shows up most clearly in Urbino's style of dealing with the local cholera epidemics that he must combat in the course of his professional duties. Urbino's father Dr. Marco Aurelio Urbino had become so passionately and personally involved in the treatment of cholera victims that he himself contracted the disease and died from it (112-13). After this death, Juvenal Urbino becomes obsessed with battling against cholera, the very existence of which seems to stand as an affront to his personal mastery and as a challenge to his ability to dominate nature through science. Urbino shows a strong disdain for his father's methods, “more charitable than scientific,” and himself takes a detached scientific approach to the battle, putting his efforts into the institution of new scientific public health projects such as the ones he has observed in France rather than into hands-on treatment of disease victims. These projects include the construction of the first local aqueduct, the first sewer system, and a covered public market, and they are no doubt of benefit to Urbino's fellow citizens. However, many of these projects also smack of the kind of self-promoting activities that might be undertaken by Flaubert's Homais, such as when the pharmacist encourages the disastrous surgery on poor Hippolyte not so much for the benefit of the club-foot as to prove the extent of his own enlightened knowledge.

Urbino's reliance on European models clearly participates in García Márquez' ongoing critique of the way in which Latin America has contributed to its own exploitation through its acceptance of the myth of foreign superiority. This link between Urbino and the imperialist domination of Latin America further clarifies the drive for power and dominance that is so central to Urbino's personality. At the death scene of Saint-Amour, Urbino speaks to the police inspector “as he would have to a subordinate,” and indeed Urbino tends to treat everyone like subordinates, including his wife Fermina Daza. It is in his relationship with Fermina, in fact, that Urbino's style of relating to others through domination shows itself most clearly.

When he first begins his courtship of Fermina, Urbino does so very much in the manner of a military siege, and his early letters, though composed in an apparently “submissive spirit,” already show an “impatience” that the independent-minded Fermina finds unsettling (124). And to press the courtship Urbino mobilizes whatever forces are at his command. Fermina's father Lorenzo, hungry for the social legitimation that would come to his daughter through a marriage to Urbino, eagerly encourages the courtship. Even more tellingly, Fermina has been expelled from her convent school for reading love letters from Florentino Ariza during class hours, and Urbino manages to induce the school to offer to reinstate Fermina if she will only entertain his advances.

Urbino's domineering style of courtship continues into the marriage, and despite certain indications early in the book that the Urbino-Daza marriage is nearly ideal, it becomes clear as the narrative progresses that the relationship is seriously flawed. Urbino's own rage for order and control can be seen in his unromantic proclamation that “the most important thing in a good marriage is not happiness, but stability” (300). Indeed, this practical attitude seems to form the very foundation of the marriage. Urbino marries Fermina though she is well below his social class, and he apparently does so because he believes that she will be a good and useful wife to him. As McNerney puts it, “She is a useful adornment, as befits the wife of a man like Urbino” (82).

But one suspects that Urbino marries below his social class at least partially because such a marriage gives him the leverage that he needs to feed his desire for dominance in the relationship. In any case, Fermina herself often feels trapped and constrained within a life that is clearly Urbino's more than hers. Late in the marriage she realizes that she is little more than a “deluxe servant” under Urbino's command:

She always felt as if her life had been lent to her by her husband: she was absolute monarch of a vast empire of happiness, which had been built by him and for him alone. She knew that he loved her above all else, more than anyone else in the world, but only for his own sake: she was in his holy service.


Indeed, Urbino is so overbearing that when he is forced to take a laxative he demands that his wife take one as well, so that she must share in his alimentary inconvenience (222).

That the private reality of the Urbino-Daza marriage is so different from the public perception of it is one of the strategies used by García Márquez in the book to indicate the seductiveness (and potential duplicity) of narrative. That the marriage is perfect makes a good story, and so the gullible townspeople generally accept that interpretation without question. But the construction of Love, in which the original presentation of the Urbino-Daza marriage is gradually undermined by the accumulation of additional details, makes the point that appearances can be deceiving and that one should not leap to interpretive conclusions hastily. This point is made most clearly by an interesting inconsistency in the narration of the book. Early on, when the marriage is still being presented as ideal, we are treated to a somewhat amusing anecdote from that marriage, in which Urbino's complaint that Fermina has failed to keep the bathroom stocked with soap mounts into a tempest-in-a-teapot crisis that is of course successfully resolved. And, we are told, this minor incident was the most critical problem that had ever arisen in the relationship: “When they recalled this episode, now they had rounded the corner of old age, neither could believe the astonishing truth that this had been the most serious argument in fifty years of living together” (29).

The very triviality of this argument reinforces the notion that the marriage is one without important difficulties. But there may be a good reason why “neither could believe” that this episode was their most serious marital problem. Late in the book we are suddenly told of Urbino's serious mid-life affair with the mulatta Barbara Lynch, an affair of which Fermina learns and to which she reacts by moving out and going to live with her Cousin Hildebranda on her provincial ranch. Urbino finally convinces Fermina to return to him after a lengthy separation, but the incident has clearly posed a serious threat to the marriage. The jarring disjunction between the earlier account of the soap incident and this later story of Urbino's affair with Barbara Lynch brings the reader to a sudden realization that the narrator of Love may not be entirely reliable and that we should be cautious about accepting anything we are told in the book at face value.

This emphasis on unreliable narration is reinforced at several points in the book, as when the newspaper Justice publishes (after Urbino's death) what is apparently an entirely fictitious account of an alleged love affair between Urbino and Fermina's friend Lucrecia del Real del Obispo. It may indeed be justice that this account is published, since the affair with Miss Lynch went undetected, but the fact that the quickly suppressed story finds believers (including Fermina herself) is a further warning against gullibility in reading. Of course, the most gullible reader of all in Love (and the most obvious link to Flaubert) is the hopeless bovaryste Florentino Ariza. Ariza's gullibility is established early in the book in his attempts to recover the treasure from a Spanish galleon that is rumored to have been sunk in the Caribbean just off the Colombian coast. Despite warnings that the attempt is folly, Ariza employs Euclides, a twelve-year-old boy, to dive for the treasure. Amazingly, the boy apparently finds the ship and begins to return with bits of jewelry supposedly recovered from the wreck. Ariza is about to mount a major salvage campaign when his mother (an experienced pawn broker) determines that the jewelry is fake and that Ariza has been duped by the boy.

Fermina treats the galleon episode as another example of Ariza's “poetic excesses,” and it is true that Ariza is exceedingly susceptible to romantic fantasies in general. As with Emma Bovary, this susceptibility shows up most clearly in Ariza's reading of literature. The young Ariza devours the various volumes of the “Popular Library,” a massive compilation of works that observes no distinctions of national origin or literary quality, including “everything from Homer to the least meritorious of the local poets” (75). At first glance, there is considerable potential in this compilation. From the point of view of Mikhail Bakhtin, one might find a source of carnivalesque energy in this conflation of “high” and “low” culture, a conflation that might potentially undermine the pretensions to seriousness and superiority of the European classics. Indeed, this combination of voices from official and from popular culture is reminiscent of the polyphonic intertextual voicing in García Márquez' own texts. But the point of the Bakhtinian carnival (or of the rich mixture of cultural voices in García Márquez) is to celebrate difference and diversity and to bring them out in the open. The totally indiscriminate compilation of the Popular Library, on the other hand, acts more to efface difference entirely, especially as it is read by Ariza, who “could not judge what was good and what was bad,” knowing only that he prefers verse to prose, especially verse with predictable patterns of rhythm and rhyme that make it easy to memorize (75). The works in this library are mere commodities, all reduced to the same level of inter-changeability.

Not only is Ariza an undiscriminating reader, but he is unduly influenced by what he reads, attempting to live his life in a way that is patterned after the poetry he reads. Thus, the poems he reads in the Popular Library become “the original source for his first letters to Fermina Daza, those half-baked endearments taken whole from the Spanish romantics” (75). Indeed, Ariza, though a poet of sorts, is so absorbed in the poetry of others that he is capable of writing only in the most imitative of fashions. When he employs his poetic skills to write love letters for others he writes not only in a style that mimics the poets he has read, but even in a handwriting that reproduces that of the supposed writers of the letter. And he is so successful in his imitations that lovers seek out his services to the point that he sometimes finds himself writing both sides of the communication and therefore producing entire simulated courtships.

Like Flaubert's Emma Bovary (and León Dupuis) Ariza identifies wholly with the books he reads, replacing the characters with real people he knows, “reserving for himself and Fermina Daza the roles of star-crossed lovers” (142). But despite this conflation of art and reality, Ariza uses poetry not to engage the world, but to escape from it. When he attempts to employ his skills as an imitator of styles to the writing of business letters, he fails completely. Throughout his career he suffers professionally because he is unable to write even the simplest business letter without ascending into an inappropriate lyricism. Even in matters of love Ariza's poetic bent can act as a wall between himself and reality, as when he immerses himself in love poetry in the midst of a “transient hotel” while remaining virtually oblivious to the activities of the prostitutes who surround him (75-76).

Fermina Daza provides a focal point at which Dr. Juvenal Urbino and Florentino Ariza converge, and there is an obvious element of dialogue between the science of Urbino and the poetry of Ariza that results from this convergence. But, as with the similar dialogue that occurs in Madame Bovary between Homais and Emma Bovary, this clash of discourses is highly complex. García Márquez, who depicts even the dictator in Autumn of the Patriarch with a sympathy that is often quite touching, shows his typical equanimity by presenting neither Urbino nor Ariza as entirely negative figures. Urbino's science does a great deal to improve the lot of the local populace, and Ariza's excessively romantic visions are in the end rewarded as he finally consummates his lifelong fascination with Fermina Daza. Still, Urbino's focus on science leads to a tunnel vision that cuts him off from genuinely human interactions and leads to his treatment of other people as objects for his own domination. And Ariza's absorption in poetry leads to a similar dehumanizing blindness, since he often treats others not as real people but as literary characters. For example, he seduces América Vicuña, a fourteen-year-old girl who has been entrusted to his guardianship, then summarily drops her when Urbino dies, making Fermina accessible to Ariza once again. The suggestively named América Vicuña then commits suicide, a victim of her own sheep-like gullibility and a symbol of the rape of Latin America by foreign powers.

Ariza's relationship with this girl is not that unusual in the fictional world of García Márquez, as the autumnal patriarch's fascination with young school girls amply illustrates. But Ariza's bovarysme invites comparison with literary models, and this particular autumn-spring relationship inevitably recalls that between Nabokov's Humbert Humbert and Lolita. Humbert, like Ariza, bears many similarities to Emma Bovary, and like Ariza his projection of his own aestheticized fantasies into the real world allows him to absorb other people within those fantasies, leaving them thoroughly objectified and “safely solipsized” (Lolita 62). Indeed, one suspects that Ariza has operated in this mode with all of the 622 “long-term liaisons” he has conducted during his “patient” wait for Fermina. Despite repeated suggestions in the text that Ariza has an unequalled capacity for love and that each of these 622 relationships is special and unique, enough is enough, and it seems clear on reflection that Ariza's initiation of new relationships at a clip of one per month for over fifty years bespeaks a lack of real emotional engagement in any of them. García Márquez' narrator describes a number of Ariza's affairs, apparently in an attempt to convince us of the sincerity and authenticity of Ariza's affections for his numerous conquests. And this attempt almost succeeds, despite the clear evidence that the affairs are simply too numerous for this sincerity to be possible. Narrative is a very seductive form, García Márquez seems to be telling us, and even the wisest of us must be on guard against gullibility in reading.5

The link to Nabokov helps to clarify this ongoing attack on gullibility. Humbert Humbert is a pervert, a rapist, and a murderer, and we are reminded repeatedly in Lolita of his mental and physical cruelty. Yet he is also a master of language who constructs a narrative so charming and so brilliant that many readers are seduced into sympathy with his position and are able to accept his claims that his relationship with Lolita was purely aesthetic. Similarly, Ariza's numerous love stories (especially the central one involving Fermina) make such attractive narratives that we are tempted to read him as the ideal lover he apparently thinks himself to be, not as a manipulative womanizer who jumps from one bed to another, causing considerable suffering and multiple violent deaths among the objects of this insatiable sexual appetite. Indeed, like Nabokov, García Márquez sprinkles his text with reminders of the sinister side of Ariza's sexual exploits—and exploitation. Perhaps the most telling of these concerns Olimpia Zuleta, a married woman whom he seduces after an extended siege. Afterwards, he marks his conquest by painting the woman's belly with the words “This pussy is mine” (217). That same night, her husband discovers the inscription and cuts her throat, whereupon Ariza's principal reaction is not remorse, but simply fear that the husband might discover his identity and come after him as well.

It is true, as most critics have realized, that the confrontation between Urbino and Ariza represents not just a competition between rivals in love, but also a clash of competing worldviews. Moraña seems to have understood this clash most fully:

Vitalism and rationalism, modernization and tradition, Europeanization and popular culture, integration and marginality thus constitute poles in an ideological complex basically composed of Utopian projects that raise the question of the imposition of or resistance to foreign models.


However, Moraña, like most other critics, goes on to conclude that Love privileges the romantic pole of this opposition, thereby offering a critique of the kind of modernization represented by Urbino. Yet the poet Ariza is just as domineering and manipulative as the scientist Urbino, and in many ways the two are not opposites but merely two sides of the same coin, just as Emma Bovary's love of literature is revealed by Flaubert to be a vulgar commodification of art that is merely the flipside of her insatiable materialism.

Both Ariza and Urbino make the same mistake—they accept the narratives that inform their lives without question, and this blind acceptance allows them to justify their lack of regard for others. And—like the patriarch, who becomes a prisoner of his own propaganda—both become the victims of their own narratives. Urbino fully accepts the standard nineteenth-century narrative of progress through scientific and technological advancement, and this acceptance not only blinds him to his own pompous and tyrannical attitudes but also to the destruction being wrought in South America by an unchecked and irresponsible development that is destroying natural resources such as the Magdalena River. Similarly, Ariza so fully accepts the narrative of the romantic lover that he cannot see the harm he is doing to others through his inveterate romancing.

Both Ariza and Urbino are, in short, gullible readers, and García Márquez' portrayal of them in Love constitutes a powerful indictment of such gullibility. But the book's most powerful statement on gullible reading occurs in the mechanics of the text itself, which seductively lures readers into reading it as a beautiful, poignant, and touching love story while ignoring the many textual instabilities that so clearly undermine such a reading. As with his earlier use of magical realism in works such as One Hundred Years of Solitude, García Márquez demonstrates in Love that a well-told story can make readers accept almost anything. Despite the instances of unreliable narration in which the narrator seems to be caught in out and out lies, despite the radical disjunction between the content of the book and the romantic folletín form on which it is based, and despite the subversive Rabelaisian humor of the book, Love still makes for a terrific story.

García Márquez reinforces such readings in a number of ways, most obviously by constructing a story that most readers will want to read in a positive way, due to the undeniable affirmation of humanity contained in readings of the book that emphasize the romance of the Ariza-Daza relationship. Indeed, the consummation of this relationship after over fifty years of waiting can be read to offer a commentary on the nobility of the human spirit, and on one level the book clearly serves to affirm the validity of love and sexuality even in old age. Yet this apotheosis of romance is undermined by the text in a number of ways. For one thing, the entire culminating riverboat trip is shadowed by certain ominous notes, including the death of América Vicuña and the reported murder of another couple of aged lovers, also on a boat. Even the long-awaited climax of the courtship turns out to be an anti-climax. When the couple first goes to bed together, Ariza—the sexual adventurer extraordinaire—assures Fermina that he has remained a virgin throughout his life because of his devotion to her. Fermina does not believe this outrageous lie, because Ariza's “love letters were composed of similar phrases whose meaning mattered less than their brilliance” (339). Still, that such dishonesty is a standard feature of Ariza's discourse hardly makes it more excusable. Then, the first time the couple attempts to make love, Ariza is totally impotent, and he leaves Fermina's cabin in “martyrdom” (340). Later, when Ariza finally does make love to Fermina, he does so hastily and clumsily, completely without romance or regard for her feelings. She doesn't even have time to undress as he practically assaults her in a scene in which his penis is significantly described as a “weapon” being displayed as a “war trophy.” Afterwards, we are told, Fermina “felt empty” (340).

Such scenes hardly support readings of Love as a celebration of septuagenarian sexuality, though it seems clear that the target of such episodes is not sex in old age, but overly romanticized notions of sexuality in general. One could also argue that the point of the Ariza-Daza relationship is not sex, but love, though the book tends to suggest that the two are not neatly separable. But even the romance of the ending, in which Ariza envisions Fermina and himself travelling endlessly up and down the Magdalena River, is seriously undermined by other elements of the narrative.6 In particular, the river has been ravaged by industrialization and “progress,” and has become virtually unnavigable. Ariza's final fantasy of endlessly cruising the river, like most of his fantasies, is an impossible one that fails to take reality into account, and perhaps the message is that such unrealistic romantic visions have themselves contributed to the demise of the river by blinding the local populace to what is really going on in their country.

One of the most striking features of Love is that it can remain so seductive as a story of romance in spite of the way in which the text continually self-destructs as a romantic narrative. Much of this effect can be attributed to García Márquez' brilliance as a storyteller, of course, but much of it has to do with the nature of the narrative itself. Love very clearly suggests a complicity between the desire of Florentino Ariza for Fermina Daza and the reader's desire for a successful consummation of the text. But the book works its seductive magic in other ways as well, some of which are highly significant as aspects of the ongoing attack on gullible reading. One of the more interesting techniques employed in the book is the frequent use of real historical personages and events, whose appearance in the text tends to create an air of verisimilitude. When we read that Jeremiah de Saint-Amour has played chess with Capablanca (32), or that Juvenal Urbino studied with the father of Marcel Proust (114), or that Fermina Daza was chosen to greet Charles Lindbergh when he visited Colombia (306), there is a tendency for the entire plot to seem more realistic. Similarly, one of the reasons that Ariza is so easily duped by the boy Euclides in the episode of the Spanish galleon is that the story of the sunken ship is made more believable by the existence of specific historical information. For example, Ariza finds records which indicate that a fleet of ships led by the flagship San José had arrived in Colombia from Panama in May 1708, and is even able to find documentation concerning the number of ships, their exact route, and the circumstances under which they were sunk (90-91).

Yet there is also evidence that the entire story of the sunken ships was fabricated by a dishonest viceroy in an effort to hide his own thefts from the Spanish Crown (93). Likewise, Love is pure fiction, and a careful inspection shows that many of the concrete historical details in the book are impossible, anachronistic, or simply fictionalized. In short, history can be faked, and the reader who unquestioningly accepts official narratives of historical events is liable to be just as deceived as is Florentino Ariza in his reading of bad romantic poetry. Indeed, Love is principally a book not about romance, but about history and politics. Totalitarianism and imperialism thrive on the blind acceptance of their official narratives, and the gullible reading of these narratives by an unsuspecting populace makes their domination all the easier. The saccharine surface of Love in the Time of Cholera conceals a series of diabolical textual traps in a dynamic of duplicity very similar to that so familiar to victims of domination and dictatorship everywhere. García Márquez presents a narrative so seductive as to be almost irresistible, yet so complex as to be largely lost on those who fall prey to its seduction. The message is clear: even the best readers (and the most alert citizens) are ever in danger of being duped by a good story, whether that story be contained in a book of fiction or in the proclamations of a tyrant.


  1. Paul de Man's update of the Marx Aveling English translation of this passage reads “having at the time of the cholera distinguished myself by a boundless devotion” (253). The translation is quite literal, Flaubert's original French reading “s'être, lors du choléra, signalé par un dévouement sans borne” (408).

  2. García Márquez' title presumably refers to the fact that the aged lovers Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza end the book, together at last, sailing endlessly up and down the Great Magdalena River on a riverboat which flies a cholera flag to discourage other passengers from coming aboard. There is a secondary resonance in the title which indicates the way that love sometimes endures despite negative developments (such as cholera epidemics) in the world around it. But the incongruous juxtaposition of “love” and “cholera” in the title also functions as a hint that the book's love story may not be quite what it appears.

  3. On this aspect of One Hundred Years of Solitude see Conniff.

  4. Note, for example, his enthusiasm over the impetus given to his career in recent years through a switch to a personal computer for the composition of his texts (Williams 134).

  5. It is, of course, quite possible that the unreliable narrator of Love has himself exaggerated the number of Ariza's affairs.

  6. See Fiddian for a further discussion of the ambiguity of this ending (198).

Works Cited

Bell-Villada, Gene H. García Márquez: The Man and His Work. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1990.

Conniff, Brian. “The Dark Side of Magical Realism: Science, Oppression, and Apocalypse in One Hundred Years of Solitude.Modern Fiction Studies 36 (Summer 1990): 167-79.

Fiddian, Robin. “A Prospective Post-Script: Apropos of Love in the Time of Cholera.” In Gabriel García Márquez: New Readings. Ed. Bernard McGuirk and Richard Cardwell. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987. 191-205.

Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. Lausanne: Éditions Rencontre, 1965.

———. Madame Bovary. Trans. Paul de Man based on the translation by Eleanor Marx Aveling. New York: W. W. Norton, 1965.

García Márquez, Gabriel. Love in the Time of Cholera. Trans. Edith Grossman. New York: Penguin, 1989.

Horkheimer, Max and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. John Cumming. New York: Seabury P, 1972.

Janes, Regina. Gabriel García Márquez: Revolutions in Wonderland. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1981.

McNerney, Kathleen. Understanding Gabriel García Márquez. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1989.

Moraña, Mabel. “Modernity and Marginality in Love in the Time of Cholera.Studies in Twentieth-Century Literature 14 (Winter 1990): 27-43.

Nabokov, Vladimir. The Annotated Lolita. Ed. Alfred Appel, Jr. New York and Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1970.

Williams, Raymond Leslie. “The Visual Arts, the Poeticization of Space and Writing: An Interview with Gabriel García Márquez.” PMLA 104 (1989): 131-40.

John Sturrock (review date 17 September 1993)

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SOURCE: Sturrock, John. “A Wilder Race.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4720 (17 September 1993): 20.

[In the following review, Sturrock offers a negative assessment of Strange Pilgrims, arguing that the collection is comprised of “facile stories, too easy on the mind, soft-centred and poorly focused.”]

Strangeness is something that, in his last novel, The General in His Labyrinth, Gabriel García Márquez did unexpectedly well without. That was by his phantasmagorial lights a plain book, in which he movingly spelt out the last few, stricken weeks of life of Simón Bolívar, the deposed Liberator, as he made his way downriver to a melancholy death on the Caribbean coast. García Márquez had his factual sources to contend with in writing that story, and such embroidery as he allowed himself in impersonating his hero was of a far more responsible kind than anything we were used to from him. The wonderful folklore of his earlier novels had been shelved.

Strange Pilgrims may make it look as though he has now recanted, because in these twelve stories García Márquez is back to fantasizing. In fact, though, they predate The General in His Labyrinth, having been with him as ideas for a decade or more but been written up and published only in the past two years, in intervals of his more glamorous literary work, writing movie and television scripts. The time he has spent crowd-pleasing has done García Márquez no good as a serious writer: these are for the most part facile stories, too easy on the mind, soft-centred and poorly focused.

All twelve are set in Europe, the Europe he himself knows, of smart cities: Barcelona, Paris, Rome, Geneva. And the theme common to them all is, he says, “the strange things that happen to Latin Americans in Europe”. That is by way of a joke, because the sort of strange things that happen to Latin Americans in these pages happen to no one in reality. They are fabulous or allegorical, not strange, as if lifted and carried by thermal current out of García Márquez's hothouse fancy and into a setting too touristy to make a good home for them. I can but cite the last story here, “The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow”, in which a brilliant young couple of wealthy Colombians arrive in Madrid on their honeymoon and then drive nonstop to Paris in a Bentley convertible, the girl bleeding all the while from a finger she has stabbed on a rose thorn. Once in Paris, she goes into hospital and bleeds to death there, her dashing young husband—her “tender beach hoodlum”, as the story would have it—having meanwhile been so cowed by the city (or by something) that he holes up in a cheap hotel and only comes out once she is dead and on her way back as a corpse to Colombia. He doesn't even make it to the funeral. This haemophiliac fairy-tale, in which gilded youth is shown out through a gilded door, fails to deliver any frisson: the dead girl is a cipher, the young man seemingly catatonic, and their fate wholly unpoignant. The phrase about the “tender beach hoodlum” gives García Márquez's indulgent game away: the world of these stories is one in which the unpleasantness of the real has been painted over, and the thuggish hand that had previously wielded an iron chain now rests luxuriously on the steering-wheel of a Bentley.

Which is not to do reality many favours. García Márquez talks of aiming to write stories “based on journalistic facts that would be redeemed from their mortality by the astute devices of poetry”. But there is nothing either astute or poetic in “The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow”, or in most of the other stories in this collection. Europeans live too much by reason is the moral the stories converge on; they need the strangeness brought by the Latin American intruders, a wilder race who live by the “heart” and, if need be, die by the heart too, in blissful sacrifice to their passions.

The best story in Strange Pilgrims is the first, which is also the longest: “Bon Voyage, Mister President”. It contains nothing fantastic, and in it García Márquez keeps his concentration far better than he does elsewhere. It is set in Geneva, where an aged Caribbean President is living a pinched existence in exile, a Bolívar who has survived and come to Europe instead of dying when he reached the sea. The President is sick and needs an operation, for which he hasn't the money. But he is helped by two of his compatriots, a working-class couple who live meagrely but are sympathetic enough finally to spend some of their savings on returning him to the Caribbean. There are welcome ironies in this story, of a morbid and self-pitying politician who wins over people that should by rights have nothing to do with him and who, once back in the Caribbean, starts dreaming again of being restored to power. I take this wry ending to mean that García Márquez, too, finds dreaming comes naturally in Latin America and that poor prosaic old Europe's job is to see he has the fare to get back there. In Strange Pilgrims, however, the “poetry” by which he offers to ransom everyday facts from their mortality is as journalistic as the facts themselves.

Amanda Hopkinson (review date 24 September 1993)

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SOURCE: Hopkinson, Amanda. “Travelling Hopefully.” New Statesman and Society 6, no. 271 (24 September 1993): 54-5.

[In the following review, Hopkinson evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Strange Pilgrims.]

“I saw him only once in Boccacio, the popular Barcelona club, a few hours before his miserable death.” It takes courage and confidence to open a story thus, and García Márquez clearly had an abundance of both, 20 years ago as now.

This volume of short stories [Strange Pilgrims] written mainly during his stays and travels in Europe in the 1970s and early 1980s, provides the eternal outsider's view of the local, often displaced, residents. It has all the necessary García Márquez ingredients of violent death and magical imagination; physical and psychic suffering and conquest; characters of unaccountable spontaneity and inescapable habits, taken across any age and nationality with the same easy felicity.

For García Márquez is, finally, a happy writer. He has refined his style so it no longer needs to sprawl across the vast canvas of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and condensed its contents so the reader feels s/he knows people and places intimately from the tiniest vignettes. Often touching, often funny, always unexpected, the experience is as enriching as travel itself. From the simple philosophy that all life is a journey, we are drawn into the encounters García Márquez has made along the way, with no separations between dispassionate observation and virtuoso imagination.

The terms are set by the introduction: a story of the book's genesis no more or less fabulous than the dozen succeeding peregrinations. For this, as his speech on receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 elucidated, is García Márquez's starting point. Truth is stranger than fiction, history than myth, reality than fantasy. Having mysteriously lost the notebook containing several dozens of outlined short stories, he returned to reacquaint himself with Barcelona and Madrid, Paris and Bordeaux, Rome and Geneva in preparation for this recapitulation of his literary past. “Not one [place] had any connection to my memories. Through an astonishing inversion, all of them, like present-day Europe, had become strange: true memories seemed like phantoms, while false memories were so convincing that they replaced reality. This meant I could not detect the dividing line between disillusion and nostalgia.”

It takes courage to resituate a kind of Canterbury Tales outside the fashionable alternatives in eastern and central Europe. Courage, also, to revert to death as the only common destination, and to the tension between making sense and life's absurdities in our daily pilgrimage.

And it's always writing dangerously to attack the (un)holy trinity of love, life and death by expressing tenderness without sentiment, passion without drama, humour without hilarity or satire. There's not a trace of the sexy saleability said to guarantee bestseller status. García Márquez is master of the unfashionable virtues, retaining a delicacy and intimacy with his characters.

It's as invidious to pick favourites from among the Strange Pilgrims as from any anthology of fairy stories. Here are all the familiar ingredients: clairvoyant dreams and ill winds; a princess's finger pricked by a rose and a body that won't decompose; a sleeping beauty and an incarcerated “madwoman”. Overall, García Márquez writes better on women than men, strangers than natives, cities than countrysides. But this is to pick on marginal details.

Suffice to say that the sequence is also important, starting with the last voyage of an exiled president to his native Antilles; travelling by way of children creating their own “secret garden” indoors and the twilight years of a “lady of the night”; taking in the pink kneecaps of 17 inexplicably poisoned Englishmen; and closing with perhaps the strongest story in the collection. This is a triumph of true naivity over urbane sophistication, and love over reason, with never a hint of cynicism in the supremely simple telling.

Edward Waters Hood (review date autumn 1993)

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SOURCE: Hood, Edward Waters. Review of Doce cuentos peregrinos, by Gabriel García Márquez. World Literature Today 67, no. 4 (autumn 1993): 782-83.

[In the following review, Hood praises the stylistic and thematic unity of the stories in Strange Pilgrims.]

The interesting and innovative stories of his new collection [Doce cuentos peregrinos] complement and add several new dimensions to Gabriel García Márquez's fictional world. In the prologue, “Porqué doce, porqué cuentos y porqué peregrinos” (a short story in and of itself), the author explains how the book came into existence. The stories were written over the past eighteen years, during which time they experienced a series of radical transformations: “Antes de su forma actual, cinco de ellos fueron notas periodísticas y guiones de cine, y uno fue un serial de televisión.” Another story was transcribed from an oral interview and published by one of the author's friends. Two of the stories, “El verano feliz de la señora Forbes” and “El rastro de tu sangre en la nieve,” originally appeared in 1982.

Although the publication of Doce cuentos peregrinos coincided with the quincentennial of the European “discovery” of the Americas, the stories present the strange things that happen to contemporary Latin Americans in their discovery of Europe (“las cosas extrañas que les suceden a los latinoamericanos en Europa”). Whereas his protagonists are Latin Americans, the author has abandoned his traditional narrative space of the Caribbean and the Atlantic coast of Colombia to place them in several European countries.

The writer and literary activity are present as theme in many of these stories. Several have first-person narrators (another novelty), and we can deduce that their narrator is none other than García Márquez. For example, in “Espantos de agosto” and “Tramontana” the narrator speaks of his wife and two sons. The narrator of “La santa,” like the author, studied cinematography in Rome.

A few of the stories allude to the production of literary texts and movies, which is a topic that García Márquez has exploited in his recent novels. The narrator of “El avión de la bella durmiente” says that if he were to write about his experience, no one would believe it. For the narrator of “La santa,” the protagonist Margarito Duarte is a character in search of an author. Later in the same text a renowned Italian film critic, Cesare Zavattini, declares that Margarito Duarte's predicament—the plot of the story—is too incredible to make a good movie. In fact, however, the story is a version of García Márquez's film Milagro en Roma (1988)!

In addition, various cosmopolitan world authors and their texts are mentioned. One of these writers, Pablo Neruda, makes a cameo appearance in “Me alquilo para soñar.” The action of “Espantos de agosto” takes place in a Renaissance castle owned by the Venezuelan Miguel Otero Silva.

Although García Márquez in his prologue characterizes these superb stories as poetically enhanced newspaper items (“cuentos cortos, basados en hechos periodísticos, pero redimidos de su condición mortal por las astucias de la poesía”), they are representative of the artistic virtuosity of their gifted author. Most of them contain elements of magic realism, although the collection spans the spectrum from realism to absolute fantasy. Three of the pieces—“Espantos de agosto,” “El verano feliz de la señora Forbes,” and “Tramontana”—could be classified as horror stories.

In Doce cuentos peregrinos García Márquez has achieved a high degree of internal unity of tone and style. As is the case with his other texts, it would be a mistake to read these stories in isolation. Although they are marvelous in themselves, they also further enrich the intertextual labyrinth that the author has elaborated during the past forty-five years.

Carlos Rincón (essay date fall 1993)

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SOURCE: Rincón, Carlos. “The Peripheral Center of Postmodernism: On Borges, García Márquez, and Alterity.” Boundary 2 20, no. 3 (fall 1993): 162-79.

[In the following essay, Rincón discusses the roles that Jorge Luis Borges and García Márquez hold as South American postmodern authors.]

Recently, Peter Buerger tried, like Lukács before him, to interpret literary modernism by resorting to the Hegelian premise that a double alienation between the subject and the object and between ‘man’ as an individual and ‘man’ as a member of a species are basic characteristics of modern (bourgeois) society.1 Proceeding from this premise, he catalogs the variety of narrative modes in which the subject seeks (unattainably) to become one with surrounding objects. The historico-philosophical foundation of Buerger's investigation assumes the continuity of literary modernity and its Eurocentric determination. Is it possible to ascertain a threshold between the modern and the postmodern at a point where Buerger wants to see nothing but continuity? Or, better, what is the “other” that allows the identity of the postmodern itself—as the recognition of the end of Eurocentrism and Western hegemony—to appear?

Against the horizon of new forms of culture and social reproduction, the art of narrative plays a different role today than it did in the early 1960s, when the term postmodernism was introduced for the first time in North American literary discussion to characterize novels that sought the de-hierarchization of the modernist separation of elite and mass cultures. A selection of Borges's Ficciones (written mainly between 1935 and 1944) was published in English in 1962, coincident with the declaration of “the end of the modern.” Foucault invoked Borges a few years later in the preface to Les Mots et les choses. And, in short order, the novels of García Márquez, Cortázar, and Fuentes, among others, were rapidly assimilated to the canon of literary postmodernism.

The enthusiastic reception of these Latin American texts by a relatively saturated literary and socioeconomic European—North American modernity also repressed the complex overdeterminations of class, culture, peoples, gender, and history in Latin America's own “uneven” modernity at the end of its most intensive period of growth (1950-1970) and in the midst of its most dramatic crisis in this century. These overdeterminations traverse the relationships to history and power that these texts try to work out and condition their reception and cultural function in Latin America itself. The question I want to raise in this context, however, is not whether the assimilation of Latin American writers such as Borges or García Márquez to the canon of metropolitan postmodernism is a hegemonic reduction of the different to the same; rather, I am interested in how the force of (their) alterity is constitutive of the “postmodern condition” itself, which is precisely the center's loss of its status as such.

In the early 1940s, Borges represented in the “Library of Babel” the modern's ambition in the allegorical figure of an old man on a toilet (“the sedentary librarian”) who is playing with the idea of combining the aleatory with the mystical and who hopes to show the hidden order of the universe with his game. I want to tell here the story of the genesis and structure of another Borges story, “Pierre Menard, Author of Quixote,” which emblematically stands for modern literature (in a sense, for literature as such).

We know from Adolfo Bioy Casares that early in 1939, he intended to write a story with Borges and Silvia Ocampo, which they began but never completed. The basic idea was coined by Borges: A young French provincial writer's attention is drawn to a long-dead writer, whose manuscripts he starts looking for and begins to study. Although the master is famous, at least in some circles, the young writer finds his work insignificant. Finally, he gains access to the unpublished manuscripts and discovers brilliant outlines that were never developed. One that particularly attracts his attention is a catalog of literary rules and prohibitions. Bioy Casares was of the opinion that there was hidden in the catalog the irony of the master's own fate: “The writer without works, an illustration of the impossibility of writing with absolute clarity.” One of the prohibitions, namely to express neither praise nor reproof in a review, was attributed to a certain Menard, who, Bioy Casares explains, is the “hero of ‘Pierre Menard, author of Quixote;’ both the published and the not written stories were invented in the same year, possibly on the same days, for, if I am not mistaken, Borges wrote his ‘Pierre Menard’ on the afternoon we made up the list of prohibitions.”2

The image of Borges as the “modern among the moderns,” or the “modern master,” as he was called by Paul de Man, is corroborated by many of his activities in the thirties, including his work as editor of the foreign language section of the women's magazine El Hogar from 1936-1939. It was here that Borges introduced Joyce and reviewed the latest arrivals by Broch, Mann, Faulkner, Hemingway, Huxley, Babel, Woolf, Larbaud, and Valéry. It is likely that Borges found the literary and hermeneutic model for the “secret work” of Pierre Menard in one of the fragments of Valéry's Tel Quel:

The pleasure or the boredom that a book written in 1612 may afford to a reader in 1912 is almost merely accidental. What I want to express by that is that so many and such new circumstances play a role here, which never would have been imagined by even the most sensitive and clear-sighted author of 1612. The books of the past are bathed in today's glory with the same intelligence that is typical of a fire or a worm in a library when destroying this or that one.3

Just before this passage, Valéry introduces a new figure, the “profiteur who listens and takes advantage. I give him ideas and he develops and does something with them.” What also coincides with the binary opposition between visible work and underground (nonrealizable) work in “Pierre Menard” is Valéry's assessment of the limits of positivistic literary history: Such a project is guided by the “visible work” and cannot take into consideration what happens “inside” the author. The tone of self-irony that inflects the picture of the provincial writer in the unwritten story clearly alludes to such provincials as Borges, Bioy Casares, and Ocampo as they seek to understand, from Argentina, Valéry's work. Paul de Man has pointed out that Borges considers the author's vanishing from the picture he has created as an expression of “poetic greatness.” This form of projection also determines the relation between Valéry and Monsieur Teste. What, however, complicates Menard's attempt to rewrite the Quixote is that it exists within a framework of relations of “ironies, parodies, reflexes, and prospects.”4

Modern criticism has deployed two strategies of reterritorialization in relation to “Pierre Menard”: an analytical re-Oedipalization of the content of the story, and a reading of the story in terms of the aesthetics of reception. What occurs in the first case is the idea of desire as an interpretation machine with its own inherent code and demands. Thus, we have Oedipus, castration, and familiarization (“killing one's father,” “death wish”); death of the father (2 Feb. 1938) when Borges was thirty-eight; growing dependence on the mother due to his loss of eyesight (“incest taboo” and “desire for love”); self-punishment through a severe accident and blood poisoning late in 1938 (“fear of castration” and “fear of punishment”); identification, although on another level, with the writing profession, which his father had not been successful in (“sublimation”—the text of “Pierre Menard, Author of Quixote” was published in the journal Sur in May 1939). “By attempting to symbolically kill himself, Borges killed the ‘ego’ that was a reflection of his father. He assumed a new identity [the identity of the author of fantastic texts] after the mythical experience of death and resurrection.”5

In Nouvelle Critique's infancy, Gerard Genette interpreted Borges's story in order to elaborate on the relationship between the work and the reader and on the idea of reading as a form of written work.6 More than twenty years after the change of perspective in literary theory that he introduced had resulted in a new draft for a historical theory of aesthetic experience, Hans Robert Jauss read “Pierre Menard” as an enactment of the literary process that leads from the aging of the modern into the postmodern. “Pierre Menard” elucidates, in particular, the starting point of reception aesthetics: Things that are repeated have no identity as time goes by.7

I do not intend to pursue these modern or modernist readings any further; rather, I wish to elaborate on how “Pierre Menard” is different, and on how it thus outlines a different way to read Latin American texts, because the structural features of their narrative apparatus, as well as their discontinuous and heterogeneous formal processes and their hybrid genre specification, tend to go in other directions, directions that point to a historically specific, changed matrix for experience.

After the Great Depression, in the thirties, Argentine society entered a rapid process of industrialization. With the arrival on the scene of new social factors, changing values, and new demands, traditional sociocultural facts and ways of life were robbed of their strength. The systems previously underlying the exchange of goods and information gradually lost control. Culturally, this resulted in changes brought about by the rapid urbanization of consciousness and the restructuring of social communication via the mass media. Relationships to power that were frozen or blocked gave way to a mobile field of power relations where populism could find fertile soil. The “downfall” of Europe, as experienced by the crisis-stricken periphery, was added to the problem of looking at the future directly into the sun. The individual's conscious understanding of society became badly shaken, so that each individual world was experienced as unreliable and transitory in the sudden pluralization of the social environment.

The specific form of the crisis of Argentine culture, art, and literature in this context was not that of “modernity”: that is, the experience of the anomie of modern life or the need for a compensatory aesthetic counter-world by the now unsure of itself bourgeois subject. Parallel to changes in the sociocultural system of reproduction introduced by the mass media and mass-produced and spread images was the development of ambivalent art works, such as Borges's story, which do not involve a descriptive reproduction of reality, which unfold within imaginary settings and times and relate to an intermediate level of reference: a reality of images and collective symbols as the basic screens for perception. Borges was a great consumer of detective stories and Hollywood movies, but neither of these could fulfill for him the “modern” function of a reconciliation between the discursive and the associative, between soul and world. In “Pierre Menard,” the reader is expected not only to take part in producing and developing meaning but also to play within and with the limits of the artificial, but possible, world and with the real world as a reference.

Moreover, the textual dynamics of “Pierre Menard” refer to a life of the unconscious that does not correspond with the role of the classical Oedipal triangle in modern society, but rather to the empirical features of an economy based on desire. Oedipus—“a colonization that has been carried out by different means” (Deleuze and Guattari)—is the internal colony. Dreams of colonized peoples show that desire is more important than anything the society can convey through parents or anything that happens in the family triangle: The unconscious runs rampant throughout society.8 Once desire is set in motion, it connects and binds itself to other desires, constantly presupposing and producing processes of delimitation and recoding. What dominates in Borges's “The Garden of Forking Paths” (1941), and signals the end of the fantastic as a possibility of narration, is not the alienation between subject and object nor the modern strategy for the stabilization of the ego through repression, nor even Oedipus, but rather a now happy schizophrenia that plays with systems, including writing, and reorganizes logocentric narrative structures by means of a narrator-authority that constantly shifts from authorial discourse to narrative action. Calvino found that in “Pierre Menard,” Borges succeeded in inventing himself as a narrator:

He found the egg of Columbus which made it possible for him to escape from his block that kept him (he was forty) from switching over from trivial prose to narrative prose because he acted as if the book he intended to write had already been written by another unknown author, an author from another language circle or another culture, and as if he wanted to plagiarize, summarize, and review just this hypothetical book.9

In a review of Valéry's “Introduction á la Poétique,” Borges unravels the paradox in the two approaches to literature he finds in Valéry: that the history of literature is the history of the intellect as the producer and the consumer of literature, and that the works of the intellect only exist in the reader's here and now. Borges considers that, with the simultaneous discovery of literary narrative's process of arching over everything (Joyce) and the challenge to its autonomy by the mass media, it is now possible to establish paradox as a law of the universe. The idea of modernism might be sufficient to characterize the unwritten story planned by Borges-Bioy Casares-Ocampo, with its ironization of literary practice and literary life, but it would not be enough to master the multiple coding of “Pierre Menard” and the radical heterogeneity of its inherent problems. Pierre Menard is able to write the Quixote although it already existed, which is to say that the existence of the imaginary does not presuppose, for Borges, the category of the subject. There is no pre-existent identical subject. He considers the subject an essential consequence of discourse: a (collective) chain of assertions. Jauss has underlined that Derrida's deconstruction of logocentrism does not go beyond “Pierre Menard” in this sense. Geoffrey Hartman similarly states in his characterization of Derrida's “philosophical antimask,” that for him, Derrida is “in line with Mallarmé and, nolens volens, a cousin of Borges's.”10 What Borges is asking is how the fictitious reality of the “individual” is thinkable and what (indispensable) values are linked with the real fiction of the “individual” under conditions where the autonomous (modern) subject comes into crisis.

Borges is an intruder in Euro-American modernism in the sense of a cultural extopia of a peripheral marginality, of a modernity that is not yet and never will be completed. The hermeneutics of the Yale Critics, or Genette, or John Barth, represent a “completed” modernity that represses the experience of the other in order to domesticate it. This is what, in a different context, the modern liberal imagination of Conrad, Foster, and Camus did with what frequently was an ontologically given other, but not a historically concrete one. What is different in Borges's fiction is a historical (and political) dimension that goes beyond the strategies of the modern: the fact that the primacy of the original (Don Quixote) and the hierarchy of metropolis and periphery, model and copy, have been overcome. From this “misplaced” perspective, it is possible for him to turn the concept of culture upside down in a labyrinth game and to measure the existing system of the established culture against the logic of the non-place and the paradox. The refusal of Telos in the face of philosophy of history coincides with a self-reflexivity that is no longer bound to the anthropocentric tradition of Enlightenment.

This brings me to another narrative in which the problem of the subject's constitution is also placed in the foreground. It deals with the erection of a building, a “crypt,” and it is begun over and over again in García Márquez's writing. Each new circle of the narrative starts its task anew to find out what is hidden in the event and to determine its importance. This involves the staging of a (the original) scene that includes, each time, other subjects, name-bearers, and places. The story is textualized in a local artifact, in an enclave—a crypt—that is isolated from public space so that “things”—a body—can be embedded in it. What the endurance of this artifact and its contents evidences is the violence of the conflict created by the tension of libidinous desire there. One could say that Thanatopoetic lust starts up the machinery of the narrative, mobilizing mimetic power and illusion in order to conceal and protect what is in the crypt. Let me use three examples of the story in García Márquez's novels Leaf Storm,One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Love in the Time of Cholera to demonstrate its cryptic structure as a kind of given, but eternally lost, text that is continually being made over in something like a transferential process of remembering and reworking.

In Leaf Storm, a child, his mother, and the colonel who is the child's grandfather stand in front of a dead man in a room that is usually kept locked. The dead man is the colonel's friend, who hung himself the night before. The colonel prepares everything for the funeral, as he promised his friend he would, in spite of the indignation of the inhabitants of Macondo. The dead man's identity—he was a French physician who turned up there one day presenting the colonel with a letter of recommendation—had always remained mysterious and the subject of conjecture. As in Antigone, which is the novel's referent, a curse hangs over Macondo, which may bring about its apocalyptic destruction. The incapacity of the inhabitants of Macondo to understand themselves and their situation goes hand in hand with the fact that it is impossible for them to recognize the stranger as the other and as one of their own kind (this incapacity could be read as their inability to know or “decipher”). The closed interior of the locked room represents the first textualization of the crypt that preserves a dead man (who is revived by the narrative).

The theme of the other, the double, and the crypt also runs through One Hundred Years of Solitude from the first page on. García Márquez's text connects the novel with the epic under the sign of myth. It carnivalizes narration. The imagination is the power of recollection and the plan of the future; fiction becomes the acquisition of history. The persistence of sexual endogamy and of the failure to establish a relationship with the other brings the constant possibility of the return of a crypt and the body preserved in it. Melquíades, the gypsy, the stranger, the first one to die and be buried in Macondo, enjoys a special relationship with the founding patriarch. He is, consistent with the theme of the double, the cofounder of Macondo. The room in which he lives and writes his chronicle splits the system of place that the house of the Buendía, which has been erected both to keep a dead man alive and to bury him, represents. In the enclave of the room, which is isolated from the course of time, time itself becomes a spatial interior. Here is where Melquíades takes down the cryptic manuscripts containing Macondo's many generations of hallucinatory history before they can be decoded in the middle of the apocalyptic catastrophe at the end and thus become the book we are reading. The crypt develops into a forum in which Macondo's fate and its inhabitants' incapacity to know themselves are discussed; it is the place that preserves a “living” dead man.

In Love in the Time of Cholera, the crypt is on the opening page itself. In order to make it possible to tell the story, the cryptic mechanism and its economy of desire must be set in motion, and the hermetically sealed room of the photographer Jeremiah de Saint-Amour must be established as the crypt. This stranger, who originally came from the French Antilles, arrived one day in Cartagena and became a protégé of the physician Juvenal Urbino. On the day before the story opens, he commits suicide with potassium cyanide. His name in Spanish is “Santo Amore,” holy love. Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, in his own way, personifies the “vita nuova,” the way of life of the other and the secret that allows each day the resurrection in this world of postmodern stupidity and modern ravages of life for those who condemn the masters of power to nonexistence.

From a psychoanalytic point of view, the text is a “poorly closed” crypt, which hides and reveals at the same time. The crypt itself is the “monument of a catastrophe,” which presupposes an initial (hypothetical) trauma and, retrospectively, a reconstruction of its scenography and scene. Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok have worked out the general premises and communication patterns for this in their interpretation of Freud's case of the Wolf-Man. They take off from the recognition that the scene of the Wolf-Man's trauma “with all its libidinous force and ‘contradictions’ is enclosed in the crypt.”11 As a result of denied or impossible grief, the never completed cryptic enclosure takes place at the boundary line that separates internalization and incorporation from one another and contrasts one with the other. The crypt is between the “dynamic unconscious” and the “ego of the internalization,” which is in the middle of the ego's general area of space. For in the inner ego, the enclave (of all internalizations) is surrounded by the crypt, which is a general space of incorporation. Incorporation into the ego embodies an economic answer to traumatic object loss. It is this “incorporated object,” then, that the ego uses to identify itself.12

García Márquez has often referred to the fact that he was raised from birth by his grandparents in a house with many women and numerous servants, among whom were two male Indian and one female Indian, Memé. He first met his mother when he was five and went to live with his parents when he was eight. When he was five, a man known as Don Emilio committed suicide in Aracataca by swallowing potassium cyanide. Don Emilio was a disabled war veteran, a Belgian goldsmith, and a friend of his grandfather's, Colonel Nicolás Ricardo Márquez Mejída. Don Emilio and the colonel spent hours on end playing checkers. Don Emilio killed himself after seeing the film All Quiet on the Western Front with the colonel and the young García Márquez at the local cinema. This is the same film Jeremiah and Urbino see in Love in the Time of Cholera. There is another parallel: Urbino misses Sunday Mass, as Colonel Márquez had to, when he buried Don Emilio's remains in the cemetery for suicides. Three years later, after García Márquez had started living with his parents, his grandfather died under similar circumstances as Juvenal Urbino does in the novel. The boy experienced this loss without showing any clear signs of grief; although only eight years old, he experienced that grief is impossible.

This is as far as my “paleontological” reconstruction of the narrative crypt, taking its hypothetical character for granted, goes. García Márquez's constructions form the links in a mnemonic chain, whose energy and intensity make it possible for secrecy and mystery, irony, ceremony, and imagination (the source of the poetic changes that come to work in them) to become manifest. It is obvious that none of these narrative crypts is able to reproduce the original crypt, so that the chain is an infinite one with a dynamism driving toward the next link, the next novel, or the retelling of the story in the form of an (auto)biography. But this would also mean that García Márquez unveils his “secret” in order to hide it even better. Nothing can close the crypt; its contents are inexhaustible (utopian) and libidinous.

One can read in this project a historically conditioned and situation-specific psychogenesis of the (de-centered) subject and its structural illusions that deviates from the metropolitan logic of the modern. From its very beginning, the interrelations in One Hundred Years of Solitude oscillate between the present, past, and future; life and death; and the real and the imaginary. As such, they differ from Oedipal desire and the bourgeois ego's subject effect, which occurs either as a nomadic center of action that eliminates subjectivity in favor of individuality or produces an alienated subject marked by anomie, fear of existence, and private revolt, whose modern literary form is the Bildungsroman. What the composition of Macondo as a chronicle (crónica) presupposes, instead, is a global view of overlapping cultures and time periods. This makes it possible for García Márquez to articulate Latin America's history in a form that goes beyond the grand récits of Enlightenment, the phenomenology of self, and the philosophy of history.

What characterizes García Márquez's fiction is that it links “chronicle” with a massive unfolding of the unconscious's primary processes. Once experience has been made visible, objectivized, in narrative, any imaginary and affective contents encountered along the way can be used to describe things and ideas, opposites can be juxtaposed, and subjectivity's official boundaries can be tested and crossed. This narrative treatment of primary psychic processes involves, like “Pierre Menard,” a reaction to the new logics of mass culture, tuned to the structural needs and desires of a (secondary) narcissism that requires an egotistical (fickle and individualistic) satisfaction.13 There is a difference between the subject effect in García Márquez's fictions and the dismantled, distraught (de-Oedipalized) subject found in novels such as Barth's Sabbatical and Robert Coover's Gerald's Party, or in the inhabitants of Pynchon's San Narciso. García Márquez's “meta-fictions” typologically resemble the North American postmodern texts. But the interpretative challenge that they represent is more complex.

Let me illustrate this in the following way: Brian McHale uses the confrontation between worlds in postmodern fiction to prove his theory that pastiche has an ontological character, unlike modernist collage. He draws on One Hundred Years of Solitude to recall the fact that the inhabitants of Macondo accept supernatural things and events as real but react to everything that is banal and everyday with surprise. Their reaction occurs under a complete reversal of signs:

In Macondo, not only is the fantastic banal but because of a kind of chiasmus, the banal also becomes fantastic. The dialogue between the normal and the paranormal continues, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, although their relative positions have been reversed. One Hundred Years of Solitude is still a fantastic text, despite—or indeed because of—its banalization of the fantastic.14

What bothers me here is not only the terminological and conceptual vagueness, nor the validity of categories such as the banal, paranormal, and fantastic, nor the question of how the imaginary and the real are organized and what desire and reality are in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Rather, it is the occlusion of the importance of combined and uneven development in the production and sociocultural relevance of the text's effects. From an epistemological point of view, there has been a clear degradation of the unusual, which puts Macondo's sense of provable reality into question so that, although Macondo is far from the modern disenchantment of magic, products of modern civilization have still been introduced to it through the enclave economy. The reaction of Macondo's inhabitants, however, is unlike that of inhabitants of societies that are dominated by technical, economic, and administrative rationality. The miracles that happen in Macondo—the ascension of Remedios the Beautiful or the levitation of Father Nicanor—are dealt with within the context of social knowledge, whereas the wonders of technology—the gramophone, movies, and the telephone—put reality's boundaries to the test and, as such, are a danger to the mental integrity of the inhabitants and the community. Therefore, the narrative articulation of epistemological crisis as it exists in Macondo, even though it connects with similar changes in production, in communication, and, consequently, in perception, cannot be compared with an epistemology such as Pynchon's, which is founded upon a denial of causality and of the modern's chronological teleology. Because of its situation-bound difference, One Hundred Years of Solitude articulates an epic, carnival-like critique of reason, which must be assessed parallel to, but independent of, the philosophical critique of instrumental reason, the psychoanalytic and semiotic critique of the subject, and radical skepticism about the validity of great narratives in the metropolis.

It is perhaps appropriate to mention at this juncture Habermas's claim that the (Western) model of modernity is the only valid, “reasonable” social structure. The claim is founded on the assumption that Western rationalism, and thus the possibility of communicative rationality, has been realized and generalized by modernization and by the dissolution of magic in the world.15 The functions of the premises used by Habermas became clear in the twenty-year discussion on development and underdevelopment, and on the limits of European and American modernization theories and their counterarguments, the theories of structural dependency. Richard Morse has shown that instrumental reason—that is, the “objective” intellectualization of the world—has not been fully internalized yet in Latin America and that society is still understood by the individual as a structural exterior.16 Today, the simultaneous occurrence of things that are not simultaneous has come to mean in Latin America a peripheral modernization, in which the dissolution of magic in the world is not going to be decisive. In the history of Latin America, which has its own version of the West's history, the function of the concept of the modern has been changed. Just as “wild” capitalism lacks institutional mechanisms for normative integration and social engineering, the processes of differentiation and individualization in Latin America and the trend toward secularization have been shifted onto historically concrete situations of dependence. Latin America is not only “partially modern,” it seems also to belong to three historical worlds at once, and it is legitimate to ask whether its identity can be plotted on any abstract time line.

Habermas's critique of postmodernist architecture leads to an apology for the modern's linking of form and function. Just as his concept of communicative rationality ignores the colonization of the public sphere and the unconscious by the electronic mass media, his insistence on function(alism) ignores its history in the periphery. Urbanistics is the field par excellence in which the fate of the modern's project in Latin America can be observed. The utopian urge of the modern inspired Le Corbusier's plans for the reconstruction of Buenos Aires and Bogotá. The impossibility of modernizing misery he encountered theoretically is as instructive for the paradoxes of the modern and of its loss of authority in the periphery as the failure of the city of Brasília. Even more symptomatic of the crisis brought on by modernist urbanistics is the immediate future of the megalopolis of São Paulo, which will have 26 million inhabitants by the millennium and will virtually have grown into Rio de Janeiro over a 400 kilometer chain of satellite towns. (Parallel to this are the disastrous interventions in the ecosystem of the Amazon rain forest or the development of Latin American narcotics into one of the most flourishing industries of the subcontinent and of the world.)

The concept of difference in relation to Latin American cultural production becomes relevant if one takes into consideration that the obstacles that have to be overcome to thematize it are as great as those involved in “wild anthropology.” This is evident in the ongoing debate in literary studies at American universities about “emerging literatures” and related questions of field and canon formation. It was in order to intervene in this debate that Jameson published his now famous essay on Third World literature. Particularly interesting is the way he uses there the categories of identity and difference in order to consider the relationship between First and Third World literatures. In a Hegelian tour de force, Jameson reduces the heterogeneity of Third World literature to a single exclusive dimension, the “experience of colonialism and imperialism,” which still has not been recognized in the metropolis. It follows that “all texts from the Third World necessarily … are national allegories,” where the process of allegory formation is understood as a relation between the private and the public, the individual and the collective, and history of the individual and history of the “tribe.”17

In Latin America, where the nation-state was used as a lever by capitalist modernization and where the dream of a modernized democratic state has been thwarted, the role of nationalism as a legitimizing ideology is openly challenged today by literary theory and criticism and by those social and political movements that have developed on the periphery of hegemonic “national” projects. Instead, the appreciation of traditions and the mingling of cultural levels in Latin American literature find their parallel in the hybridization of different genres. Neither the concepts of the national and the allegorical nor the exclusiveness of colonial and imperialist experience exhaust the possibilities of the heterogeneity of Latin American fiction. The specific features of these texts resist being represented by interpretations such as Jameson's, which repress, and thus deny, their difference.

In tandem with the idea of “national allegory,” Jameson has introduced the concept of “magic realism” into the debate about the postmodern.18 To my mind, this concept, which was originally intended to counter the epistemology of social realist narrative, has not served, from the very beginning, to determine a clearly defined aesthetic problem. The controversial versions of its history by Roberto González Echevarría and Emir Rodríguez Monegal that Jameson refers to were broken off in the early 1970s, and the concept itself was nearly completely abandoned by literary studies as impractical. It did, however, become increasingly popular with the authors themselves and with their readers. In particular, the massive reception of García Márquez and Borges made it an international literary phenomenon. Magic realist novels blossom in literature from peripheral Soviet republics, in Commonwealth literature, in French-speaking African and Caribbean literature, in the United States, and in Western Europe.

In spite of what he admits are the concept's “terminological confusions,” Jameson lets himself be led astray by its “power of temptation” as “a possible alternative to the narrative logic of the contemporary postmodern” (302). From the “first world's point of view … as opposed to the Latin American conception,” and with a “private and personal” treatment, Jameson analyzes three features he considers “fundamental for a certain magic realism” in three films: Cóndores no entierran todos los días (1984, Columbia), La Casa de Agua (1984, Venezuela), and Fever (1981, Poland). These features are: (1) their particularity as historical films; (2) the fact that color is used in them as a source of fascination for its own sake, as a supplement to the narrative; (3) their concentration, reduction, and simplification of the narrative itself through violence (or eroticism) “for the sake of watching or viewing in the cinematic present.”

Jameson differentiates magic realist and postmodernist handling of film color and relations between visual and narrative dynamics. His first “very provisional hypothesis” is that magic realism depends on “a kind of historic raw material” that “shows the overlapping or parallel existence of pre-capitalist and just developing capitalist or technological features” (311). In Latin American criticism of the sixties, the thesis that entire strata of the past are arranged in the present in layers, one upon the other, and that Latin American society, like any other historical society, consists of an overlapping of such layers and of the coexistence of various modes of production without one dominant mode was common. The problem here is that everything and nothing was explained by this idea. According to Jameson, research into internal and structural psychic distances by means of the movie camera and the development of “new forms of relationships to being” in magic realist films are only possible because they contain “a new type of historicism,” in which the historical experience of de-centering has stopped being accidental. He concludes that there is a necessary and fundamental relation between the “intensities of colors and bodies in these films and their process of de-narrativization” that proves to be a process of “ideological analysis and deconstruction” (323). It is exactly in this aesthetic tension between expressivity and narration that Jameson identifies magic realism in film.

I have two questions here: If Jameson is trying to show magic realist film as a possible alternative to the narrative logic of metropolitan postmodernism, would it then be possible, mutatis mutandis, to develop a similar hypothesis on the level of prose fiction? And, if so, isn't there an ideological short circuit in supposing that North American postmodernist fiction—and I am thinking not only of historical novels such as Doctorow's or political novels such as The Public Burning but also of Pynchon's texts—is as distant from a new kind of historicism as Jameson thinks? Today, there is both an epistemological candor that is questioning history as a narrative fiction with formal coherence (Hayden White), and a new ability to make fiction an essential means of cognition in a reality considered as discourse and construct. There is a de-centered, and de-centering, relationship toward history in the works of Borges and García Márquez that I have been discussing, or in testimonio. These texts are part of a counter-narration that qualifies the Western modern's stories of Enlightenment and historical teleology. They correspond to a change in what is called historical consciousness and contribute to the constitution of a historical conception of history. They make it possible, therefore, to historicize the postmodern itself. Their alterity as narrative extopias contains in a way McHale does not consider a political dimension that is related to their ability to criticize the center from the periphery.

The real issue, however, is not the alternative of postmodernism or magic realism but differences that may be perceived outside of such categories as identity, analogy, and opposition. The only way to describe Latin American fiction's place within the context of such a historicized postmodernity and the now mutated concept of “World” literature is as a peripheral center in a situation where centers have multiplied by themselves and have become sites of autonomous creativity, in contrast to a model in which the periphery was thought to mark both the distance from, and subordination to, the center.

This is how to think the relation between, for example, Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (influenced by Borges) and García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera: Both are “love stories,” but with a difference. Pynchon says that he shares with García Márquez a view of “fiction as a subversive medium,” and that the two of them play “this high form of the game we appreciate in fiction.” He praises Love in the Time of Cholera as only novelists writing about themselves can do:

Let us assume that it were not only possible to swear eternal love but to keep the promise in reality—to live a long, meaningful, and authentic life on the basis of such pledge, to invest the granted share of valuable time in the matter we set our hearts on. This is the extraordinary premise of Gabriel García Márquez's new novel. It dares to suggest that lovers' oaths given on the supposition that man is immortal—for many a juvenile idiocy—may, nevertheless, be rewarded … at a much later date in life. This is to effectively explain the resurrection of the body, an unavoidable revolutionary idea today. … [We have arrived] on the shore of a Caribbean … plagued by a history that has killed so terribly many people without their ever having said a word, or they spoke, disappeared without being heard, or they were heard but nothing was written down. Writing in a revolutionary and good way is the duty to break the silence.19

The history of means-to-end rationality has displaced imagination time and again. Today, the imaginative way of thinking, which was given new value by romanticism, and then surrealism, has begun to correct rationalism's self-expansion. This new turn of mind emphasizes the qualitative mutation that the electronic mass media have created with their upgrading of the imaginary and their inclusion of fiction in the production cycle of commodities and images. Pynchon's characters call themselves Benny Profane and Oedipa Maas, Genghis Con, and Herbert Stencil, Jr. They are designed to be clichés. In their modern industrial world, there are indications of a great plot: the “Tristerosystem,” which is a secret society of the downtrodden and injured that has been waging guerrilla warfare against the prevailing order since the Middle Ages. But this is still something like the strategy of a critical—or compensatory—modernity.

Characters from the Caribbean world of Love in the Time of Cholera, on the other hand, are called, for example, Florentino and Urbino. Their aura is taken from the living models of the perfect courtier and courtly love in the Divine Comedy, where the ideal is to be faithful to only one woman, the one in whom love has condensed and who leads to divine love, the vita nouva, models put into practice in Urbino's little princely court, or in Castiglioni's Courtier, which is a (textual) utopia of love. In Tuscany, the “Cavalieri d'Amore” and the “Fideli d'Amore”—one of them may have been the Florentine Dante—entered into an alliance, a cross between a militia and a heretical sect, under the name of “Santo Amore” and the cult of “Donna Unica.”

It is probably emblematic that both Gravity's Rainbow and Love in the Time of Cholera cannot come to a conclusion. The multi-coding of the rainbow in Pynchon's novel can be compared with the boat trip upstream and downstream at the end of García Márquez's novel, which returns to the same image that it began with: two elderly people standing on board a boat. What happens to the Newtonian cosmic system in Gravity's Rainbow happens also to the courtly love life-style models in Love in the Time of Cholera at the beginning of the modern era. The love paradigm of “Santo Amore” turns into a private male fantasy, which is contrasted to the public ecological catastrophe. The double movement of remembering and working through, which Lyotard refers to as the task of the postmodern (“réécrire la modernité”), can be found in both García Márquez and Pynchon. Both compose elements of resistance to a cultural hegemony whose containment strategies have not worked for them. García Márquez's reading of modernity, however, puts it, and Pynchon's novel as well, into a differently conceived historical constellation.

In Carlos Fuentes's novel Cristobal no nato, three caravels land in 1992 on the western coast of Mexico, the country with the largest city in the world. This time, however, they come from the East, from Japan. It has become evident, since the 1970s, that the Pacific is becoming one of the major poles of economic power in the world. Europe—that is, the Mediterranean maritime basin—was the economic and cultural center of the early modern world system. In the seventeenth century, the center shifted to the north and to the Atlantic Ocean; today, to the Pacific Basin. Latin American novels' characteristics of discovery and recognition make it possible to use them, not only in Latin America, to decode one's own historical and political experience and the phenomenon of reality's fictionalization. Of course, the logic of the social and cultural world is an open one of “effects not desired,” as Pierre Bourdieu has shown. But recognition of the alterity of Latin American fiction shows a way to experience the alien and its differentness so that the historical question of the other, and the discovery (of the history) of the other, which the modern never took upon itself, need not be evaded any longer.


  1. Peter Buerger, Prosa der Modern (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1988).

  2. Adolfo Bioy Casares, La otra aventura (Buenos Aires: Emecé Editores, 1983), 181.

  3. Paul Valéry, Oeuvres II (Paris: Gallimard, 1960), 632.

  4. Paul de Man, “A Modern Master,” New York Review of Books (March 1964), 9.

  5. Emir Rodríguez Monegal, Borges: Una biografía literaria (México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1987), 296.

  6. Gerard Genette, Palimpsestes (Paris: Seuil, 1982), 325.

  7. Hans Robert Jauss, “Die Theorie der Rezeption—Rückshau auf ihre unerkannte Vorgeschichte,” unpublished typescript, 18-20.

  8. See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Capitalisme et Schizofrenie: L'Anti-Oedipe (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1972), 209-16.

  9. Italo Calvino, Sei proposte per il prossimo millenio (Turin: Einaudi, 1988), 49.

  10. Geoffrey Hartman, The Fate of Reading (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), x.

  11. Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, Kryptonimie: Des Verbarium des Wolfsmanns (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1979), 10.

  12. Derrida comments, in his foreword to the Abraham-Torok book: “Such a maneuver is alien to the internalization process and, strictly speaking, is against it. I act as if I absorb the dead person, alive, intact, ‘not damaged’ (eviscerated), in order to be able to deny myself in a necessarily ambiguous way my being able to love him, as in the internalization process of so-called ‘normal’ grief when the dead person is a living part in me in an undamaged—eviscerated—way. … [T]his helpless (progressive, slow, difficult, mediated, effective) internalization process loses ground to incorporation, which is phantasmic, unexpected, sudden, magic, and sometimes hallucinatory. … No doubt, the ego, in order to resist the internalization process, identifies itself in an obscure and imaginary way with the lost object and its ‘life beyond the grave.’ No doubt, this endocryptic identification … remains phantasmic, cryptomatic” (13-17).

  13. Stuart Ewen, “Mass Culture, Narcissism and the Moral Economy of War,” Telos 44 (1980): 77.

  14. Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (New York and London: Routledge, 1987), 76-77.

  15. Jürgen Habermas, Der philosophische Diskurs der Moderne (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1985), 9.

  16. Richard Morse, El espejo de Prospero (Mexico: Siglo XXI, 1982), 178.

  17. Fredric Jameson, “Third World Literature in the Era of Multi-National Capitalism,” Social Text 15 (1986): 69.

  18. Fredric Jameson, “On Magic Realism in Film,” Critical Inquiry 12 (1986): 301-32.

  19. Thomas Pynchon, “The Heart's Eternal Vow,” New York Times Book Review 93 (1988), 1, 47, 49.

Ken Sonenclar (review date 15 November 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1096

SOURCE: Sonenclar, Ken. “Dream Follies, Miseries Abroad.” New Leader 76, no. 13 (15 November 1993): 18-19.

[In the following review, Sonenclar unfavorably compares García Márquez's short fiction to his novels, arguing that some of the stories in Strange Pilgrims are trite and hackneyed.]

Traveling through Scandinavia a couple of summers ago, my wife and I signed on for a three-day tour of Norway's southern fjords. As the group assembled in the lobby of a Bergen hotel I noticed that, except for an Australian couple, our 30 fellow travelers were all speaking Spanish. We assumed that they came from Madrid, and by most measures—their designer clothes, their attentiveness to the tour guide, the video cameras they shouldered—you couldn't distinguish these people from the rest of the burgeoning European middle class. But just hours into the tour, it was evident that amid the uniform troupe there were six free spirits. They argued with gusto, laughed from their bellies, and kept a certain distance from the others. It turned out that the six were not Spanish but Mexican, at the tail end of a summer-long grand tour. They spoke nearly fluent English and seemed to have a lot mere in common with us—being big NFL fans, among other things—than with the Europeans.

I was reminded of that excursion while reading Gabriel García Márquez' new collection of short stories. Strange Pilgrims explores the dreams, follies and miseries of Latin Americans in Europe—from those “just visiting” to others who, by design or default, wind up as foreigners for decades in Switzerland, Italy or Spain.

The book has been kicking around in the author's mind for a long, long time. He spent much of his early career as a foreign correspondent in Paris, Rome and Barcelona, and in 1981 he told the Paris Review that for over two decades he had been wanting to chronicle the lives of Latin Americans abroad. On and off for years, the Nobel Prize-winner from Colombia further explains in a brief Prologue, he returned to the project, eventually distilling 64 separate ideas down to the 12 tales here.

García Márquez has published several volumes of short fiction, most notably No One Writes to the Colonel (1968) and Leaf Storm (1972). This compilation is different in that it was conceived as a thematically unified work. In addition, the cultural clash between the Old and New Worlds provides a fresh backdrop for many of the stories. But their underlying concerns—love, fidelity, obsession, faith, power, solitude, trust, death—will be familiar to any García Márquez reader. Only two of them have been published in English before; several have gone through initial incarnations as television scripts or straight journalistic accounts. Taken together, their effect is something akin to that of a concept music record—Paul Simon's Graceland, for example, or The Police's Synchronicity—where a common thread runs throughout.

Like those classic albums, too, Strange Pilgrims is uneven. The weakest stories disappoint because García Márquez, apparently losing interest in his characters, resorts to tying up the strands with endings that will seem hackneyed to any Twilight Zone watcher, Thus in “‘I Only Came to Use the Phone’” we encounter a woman mistakenly imprisoned in a mental institution. “The Ghosts of August” has a couple who awake in a bed soaked with the blood of a murder committed there centuries before, And one story, “Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane,” which simply tracks a verbally constipated man's bizarre fixation on a stunning woman during a transatlantic flight, is so thin it appears to have been included merely to round out the dozen.

Others, however, are striking in their originality, infused with the magical twists we have come to expect from the author. In “The Saint,” Margarito Duarte has traveled to Rome from his village in the Colombian Andes with the weightless, incorruptible body of his dead daughter. He carries her around in a box about the size of a cello, hoping the Pope will formally canonize her. He writes long, documented letters to the Papal Office, quietly waits outside the pontiff's summer palace, and always has the Saint with him, in case the opportunity of an audience should arise. As García Márquez quietly demonstrates, though, the Caribbean reality is not the European reality: When a Papal functionary lifts the Saint and feels her weightlessness, he dismisses it as “a case of collective suggestion.”

The supernatural Caribbean world is abundant among the Pilgrims. In “Maria dos Prazeres,” a 76-year-old Brazilian prostitute with “a laugh sharp as hail” teaches her dog to weep over the grave that a dream tells her she will soon occupy. “All dogs can do it if you train them,” she assures the startled salesman arranging for her cemetery plot in Catalonia.

Perhaps the most entertaining narrative is “Light Is Like Water.” Two affluent boys, nine and seven, left alone by their parents Wednesday evenings, go sailing and diving around their Madrid apartment in a sea of light. After all, just as water flows if you “turn the tap,” so does light “with just the touch of a switch.” They are found out when the light “floods” during a party with 37 classmates, bringing a fire brigade to the building.

The only overtly political story in the collection is “Bon Voyage, Mr. President.” It is set in Geneva, where an opportunistic young Caribbean couple aim to take advantage of the sick, exiled ex-President of their country, but fall under his thrall. Seemingly cold and calculating, ready to con him out of whatever remains of his fortune, the couple wind up spending their own savings to settle his hospital bill and send him home. What confounds this otherwise uncomplicated tale is the suggestion that the couple's good deed may be a stepping-stone to the old man's return to power—certainly not their intention. The fallen President, moreover, voices the ambivalent feelings many of the expatriates hold toward Latin America. The native land he loves he also describes as “A continent conceived by the scum of the earth without a moment of love: the children of abductions, rapes, violations, infamous dealings, deceptions, the union of enemies with enemies.”

Ultimately, Strange Pilgrims is more interesting for its thematic structure than its literary technique. To García Márquez fans hungering for a new novel it will be no more than a tidbit. Certain images will surely remain in memory, but the motifs of exile and alienation cannot substitute for the rich textures—the intricately woven plots and deeply drawn characters—that have made his novels so unforgettable.

John Bayley (review date 17 February 1994)

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SOURCE: Bayley, John. “Singing in the Rain.” New York Review of Books 41, no. 4 (17 February 1994): 19-21.

[In the following review, Bayley explores the major thematic concerns of the stories in Strange Pilgrims.]

Films can more easily be truly international than modern novels. A film's appeal is less parochial, more immediate, more comprehensive. Publishers are shy of translating and trying to sell the latest fictional masterpiece from Portugal or Turkey or Bulgaria: they know all too well how limited its appeal will be, and how limited a grasp of its real virtues will be achieved by the most sympathetically disposed reader. Even Mark Kharitenov, the first winner of the Russian Booker Prize, and an accomplished novelist in the classic Russian tradition, has still to see an English version of his work.

But Latin America has been somehow different. The local characteristics, which so often inhibit the success of a novel when it is translated into a quite different culture, have somehow served miraculously to popularize One Hundred Years of Solitude. Critics and literary theorists, in Europe and in North America, hailed the advent of a new vision and a new technique in novel writing, and dubbed it “magic realism.” The author, Gabriel García Márquez, who was already well known as a journalist and story writer in his native Colombia and in the Spanish-speaking world, became as famous and respected a name in literary circles as the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges.

It may be of significance that Márquez had been working in the Mexican film industry in the late Sixties when he produced on paper, in an eighteen-month burst of creative energy, a project for a novel on the history of a family in South America which had been maturing in his head for years under the general title of La Casa, “the house.” He was then approaching forty. The great critical and commercial success of One Hundred Years of Solitude transformed his life, and enabled him to produce his subsequent work in economic security. The Autumn of the Patriarch came out in 1975; and there followed Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981), Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), and The General in His Labyrinth (1989). While none of these has achieved the spectacular success of One Hundred Years of Solitude, all have broken fresh ground in their outlook and technique, and all have been received with praise and attention. Márquez has never repeated his own formula, no matter how much it may have been taken up and exploited by later novelists.

Always an enthusiast for the movies and an admirer especially of the Italian masterpieces of the genre, such as de Sica's and Zavattini's Umberto D, Márquez himself would probably be the first to suggest that the apparently freewheeling world of magic realism owed a great deal to this always experimental medium. For the rest, there is the opinion of the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier, who absorbed the precepts of surrealism during the interwar period in Paris, and who maintained in a famous essay that it was the only appropriate artistic form in which to express the actuality of the Latin American landscape and historical experience. Latin American reality, he observed, is itself magical. But while what might be termed classic, or pure, surrealism is carefully devoid of any expressions of emotion, in its new form, as heightened actuality, it could have all the love, style, and feeling in the world: above all love as style, as the celebration of the beauty, cruelty, and extraordinariness of the true world. Thus it might be said that Márquez popularized surrealism by making it such a pleasure to experience surrealist moments in his own lovingly exotic paragraphs. Here is an author who really enjoys what he writes about, and can be felt and seen to be enjoying it.

His other sources were more simply literary ones, English and American. Faulkner he took to early, but even earlier he took to Virginia Woolf. He once remarked that he would have been a different writer altogether if he had not read, at the age of twenty, one of the single long sentences in Mrs. Dalloway. It struck him like a thunderclap, and it is worth quoting in full for that reason. The sentence describes the progress of an official car, with some Great Man inside it, down one of the fashionable streets of London.

But there could be no doubt that greatness was seated within; greatness was passing, hidden, down Bond Street, removed only by a hand's-breadth from ordinary people who might now, for the first time and last, be within speaking distance of the majesty of England, of the enduring symbol of the state which will be known to curious antiquaries, sifting the ruins of time, when London is a grassgrown path and all those hurrying along the pavement this Wednesday morning are but bones with a few golden wedding rings mixed up in their dust and the gold stoppings of innumerable decayed teeth.

The way Woolf invoked, in her deceptively helpless and wayward prose, the vision of a vista of time and a culture's gradual destruction, became the germ of One Hundred Years of Solitude. What may seem to many English or American readers today a rather banal piece of Woolfian indulgence was for the young Márquez a revelation. It must have been a fascinating moment. As Michael Bell points out in his brilliant study of Márquez in the St. Martin's Press Modern Novelists series, Woolf's characteristically throwaway phrase—“will be known”—becomes in Márquez the more fateful Spanish “‘había de’/‘was to,’” whose formulaic use keeps recurring in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Bell goes on to point out that Woolf's seriousness, as so often with Bloomsbury authors—Aldous Huxley would be another case—has to take a frivolous form, a conscious rhetorical extravagance which skirts the edge of self-parody. This too became important to Márquez. It is abundantly evident in the twelve tales which make up his latest collection, [Strange Pilgrims] some of which have appeared in The New Yorker,Playboy, and the Paris Review. All might be called slight, but the verdict which might seem unfavorable—indeed slighting—if applied to most famous novelists is to Márquez a kind of accolade, the most delicate of all compliments, as the most sincere. Much of his genius resides in a seeming unawareness of that plodding Anglo-Saxon distinction between a “serious” writer (and how that adjective still gets overworked in a book's publicity) and a popular, lightweight one. Of the Márquez oeuvre it would be no paradox to say: the slighter the better; or perhaps, rather, the more joyous the more meaningful.

Thus in “Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane” the narrator sees a beautiful girl at the Paris airport, with “an aura of antiquity that could just as well have been Indonesian as Andean.” The plane is delayed in taking off for hours by a snowstorm, and when they at last get aboard he finds himself beside her in the First Class section. No word passes between them, and she asks the attendant only for a glass of water.

She placed a cosmetics case with copper corners, like a grandmother's trunk, on her lap, and took two golden pills from a box that contained others of various colors. She did everything in a methodical, solemn way, as if nothing unforeseen had happened to her since her birth. At last she pulled down the shade on the window, lowered the back of her seat as far as it would go, covered herself to the waist with a blanket without taking off her shoes, put on a sleeping mask, turned her back to me, and then slept without a single pause, without a sigh, without the slightest change in position, for the eight eternal hours and twelve extra minutes of the flight to New York.

Meanwhile the narrator drinks a lot of champagne, saying to himself, “To your health, Beauty” as he downs each glass. “The lights were dimmed, and a movie was shown to no one, and the two of us were alone in the darkness of the world.” The narrator murmurs to himself a sonnet by Gerardo Diego, and remembers, as they lie “closer than if we had been in a marriage bed,” a novel by Kawabata “about the ancient bourgeois of Kyoto who paid enormous sums to spend the night watching the most beautiful girls in the city, naked and drugged, while they agonized with love in the same bed.”

Beauty's sleep was invincible. … She awoke by herself at the moment the landing lights went on, and she was as beautiful and refreshed as if she had slept in a rose garden. That was when I realized that like old married couples, people who sit next to each other on airplanes do not say good morning to each other when they wake up. Nor did she. She took off her mask, opened her radiant eyes, straightened the back of the seat, moved the blanket aside, shook her hair that fell into place of its own weight, put the cosmetics case back on her knees, and applied rapid, unnecessary makeup, which took just enough time so that she did not look at me until the plane door opened, … she left without even saying good-bye or at least thanking me for all I had done to make our night together a happy one, and disappeared into the sun of today in the Amazon jungle of New York.

Amazon jungle. … We are seeing here Márquez's Latin American magic becoming cosmopolitan, and the marvelous richness of his sense of objective and solitary movement transposed from towns and histories lost in the jungle into what has become the equally strange world of modern traveling. The effect is not unlike Nabokov's transposition of the rich Russian domesticity of Turgenev's novels into the world of Lolita, where gym socks and a half-chewed apple core lie on the floor. The magic is not so different. The difference, and distinctively Márquez's, is in the wholly unartificial and unemphatic dignity of the composition, its natural poise of understanding what lies beneath the surface of things. Sexual experience is always solitary to some degree, and in its solitude can lie one of its greatest rewards and consolations.

As with other kinds of postmodernism, the danger of the approach may be that “anything goes”; anything may happen and mean as much, or as little, as anything else. Some of his readers and critics have found Márquez too facile, in spite of the elegance with which each of his literary projects is shaped, considered, and carried out. In contrast and response to magical realism, whose danger, as Michael Bell puts it, is that of lending itself when in the wrong hands to “a sentimental blankness,” there has grown up a more rigorous school of postmodernism, of what might be called the Flaubertian rather than the Woolfian kind. Flaubert's celebrated severity, the reductive and repressive gaze which seeks to analyze human and worldly phenomena, is certainly very different from the tropical profusions of new Latin American writing. In his concisely clever and enigmatic novel, Flaubert's Parrot, Julian Barnes has supplied an obliquely telling parody of the kinds of weakness to which magical realism can give rise.

Ah, the propinquity of cheap life and expensive principles, of religion and banditry, of surprising honor and random cruelty. Ah, the daiquiri bird which incubates its eggs on the wing; ah, the fredonna tree whose roots grow at the tips of its branches, and whose fibres assist the hunchback to impregnate by telepathy the haughty wife of the hacienda owner; ah, the opera house now overgrown by jungle. Permit me to rap on the table and murmur “Pass!”

But if the danger of magical realism is overluxuriance, that of Flaubertian rigor is sterility, the atmosphere of “La vie est bête”; and Márquez's whole approach to life is not that of an ideological but of a purely sensuous optimist.

This optimism is demonstrated in a story like “‘I Only Came to Use the Phone,’” in which an ordinary girl from Barcelona has her car break down on a country road in a rainstorm, and manages eventually to hitch a ride in a truck full of sleeping women. They come to a large building where she asks to use the phone to call her husband, but is put off with excuses, and finds herself under sedation in a female lunatic asylum. Her attempts to escape are frustrated, and when she finally manages to get through to her husband he calls her a whore and puts the phone down. She is so angry that she becomes reconciled to life in the hospital, and to the lesbian devotion of a herculean female warden. Things drift along; finally her husband, who turns out to be a professional magician, comes to see her, but the visit is not a success, except that he brings her much-needed cigarettes.

The atmosphere of the story is absurdly cheerful, not nightmarish as it would be in Kafka. One notes again the situation's resemblance to a film comedy-thriller, and the effectiveness of a cinematic reality when a story of this sort is transposed into language. It is worth noting, too, that Kafka's nightmares are much more cast-iron, as it were, than those out of which Márquez constructs his supple and disconcerting entertainments. The man who wakes up turned into a large beetle can never, ever, do anything about it; whereas we expect the misunderstandings of “‘I Only Came to Use the Phone’” to be cleared up, as in comedy. But the twist to Márquez's technique is that the misunderstandings in the story are not cleared up, just as when things start to go wrong in life they are not cleared up. The comedy or magic trick we expect to take place (and the professional magician in the story is of course exceedingly helpless) does not come off: it cannot avoid the ordinary breakdown and the wear and tear of things. (We never know just what happened to Maria since the last person who tried to visit her found “only the hospital in ruins.”) Márquez's sense of detail is in every case as telling and as funny as it is in Kafka's tales. And in neither case is the humor self-consciously black, in the modern manner.

One of the best details in “‘I Only Came to Use the Phone’” is the wonderful comfort given to Maria by the director of the asylum, after her first wild seizure of panic and despair has caused her to be attached to the metal bedstead by her wrists and ankles. When she is released and led into his presence he lights a cigarette for her, gives her the rest of the pack, and talks to her for an hour in a manner so comforting that she knows she can never be unhappy again. In her mind she contrasts the solace he gives her with that offered by her lovers and husband to reward her for letting them make love to her. This man expected nothing. At the door, however, “he asked her to trust him, and disappeared forever.” Such a moment is characteristic not only of Márquez but of a writer like Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which suggests not only that magic realism has spread throughout Europe, but that something very like it was, or has become, a part of the literary spirit of our age, in Europe and America.

“Miss Forbes's Summer of Happiness” begins with a characteristic Márquez sentence—“When we came back to the house in the afternoon, we found an enormous sea serpent nailed by the neck to the door frame.” The story is of two little boys, whose father no doubt is fabulously rich (several of these stories concern the very rich), having a Mediterranean holiday, skin diving and all, in the care of their horribly upright German governess, who in the magical world of Márquez naturally has an English name. The sea serpent, a moray eel, sacred in the ancient world, is soon forgotten about; but Miss Forbes is found with multiple stab wounds, inflicted by one of the many lovers to whom her fanatical virtue dementedly yields by night. Her charges have themselves tried to poison her with some old wine they have found in a sea-encrusted amphora, but that is by the way—or is it? With Márquez, as with Borges, one can never be sure. Indeed, the longer story that ends the collection, “The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow,” suffers from being less enigmatic in this respect.

The quality of all the tales is greatly enhanced by Edith Grossman's admirable translation. Márquez himself contributes a prologue, “Why Twelve, Why Stories, Why Pilgrims,” which explains in a not entirely unpretentious manner how and when they came to be written over the last eighteen years. His remarks on his own compositions, however, are very revealing.

The effort involved in writing a short story is as intense as beginning a novel, where everything must be defined in the first paragraph: structure, tone, style, rhythm, length, and sometimes even the personality of a character. All the rest is the pleasure of writing, the most intimate, solitary pleasure one can imagine, and if the rest of one's life is not spent correcting the novel, it is because the same iron rigor needed to begin the book is required to end it. But a story has no beginning, no end: Either it works or it doesn't.

Márquez's most notable success lies in persuading the reader to share that pleasure. And for both it does indeed become a solitary, even a solipsistic, activity. The texture of his work is invariably more pleasing than any “philosophy” that can be got out of it, for as Michael Bell rightly suggests, his work is “specifically designed both to invite and to resist interpretation.” That is to say, unlike Conrad for example, or Hardy, or Thomas Mann, he would much rather we didn't bother ourselves trying to formulate his ideas or philosophy. These are not, in fact, to be formulated, to be clenched into the project like a liana into a tropical tree. Still, Bell aptly notes the resemblances of Chronicle of a Death Foretold to Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, where fate is engaged in the same trick of compelling the victim and her persecutors alike to play their roles in the manner prescribed by usage and custom.

The liberator Simón Bolívar, in The General in His Labyrinth, represents Márquez's most ambitious character and concept; and significantly this is his most recent novel. The theme again is solitude—Bolívar actually died in a little town called Soledad, which shows that history and geography can behave as magically as fiction, and the vision of what he tried and failed to achieve is powerfully and movingly presented. And yet one doubts that Márquez is really in the end a political animal, for all that he has been supportive of Fidel Castro and was reluctant to condemn the Russian invasion of Hungary. Admiration for authoritarian policies and figures is very often the sign of a political outsider, unwilling to take much interest in the boring ambiguities of liberal or administrative problems.

One of Michael Bell's subtitles is “Fiction versus Politics?” and Márquez's fellow novelist the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa has himself written an excellent critique of Márquez's work, in which he suggests that like all writers of fiction, only much more so, Márquez has created a substitute world of “subjective reality,” which in practice drives out God, history, and politics from the affective world of the novel. Though he is less well known as a writer, Vargas Llosa's own monumental histories, like The War of the End of the World, emphatically do not do this, but, where history and society are concerned, use more modestly the methods of Tolstoy and the nineteenth-century realists. This is no reflection on Márquez, who has to his credit a different kind of invention altogether; but it shows the way his books resemble Lolita or The Castle, or even Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, rather than a novel by Balzac or Galdos or War and Peace. And why not? The fact remains that most of his works are undoubted masterpieces; and that may be true particularly of his novellas and stories, like most of the ones in the present collection.

Alexander Theroux (review date spring 1994)

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SOURCE: Theroux, Alexander. Review of Strange Pilgrims, by Gabriel García Márquez. Review of Contemporary Fiction 14, no. 1 (spring 1994): 211.

[In the following review, Theroux praises the stories in Strange Pilgrims, calling the work “a rich and wonderful collection.”]

These twelve tales [in Strange Pilgrims] set in contemporary Europe, written over the last eighteen years (and rewritten, Márquez tells us in a prologue, in “eight feverish months”) deal with an often brave but hapless variety of Latin Americans, all either visiting or living abroad—Geneva, Rome, Barcelona, Paris, Naples, etc.—who for the most part are unprepared in whatever environment to live safely or well. They are comic eccentrics, mostly, obsessives and oddballs. A woman makes a living by telling her dreams. An old prostitute is waiting for death. A beautiful Caribbean boy is driven mad in Spain. A widow dressed in the habit of Saint Francis sails to Rome from Argentina to meet the pope. A lonely and ill ex-president, dying in Geneva, pawns his stolen loot to get medical attention. (“There is no poverty worse than an impoverished president,” writes Márquez. “Even surviving seems contemptible.”)

There is great sureness in the stories, although several are too brief, and one or two too inconsequential, to matter. There are, however, three classics among them that are worth the price of the book. “Light Is Like Water,” a gem of fantasy, is a story with one of those magic premises found in so many of the tall tales in One Hundred Years of Solitude. (“The boys … broke the glowing bulb in one of the living room lamps. A jet of gold as cool as water began to pour out of the broken bulb, and they let it run to a depth of almost three feet.”) In five pages, Márquez leaves us spellbound with his incantation. In “Miss Forbes's Summer of Happiness,” a stony German governess, a grimmer version of Tennessee Williams's mysterious Mrs. Stone (as in The Roman Spring of), destroys the summer fun of two young boys, brothers, on the island of Pantellaria in Sicily by the Apollonian rules she sees they strictly follow, all the while secretly maintaining the Dionysian ones of her own. And “The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow” is a woeful misadventure of folly, bad timing, and vanity in which a honeymooning couple suffer a tragedy (one I feel would be brilliant as a somber Broadway musical), the result of a series of cross-purposes that take place in everyday life, where a heroine, like Rappacini's daughter—it's a very Hawthornian story—dies not so much from the wound she sustains (leading somewhat preposterously to her death) than from the callousness of her young husband, whose obtuseness is as hopeless as he. All in all, I find it a rich and wonderful collection.

Anny Brooksbank Jones (essay date July 1994)

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SOURCE: Jones, Anny Brooksbank. “Utopia and Other Commonplaces in García Márquez's El amor en los tiempos del cólera.Modern Language Review 89, no. 3 (July 1994): 635-44.

[In the following essay, Jones addresses García Márquez's perspective on male-female relationships in Love in the Time of Cholera.]

A number of critics have noted what Verity Smith calls García Márquez's ‘growing concern with the position of women in society’ and the shifts in their characterization since Cien años de soledad (1967).1 For Sandra María Boschetto this process begins with Crónica de una muerte anunciada (1981), in which ‘García Márquez undertakes […] a view of women in which, although granted that the outline is more sketchy, the figure is more convincing.’.2 Later in the same article Boschetto nevertheless admits to being disturbed by certain episodes in Crónica, for example when Angela Vicario ‘falls madly in love’ on her wedding night ‘with the man who rejects her like a dirty rag’ (p. 130). Apart from a closing observation to the effect that García Márquez fares rather better when he is dealing with art than with life—a more problematic distinction in this context that she acknowledges—Boschetto does not attempt to bring these two observations together.

What follows is an exploration of the tension that Boschetto (half) observes, based on the novel published four years after Crónica,El amor en los tiempos del cólera.3 Reading such tension as symptomatic of the negotiations demanded of each of us as relations between men and women continue to change, the article explores the place of stereotypes in this process, and closes with some thoughts on García Márquez's own much-debated relation to his feminist readers.

According to the dustjacket of the Bruguera edition, El amor sets before the reader ‘una suerte de inventario pasional que consigna tanto las crudas imposiciones de la carne como los meandros sutiles del sentimiento porque “el corazón tiene más cuartos que un hotel de putas”, y porque el amor es un fluido que se expande como los círculos tejidos por una piedra en un estanque’.4 The dustjacket also highlights the novel's use of ‘los ingredientes clásicos del género folletinesco’. In an interview published four years later, however, García Márquez emphasizes a rather different source: ‘In reality it's my parents' love story. I heard my father and mother both talk about these love stories. That's why the story is set during the period of their youth, although I put much of the story back even further in time. My father was a telegrapher who also played the violin and wrote love poems’ (Williams, p. 138).

As is so often the case, the exact status of correlations and divergences between García Márquez's ‘facts’ and his ‘fiction’ is questionable. I am talking not about his parents' relationship or their love but about their ‘love story’—a representation that is already inextricable from talk about (other/s') ‘love stories’. Events and details from his parents' marriage and his own marriage may figure in those of his characters, but García Márquez is quite clear that Florentino's concept of love is ‘totally ideal and […] doesn't correspond to reality’; it owes more to ‘bad poetry’ (Williams, p. 131).5 In an author who holds that ‘you can only get to good poetry by means of bad poetry’ one would expect ‘bad’ to be a rather flexible term, and a number of El amor's critics have indeed noted that stereotypes from sentimental poetry and popular literature are represented in the novel with considerable sympathy, nostalgia, and attention to detail.6 Michael Wood and Stephen Minta take this further: for Minta ‘the novel deals confidently in cliché and improbable exaggeration, searching for truths about emotional life which, the book implies, are as solidly embedded in the language of the popular imagination as in the most subtle language of psychological analysis’.7 Wood, however, is unconvinced by the power of such stereotypes to reveal truths, and suggests that García Márquez's fondness for the clichés he deploys is so evident as to undermine or leave little room for irony in their representation:

The novel is not an old-fashioned serial but […] it isn't far enough away for irony. […] If he moves away from his stereotypes, he begins to condescend to them, and to drop their truths for his. If he repeats them, he can only gesture vaguely, as they do, towards those complex truths—can hint that they are there, but not focus on them with any precision.8

The implications of Minta's and Wood's assumptions become clear when they are referred to specific stereotypical encounters in the novel. One particularly striking example is Florentino Ariza's affair with Sara Noriega. Although she, too, fails to win a prize at the ‘Juegos Florales’ her disappointment and ‘aflicción sincera’ are reserved exclusively for him (p. 286). Back at her chambers, one kiss from Florentino is enough to bend her entire body, ‘monumental, ávido y cálido’ to his will (p. 286). The climax of the encounter is more like a transfiguration, as the maternal eroticism of her ‘tetamenta astronómica’ is displaced by the ‘chupón de niño’ which Sara ‘tenía que succionar […] para alcanzar la gloria plena’ (p. 289).

Among the less attractive features of the encounter is some excruciating feline claw-play, when Florentino ‘tuvo que resignarse a tener en la cama al gato enfurecido’ of his lover (p. 291). Sara's ‘gato’ is only one of the alien elements in this particular encounter. She is as knowledgeable and as available as fantasy requires because she was consigned by her first boyfriend to ‘un limbo de novia burlada’ and left with an illegitimate child (p. 289). This glimmer of social realism is quickly subordinated to erotic fancy: the experience ‘no la dejó ninguna amargura’ and she continues to believe that ‘no valía la pena vivir si no era para tener un hombre en la cama’ (p. 289). Minta may well be right when he observes that the novel ‘constantly challenges the reader to adopt a knowing, cynical, or sophisticated response to the events described, and then works hard to ensure victory for a certain kind of innocence’ (p. 128). The success of this hard work is, however, finally indistinguishable from the failure of distance suggested by Wood: in both cases the reader is confronted with highly dubious but lovingly depicted stereotypical features and no focused or sustained point from which they might be seriously questioned.

Boschetto offers a slightly different perspective on García Márquez's failures and successes when she notes that what is a failure in Crónica at one level (‘the world’), may be a triumph at another (‘art’) (p. 134). The difficulties of this type of distinction, particularly in relation to El amor, have already been suggested; more interesting in this context is the tension that leads Boschetto to posit it. As noted, this tension arises between García Márquez's increasingly detailed and complex female characters and his continuing use from time to time of clichéd encounters between men and women which seem to have very little to redeem them in feminist—and arguably in human—terms. One striking example concerns the ‘negra, joven y bonita’ Leona Cassiani, for example, who having been left ‘tirada sobre las piedras, llena de cortaduras por todo el cuerpe’ after a violent rape, spends the rest of her life seeking out the perpetrator for more of his good, hard ‘amor’ (p. 376).

We cannot simply blame these unreconstructed moments on García Márquez's popular sources and maintain that his own larger vision overrides them: first, because, as noted, the balance does seem to remain largely in favour of popular sources, and second, because the distinction between unreconstructed and reconstructed moments is, in practice, rarely clear cut. Take, for example, the case of Lotario Thugut, ‘que se daba una vida de rey explotando a tres mujeres al mismo tiempo. Las tres le rendían cuentas al amanecer, humilladas a sus pies para hacerse perdonar sus recaudos exiguos, y la única gratificación que anhelaban era que él se acostara con la que llevaba más dinero’ (p. 100).

Having confronted the all too familiar image of exploited and humiliated women with his usual gusto, García Márquez does gesture towards a question. The character's name goes some way to reframing the encounter, and there is a suggestion of further reframing when Florentino speculates that ‘sólo el terror podía inducir a semejante indignidad’ (p. 100). Now if (and only if) Nancy Friday and her disciples are to be believed, erotic fantasies (even feminists' erotic fantasies) bristle with such imagined indignities, any of which would be unthinkable outside their fantasy setting. When García Márquez confronts erotic fantasy with ‘indignidad’ and ‘terror’, there is a brief, jarring recognition of this incoherence. It is smoothed over instantly, however, when one of the women explains that ‘estas cosas […] sólo pueden hacerse por amor’ (p. 101).

This could be read as a victory for Minta's ‘certain kind of innocence’, recidivism, or something else. After all, there may indeed be something to be said for reuniting love and the erotic, so often sundered in certain types of contemporary fiction. That is not the same thing as conflating them, however. Gene Bell-Villada notes:

As has often been commented, there is almost every possible sort of male-female tie in Love—older-younger affair and vice versa, female-on-male rape and vice versa, adultery and masturbation, prostitution, jilting, crime of passion, suicide for love, conjugal affection, unconsummated sexual attraction, young love, elderly love, and a formal courtship complete with chaperone and go-between.

(p. 194)9

Yet though this inventorial approach seems to exhaust all options, some—most notably the western liberal ideal of an exclusive, enduring, reciprocal, and symmetrically powered (heterosexual or homosexual) relation—do not figure at all, while others receive disproportionate attention. The reader is reminded more than once, for example, that ‘se puede estar enamorado de varias personas a la vez […] sin traicionar a ninguna’ because ‘el corazón tiene más cuartos que un hotel de putas’ (p. 394). Simply insisting on variety does not guarantee polyvalence, however: the novel's dustjacket confirms that the same sort of thing is happening in every single ‘cuarto’ by reducing all options to either ‘los meandros sutiles del sentimiento’ or ‘las crudas imposiciones de la carne’. Although Fermina is arguably the only recipient of the first kind of ‘amor’, her most virulent detractor (Sara Noriega) restricts even this to something like a subset of the second kind, when she divides love into ‘amor del alma de la cintura para arriba y amor del cuerpo de la cintura para abajo’ (p. 292).

What does tend to unite the head and the body, while further restricting options for the novel's women characters, is the fact that sentimental and fleshly impositions have key features in common. Of these perhaps the most obvious is the gaze with which—chronic myopia (or eyestrain) notwithstanding—Florentino fixes his objects.10 At one end of the spectrum are the shy or sly glances reserved for Fermina; at the other is the what-the-butler-saw, grand guignol type of encounter reserved for Sara Noriega and others. Of course, Florentino himself is not much to look at: ‘Era escúalido […] con un cabello indio sometido con pomada de olor, y los espejuelos de miope que aumentaban su aspecto de desamparo. Aparte del defecto de la vista, sufría de un estreñimiento crónico que lo obligó a aplicarse lavativas purgantes toda la vida’ (pp. 86-87). This apparent ‘defecto de la vista’ helps to argument his appeal to women: ‘A pesar de su aire desmirriado, de su retraimiento y de su vestimenta sombría, las muchachas de su grupo hacían rifas secretas para jugar a quedarse con él’ (pp. 86-87). Attempts to extend his vision—in the local lighthouse, for example, where ‘aprendió a alimentar la luz […] a dirigirla y a aumentarla con espejos’ (p. 144)—are finally unsatisfying, and when he uses the ‘catalejo’ installed up there to survey ‘las playas de mujeres’ below, ‘no podía verse más ni nada más excitante de lo que podía verse en la calle’ (p. 145).

Without these aids, however, Florentino finds love everywhere he looks. Even Fermina Daza's resistance is finally worn down, apparently by his conviction that the most striking and difficult of women will succumb to the most unprepossessing man if he needs her enough. Throughout this time Florentino's gaze sustains a sentimental attachment that has almost no reciprocal dimension, either verbal or physical. The initial ‘cataclismo de amor’ is triggered by a casual glance—the glance, it seems, of a girl who ‘levantó la vista para ver quién pasaba por la ventana’ (p. 88). Nothing is said about the perceiver of that look, though Florentino will himself have needed rather more than a glance to interpret the ‘visión rara’ of a girl teaching her aunt to read, and to recognize his ideal love object (p. 88). He pursues her obsessively: at first ‘con ver a la niña le bastaba’ but ‘poco a poco fue idealizándola’ until, by his efforts, she becomes a ‘doncella’, transfigured and fixed ‘con la alquimia de la poesía’ (pp. 90, 101).

Others, meanwhile, are constructing Fermina rather differently. Like Florentino, ‘la tía Escolástica’ monitors her niece's every move and does not leave him ‘el menor resquicio para acercarse’ (p. 90). Like the riverboat captain in the novel's closing pages, however, she is won over by Florentino's ability to speak as if ‘por inspiración del Espíritu Santo’ (p. 104). The nuns who watch Fermina in the name of her father are more hard-headed, forcing Florentino to appeal to Lorenzo Daza directly. This time, even ‘el Espíritu Santo’ cannot help him: Daza sends his daughter away ‘aquella misma mañana […] al viaje del olvido’ (p. 127).

Catching sight of the mature Fermina on her return home Florentino ‘se sintió sacudido por un estremecimiento sísmico’ (p. 150): ‘La espiaba’, ‘en estado natural’; ‘la perseguía sin aliento’, ‘sin dejarse ver’ (pp. 151-53). When Fermina finally intercepts his gaze, ‘despertó del hechizo. […] En un instante se le reveló completa la magnitud de su propio engaño’ (p. 155). Years later, when Fermina is still refusing to see him, Florentino watches her reflection in a restaurant mirror and buys it ‘no por los primores del marco, sino por el espacio interior, que había sido ocupado durante dos horas por la imagen amada’ (p. 334). As he scans it for a glimpse of his love the mirror does not crack, and nor does the novelistic world. Not until she finally responds to his solicitations will he see Fermina's image in the glass. Until then the reader cannot even be sure he sees his own, for with the help of Fermina and his supplementary loves, Florentino is ‘todo amor’ (p. 193): without it he is a slightly sinister ‘necesitado de amor’ (p. 226) who, like Fantomas, Mr Hyde, or Cortázar's Laurent, hunts ‘pajaritas’ by night (p. 256), and is notable chiefly for ‘his shadowy unreality, his apparent nothingness’.11

This preference for illicit watching leads Florentino to exercise custody of the eyes in the one place where ‘ver y dejarse ver’ are actively promoted as ‘refinamientos de príncipes en Europa’ and accommodated in ‘cubículos de cartón con agujeros de alfileres, que lo mismo se alquilaban para hacer que para ver’ (p. 100). In the local bordello it is, perversely, ‘la lectura’ (p. 116) in a room reserved for the purpose that is his ‘vicio insaciable’ (p. 101). He also discovered ‘los secretos del amor sin amor’, though it has to be said that accounts of his initiation—the fully dressed male revelling in a ‘paraíso de la desnudez [femenina]’, for example—are rooted in equally familiar fantasies (p. 118). One particularly striking encounter involves a woman whose marginal character echoes his own. The ‘encargada de la limpieza’ is ‘joven’ but ‘envejecida’; dressed like a ‘penitente en la gloria de la desnudez’ she collects ‘preservativos usados’ and other refuse of ‘amor’ (p. 120). He sees her ‘a diario sin sentirse visto’, until one day she mistakes his own preserved love for leftovers and tries to lay hands on it: ‘pasó cerca de la cama y él sintió la mano tibia y tierna’, fetishistically severed from the desiring body, ‘en la cruz de su vientre’, ‘la sintió buscándolo, la sintió encontrarlo, la sintió soltándole los botones’ (p. 120). This is perhaps another familiar fantasy, but this time with no climax; for the moment at least Florentino has eyes only for Fermina. He nevertheless pretends to read until his own desire becomes strikingly visible and ‘tuvo que esquivar el cuerpo’ (p. 120). By keeping his mind (half) on the sentimental pleasures of fidelity he can enjoy the woman's bodily desire without returning it, and in the process have his own desirability affirmed. This initiation prefigures all Florentino's subsequent affairs: in Fermina's case he is described as cultivating his obsession until her husband is dead; in all other cases it is the image of Fermina and the act of cultivation that distract him.

Later, having decided to preserve only sentimental love for Fermina, Florentino can indulge his ‘ojo certero para conocer de inmediato a la mujer que lo esperaba, así fuera en medio de una muchedumbre’ (pp. 225-26). There appears to be no shortage of takers: Josefa Zúñiga is ‘loca de amor por él’; Prudencia Pitre ‘le habría vendido el alma al diablo por casarse con él’; Sara Noriega ‘abandonaba lo que estuviera haciendo, fuera lo que fuera, y se consagraba el cuerpo entero a tratar de hacerlo feliz’ (pp. 393, 416, 290). And this is all because ‘lo identificaban de inmediato como […] un menesteroso de la calle con una humildad de perro apaleado que las rendía sin condiciones, sin pedir nada, sin esperar nada de él, aparte de la tranquilidad de conciencia de haberle hecho el favor’ (p. 226).

At first glance this arrangement looks satisfactory for all concerned: a certain absence of qualities means that Florentino has nothing women can demand of him, while boundless compassion on their part ensures that they would not want it if he had. ‘Menesterosas’ like the ‘encargada de la limpieza’ will be disappointed, but this need not stop them playing their part alongside Florentino's other women, helping him to forget his ideal love, and to prove that he cannot forget her. In the process these supplementary ‘amores’ punish Fermina, yet they give Florentino the self-confidence to aspire to her; they keep him fit and sexually active for her; they help him accept the aging process and their aging competitor as a sexual partner; they bring him a certain status and wealth to pass on to her when the moment of union comes.

The (seemingly paradoxical) notion that women construct their self-image in the selfless service of others is distinctly unpromising for women who are not so inclined, and even, it could be argued, for those who are. This novel's version of it—that women find dependency in men attractive and derive their own pleasure from engaging with it—is potentially less objectionable, particularly when it is linked with a principal character who depends explicitly on women for his own sense of self. Once again, however, the narrative model he has chosen prevents García Márquez from developing the potential he registers. By the time Florentino is in a position to take the hand of the strong-willed woman who rejected him for his weakness, the narrative-drive towards consummation is flattening all other stories and possibilities. When Florentino reflects that ‘había hecho y pensado todo lo que había hecho en la vida, llegaba a la cumbre sin otra causa que la determinación encarnizada de estar vivo y en buen estado de salud en el momento de asumir su destino’ (p. 391) he makes no mention of the team pulling him from above. Indeed, ‘seiscientos veintidós […] amores continuados’ after their first meeting he tells Fermina: ‘sin un temblor en la voz: Es que me he conservado virgen para ti’ (p. 490).

At first sight her lover's lifelong habit of duplicity and non-reciprocity make the prognosis for Fermina less than promising. Yet if, as the narrative sometimes suggests, adventures of ‘sentimiento’ and ‘carne’ are generically incommensurable and thus discontinuous, there is a sense in which he is not lying when he says he has remained a virgin for her. It would be rather easier to sustain this line, however, if his lists of conquests did not include fleshly attachments that were also romantic: there is the dazzling Angeles Alfaro, ‘la efímera y la más amada de todas’ (p. 393); there is the affair with Olimpia Zuleta, ‘la única vez, desde los primeros tiempos del primer amor en que sintió atravesado por una lanza’ (p. 317); there is ‘la viuda de Nazaret’, ‘la única que irradiaba ternura de sobra como para sustituir a Fermina’ (p. 392). With the widow in particular, the distance between Fermina and her rival, sentiment and body, has narrowed almost to nothing, and must be reaffirmed by other means: ‘lograron ser amantes intermitentes durante casi treinta años gracias a su divisa de mosqueteros: Infieles, pero no desleales’ (p. 393). Since ‘desleal’, according to the Vox Diccionario General de la Lengua Española, signifies ‘que no guarda la debida fidelidad’ and ‘infiel’ may be defined as ‘falto de fidelidad’ this reaffirmation is less persuasive than it seems. It is further undermined by Florentino's reaction to the death of Olimpia Zuleta: hearing that his lover's throat has been cut by her husband. ‘no le temía tanta la navaja en el cuello, ni el escándalo público, como a la mala suerte de que Fermina se enterara de su deslealtad’ (p. 318). It seems that the narrative, itself wilfully ‘infiel’ or ‘falto de exactitud’, is once again positing distinctions it cannot sustain.

I have already made some observations concerning Florentino's supplementary relations, but before I examine the effects of these clashing disloyalties in the novel's closing pages, something needs to be said about Fermina's own past loves. There is little evidence of romance in her marriage to Dr Juvenal Urbino, though it appears to bring her all the economic security, social power, and respectability her disreputable father had hoped for. Minta describes this marriage as:

A world of happiness from which there is no escape, in which she has largely ceased to exist except as the source of happiness and security for another, her husband's shield against the terrors of life and death. It is a relationship that has found its best moments in a carefully contrived harmony of apparently mutual support, but it has never quite passed beyond that.

(p. 140)

For Minta, Urbino is the novel's principal character, ‘the centre of authority against which the book so joyously rebels’ (p. 140). Given Fermina's economic dependence, however, rebellion against domestic attrition and her husband's infidelity is available to her only in a very limited form. It is not clear what happiness for an independent-minded woman might be in these circumstances, but describing their relationship as one of ‘apparently mutual support’ is rather like tying someone's legs to a tree and calling it a crutch. For all this, the detailed accounts of social and domestic irritations, the small joys and larger incomprehensions, suggest that the novel's model of married love is the ‘middle’ of the story, for which García Márquez turned from his parents' ‘love stories’ to his own ‘life’.12 For all its shortcomings, there is a sense in which infatuation sustained by sentimental fantasy and non-consummation is hardly more attractive, yet almost as soon as her husband is off the scene Florentino inherits ‘el amor que se le había quedado sin dueño’ (p. 476).

Fermina is eased through this transition by the supplement to Florentino's Secrelario de los enamorados, which contains the insights of a lifetime, ‘con base en sus ideas y experiencias de las relaciones entre hombre y mujer’ (p. 425). The status of these ‘relations’ has already been questioned and is highlighted in the novel's closing pages in a way which suggests that women who restrict their aspirations to crudely imposed flesh may be lucky to get even that. When Florentino fails to achieve an erection during the long-awaited union with Fermina, the Barcelona first edition states that ‘le ocurrió siempre la primera vez, con todas, desde siempre’ (p. 491). This goes some way to explaining the exclusion of one-night stands from his twenty-five little black books. But the effect of Florentino's admission on less understanding readers is modified in the Penguin translation of the first Colombian edition, and simply observes that ‘it had happened to him sometimes’.13 In both accounts another telling mismatch precedes (and is presumably implicated in) this non-consummation. Gazing for the first time on her nakedness, Florentino notes Fermina's ‘hombros arrugados, los senos caídos y el costillar forrado de un pellejo pálido y frío como el de una rana’ (p. 490). He, on the other hand, appears before her as ‘un hombre sin edad, de piel oscura, lúcida y tensa como un paraguas abierto […] que no se dejaba ver el arma por casualidad, sino que la exhibía como un trofeo de guerra’ (p. 492).

Fermina has exchanged a life in which ‘lo más importante [no era] la felicidad sino la estabilidad’ (p. 435) for one in which ‘el amor [era] un origin y un fin en sí mismo’ (p. 425), in which the unprepossessing young man she had rejected is himself transfigured by love. She, however, is not. What is heralded as an affirmation of love in old age looks increasingly like the substitution of one fantasy for another, another case of ‘deslealtad’. Fermina takes her place in his fantasy no longer as idealized love, nor yet as equal partner, but as an elderly, surrogate wife. Since he need now look no further, she wears his spectacles to sew buttons on his shirt, becomes as it were his pupil, and learns to see things his way. The vanishing-point of the seer and the seen is represented as ‘más allá de las burlas brutales de las ilusiones y los espejismos de los desengaños: más allá del amor’ (p. 499) or, as the Penguin translation puts it, at the very ‘heart of love’ (p. 345). The voice of her lover is once again ‘iluminada por la gracia del Espíritu Santo’, while the boat's captain speaks as ‘el destino’ (p. 502). Yet while ‘destino’ looks in awe on Florentino's ‘dominio invencible, su amor impávido’, when the captain glances in Fermina's direction he sees on an old lady's eyelashes ‘los primeros destellos de escarcha invernal’ (p. 348).

Once the radical disjunction between Florentino and Fermina is evident to third parties, it can no longer be attributed to her assumption of his idealizing gaze. Instead, her depreciation seems to represent the continuing possibility of irony, a reminder that even if a place beyond illusion is itself inaccessible to irony one can nevertheless be deluded about being there.

In my earlier discussion of irony and cliché Michael Wood was cited to the effect that García Márquez can gesture towards stereotypes' complex truths ‘but not focus on them with any precision’. There are alternatives to Wood's implied deficit model, however, and they include the possibility that there are nothing but stereotypes to describe existing relations between men and women. Wood and Minta both assume that there are truths behind stereotypes which García Márquez may or may not be able to retrieve. For Luce Irigaray, the most subtle of so-called utopian feminists, it is not a question of revealing, so much as producing truths there. In her view, the repertoire of socially sanctioned representations of relations between men and women is a limited one and heavily dependent on stereotype. Since it nevertheless offers the only terms in which we can talk about these relations and be understood, Irigaray proposes that we assume these terms and hollow them out, as it were, from within to make room for new possibilities. As Rosi Braidotti notes, Irigaray's exploitation of stereotypes, this ‘apparent mimesis’, is ‘tactical and aims at producing difference’.14 It is possible to trace something like a tactical mimesis in El amor, a half-ironic dramatization of the conflict between a yearning for the familiar and a desire to make something new of the old, jaded terms. Florentino's relationship with Ausencia Santander, the apotheosis of incomprehensible (‘sin-entender’) absence, seems to typify this process. At nearly fifty, Ausencia has ‘un instinto tan personal para el amor, que no había teorías artesanales ni científicas capaces de entorpecerlo’ (p. 260). She strips off Florentino's clothes as soon as he puts his head round the door:

Lo asaltaba sin darle tiempo de nada, ya fuera en el mismo sofá donde acababa de desnudarlo […]. Se le metía debajo y se apoderaba de todo él para ella, encerrada dentro de sí misma, tanteando con los ojos cerrados en su absoluta oscuridad interior, avanzando por aquí, retrocediendo, corrigiendo su rumbo invisible, intentando otra vía más intensa, otra forma de andar sin naufragar en la marisma de mucílago que fluía de su vientre, preguntándose y contestándose a sí misma con un zumbido de moscardón en su jerga nativa dóndo estaba ese algo en las tinieblas que sólo ella conocía y ansiaba sólo para ella, hasta que sucumbía sin esperar a nadie, se desbarrancaba sola en su abismo con una explosión jubilosa de victoria total que hacía temblar el mundo.

(pp. 261-62)

Florentino, however, ‘se quedaba exhausto, incompleto, flotando en el charco de sudores de ambos, pero con la impresión de no ser más que un instrumento de gozo’ (p. 262).

This is, arguably, the text's only example of a self-seeking woman, and its only suggestion that there is ‘algo’, an ‘absoluta oscuridad’, in certain women at least, that is inaccessible to Florentino. Readers may, however, recognize in this ‘algo’ and in his response to it, echoes of Nietzsche and Freud on the narcissistic woman. As Florentino contemplates the abyss of women's sexuality he thinks he glimpses in all its terrible fascination the form of a dark continent, or the black hole that declares the absence of the phallus. Framed by this exquisite anxiety, ‘amor ensimismado’ becomes ‘una trampa de la felicidad que él aborrecía y anhelaba al mismo tiempo’ (p. 262).

These words signal the risks involved in remotivating old terms. Florentino's mixed loathing and longing are stirred by the possibility of ‘ese algo’ irreducible to existing models. Yet when a stereotype is hollowed out to suggest an ‘oscuridad interior’—the space left, for example, when an old representation is abandoned—it can instantly be refilled by speculation on the old (male) fear of and desire of self-loss (p. 262). As long as Ausencia figures exclusively as the object of Florentino's reflections, the possibility of a non-stereotypical representation of her desire remains secondary to his concerns about that possibility, and about the possibility of losing the marker of his own desire.

The affair with Ausencia Santander allows the reader to explore certain apparently more promising aspects of the stereotype, but it is neither female desire nor male that concerns me here so much as the changing relations between them. This article began with the negotiations that these changes demand, and cited the novel's dustjacket to the effect that ‘el amor es un fluido que se expande como los círculos tejidos por una piedra on un estanque’. It closes with another watery metaphor, negotiated relations, and their place in the novel's ending.

Something has already been said about the vision of Fermina as an aging but indispensable object of transcendental love in an unending vista of semi-domestic concubinage. Florentino could not marry her even if he wanted to, because the only models on offer are the unfaithful wife/vengeful husband, or the straitjacket of official love. Like the captain of the riverboat, Florentino ‘no encontraba cómo salir del embrollo en que se había metido’ (p. 502). This moment, when stereotypes are finally exhausted, appears as the culmination of their—or his—love story: ‘sigamos derecho’, Florentino orders the captain, ‘derecho, derecho’ (p. 502). Readers less inclined to give García Márquez the benefit of the doubt may read this as the point at which the retreat from contemporary turmoil to fantasies of ‘amor inquebrantable’ finally runs out of river, and is left endlessly repeating itself. Among more sympathetic readings is one in which ‘el amor’ is left to expand, while the novel waits in watery suspense until an alternative ending can be found, one that requires neither domestic drudgery nor exploitation, nor escapist fantasy, ‘más allá del amor’ in its existing forms. Until then (and, no doubt, even then) the old stereotypes will remain in evidence as the ground against which changes are registered.

Whether or not one subscribes to this view of the novel's radical possibilities it would be a pity to overlook the more direct appeal of El amor. There will be those who prefer to leave García Márquez to his ducks and drakes and other more or less innocent pleasures; and there will be others who opt to follow the text's example, indulge themselves, and exploit any utopian or other possibilities as they seem to arise. Given the complexity and inconsistencies of El amor, the choice made will depend more on our own critical and personal priorities than on García Márquez's supposed ‘feminism’ or otherwise.


  1. Review of Kathleen McNerney's Understanding Gabriel García Márquez,MLR, 85 (1990), 774-75 (p. 775).

  2. ‘The Demythication of Matriarchy and Image of Women in Chronicle of a Death Foretold’, in Critical Perspectives on Gabriel García Márquez, ed. by B. A. Shaw and N. Vera-Godwin (Lincoln, NB: Society of Spanish and Spanish-American Studies, 1986), pp. 125-37 (p. 125). The novel is hereafter referred to as ‘Crónica’.

  3. (Barcelona: Bruguera, 1985), hereafter referred to as El amor. All further textual references are to this edition.

  4. As the author confirms in Raymond Leslie Williams, ‘The Visual Arts, the Poetization of Space and Writing: An Interview with Gabriel García Márquez’, PMLA, 104 (1989), 131-40 (p. 136), the setting is modelled on Cartagena, Colombia, with occasional additions (such as the Café de la Parroquia) from Veracruz and elsewhere. Significantly, in this context, he recalls the time spent in Cartagena as ‘the best year of my life, the most mature [in] the sense of feeling an absolute emotional stability’ (p. 137).

  5. Consider also: ‘When I saw how, past the age of seventy, [my parents] were still sweethearts, I was sure they would make a good novel […]. The big problem was the middle, but life teaches you about the centre of things’ (interview with Holly Aylett, ‘Of Love and Levitation’, in Times Literary Supplement, 4516, October, 1989, pp. 1152, 65 (p. 1152)).

  6. See, for example, Gene Bell-Villada, García Márquez: The Man and His Work (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), pp. 191-202.

  7. Stephen Minta, Gabriel García Márquez: Writer of Colombia (London: Cape, 1987), p. 126.

  8. Michael Wood, García Márquez: ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’, Landmarks of World Literature Series (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 78.

  9. For an even longer list, see M. Palencia-Roth's ‘Gabriel García Márquez; Labyrinths of Love and History’. World Literature Today, 65 (1991), pp. 54-58 (p. 55).

  10. It could be argued that this voyeurism affirms what Luce Irigaray, in her early work Speculum: De l'autre femme (Paris: Minuit, 1974), calls the ‘hommosexual’ character of the male gaze. To schematize, she characterizes woman as the mirror in which the male observer looks in search of himself, and finds his own phallic image returned to him. Invisible herself, the woman reaffirms this image, guaranteeing the possibility of representation in general and of narrative as one mode of representation.

  11. Minta, p. 140. Note also how this coincides with Irigaray's view of men's interest in women as a crucial element in the construction of their own self-image and thus, finally, as self-regarding.

  12. See note 5 above.

  13. Love in the Time of Cholera, trans. by Edith Grossman (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1989), p. 340.

  14. ‘The Politics of Ontological Difference’, in Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis, ed. by Teresa Brennan (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 89-105 (p. 99).

John R. Clark (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Clark, John R. “‘The Biblical Hurricane’ in One Hundred Years of Solitude: Bang or Whimper?” Studies in Contemporary Satire 19 (1995): 118-23.

[In the following essay, Clark provides a critical interpretation of the conclusion of One Hundred Years of Solitude.]

—it shall pass, however, for wondrous Deep,
                    upon no wiser a Reason than because
                                                                      it is wondrous Dark—

—Jonathan Swift

Concerning the catastrophic finale in Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), these are the cues we are given: we read that Melquiades has left an obscure “prophecy” about the Buendia family. We are informed that three sets of Buendias have engaged in deliberate acts of incest, one couple most recently, and that two of these pairs of sinners have as a consequence produced deformed children—infants with a pig's tail, stigmatized with what José Arcadio euphemistically calls “animal features.”1 Now we learn at the conclusion of the novel, as the entirety of Macondo is being ravaged and literally blown away in a cyclone, that this is a “biblical hurricane” (383). I am afraid that that is all most readers need to induce them to leap to the conclusion that here is God's just, Old Testament vengeance come again. Such readers are further prompted to infer that “poetic justice” is being administered to dreadful sinners. If we hesitate a bit, wondering why everybody in Macondo has to be eliminated so rashly, perhaps we might, after a little reflection, remind ourselves that the Lord visits “the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation. …”2 Still, however small Macondo happens to be, it was all that its inhabitants had—and it is wiped up and washed completely away. That dark perspective has even caused one recent critic to muse grimly about this novel's utilization of “apocalypse.”3

The “cues” I have been talking about include our familiarity with the jealous and vengeful deity of the Hebrews. It was He who perpetrated the notorious fire-storm that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah;4 He who prophesied famine and plague for the Egyptians who would not “let His people go;”5 He who, to punish sin, inflicted the Babylonian Captivity upon the Chosen People;6 and He who inscribed MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN upon the palace wall—and who initiated the sudden collapse of the Babylonian Empire.7 Such events tend to function like little tinkling bells that trigger in us a Pavlovian response; bar-pressings that “re-enforce” our dutiful and psychological reactions and expectations. Crime and punishment. Sin and retribution.

On the other hand, Márquez also gives us a considerable number of confusing counter-signals too, so that we can hardly help but be ambivalent about this “judgment” in Márquez's novel. For one thing, the “prophet” Melquiades (who is said to possess the “keys of Nostradamus” [15]) is nonetheless a little peculiar in the role of seer. He does all in his power to encode and obfuscate his prophecy—it is done in garbled bits of Sanskrit, Spartan Greek, and Augustan Latin (382)—so that hardly anyone on earth will be able to read it. How can it be righteous and informative if it is as cryptic as the oracles of Cassandra, hidden and concealed? Furthermore, it is no earth-shaking series of revelations about major forces on the planet, but only the sordid account of an isolated lunatic South American family. It is a trifling biography of skeleton-key to a little man's closet; it scales only a stunted family tree. Melquiades himself is suspect as well. Although he can “chant encyclicals” (382), he is hardly your average priest. For what we see of him, he is more a State Fair barker, quack, and con-man—hawking magnets, compasses, blocks of ice, magnifying glasses and all the paraphernalia of alchemy. We clearly are not very well motivated to take him seriously in the religious line. There's more the aura about him of Carnival and Chautauqua than Cathedral or Temple.

In addition, his secret encoded text is supposedly scrambled in an unbelievable way, for it is so composed that its author

… had not put events in the order of man's conventional time, but had concentrated a century of daily episodes in such a way that they coexisted in one instant.


Surely a prophecy should be more circumspect than to include everything in daily detail. And we are blissfully uncertain how to go about reading one hundred years of family history where every single minute has been simultaneously coagulated with every other; that would generate a babble of proses collapsed like a star into a single chaotic point, with temporal and linear sequence and order destroyed. However, this fact is belied by Aureliano the translator, for he deciphers the text in good old chronological order, advancing in his reading from the earliest years to his own time. Again, why should some religious “prediction” only become known when the events were over or achieving completion and fulfilment as one reads? The very concept of foresight and augury is destroyed. Then, too, this “sacred text” is apparently meant only for the eyes of Aurelian—and is comprehended only as he himself is demolished by the storm. Since no one will ever know this miraculous oracle, it can serve no religious, didactic, or exemplary purpose whatsoever. It is a self-destructing sermon, a cauterizing lesson—that will never reach anyone's eyes or ears. What sort of religious or poetical instruction is this? No one survives to be instructed!

Moreover, there is the question of moral and historical significance. Macondo is no Jerusalem or Rome or World City—its overthrow by fire or flood is hardly a cataclysmic or earth-shaking event. For Macondo is no more than a rural village in the obscure wilds; it is virtually unheard of in the nation's capital and is clearly situated in what we would term the “boondocks.” Any heavenly punishment, insofar as the world is concerned, will escape our notice and fall upon deaf ears. Moreover, why destroy everyone in the village? In Sodom, fifty or forty or thirty—or even ten righteous men could not be found,8 but how are we to know that everybody in Macondo merited instantaneous termination?—Is not this a clear and disturbing case of “overkill”?

And lastly, we must return to the explicit phrase, “biblical hurricane” (383). We are familiar with the trumpeted collapse of the walls of Jericho, the sensational parting of the Red Sea, the fire and brimstone that consumed the Cities of the Plain, and the most monumental exhibition of them all, the Flood. But what is a Biblical wind-storm? One recent critic has linked this windy puffery in the novel with a jesting about of hot air,9 and there is some rationale behind such a reading. Clearly we encounter here some kind of over-reaction on the part of the Deity, an effect in excess of the cause, a response wildly overreaching the stimulus. In short, here is a species of melodrama, where the excessive and the histrionic prevail.

But a case too can be made for undercutting. After all, whoever heard of the World Lost for a Pig-tail Peccadillo? Of a hamlet exterminated for adultery? Cause and effect, finally, are at perpetual fisticuffs. We are closer in One Hundred Years of Solitude to well-known satiric finales that run at cross-purposes with cause and effect, presenting us with Bang and Whimper10 at one and the same time. Such is the conclusion of Dryden's “MacFlecknoe” (c. 1682), where Shadwell the declaiming oracular bard, though compared with Elijah who ascends to heaven, merely falls down through a gimmick trapdoor, and is whisked away by a “subterranean wind.”11 Or the end of life for Seneca's divine Emperor Claudius, who expires and commences his trajectory heavenward with a diarrheotic fart.12 Even more à propos is the absurdity at the conclusion of Pope's Dunciad (1745), when Dulness, Ennui, and Tedium is enabled by a yawn to swallow up the entirety of Creation. And last of all, I recommend that we recollect Swift's “Description of a City Shower” (1710), where “devoted” and filthy London is subjected to a Flood of Rain. Cataclysmic? Hardly. But at least, what is generated, as we know all too well about tainted modern cities, is at least a generous portion of weltering filth and mud:

                    NOW from all Parts the swelling Kennels flow,
And bear their Trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all Hues and Odours seems to tell
What Street they sail'd from, by their Sight and Smell.
… … … … … … … … … 
Sweepings from Butchers Stalls, Dung, Guts, and Blood,
Drown'd Puppies, stinking sprats, all drench'd in Mud,
Dead Cats and Turnip-Tops come tumbling down the Flood.(13)

Perhaps epic mockery is the only kind of authenticity we have left. Post-modern authors in particular seem to think so. For alas, vice isn't going to go away, and man doubtless will not learn his lesson (if indeed there is any lesson to learn). Hence, we encounter a great deal of parody and noise, and lots of creative vigor and excitement. Sound, however, without the fury. And, most typical of all his techniques, the artist provides us with gross hyperbole and anticlimax. That's precisely the strategy deployed at the conclusion of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Perhaps we might well label all such pyrotechnics “prosaic justice.” Given our fallen world, who can justly argue that we deserve something better or more?


  1. Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, trans. Gregory Rabassa (New York: Avon Books, 1971), p. 23. Hereafter, all page references will be to this edition and will be included, within parentheses, in the body of this essay.

  2. Exodus 20:5.

  3. Consult Brian Conniff, “The Dark Side of Magic Realism: Science, Oppression, and Apocalypse in One Hundred Years of Solitude,MFS 36 (1990), 167-79.

  4. Genesis 18 and 19.

  5. Exodus 7:1 ff.

  6. II Kings 23:27; Jeremiah 36:4, 37:8-10.

  7. Daniel 5.

  8. Genesis 18:26-33.

  9. Rita Bergenholtz, “One Hundred Years of Solitude: The Finale,” International Fiction Review 20 (1993), 17-21.

  10. “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper,” T. S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men” (1925), Pt. V, lines 96-97.

  11. “MacFlecknoe,” line 215.

  12. Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Apocolocyntosis (A.D. 54), sec. 4.

  13. Lines 53-56, 61-63, in The Poems of Jonathan Swift, ed. Harold Williams, 2nd ed. 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), 1.139.

Edward Waters Hood (review date spring 1995)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 660

SOURCE: Hood, Edward Waters. Review of Del amor y otros demonios, by Gabriel García Márquez. World Literature Today 69, no. 2 (spring 1995): 327-28.

[In the following review, Hood contends that although Of Love and Other Demons is well-written and interesting, “it is less complex and engrossing than many of García Márquez's previous novels.”]

In Del amor y otros demonios Gabriel García Márquez continues the trend he established with his two most recent novels of writing on specific historical periods of his part of Latin America: the Atlantic coast of Colombia. While the events portrayed in El general en su laberinto (1989; see WLT 65:1, p. 85) and El amor en los tiempos del cólera (1985) occur in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries respectively, the action of Del amor y otros demonios takes place in the eighteenth century, during the colonial period of Latin American history. In this novel García Márquez explores how the cultural and religious values of that epoch restrain and deform the expression of love between a cleric and the daughter of a marquis.

In addition to the characteristics these three texts share, there are some striking similarities in both form and content between Del amor y otros demonios and the author's other novels. For example, like Crónica de una muerte anunciada, the new work is based on a simple, tragic, historical anecdote: in this case, Sierva María de Todos los Angeles, the twelve-year-old daughter of Don Ignacio, the second Marquis of Casalduero, was bitten by a rabid dog. The novel's pretext is announced in the prologue, in which the author explains how he, as a reporter in 1949, witnessed the removal of human remains from the crypts of the Convent of Santa Clara of Cartagena. The workers uncovered the remains of the child, and to their surprise her hair had grown to a length of twenty-two meters after her death and was in perfect condition. The author adds that nearly fifty years later he is still amazed by this event: “Casi medio siglo después siento todavía el estupor que me causó aquel testimonio terrible del paso arrasador de los años.” Readers will note similarities here to the miracle in García Márquez's film Milagro en Roma (1988).

The novel's five chapters present Sierva María's life from the time of the dog bite to her death. She had been raised among the house's black servants and slaves and spoke several African languages. She had absorbed so much African culture that her mother called her María Mandinga. After she is bitten by the rabid dog, her father visits a heretic doctor, Abrenuncio Sa Pereira Cao, who informs him that there is no cure for rabies. In his desperation, the Marquis submits her to several medical and folk treatments. When she fails to respond, he begins to think she is possessed by demons. He discusses her case with the Bishop, who places her in the Convent of Santa Clara under the care of Father Cayetano Delaura, who has a religious devotion for his ancestor, the poet Garcilaso de la Vega. Delaura and Sierva María proceed to fall in love with each other. Later, he too is convinced that she is possessed. When their relationship is discovered, the Bishop sends Delaura to work in a leprosy hospital and decides to exorcise the demons from her body. Under the stress of the rites of exorcism and the loss of her beloved, Sierva María dies. Upon her death, her hair begins to grow.

Del amor y otros demonios also explores the political and religious conflicts of the period—the other demons of the title—which impede the love between Sierva María and Delaura. However, this aspect is overshadowed by the novel's emphasis on the supernatural. Although this well-written work is interesting and makes for enjoyable reading, it is less complex and engrossing than many of García Márquez's previous novels.

Arnold M. Penuel (essay date summer 1995)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6855

SOURCE: Penuel, Arnold M. “A Contemporary Fairy Tale: García Márquez' ‘El rastro de tu sangre en la nieve.’” Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 19, no. 2 (summer 1995): 239-55.

[In the following essay, Penuel discusses how “El rastro de tu sangre en la nieve” utilizes various elements of the fairy tale genre.]

Like most of García Márquez' stories and novels, the short story “El rastro de tu sangre en la nieve” integrates elements from a variety of sources, but the story's principal intertextual element is the fairy tale. Although the titular image of blood on the snow comes from “Little Snow-White,” the story is a subtle recreation of “Little Briar-Rose,” better known as “Sleeping Beauty.” Well aware of the symbolic import of fairy tales, García Márquez exploits that tradition to create a contemporary fairy tale replete with symbolic meaning. His fairy tale explores the cultural origins of individual psychology and culturally conditioned modes of being.

Images that confirm the story's fairy-tale matrix are in evidence throughout the text, starting, of course, with the title itself. In “Little Snow-White,” a queen pricks her finger while sewing, and three drops of blood fall upon the snow (126). In “El rastro” Nena Daconte pricks her finger on a thorn in a bouquet of roses she receives from the Colombian ambassador in Madrid: “[Y] luego recibió las rosas. Al cogerlas se pinchó el dedo con una espina del tallo …” ‘[And] then she accepted the roses. When she took them she pricked her finger on a thorn on the stem’ (225). Later, when she tries in vain to stop the flow of blood by putting her hand outside the car window in the freezing air, she makes this comment: “‘Si alguien nos quiere encontrar será muy fácil,’ dijo con su encanto natural. ‘Solo tendrá que seguir el rastro de mi sangre en la nieve’” ‘If anyone wants to find us, it will be easy,’ she said with her natural charm, ‘they will only have to follow the trail of my blood in the snow.’ (229-30). In “Little Briar-Rose,” a fifteen-year-old princess pricks her finger on a spindle and falls asleep for one hundred years. The consequence of Nena's pricking of her finger is a death from which there is no awakening. Death or a deathlike sleep is also prominent in “Little Snow-White.” She is revived when the dwarfs remove the strangling lace (130) and the poisonous comb from her hair (131), and the prince accidentally dislodges the poisonous piece of apple from the throat (134). Nena's failure to be saved signifies a degradation of the “myth,” of which more later.

The repeated emphasis given to Nena Daconte and Billy Sánchez de Avila's distinguished ancestry, to their families' affluence—and influence—is designed to place the story in the tradition of the fairy tale, in which the protagonists are often royal, wealthy, and powerful. Despite Billy Sánchez' delinquent conduct, the narrator makes it clear that both his and Nena's families belonged to a small clique that had ruled the roost in Cartagena de Indias since colonial times: “… [P]ues ambos pertenecían a la estirpe provinciana que manejaba a su arbitrio el destino de la ciudad desde los tiempos de la colonia …” ‘Both belong to families that had dominated the city's affairs since colonial times’ (221). Nena's surname, Daconte, is composed of da, meaning “of” in Portuguese and conte, meaning “count” in Italian, further associating her with nobility. But conte also means “story” in French so that her full name could also be translated as “Little Girl of the Story.” Another detail pointing to the story's imitation of fairy tales is found in the impression Nena receives as she and Billy drive through the moonlit darkness of the French countryside. “El fulgor de la luna se filtraba a través de la neblina, y las siluetas de los castillos entre los pinos parecían de cuentos de hadas” ‘The moonlight filtered through the fog, and the outlines of the castles in the pine trees had the aura of fairy tales’ (227).

Both characters possess the perfect youthful beauty of the fairy-tale prince and princess. When Billy breaks into Nena's cabaña, she “vio parado frente a ella al bandolero más hermoso que se podía concebir” ‘saw standing in front of her the most handsome gang member imaginable’ (221). As they cross the French border on a stormy night a guard who initially had rudely answered their query as to where to find a pharmacy abruptly changes his tune when he chances to glance at the beautiful young woman: “Pero luego se fijó con atención en la muchacha que se chupaba el dedo herido envuelta en el destello de los visones naturales, y debió confundirla con una aparición mágica en aquella noche de espantos, porque al instante cambió de humor” ‘But then he noticed the girl in the beautiful mink stole who was sucking the injured finger, and he must have mistaken her for a magical apparition that frightful night, because suddenly his mood changed’ (219). Note the phrase “aparición mágica,” which further contributes to the atmosphere of a fairy tale. Later, Billy asks himself if “la criatura radiante” ‘the radiant creature’ sleeping at his side is as happy as he is (220).

Nena's beauty, even after her death, parallels that of Sleeping Beauty and that of Little Snow-White in death. Those who managed to see Nena's embalmed body “siguieron repitiendo durante muchos años que no habían visto nunca una mujer más hermosa, ni viva ni muerta” ‘kept on repeating for many years that they had never seen a more beautiful woman, dead or alive’ (244).

The image of the car, the latest model Bentley, which Billy receives as a wedding gift from his father, contributes further to the atmosphere of magic characteristic of fairy tales. The narrator says that its “interior exhalaba un aliento de bestia viva” ‘interior breathed like a live animal’ (218). The Bentley seems to hypnotize Billy. When the ambassador attempts to show him the sights of Madrid, Billy “sólo parecía atento a la magia del coche” ‘only seemed interested in the magic of the car’ (226). The image of the car as a “bestia viva” ‘live animal’ is appropriate. Centaurlike, Billy is inseparable from the beast, driving more than eleven hours without stopping to rest.

It should come as no surprise that the master of “magical realism” should have recourse to fairy tales, in which the supernatural is paramount. After all, intertexts in the form of re-created myths are found throughout his writing. Moreover, critics and psychologists such as Bruno Bettelheim have shown that, notwithstanding the entertainment value of fairy tales, they are charged with symbolic meaning and they function to educate their readers' perceptions and feelings. Critics have repeatedly confirmed the accuracy of García Márquez' declaration in his interview with Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza that “the novel is reality represented through a secret code, a kind of conundrum about the world” (35). Presumably, this statement is meant to hold true for stories as well as novels.

Bettelheim provides an incisive account of the functions of fairy tales in his “Foreword” to German Fairy Tales:

Beginning in a setting akin to our most ordinary existence, fairy tales take us in a short and dramatic move to the very edge of the abyss, as does any true exploration of the meaning of life, of its deeper purpose, as does any serious effort to know ourselves that penetrates beyond the surface of our being and reaches into the darker recesses of our mind, particularly those which we desire not to recognize. These are the aspects of our existence which threaten us most, which are likely to cause our troubles, but which endow our existence with some of the deepest meaning. This darkness within ourselves is what we need most to become acquainted with if we want to know ourselves. The fairy tale, having forced us to face evil and all the darkness within man, after having acquainted us with what we rather wish to avoid, serenely rescues us. In the course of the story, as we identify with its hero, we gain the ability to live a richer and more meaningful life on a much higher plane than the one on which we found ourselves at the story's beginning, where the hero, who is our mirror image, was forced to embark on his perilous voyage of self-discovery.


As suggested above, García Márquez' tale varies from this positive pattern. The hero or antihero fails to move to a higher plane of self-understanding.

Their more or less equal social status and their mutual sexual attraction notwithstanding, it becomes increasingly evident that the marriage between Billy and Nena is a tremendous mismatch. Nena is infinitely superior to Billy in refinement, education, practical sense, and self-possession. She is lucid and cosmopolitan, the product of an excellent education. Following the strongest impulse of the moment, he almost appears to be devoid of reasoning powers and self-control. Billy Sánchez is as common as his first two names suggest, and he is extremely provincial. The North American name Billy suggests several possibilities. First, it may include the North American male in the characteristics Billy represents. It is the diminutive form of William or Bill and hence is a means of suggesting Billy's immaturity. Think of Billy the Kid. Further, it is often associated in the United States with a lack of refinement, a certain coarseness. García Márquez would certainly remember Billy Carter, who sold his name to the brewer of Billy Beer.

Through juxtaposition, the novelist explores three modes of being: that of Billy Sánchez, that of Nena Daconte, and that of the French. In general, Billy dramatizes the Hispanic mode of being, and Nena, who has attended a Swiss school, exemplifies a synthesis of cultures. Billy's cultural shock in France throws in relief certain fundamental values of French culture.

Billy and Nena's honeymoon trip, which has as its point of departure the Caribbean city Cartagena de Indias and continues from Madrid to Paris, serves to dramatize certain cultural differences. As the antihero, Billy is the principal vehicle for the highlighting of these differences, albeit his conduct is also juxtaposed to that of Nena, whose role, at least in the last thirteen of the story's twenty-nine pages, is reduced to the narrator's “off-stage” reports. Nena's conduct, as reported by the narrator stands in significant contrast to Billy's.

Billy epitomizes a mode of being often associated with Hispanic culture, especially in the upbringing of Hispanic males. Since he is a juvenile delinquent before he meets Nena, the description of his mode of being is somewhat exaggerated, but his characterization does not fall into inverisimilitude. Society has failed to prepare him for life in the world into which he was born. Billy's inadequacy to cope with the world suggests that being privileged can be just as detrimental, just as inhibiting to healthful growth and the development of maturity, as being underprivileged.

Billy almost exclusively heeds what the Ortega y Gasset of El tema de nuestro tiempo called the “biological imperative.” Invariably, as indicated above, he follows the strongest impulse of the moment, giving little or no consideration to reason and the consequences of his acts. If Billy's awareness of his feelings occurred within the framework of a philosophy of life that gave primacy to the body, it would be positive, but his conduct exists on the instinctual level, almost altogether lacking in foresight. What is missing in Billy's life is the counterforce of Ortega's “cultural imperative,” making possible a synthesis: “la razón vital” ‘vital reason.’ The result is destructive of self and others.

Despite—and probably in his case, because of—his life of privilege and indulgence, he has not the faintest clue as to how to cope with life outside his protected circle of family and friends. In this respect, he is hardly better off than Cela's Pascual Duárte, another literary figure who follows the strongest impulse of the moment. As in Pascual's case, society has failed to equip Billy with the inner resources (he has an excess of material resources) to cope with the world. That Billy has been spoiled is evident in the narrator's comment, with respect to his father's gift of the Bentley. Billy, he writes, had “un papá con demasiados sentimientos de culpa y recursos de sobra para complacerlo” ‘a father with too many guilt feelings and with more than enough financial means to please him’ (219). Later, we read that Billy and Nena made love “en los carros deportivos con que el papá de Billy Sánchez trataba de apaciguar sus propias culpas” ‘in the sports cars with which Billy Sánchez' father tried to assuage his guilt feelings’ (223).

The violent circumstances of Billy and Nena's first meeting on the beach, when he, as a gang member, breaks open her cabaña door with the intention of raping her, is further evidence of self-indulgence, deriving from having been indulged both by his immediate and his extended family. Billy has been spoiled not only by his father but also by society in general. He is at a loss to understand the parking regulations in Paris because as the scion of a distinguished family he is unaccustomed to such restraints in his own culture: “Tantas artimañas racionalistas resultaban incomprensibles para un Sánchez de Avila de los más acendrados, que apenas dos años antes se había metido en un cine de barrio con el automóvil oficial del alcalde mayor, y había causado estragos de muerte ante los policías impávidos” ‘All these rationalistic strategems were incomprehensible to a thoroughbred Sánchez de Avila, who scarcely two years before had driven into a movie theater in the mayor's official car, and had wreaked deadly havoc right before the eyes of undaunted policemen’ (236; emphasis added). The suggestion that Billy is one of many overindulged young men of his society's upper class generalizes his case, making it emblematic of a cultural pattern.

The self-inflicted wound that results from Billy's impetuous slamming of his fist against the cabaña door, when Nena's cool wit frustrates his criminal intentions, anticipates the self-destructiveness that patterns his conduct in general. His self-indulgence throughout most of “El rastro” takes the form of an obsession with the new Bentley that results in his driving from Madrid to Paris with only perfunctory and belated attention to Nena's bleeding finger. His centaurlike inseparability from the “bestia viva” symbolizes his debasement, his inability to detach himself from, and control, his instincts (Cirlot 40).

Billy's inability to rise above his instincts, to order them through reason and foresight is culturally conditioned. Like Pascual Duarte, whose parents also neglected his education, Billy's values reflect the vulgar values of the society in which he has grown up or, more accurately, in which he has failed to grow up. Echoing Pascual, who revealingly once exclaimed: “… [L]a pesca siempre me pareció pasatiempo poco de hombres …” ‘Fishing always seemed to me to be a pastime little suited to men …’ (32), when Nena, concerned that her husband has driven far too long without eating, attempts to give him a piece of candied orange, he refuses this modest nourishment with the utterance, “Los machos no comen dulces” ‘Males don't eat sweets’ (228). Significantly, Billy chooses the word “machos” instead of “hombres,” reducing the matter to the biological level. Later, when Nena considers offering to relieve Billy at the steering wheel, she refrains from doing so because of his prejudice on this matter: “Nena Daconte hubiera querido ayudar a su marido en el volante, pero ni siquiera se atrevió a insinuarlo, porque él le había advertido desde la primera vez en que salieron juntos que no hay humillación más grande para un hombre que dejarse conducir por su mujer” ‘Nena Daconte would have liked to have helped her husband at the wheel, but she did not even dare to suggest it, because he had warned her from the first time that they went out together that there is no greater humiliation for a man than to let himself be driven by his wife’ (228).

Billy's unthinking reflection of the prejudices of his culture is in vivid contrast to Nena's openness and cross-cultural education. One implication of Nena's ability to play the tenor saxophone is her willingness, despite the raised eyebrows of her acquaintances and her family's annoyance that a young woman of her “alcurnia” ‘lineage’ should play a vulgar instrument traditionally reserved for men (222). Unlike Billy, to some extent, Nena has freed herself from the role expectations of her culture. She has further freed herself from such expectations through her Swiss education by means of which she has become fluent in, and reads, in four languages (220). Desperately bored while waiting to enter the hospital to see Nena, Billy, who has never finished reading a single book (241), opens Nena's suitcases in search of reading material, “pero los únicos que encontró en las maletas de su esposa eran en idiomas distintos del castellano” ‘but the only ones he found in his wife's suitcases were in languages other than Spanish’ (241). This revelation further dramatizes, the mismatch of a marriage between a provincial man and a cosmopolitan woman in Hispanic culture, which habitually privileges men over women in virtually every aspect of the relations between the sexes, regardless of individual circumstances.

While Billy is at a loss as to how to reach Nena in the French hospital, and disconcerted because of his inability to fathom the French way of being, Nena, despite her fear of losing consciousness, is serene and lucid from the moment she enters the hospital until the end: “Hasta el último instante había estado lúcida y serena, dio instrucciones para que buscaran a su marido en el hotel Plaza Athenée, donde tenían una habitación reservada, y dio los datos para que se pusieran en contacto con sus padres” ‘Up to the last instant she had been lucid and serene; she gave them instructions about how to look for her husband in the Plaza Athenée Hotel, and she gave them information on how to get in contact with her parents’ (242-43). So disoriented is Billy that the simple solution of proceeding to the hotel in which they had reservations does not even occur to him. This would have ensured the hospital's being able to reach him and advise him of Nena's condition. Instead, he buries himself in a cheap hotel near the hospital ensuring just the opposite. His futile attempt to force his way into the hospital, typical of his conduct in Cartagena de Indias, in Paris lands him on the street outside the hospital door in an unceremonious manner. Nena's serenity and lucidity in the most tremendous crisis a human being is called on to undergo reveals her superiority to her husband, who is simply unprepared in terms of education and maturity to adapt to new circumstances, and especially to the circumstances of a different culture.

In the end, it is evident that Billy has learned nothing.1 His reaction to Nena's death and his inability to reach her before she dies fits the same mold as his reaction to frustration when he first met Nena. He broke open her cabaña door with his chain and then injured his fist when Nena's lucid coolness frustrates his intention of raping her. After the Asian doctor informs Billy of the events surrounding Nena's death, the bereaved husband can only think of smashing someone with a chain:

El médico asiático que puso Billy Sánchez al corriente de la tragedia quiso darle unas pastillas calmantes en la sala del hospital, pero él las rechazó. Se fue sin despedirse, sin nada que agradecer, pensando que lo único que necesitaba con urgencia era encontrar a alguien a quien romperle la madre a cadenazos para desquitarse de su desgracia.

The Asian doctor who brought Billy Sánchez up-to-date on the tragedy tried to give him some tranquilizers in the hospital lounge, but he refused to take them. He left without saying goodbye, without anything to feel grateful for, thinking that the only thing he urgently needed to do was to find someone to rip apart with a chain in order to avenge himself for his misfortune.


In this respect García Márquez's tale diverges from the typical fairy tale in which the hero faces hardships and terror, but in the end overcomes them, symbolically undergoing a process of maturation that enables him (or her) to survive and even thrive in life (live happily ever after). Bettelheim's cogent explanation of the function of fairy tales in terms of reader response is certainly applicable to the protagonists themselves. Billy is taken to what Bettelheim describes as the “very edge of the abyss,” but he fails to gain greater knowledge of himself, to move to a superior level of understanding and conduct. Billy cannot transcend a mode of conduct based on instinct and feeling, unlike the fairy-tale heroes Bettelheim so convincingly explains:

The eventual rescue, complete restoration, and elevation of the hero to a superior existence is characteristic of fairy tales because as works of art their purpose is to acquaint us with the fact that not only is life difficult and often entails dangerous struggles but also that only through the mastery of succeeding crises in our existence can we eventually find our true self. Having achieved this, we then no longer need to live in fear of our childish anxieties.

One might even say that the stories tell the child that he will succeed only because hardships force him to develop his ingenuity, initiative, and independence.


At a certain moment, aggrieved by his failure to enter the hospital to be with Nena, Billy decides to proceed like an adult: “Aquella tarde, dolorido por el escarmiento, Billy Sánchez empezó a ser adulto. Decidió como lo hubiera hecho Nena Daconte, acudir a su embajador” ‘That afternoon, smarting from the lesson he had learned, Billy Sánchez began to be an adult. As Nena Daconte would have done, he decided to seek help from his ambassador’ (238). However, he presents himself at the embassy so badly dressed that the Frenchified official who receives him in the ambassador's place simply cannot imagine that he is from a distinguished Colombian family and tells him that his only recourse is to wait until the regular visiting hours on Tuesday. The result is that he fails to learn of Nena's death even in time to attend her funeral. Then, as noted above, he reverts to his habitual, puerile mode of being. At the same time the difference that the knowledge that he was from a distinguished Colombian family would have made reveals a society built on injustice.

Transplanting an uneducated Spanish American, who exemplifies the raw prejudices of his culture, to France, enables García Márquez to dramatize some of the fundamental differences between Hispanic (specifically Spanish American) and French culture. Making the honeymoon trip, which originates in Cartagena de Indias, pass through Madrid on the way to Paris subtly reminds the reader of the principal source of Spanish-American culture. At the same time the drive through Spain and France creates opportunities for character and plot development with their attendant revelations and implications.

Nena is a victim of two inadequate modes of being. The French penchant for rational planning and order proves just as deadly as Billy's Hispanic improvisational style of life. Along with the spontaneity of the Hispanic style goes a blindness to consequences, while the French mode, which attempts a rational anticipation of consequences, is too rigid to take into account the turns and twists of life and individual differences. Moreover, along with the French inclination to reduce reality to what is rational and predictable goes a certain meanness of spirit, a niggardliness and lack of cordiality in human relations, suggesting that French rationalism and rigid adherence to principle may conceal a good dosage of indifference to other people.2

The contrast between Hispanic and French culture is evident from the moment Billy and Nena arrive at the French border, where the border guards show their irritation at having to interrupt their card game to attend to the travelers (218). Driving in Paris, Billy becomes nervous because of the din of horns and the insults the drivers shout to each other; when he is on the verge of getting out of his car to fight with another driver, “Nena logró convencerlo de que los franceses eran la gente más grosera del mundo, pero no se golpeaban nunca” ‘Nena succeeded in convincing him that the French were the rudest people in the world, but that they never resort to fistfights’ (230-31).3 Several passages suggest that the French are prone to niggardliness. Nena pointedly remarks that the generous beauty of the French countryside contrasts with the pettiness of the people who inhabit it: “‘No hay paisajes más bellos en el mundo,’ decía, ‘pero uno puede morirse de sed sin encontrar a nadie que le dé gratis un vaso de agua’” ‘These are the most beautiful landscapes in the world, she said, but you could die of thirst before finding anyone who would give you a free glass of water’ (228). Also, because of this same stinginess, Nena brings her own soap and toilet paper to France, “porque en los hoteles de Francia nunca había jabón, y el papel de los retretes eran los periódicos de la semana anterior cortados en cuadraditos y colgados de un gancho” ‘because in French hotels there was never any soap, and the paper in the bathrooms was the newspapers of the previous week cut into little squares and hung on a hook’ (228).

Further evidence of French stinginess is found in Billy's reaction to the mode of operation of the stairway and bathroom lights in his hotel:

A Billy Sánchez no le habría alcanzado la vida para descifrar los enigmas de ese mundo fundado en el talento para la cicatería. Nunca entendió el misterio de la luz de la escalera que se apagaba antes de que él llegara a su piso, ni descubrió la manera de volver a encenderla. Necesitó media mañana para aprender que en el rellano de cada piso había un cuartito con un excusado de cadena, y ya había decidido usarlo en las tinieblas cuando descubrió por casualidad que la luz se encendía al pasar el cerrojo por dentro, para que nadie la dejara encendida por olvido.

A lifetime would not have sufficed for Billy Sánchez to decipher the enigmas of that world based on a talent for stinginess. He never solved the mystery of the stairway light that went out before he could reach his floor, nor did he discover how to turn it on again. It took him a half a morning to learn that on the landing of each floor there was a little room with a chain toilet, and he had already decided to use it in the dark when he accidentally discovered that the light turned on when you locked the door from inside, so that no one would leave it on out of forgetfulness.


Billy also learns that he must pay separately for use of a shower, whose water flow is centrally controlled and lasts only three minutes (234). The reader is led to perceive the contrasts between the two cultures not only in the phrase “no le habría alcanzado la vida para descifrar los enigmas de ese mundo,” ‘a lifetime would not have sufficed for him to decipher the enigmas of that world,’ cited above, but also in Billy's adjustment to the shower arrangement: “Sin embargo, Billy Sánchez tuvo bastante claridad de juicio para comprender que aquel orden tan distinto del suyo era de todos modos mejor que la intemperie de invierno …” ‘However, Billy Sánchez had sufficient presence of mind to understand that the order of things so different from his was at any rate better than being exposed to the winter weather’ (234-35; emphasis added).

The only cordial person they have contact with in France is the doctor who attends Nena when she enters the hospital's emergency room. Significantly, he is not of French origin, but a dark-complexioned person who speaks Spanish with a strange Asian accent (231-32). Like Nena, he is cosmopolitan, the product of a synthesis of cultures.

When Billy receives a ticket for failing to park his car on the other side of the street at the proper time, again, the reader is led to perceive the contrasts between the two cultures:

Tantas artimañas racionalistas resultaban incomprensibles para un Sánchez de Avila de los más acendrados, que apenas dos años antes se había metido en un cine de barrio con el automóvil oficial de alcalde mayor, y había causado estragos de muerte ante los policías impávidos.

All these rationalistic stratagems were incomprehensible to a thoroughbred Sánchez de Avila, who scarcely two years before had driven into a movie theater in the mayor's official car, and had wreaked deadly havoc right before the eyes of undaunted policemen.


The phrase “artimañas racionalistas” ‘rationalistic strategems’ is a pointed characterization of the French, while the phrase “de los más acendrados” implies that Billy typifies the essence of his culture. Obviously, what a young member of the Colombian aristocracy can get away with is not held up here for the reader's admiration.

Billy's failure to reach Nena in the hospital is partially the result of his own ineptitude, as indicated below, but the rigidity of the hospital's visitation policy poses a formidable obstacle to his success. Nena enters the hospital on a Tuesday and dies the following Thursday. Since the hospital permits visits only on Tuesdays, Billy must wait until the following Tuesday, when it is too late, to try to be with his wife. Characteristically, he attempts to force his way into the hospital, but is thrown out by a hospital guard. The point I wish to make here is that though Billy should have proceeded in a more civilized and rational manner, the hospital's visitation policy offers too few opportunities for visitation and is too rigid. It seems to be designed largely to protect the hospital personnel and, perhaps to some degree, the patients from the inconveniences associated with visits. The hospital's visitation policy is directly placed within the framework of French rationalism when the Frenchified embassy official tells Billy that he has no choice but to wait until Tuesday:

Entendió la ansiedad de Billy Sánchez, pero le recordó, sin perder la dulzura, que estaba en un país civilizado cuyas normas estrictas se fundaban en los criterios más antiguos y sabios, al contrario de las Américas bárbaras donde bastaba con sobornar al portero para entrar en los hospitales. ‘No, mi querido joven,’ le dijo. No había más remedio que someterse al imperio de la razón y esperar hasta el martes.

He understood Billy Sánchez' anxiety, but he reminded him, without losing his gentle tone, that he was in a civilized country whose strict norms were based on the most ancient and wise criterias, just the opposite of the barbaric Americas where it sufficed to bribe a porter to get into a hospital. “No, my dear young man” he said to him. The only solution was to submit to the rule of reason and wait until Tuesday.

(239; emphasis added)

Nena's death symbolizes the shortcomings of each of the two cultural modes of being, the inadequacy of each by itself fully to nourish and sustain life. Hence, we observe the gradual loss of her blood, the source of her life and a symbol of vitality, on the beautiful (like theory?) but cold and sterile snow. The “apenas perceptible” ‘scarcely perceptible’ (219) and “casi invisible” ‘almost invisible’ (229) wound corresponds to the subtle nature of the causes of Nena's death.

Implicitly, what is lacking is a synthesis of the two modes of being: the Hispanic, which is more or less Dionysian, and the French, which is basically Apollonian. A victim of the partial truths of each culture, Nena epitomizes such a synthesis. Her name itself, as indicated above, suggests four languages and is emblematic of her multicultural education. She is certainly capable of spontaneity and improvisation, but she is also well-educated, cosmopolitan, and lucid in her final crisis. In the contemporary world, knowledge of only one culture is simply a form of provincialism writ large. In this sense, Billy represents one form of provincialism, and the dominant French mode of being represents another type of provincialism. Nena, with her Swiss education and mastery of four languages has been prepared, to use McCluhan's term, for life in the “global village.”

Notwithstanding the breadth of Nena's cultural education and her lucidity, she is also attentive to her instinctual needs. Her courtship, lovemaking, and marriage to Billy attest to her vitality in this respect. Moreover, not only does her playing the saxophone show that she is willing to blur the differences between traditional sex roles, but it is also emblematic of her sensuality. She scandalizes her grandmother by playing the instrument “con la falda recogida hasta los muslos y las rodillas separadas, y con una sensualidad que no le parecía esencial para la música” ‘with her skirt pulled up to her thighs and her legs apart, and with a sensuality that did not seem essential to the music’ (222). It becomes evident that playing the saxophone (a phallic symbol?) is a kind of sublimation when the narrator asserts that “Nena Daconte se entregó a los amores furtivos con la misma devoción frenética que antes malgastaba en el saxofón …” ‘Nena gave herself over to her secret love affairs with the same frenetic devotion that before she had wasted on the saxophone’ (224). This suggests, of course, that Nena may have married the vulgar, but handsome and virile Billy Sánchez because of the strength of her own sexual drive. To this extent, then, she is a victim of her own passions.

The story is told by an omniscient, reliable narrator whose vantage point allows him, as if he had a time machine, to describe and dramatize various episodes in Nena and Billy's past lives that bear on the present. There are frequent flashbacks to scenes in their lives in Cartagena de Indias and comments on their relations with their parents. Within the framework of the flashbacks the narrator sometimes takes the reader even further into the past, as for example, when he refers to Nena's education in a private Swiss school and her mastery of four languages, or when, in another flashback, he describes the occasion in which Billy drove the mayor's car into a movie theater and killed a man. The transitions to the past are achieved in a subtle, natural manner inasmuch as they shed light on the characters' attitudes and deeds in the present. The presentation of episodes from the past function to underscore Nena and Billy's privileged upbringing, as well as to highlight the differences between them. On the symbolic level, the flashbacks serve to throw in relief the differences between Hispanic and French cultures.

Significantly, the novel's first scene takes place at the border between Spain and France, as the couple undertakes the drive to Paris. Since the story is an exploration of the differences between the two cultures that converge at the border, situating the action on the border between two countries is a stroke of genius. Moreover, the setting of the first episode at the frontera suggests the beginning of their lives together as a married couple; they have crossed the threshold to a new life together. The story, then, is structured in a way to maximize the comparisons and contrasts between the two cultures, as exemplified largely, but not exclusively, in Billy's way of being, and to reveal the superiority of Nena's cosmopolitan synthesis.

How, in general, do tone and implicit ideology of this story square with those of García Márquez' other writings? The pessimism implicit in Nena's death and Billy's inability to transcend the mentality of a juvenile gang member is attenuated by the glimmer of hope present in Nena's way of being, which her cosmopolitan upbringing made possible. Notwithstanding her clear superiority, she is victimized by a society that still systematically privileges males over females, however superior the latter may be. Although Crónica de una muerte anunciada also paints a dark picture of Hispanic culture, especially as exemplified in Church doctrine, again a glimmer of hope is present in Angela Vicario's ultimate liberation from the influence of her mother Pura, who epitomized the ideology culminating in Santiago's death. The pessimistic ending of La increíble historia de la inocente Eréndira y de su desalmada abuela, however, is not softened by any glimpse of salvation. The same can be said of Cien años de soledad, where the ending is explicitly pessimistic: the Buendía family is not to have a second chance. In contrast to such pessimism is the hopeful message of fulfillment and love of him who watches, waits, and struggles in El amor en los tiempos del cólera.

Finally, one must view the pessimistic nature of much of García Márquez' writings within the framework of his purpose for writing in the first place. Despite his declared reasons for writing, such as, for example, to please his friends, he obviously writes to have a significant impact on his readers; he writes to lead his reáders to experience life more vividly and thereby to gain a richer and clearer understanding of human affairs. Clearly, then, there is an underlying optimism in this hope of altering his readers' sensibilities. It was evident, too, in the novelist's Nobel address, in his comment on the length of time it took Europeans to develop democratic forms of government and open societies, that he believes that Spanish America needs more time to realize this goal. In my judgment, his writings are designed not only to entertain but also to be a significant force in the foreshortening of the time needed for the development of such societies. If this is the case, then, in the last analysis, García Márquez' writings, taken as a whole, presuppose a deep, abiding faith in life, in the human ability to endure, not unlike that of Margarito Duarte in “La santa.” Viewed in the context of his total endeavor, then, what at first glance appears to be pessimism, transforms into a measure of faith and hope.


  1. I agree with Bárbara Mujica, in her excellent review of the entire collection of stories, that “Billy es más que un individuo, es el arquetipo del latinoamericano rico de clase alta” (62), but I diverge from her view on the matter of Billy's maturity. She states that his “búsqueda de un sentido de dirección es el primer paso de su madurez” (62). In my view, this was Billy's only step; in the end, he lapses back into his habitual immaturity.

  2. This story certainly does not mark García Márquez' only characterization of French culture. In his conversations with Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, the novelist evidently has in mind French readers when, in reply to his interlocutor's assertion that his European readers may have been unable to see the reality behind the magic of his stories, he asserts: “This is surely because their rationalism prevents them seeing that reality isn't limited to the price of tomatoes and eggs” (35). That he has in mind French readers becomes evident later, in his explanation of why One Hundred Years of Solitude sold better in England, Italy, and Spanish-speaking countries than in France: “[It is due] to the Cartesian tradition perhaps. I'm much closer to Rabelais' craziness than to Descartes' discipline, and in France Descartes gained the upper hand” (78).

  3. The incident resembles the one in La familia de Pascual Duarte in which Pascual, recently arrived in Madrid, is astonished at the Madrilenians' ability to insult each other so passionately without resorting to physical violence (130).

Works Cited

Bettelheim, Bruno. Foreword. German Fairy Tales. By Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm and others. Eds. Helmut Brackert and Volkmar Sander. New York: Continuum, 1985.

Cela, Camilo José. La familia de Pascual Duarte. Barcelona: Destino, 1965.

Cirlot, J. E. A Dictionary of Symbols. 2nd ed. Trans. Jack Sage. New York: Philosophical Library, 1972.

García Márquez, Gabriel. “El rastro de tu sangre en la nieve.” Doce cuentos peregrinos. Mexico: Diana, 1992. 215-45.

García Márquez, Gabriel and Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza. The Fragrance of Guava. Trans. Ann Wright. London: Verso, 1982.

Grimm, Jakob and Wilhelm. “Little Briar-Rose.” German Fairy Tales. Eds. Helmut Brackert and Volkmar Sander. New York: Continuum, 1985.

———. “Little Snow-White.” German Fairy Tales. Eds. Helmut Brackert and Volkmar Sander. New York: Continuum, 1985.

Mujica, Bárbara. “Peregrinos y referencias.” Rev. of Doce cuentos peregrinos, Gabriel García Márquez. Américas Marzo-Abril 1993: 62-63.

Michael Kerrigan (review date 7 July 1995)

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SOURCE: Kerrigan, Michael. “Heretics in Their Dungeons.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4814 (7 July 1995): 23.

[In the following review, Kerrigan delineates the major thematic concerns of Of Love and Other Demons.]

In the sanctuary of the Bishop's library, a young priest attempts briefly to read, prays for a time with the ardour of desperation, then takes out a valise belonging to a young female charge. Opening it up, he unpacks her personal possessions item by item—touching, smelling, taking possession himself—before recoiling again in horror and flagellating himself with an iron scourge. If, in the wrong hands, love becomes fetishism, so, when faith atrophies, does devotion become relic-worship. Where purity is obsessive, the most natural human feeling seems demonic. The less extravagant the witness, the more marvellous the miracle; it is no coincidence that Gabriel García Márquez, the world's leading chronicler of the magical, should have begun his career as a newspaper reporter. It was, indeed, as reporter rather than as novelist that he stumbled on the story of his latest novel [Of Love and Other Demons]. Working on the local paper in the Colombian coastal city of Cartagena de Indias in 1949, he was sent, one slow news day, to the ruined Convent of Santa Clara, where workmen clearing the site for a five-star hotel were to excavate the old burial crypts, dating back to the eighteenth century. The day's official marvel was the discovery of the skeleton of a small girl with a head of living copper-coloured hair some seventy feet long—perhaps the young marquise who, according to local tradition, had died of rabies after being bitten by a dog, and was venerated along the coast for the miracles she subsequently worked. A marvel indeed, and Sierva María de Todos los Angeles duly becomes the central character in Of Love and Other Demons. Yet what seems to have affected the young reporter more than this remarkable discovery was the fact of the excavation itself, the attempt of a group of workmen, in 1949, to unearth the people of the past, their conscientious efforts to identify them, and their rude respect, albeit unavailing, for their integrity: “And so the first thing I saw when I entered the temple was a long line of stacked bones … with no more identity than a name scrawled in pencil on a piece of paper. Almost half a century later, I can still feel the confusion produced in me by that terrible testimony to the devastating passage of the years.”

All his writing life, García Márquez has in this same matter-of-fact way been excavating his country's past, scrawling the labels he hopes will accurately describe its people, make sense of their story. For conventional knowledge does not cover Colombian facts; Sierva María is only the most unsettling of many shocks awaiting Delaura, the young Spanish-born priest in Of Love and Other Demons who, after reading just about everything in the Salamanca library, still has “difficulty imagining the oppressive heat, the eternal stink of carrion, the steaming swamps” he will encounter on this distant shore. Yet conventional knowledge is all Colombia—or the “Viceroyalty of New Granada”—has permitted itself. “How far we are … from ourselves” exclaims Delaura's Castilian bishop: “The very idea that they have already slept tonight in Spain fills me with tears.” Time is adrift here, and conventional history baffled by a society which seems sluggish and static even by the standards of García Márquez's famously inaction-packed fiction; a city which lies “submerged in its centuries-long torpor”, as generations come and go, at best more dead than alive. Sierva María's effete father owns vast landholdings, their boundaries unmarked and in effect imaginary. But he cowers at home, afraid that he will be murdered by his slaves. All animal life spontaneously abandons his estate. “I live in fear of being alive”, he admits. As if to complement her husband's bloodlessness, Sierva María's gluttonous, rapacious mother is all body. Or rather, perhaps, all decaying corpse: a human mangrove swamp of flatulence and filth, she describes herself as “a dead woman”.

The only people not enslaved to convention and routine in this society are those enslaved to slavery itself. Life—raunchy, animal and energetic—is to be found only among the black population which, large and noisy as it is, remains invisible to the official Cartagena. Sierva María, uniquely, belongs to both cities and enjoys a degree of freedom attained by neither. Rejected by her parents, who hate what they see of one another in their child, she is brought up by the household slaves and spends most of her time among them. “In that oppressive world where no one was free, Sierva María was: she alone, and there alone.” She learns to speak fluently in several African languages—and in Spanish, slave-wise, to be either mute or mendacious. She learns besides “to drink rooster's blood before breakfast and to glide past Christians unseen and unheard, like an incorporeal being”. The black city is, paradoxically, too vibrant, too physically real to be tangible for the white. But Sierva María's invisibility comes to an end when the bite of a mad dog introduces the possibility of disease and threatens to bring disgrace on her family. Though there is nothing to indicate that she has contracted rabies, her strange ways come to official notice and her eccentricities are adjudged explicable only in terms of demonic possession. She is accordingly delivered to Santa Clara, and to the “pavilion of those interred in life”.

Here it is that Delaura finds her. Sent to exorcize the demons, he falls in love with the girl. It is a pure, passionate—and rather bookish—affair. Proud of his claimed descent from the soldier-sonneteer Garcilaso de la Vega, the Spanish Sidney, Delaura woos Sierva María in the lines of his forebear's classic verses. Playful, the lovers adapt and edit the lines to suit their own situation, but by allowing the poems to speak for them in the first place, they are accepting the poet's Petrarchan terms, and Petrarchan love is always liable to go unconsummated. A cynical idealist who admits that he would rather be an angel than a saint, an impotent lover who does not, in the end, want to be anything other than impotent, Delaura arouses feelings in Sierva María which will prove as damaging as any disease or demon. His literary love and ethereal chastity are equally destructive; his purity is perversion.

If the Church, an institution grounded in miracle and mystery, cannot find a way of tolerating what it does not immediately understand, how is society as a whole to cope with that distinctness which is the mark of a living humanity? If Christianity, its central tenets love and forgiveness, is unable to distinguish world and flesh from devil, how is life to continue except in hypocrisy? Where respect for history has been replaced by the veneration of relics, a little irreverence may not be such a bad thing. The truth may be dark and disturbing, horrific in its tragedy and vicious in its humour. Here, indeed, it frequently evokes the ghastly satires of Middleton and Webster as readily as anything the English-speaking reader is accustomed to understand by the term “magical realism”; as seldom before, García Márquez consistently soft-pedals the gentle fragrance of gardenias and accentuates strongly the smell of festering lilies. But it is better, nevertheless, that it be told. The men and women whose crumbling caskets were hauled up into the light in 1949 had been boxed into coffins long before they ever died. Not just the madwomen in their bedlam, the nuns in their cells or the heretics in their dungeons, but the priest in his windowless library; the Marquis in his palace; even the artisan, a plebeian Philip II, who works half his life to build Santa Clara its chapel ceiling in return for an altar burial-niche. To excavate the historic vault in which his people lie buried is, for García Márquez, an act not of desecration but of liberation.

Tony Gould (review date 22 July 1995)

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SOURCE: Gould, Tony. “Superstition Sets the Whole World in Flames.” Spectator 275, no. 8715 (22 July 1995): 29.

[In the following review, Gould offers a positive assessment of Of Love and Other Demons.]

A novel by Márquez is generally a rich confection, and this one is no exception [Of Love and Other Demons]. The ‘magical’ elements, whether real or not, are all there: a dead girl's hair measuring over 22 metres in length and a horse living to be 100 years old, to cite but two. The language is sometimes close to self-parody, as in the following passage, selected almost at random:

She left without saying goodbye. The marquis never knew, and no one else ever knew, just when Dulce Olivia had stopped being herself and become no more than a nocturnal apparition in the house.

But it works. Like all the best historical novels, this tale (set in 18th-century Central America) reflects aspects of the past which resonate in our own times.

At the centre of the story is a young girl whose distinguishing feature is a shock of red-gold hair which has never been cut. Sierva Maria is neglected by her drug-addicted, nymphomaniac mother and by her father, the marquis, whose occasional frenetic bursts of affectionate activity cannot mask his ultimate indifference. She wanders in a twilight world between white masters and mistresses and black slaves fresh from Africa, and becomes familiar with the latter's alien languages and religions. At the age of 12 she is bitten by a rabid dog, and this is the pivotal event of a convoluted story.

At first, no one thinks anything of it. But when the wound begins to fester, the marquis calls in the wise Jewish physician, Abrenuncio, who gives good, commonsensical advice: if she has been infected by rabies, she were better off dead; if not, there is nothing to worry about. Time will tell. Superstition proves stronger than reason, however, and the marquis eventually calls on the bishop, who regards Abrenuncio as a heretic and discredits his views, saying, ‘rabies in humans is often one of the many snares of the Enemy.’ So the marquis is frightened into confining his daughter in a convent, where she is harshly treated for demonic possession.

The bishop gives his protégé, the scholarly priest Cayetano Delaura, responsibility for the case and, though the girl bites him on their first meeting (thus either infecting him with rabies or perhaps, in accordance with his beliefs, with her demons), Cayetano falls wildly and self-destructively in love with her. The question then is, just who is possessed and with what—hence the title, Of Love and Other Demons. For if fiction may be likened to a scientific experiment in which certain opposed elements—in this case reason and passion, medicine and faith, civilisation and barbarism—are thrown together with a view to seeing which will prevail, the result (provided the scales are not too heavily weighted on one side or the other by the author) will inevitably be ambivalent.

Márquez's humane scepticism is never in doubt: he describes Sierva Maria running about in a frenzy of destruction ‘as if truly possessed’. But even in the Age of Enlightenment reason doesn't have it all its own way. The marquis remarks of the madwoman with whom he first fell in love, ‘Crazy people are not crazy if one accepts their reasoning’, and in a final encounter between Abrenuncio and Cayetano Delaura, the former ‘could not hide the wonder caused in him by this man so recently freed from the shackles of reason’. Abrenuncio refers to Christianity as ‘a religion of death’, but at the same time recognises that it ‘fills you with the joy and courage to confront it [death]’—whereas for rationalists like himself, ‘the only essential thing is to be alive’.

The name of Voltaire is invoked in Of Love and Other Demons, but behind the figure of Sierva Maria, part innocent child, part noble savage, lurks the spirit of another 18th-century giant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

John Bemrose (review date 24 July 1995)

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SOURCE: Bemrose, John. “Rabid Religion.” Maclean's 108, no. 30 (24 July 1995): 50.

[In the following review, Bemrose criticizes Of Love and Other Demons, faulting García Márquez's prose as overwrought and rigid.]

Long before he wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude and won the 1982 Nobel Prize for literature, Gabriel García Márquez worked as a newspaper reporter in his native Colombia. One autumn day in 1949, his editor at the Bogotá daily asked the 21-year-old journalist to investigate the demolition of an old convent. Márquez watched as workmen broke into the adjacent tombs—and uncovered a flow of coppery red hair which he says was over 22 metres long. It was attached to the skull of a girl, Sierva María de Todos Los Angeles. The discovery led Márquez to recall a legend his grandmother had told him, about a 12-year-old Colombian saint with fantastically long hair who had died of rabies from a dog bite. He speculated that the workmen had found the saint's grave—and now, nearly half a century later, he has transformed his musings into a fanciful if somewhat overwrought novella, Of Love and Other Demons.

Of course, this is far from the first time that Márquez has become attached to something as bizarre as 22 metres of hair. The most famous of Latin America's magic realists, he turned the laws of physics upside down in his 1970 masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude—a book that introduced its readers to such phenomena as blue snow and a magnet so powerful it pulled nails out of walls. And yet, Márquez's reputation as a magic realist has tended to obscure how painstaking an observer he is of actual human life—and how sparingly he has come to use supernatural effects. Indeed, his superb 1988 novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, could almost be described as realistic. And even Of Love and Other Demons, while it recalls the vividly exaggerated characters of his earlier work, confines itself to very few magical images.

It is as though Márquez has recognized how quickly magic realism can pale: after all, if there are miracles on every page, they soon seem less than miraculous. Yet he still favors a gothic elaboration of plot and character, to the point where Of Love and Other Demons seems as intricately carved as a rococo church façade. At the centre of his tale is Sierva—the girl with the long hair—whom Márquez has imagined as the only child of a declining noble family in an unnamed 18th-century Caribbean seaport. Her father, the Marquis, is a man of sloth-like imperturbability, who spends most of his days in his hammock. Her mother is a nymphomaniac and cocaine addict, who is dying miserably of her excesses. Ignored by her parents, Sierva lives with their slaves, who paint her face black and teach her African dialects.

One day in the market, a mad dog bites the girl. Fearing she has rabies (though she never actually manifests its symptoms), her father takes her to various quack doctors—whose barbaric treatment soon drives Sierva to the brink of madness. The Marquis then seeks the advice of the local bishop, who decides that Sierva is possessed by the devil. She is confined in a local convent and a priest. Father Delaura, is assigned to perform an exorcism. He falls in love with her instead, but can do nothing to save her from the determined clutches of the church.

In Latin America, the novel could be read as a fable directed against the Catholic Church—which it portrays as tragically ignorant of reality. After his first meeting with Sierva, Father Delaura tells his bishop, “I do not believe the child is possessed. I believe she is only terrified.” Yet the bishop cannot accept the simple accuracy and humanity of this statement. He believes in demons and therefore must find them, unaware that he himself is possessed by the demons of his own ideological fervor.

This is a situation that clearly has applications well beyond the bounds of religion. The bishop is no different from anyone—technocrat, politician, teacher, parent—who allows a passion for certain systematic beliefs (or for certain random prejudices) to get in the way of seeing reality. The gruesome climax of the novel shows just how destructive such blindness can be, smothering youthful innocence and candor, and with it, society's only chance for a better future.

One of the pleasures of reading Márquez's work is following his meandering detours. Of Love and Other Demons contains the charming story of the Marquis's first, happy marriage to a woman who coaxed him into love by teaching him to play the lute. And then there is the wonderful meeting between Abrenuncio, an atheistic doctor, and Father Delaura, in which their mutual love of learning creates a shaky bridge across their ideological differences.

But such delights do not make up for a certain rigid, airless quality. The best fiction has a suggestive power, an ability to evoke presences not specifically described in the text. In Of Love and Other Demons, Márquez has created such a highly polished surface that it blocks off access to other dimensions and precludes a strong emotional reaction to his tale. His own particular demon—the temptation to keep too tight a grip on his story—has gotten the better of him.

Rosemary Dinnage (review date 11 January 1996)

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SOURCE: Dinnage, Rosemary. “Melting into Air.” New York Review of Books 43, no. 1 (11 January 1996): 37-9.

[In the following excerpt, Dinnage asserts that Of Love and Other Demons is “an ambitious book, different from and darker than anything García Márquez has written before.”]

Gabriel García Márquez's Of Love and Other Demons is the opposite of Eco's novel [The Island of the Day Before]: small and spare (some 50,000 words), but glowing with Hispano-American magic that comes partly just from the setting that Márquez made his own in Love in the Time of Cholera: the old town of Cartagena de Indias on the torpid Caribbean coast of Colombia. The time is uncertain—a century later than Eco's tale?—slaves and superstitions, at any rate, are still plentiful, sicknesses are treated with herbs, spells, and invocations. In the harbor float bloated bodies; on a mud beach, children throw stones at a pelican.

In his preface Márquez says that the story sprang from an incident in 1949, when he was a young newspaper reporter. The old convent of Clarissan nuns in Cartagena was being demolished so that a five-star tourist hotel could be built on the site, and the burial crypts were being emptied. (Is it true? In spring of this year, the hotel was still on the drawing board.) The editor sent him over to concoct a news story. What he saw when he entered the crypts were dusty bones sorted into piles—here the bishop Don Toribio de Cáceres y Virtudes, there the abbess Mother Josefa Miranda—with broken coffins, shreds of clothing, rot and dust. This sets the atmosphere, feculent and pitiless, of the whole tale. By the altar, where a niche had been broken, the workmen had released a stream of copper-colored hair from a coffin; it tumbled out, still attached to the scalp of a young girl, till it measured twenty-two meters spread out on the floor. (Is this true? Can dead hair grow?) Márquez links this memory to a story he heard as a boy, of a twelve-year-old marquise, with hair like a bridal train, who died of rabies and was venerated for miracles all along the coast.

He makes Sierva María de Todos los Angeles the child of the second Marquis de Casalduero and a drug-crazed mestiza mother. Neither parent has any interest in the child, and she lives in the slaves' quarters of their decaying mansion.

Sierva María learned to dance before she could speak, learned three African languages at the same time, learned to drink rooster's blood before breakfast and to glide past Christians unseen and unheard, like an incorporeal being. Dominga de Adviento surrounded her with a jubilant court of black slave women, mestiza maids, and Indian errand girls, who bathed her in propitiatory waters, purified her with the verbena of Yemayá, and tended the torrent of hair, which fell to her waist by the time she was five, as if it were a rosebush. Over time the slave women hung the beads of various gods around her neck, until she was wearing sixteen necklaces.

In the market one day Sierva María is bitten by a dog. The wound seems to heal, but the news gets about that others bitten by the dog have died. Rabies is a great horror: a pack of howling infected monkeys once broke into the cathedral; rabid humans are tied to the wall or, more mercifully, poisoned. For the first time the Marquis's heart is touched for his daughter: he brings her out of the slave quarters and installs her in her grandmother's bedroom, on a copper bedstead draped with tulle and passementerie. Lessons are arranged for her, the Marquis takes her to fairgrounds and plays music for her on the Italian theorbo; but one day the first symptoms of the disease appear. The girl is given over to the doctors of Cartagena, with their enemas, leeches, antimonies, and urine baths. Covered in blisters and bruises, she howls with pain and fury.

A summons comes to the Marquis from the episcopal palace, and on a terrace looking over the town's tiled roofs, the Bishop demands that Sierva María, so obviously now possessed by demons, be put in the care of the Santa Clara nuns. Once she is in the convent, the frightened child's clothes are taken away and she is strapped down in a cell used by the Inquisition. A pale young cleric from Spain, Delaura, is appointed to be her exorcist. After talking to her, he argues that she is not possessed. But when bees swarm, a hen flies out to sea, and a goat gives birth to triplets, it is clear within the convent that Sierva María has a devil.

One day when Delaura comes to the convent he finds her, dressed in her grandmother's silks and with jewels in her long, long hair, having her portrait painted. He is possessed, fatally. “It is the demon, Father,” he tells the Bishop. “The most terrible one of all.” The demon of love.

He is banished to work in a leper hospital, escapes to make Sierva María fall in love with him by reading poetry, like Paolo to Francesca, but is driven out of the convent by a coven of nuns: “Vade retro, Satana!” Slowly, the deserted girl is driven to her death by exorcism after exorcism, the copper hair cut off with shears, arms pinned into a straitjacket. “The immense bellowing of maddened cattle could be heard, the earth trembled, and it was no longer possible to think that Sierva María was not at the mercy of all the demons of hell.”

Delaura had had a dream about her, the night before he met her: she sat at a window eating grapes and looking over the snow-covered landscape of his Spanish home, in Salamanca where it once snowed for three days and covered the lambs. Each grape she ate grew back again, because he knew that when the bunch was finished she would die. As she lost her will to fight the exorcist, Sierva María

Dreamed again of the window looking out on a snow-covered field from which Cayetano Delaura was absent and to which he would never return. In her lap she held a cluster of golden grapes that grew back as soon as she ate them. But this time she pulled them off not one by one but two by two, hardly breathing in her longing to strip the cluster of its last grape. The warder who came in to prepare her for the sixth session of exorcism found her dead of love in her bed, her eyes radiant and her skin like that of a newborn baby. Strands of hair gushed like bubbles as they grew back on her shaved head.

And so it ends, this powerful and savage tale. It is an ambitious book, different from and darker than anything Márquez has written before, ferocious as a fairy tale. Part of its force comes from the juxtaposition of the baroque trappings of exiled Spain and the different exoticism of African slavery—opulence and finery set against sickness and sorcery. The dignities of distant Spain struggle for survival in its colonial outpost, and the innocent wild girl is crushed between two barbarities, pagan and Catholic. There are no rules, really, for magical writing. Some people, as here, find the key and open the door.

John Butt (review date 4 October 1996)

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SOURCE: Butt, John. “Death in Bogotá.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4879 (4 October 1996): 26.

[In the following review, Butt praises García Márquez's journalistic excellence in News of a Kidnapping.]

On the evening of November 7, 1990, the car carrying Maruja Pachón and her sister-in-law, Beatriz Villamizar, was ambushed in a Bogotá street by assassins sent by the boss of the Medellín cocaine cartel, Pablo Escobar. The attackers briskly killed the chauffeur and drove the two women away to captivity. Maruja Pachón's slender claim to fame was that she was the sister-in-law of Luis Carlos Galán, a New Liberal politician and an enemy of the cocaine traders, who had been murdered the year before. The kidnappers belatedly decided to keep Beatriz when the radio identified her as the sister of another well-known Colombian politician.

Gabriel García Márquez's latest book [Noticia de un secuestro], which will appear in English translation soon, gives a detailed account of the atrocities inflicted on these women and on several of the other hostages Escobar had kidnapped at about the same time, in particular Marina Montoya, the sister of the former Secretary-General of the Presidency, and Diana Turbay, the daughter of the previous President. There is much which must not be revealed in this review, since the novel relies on suspense, but the fate of Marina Montoya, described in its pages, exemplifies the misery that Escobar and his like have inflicted on Colombians. Aged over sixty, the mother of seven children and a grandmother, she was slaughtered on Escobar's orders, in retaliation for a police operation. Many similar incidents described here will bring tears of rage and despair to the reader's eyes.

The Nobel laureate's latest offering is a nonfictional record of real events, but one so transformed by a brilliant story-teller that it must be called a novel. It signals an abrupt departure from the magic realism to which the author had returned in Of Love and Other Demons (1995), an exotic and escapist romance about the love of a priest for ansiguana-eating local beauty. But there is nothing particularly surprising about this change of direction. García Márquez is not a spontaneous writer. He agonizes over his novels and is self-conscious about the overall shape of his oeuvre. Nevertheless, readers who associate him with vivid, even reckless, imaginative exuberance may be disconcerted by the sobriety of Noticia de un secuestro (“Story of a Kidnap”). It is, or claims to be, meticulously factual, and is based on a diary kept by one of the hostages, on long and harrowing interviews with the victims and their families and on research done by the author and his assistants. This is not the first time that the author has imposed on himself an exercise in imaginative self-restraint after a bout of self-indulgence; for example, he chose to write a historical novel, The General in His Labyrinth, after the fictional freedoms of his romantic masterpiece, Love in the Time of Cholera (1988). But this book returns to techniques we had not seen since Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1982), and it is even more documentary than that apparently anecdotal account.

The result is a powerful, disturbing work, but an uncharacteristic one. The image of García Márquez as a reliable purveyor of serious historical and social fact does not come readily to mind—although this was the basis of his (admittedly minor) literary reputation before One Hundred Years of Solitude. Readers will have to forget his boast that he invented news stories when he was a journalist and banish from their minds passages like that in the introduction to Of Love and Other Demons, in which he claims to have witnessed personally the disinterment of an ancient female skeleton that had grown twenty-two metres of copper-coloured hair in the grave. García Márquez's facts may be fiction, but his best-known novels are packed with fiction that sounds like fact, and this is what makes them irresistible to millions of readers. In Of Love and Other Demons, a solemn Te Deum in Cartagena Cathedral is interrupted by an invading horde of “satanic macaque monkeys”; it rains non-stop for five years in One Hundred Years of Solitude; Dr Urbino's parrot, in Love in the Time of Cholera, “speaks French like an academician” and can recite the Latin Mass and more besides. Innumerable similar examples have given his most famous novels a reputation for endearing craziness. But they also tend to portray Latin America as a place of magical fun; admittedly not always harmless fun, but nevertheless exotic and surreal enough to evoke a land filled with laughter and romance. This aspect of his work, which is absolutely unlike the infernal visions of his arch-rival Mario Vargas Llosa, may explain the peculiar ideas about Latin America held by some of his foreign admirers. The tone of such books is strangely at odds with the austerity of their author's left-wing politics. His often outlandish fictional world is a wondrous but apolitical place, lacking clear or resolvable public issues, as absurd worlds usually do. His public statements, by contrast, reveal an ardent Castroite, banned from the United States, pledged to the notion of “world socialism” and tempted by revolutionary solutions.

This new book attempts to bring together the author's writing and politics. It is not in the remotest sense magic realism. Grim, businesslike, carefully and effectively understated, it reads like the work of a writer whose taste for play has been killed by current events. It succeeds because it does not transform the world it describes, but subordinates itself to the hard facts of the characters' torments with a degree of self-effacement and denial surprising in a writer who can call on such resources of imagery and words. The events described speak only too eloquently for themselves, in prose that has little of the tropical colour that we have come to expect. In fact, the narrative seems unusually artless compared with García Márquez's best-known books. Its grammar and vocabulary are much more locally Colombian than in his other novels, and the spelling has scandalized several reviewers, as when “a ver” appears more than once as “haber”, a solecism about as frightful as “novvel” or “existence”.

Rumours that García Márquez was preparing a novel about the Colombian drug trade may have led some readers to expect a political tract. In fact, the book's politics are even more tantalizing than is usual in his work. In this respect, his treatment, or non-treatment, of Colombia's left-wing guerrillas deserves careful analysis. They are not well represented in the book; its apparent commitment to a liberal-humanist idea of individual rights and its implicit endorsement of the—to put it mildly—precarious democracy embodied in Colombia's civil institutions presumably inhibit the author from saying anything favourable about a Marxist alternative. But this may not be the whole of the story. Some Latin American reviewers, for whom these things matter, have already noted that this book dramatizes the plight of the Colombian elite: company directors, top journalists, television producers. One critic complained that the author forgot to interview the families of murdered policemen, chauffeurs, or the other countless proletarian victims of Escobar. This is not surprising when one considers an obvious trend in García Márquez's writing. His recent novels tend to neglect the claims of the underdogs who were represented in earlier novels, for example the innocent Eréndira or the obscure hero of No One Writes to the Colonel. They concentrate now on the tribulations of a more privileged sector, like those pillars of society, Fermina and Dr Urbino in Love in the Time of Cholera, or public figures, like Bolívar in The General in His Labyrinth. One detects a growing inconsistency between the social focus of García Márquez's fiction and his public politics—perhaps it has been there for years, but we never noticed. This tension is no doubt the main source of the most attractive feature of his writing: its enigmatic quality. Trying to pin down the politics of his books is like trying to net a fog.

The chief, though not the most prominent character in Noticia de un secuestro is the depressing figure of Pablo Escobar, whose rise from poverty to a personal fortune of about 3 to 5 billion US dollars may be studied in detail in a recent and alarming book by Simon Strong, Whitewash: Pablo Escobar and the Cocaine Wars (1995). Some such background reading may assist English readers of García Márquez's book, although he includes most of the information about how Escobar suborned and destroyed Colombia's civil institutions, and he assumes no profound grasp of the history of the country's civil war—that dreary round of torture and murder whose earlier stages are the background to several of García Márquez's novels.

This three-sided battle between the government, the private armies of the drug cartels and the Marxist guerrillas has long been a nightmare of savagery in which a quick death is considered a stroke of luck. Amid this horror, the embattled figure of César Gaviria stands out, and it offers an important clue to the book's politics. Gaviria, who was the controversial President of the Republic from 1990 to 1994, had few cards to play against Escobar's policy of offering his influential enemies, especially politicians, journalists and judges, a straight choice between a huge bribe or a bullet. But one powerful trump in his hand was the threat of extradition to the United States; Escobar and his like are terrified of American prisons. This threat, added to the gratifying spectacle of Escobar's growing fear of the armed forces, enabled Gaviria to bargain. Some have claimed that this was a sign of weakness or worse; but García Márquez's portrayal of him is not unflattering. The kidnaps and murders described in the book were Escobar's counterbids in the game. In return for the suspension of extradition, he eventually agreed to surrender. This much is public knowledge. García Márquez's treatment of the events is truly gripping, but it is a pity that the master of magical realism does not dwell on what happened thereafter; it would have called forth his powers. Escobar soon bribed and intimidated the authorities into letting him redesign his prison with sixty-four-inch television screens, jacuzzis, a football pitch, gymnasium, disco, motorcycle track, a bar and at least eleven phone lines. Even then, he was so ungrateful as to escape, although things went badly for him afterwards.

The treatment of the hostages' captors will no doubt irritate anyone inclined to Escobar's own view that the drug cartels are innocent and regrettable by-products of wicked American consumerism. García Márquez treats the sicarios (the all-too-familiar Colombian word for hired killers) with constraint, but not with indulgence. A couple of them are educated and respectful, but most behave like pigs. Many are, like their boss, pathetically pious—this reflects Escobar's status as a saint among the credulous. (He was astute enough to pay for occasional housing and other local projects. More than one Medellín church altar was graced with his portrait, and some priests blessed the work of his hit men.) Several of the guards wear effigies of the Holy Child and dedicate their bloody work to Him and His Mother, and also, of course, to their own beloved “mummys”, their fathers having left or been killed long before. For the rest, they are unstable, coarse, tense, bored and ignorant. When Beatriz's guards hear that she is a physiotherapist, they fear she has the power to turn them mad.

The novel's central image is of a few middle-aged or elderly women, lying day after day on filthy mattresses on the floor in a fetid, smoke-filled room a few feet square, with two or three hooded louts with machine-guns squatting in the corner watching their every move, alternately taunting, threatening, sulking, reassuring, or apologizing. The thugs seem torn between a desire to reduce their captives to insanity and a fear that they might turn hysterical; one assumes that Marina attracted her fate by being obviously affected by captivity. The courage and dignity of the victims is worthy only of a story-teller of the stature of García Márquez, who has the gift of transforming journalism into art, thanks to his uniquely infallible eye for the dramatically necessary detail. He also infuses his account with a restrained sadness; and this helps to make it successful as a plea that the plight of Colombia must be ignored no longer. The publication of this novel in English will be a major event, and it will surely transform the outside world's awareness of how a country has been destroyed by insane greed and excessive personal wealth. It should also remind us that if we do not take note, the fate of Colombia could be the future of millions of others.

Michael Massing (review date 1 June 1997)

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SOURCE: Massing, Michael. “Goodfella.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (1 June 1997): 10-11.

[In the following mixed review, Massing argues that News of a Kidnapping is a cogent and powerful account of the impact of drug trafficking on García Márquez's native Colombia.]

Over the last 20 years, Latin America has been hit by scourges of many kinds, from leftist insurgencies and right-wing death squads to currency collapses and cholera epidemics. None, however, has been quite as insidious or corrosive as drug trafficking. El narcotrafio has filled morgues, bloated economies, spread addiction, turned schoolchildren into assassins and made judges into martyrs. So macabre and malevolent have been its effects that only a writer of unsurpassed descriptive powers could hope to do justice to them. And at long last, Latin America's most acclaimed writer has accepted the challenge. Gabriel García Márquez, whose One Hundred Years of Solitude probably ranks as the most evocative account of life in Latin America ever written, has, in News of a Kidnapping, attempted to capture the essence of narcotics trafficking and the calamitous impact it has had on his native Colombia.

In writing One Hundred Years of Solitude, García Márquez, seeking to convey the surreal quality of life in rural Colombia, felt called upon to create a whole new genre of fiction, known as magical realism. The real-life happenings in the drug world, however, far outstrip anything even his vibrant imagination could concoct, and so he has chosen nonfiction as his medium. As García Márquez grimly observes at the start of News of a Kidnapping, Colombia has been consumed by a “biblical holocaust” over the last 20 years. The book concentrates on a particularly grim period in late 1990, when the Colombian security forces (with substantial help from the United States) were mounting a nationwide manhunt for Pablo Escobar, the famously ruthless and elusive head of the Medellín cartel. Feeling cornered, Escobar was contemplating surrender and, in an effort to gain more favorable terms from the government, had engineered the abduction of 10 people, most of whom were journalists. For months, Colombia was transfixed as Escobar and the government sought to intimidate and outsmart one another with the lives of the hostages at stake throughout. The task of describing all this, García Márquez notes, was “the saddest and most difficult of my life.”

Making that task particularly complicated was the highly ambiguous status Escobar had in Colombia. A man of both calculating brilliance and superhuman cruelty, this capo di tutti i capi was a subject of ghoulish fascination for his fellow countrymen. On a trip to Colombia in the late 1980s, I was struck by how Escobar, who had carried out so many car bombings, massacres and abductions, was broadly admired for his acts of charity. Traveling around Medellín, I was proudly shown the houses he had built for the poor, the public soccer field he had had constructed, the shiny trappings of wealth his unsavory business had brought to the city. In writing about Escobar, then, García Márquez faced the same challenge Francis Ford Coppola did in making The Godfather: providing a rounded portrait of a Mafia don without romanticizing or glorifying him.

Before becoming a novelist, García Márquez worked as a journalist, and in News of a Kidnapping he affects the spare, functional style of a newspaper reporter. Readers accustomed to the playful imagery of One Hundred Years of Solitude or the lush descriptions of Love in the Time of Cholera may be surprised at the stripped-down prose in this work. The writing is often flaccid and uninspired. One woman is said to have “an astonishing capacity for analysis”; another has “a strong character and mature intelligence.”

In another case, García Márquez writes: “The stories the guards told each other about their rapes of strangers, their erotic perversions, their sadistic pleasures, rarefied the atmosphere further.” The potential power of the sentence is sabotaged by its flaccid ending. Clichés abound. “Power—like love—is a double-edged sword,” García Márquez observes at one point. One character is “pursued by his own demons”; another has “her heart in her mouth.” A third stands “pale as death.” News of a Kidnapping even has occasional grammatical lapses, raising the possibility that the translator might be partially at fault. I was particularly surprised to find references to people smoking crack, a product generally associated with America's inner cities; more likely, they were smoking basuco, a processed form of cocaine that is a common street drug in Colombia.

These lapses aside, García Márquez has a good story to tell, and he applies his impressive narrative skills with verve. The book opens with a scene of almost cinematic intensity. One evening in November 1990, Maruja Pachón, an award-winning journalist who at the time was director of the state-run film institute, and Beatriz Villamizar, her sister-in-law and personal assistant, were returning home from work when their Renault 21 was suddenly cut off by a yellow cab in front and blocked by a dark-blue Mercedes in back. Two men opened Pachón's door. While two others opened Villamizar's: the fifth shot the driver in the head through the glass, the silencer making it sound “no louder than a sigh.” The women were driven to a small, rundown house and led into a squalid, dimly lighted room in which two men wearing hoods were sitting on a mattress on the floor, watching television.

“Everything was dismal and oppressive.” García Márquez writes. “In the corner, to the left of the door, on a narrow bed with iron posts sat a spectral woman with limp white hair, dazed eyes and skin that adhered to her bones. She gave no sign of having heard them come in: not a glance, not a breath, nothing. A corpse could not have seemed so dead. Maruja had to control her shock. ‘Marina!’ she whispered.” It was Marina Montoya, the sister of a powerful politician, who had been kidnapped three months earlier and was presumed dead.

With equal vividness. García Márquez recreates the two other main kidnappings. One centered on Diana Turbay, the director of a television news program and the daughter of a former Colombian president. Together with four members of her news team and a German journalist working in Colombia, Turbay was seized after being tricked into thinking she was being led to an interview with a guerrilla commander. The six were divided into two groups and held in a series of constantly changing houses near Medellín. Also abducted was Francisco “Pacho” Santos, the editor of El Tiempo, Colombia's leading newspaper. Captured in an operation that went so smoothly that no one on the busy street even noticed it. Santos was deposited in a small icy-cold bedroom with boarded-up windows and a single bulb in the ceiling. On his arrival, he realized that his abductors had been rushing to get back so as not to miss an important soccer match on TV.

In the book, García Márquez constantly intercuts among the three groups, describing their wretched living conditions (including strictly rationed trips to the bathroom), execrable food (endless servings of bland lentils), states of mind (absolute boredom being the most common) and, most telling, their tense relations with their guards. García Márquez is at his best portraying these pathetic souls, who seem as much hostages as their captives.

The four assigned to Pachón and Villamizar were uneducated ruffians who knew they were going to die young, accepted it and cared only about living for the moment. “They venerated the same Holy Infant and Lady of Mercy worshiped by their captives and prayed to them every day with perverse devotion, for they implored their protection and forgiveness and made vows and sacrifices so that their crimes would be successful,” García Márquez writes. “Second to the Saints, they worshiped Rohypnol, a tranquilizer that allowed them to commit movie exploits in real life.” Though the guards remained hooded at all times, the hostages were able to distinguish them by their mannerisms, and they handed out nicknames accordingly—“Gorilla” for one who had dark skin covered with thick, curly hair; “Monk” for one who was tall, silent and solemn; and “Top” for one who was very fat and had a maniacal love of dancing. “Once, after breakfast,” García Márquez writes. “he put a salsa tape in the cassette player and danced without a break, and with frenetic energy, until the end of his shift.”

In addition to relating the hostages' efforts at survival, García Márquez reconstructs the campaign undertaken to free them. Most active in this regard was Pachón's husband, Alberto Villamizar. A domineering but cordial politician who had “never used the intimate tu with anyone in his life,” Villamizar embarks on a relentless, single-minded and, at times, reckless campaign to secure his beloved's release. A friend of President César Gaviria, he attempts to use his access to push the government into negotiating with Escobar only to find the president impassive and unsympathetic, a man of “bone-chilling calm,” as García Márquez calls him. Growing frustrated with his unwillingness to act, Villamizar nervily decides to travel to Medellín and seek out “the lion in his den” (oh, those clichés).

Though offstage for most of News of a Kidnapping, Escobar is by far the strongest presence in the book. García Márquez does his best to capture the mystique surrounding this charismatic but savage man. “At the height of his splendor,” he writes, “people put up altars with his picture and lit candles to him in the slums of Medellín. It was believed he could perform miracles. No Colombian in history ever possessed of exercised a talent like his for shaping public opinion. And none had a greater power to corrupt. The most unsettling and dangerous aspect of his personality was his total inability to distinguish between good and evil.”

The more he goes on about Escobar, however, the more García Márquez himself seems to succumb to the mystique, writing about this master criminal with the type of breathlessness normally reserved for a head of state. Escobar's letters, García Márquez notes, had a “concise, direct, unequivocal style.” He wrote them himself, “rethinking and revising drafts until he said what he wanted to say without equivocations or contradictions.” Escobar, García Márquez goes on, “was his own military commander, his own head of security, intelligence and counterintelligence, an unpredictable strategist and an unparalleled purveyor of disinformation. In extreme circumstances he changed his eight-man team of personal bodyguards every day.” At one point, García Márquez refers to Escobar's “proverbial love of family”—a tired phrase that seems lifted from Mario Puzo. Escobar is even cast as a human rights advocate, demanding in one episode that the press run an Americas Watch report on abuses by Colombian security forces.

Finally, at the end of the book, Escobar appears in the flesh. Alberto Villamizar, landing in a government helicopter on a soccer field in Medellín, spots him amid 15 bodyguards as he prepares to surrender to the authorities. “He had hair down to his shoulders, a very thick, rough-looking black beard that reached to his chest, and skin browned and weathered by a desert sun,” García Márquez writes. “He was thick-set, wore tennis shoes and a light-blue cotton jacket, had an easy walk and a chilling calm. Villamizar knew who he was at first sight only because he was different from all the other men he had ever seen in his life.” Taking Villamizar aside, Escobar thanks him for his efforts at negotiating the terms of his surrender and expresses regret for the suffering he has caused him and his family. “You met your obligations to me, and I thank you and will do the same for you,” Escobar tells him. “You have my word of honor.”

To hear a terrorist like Escobar talk of honor seems highly ironic, and one would expect a writer of García Márquez's stature to make something of it. He doesn't. And so it goes throughout the book. If Colombia has indeed suffered a holocaust, then Escobar is its Hitler. And, although García Márquez does not gloss over his terrorist acts, he seems clearly taken with the man. Escobar is such good material that García Márquez himself has become hostage to it. The many details he provides about Escobar, rather than puncture the myth surrounding him, serve only to enhance it. As a result, News of a Kidnapping lacks a moral center, a failing that keeps this good book from being a great one.

Philip Hensher (review date 28 June 1997)

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SOURCE: Hensher, Philip. “A Gangster Takes on the State.” Spectator 278, no. 8813 (28 June 1997): 43-4.

[In the following review, Hensher praises News of a Kidnapping, complimenting García Márquez for “giving the reader exactly the right details and leading him through a complicated series of events with perfect clarity.”]

Through it doesn't live up to the excitement of a new novel by Gabriel García Márquez, the true story he tells in this book is so strange and interesting that, even ignoring the fascination of the author's personality, it deserves to be widely read. It is often forgotten, by his legion of readers in Europe and North America, that he is a Colombian novelist. He seems, in his plain, visionary novels, to be too big to be confined by national borders; he appears to us to belong first, to Latin America as a whole, and then to the world. What this excellent book reminds us of is that he does not see himself in quite that light, nor do his first and best readers think of him as an international novelist. For them—for his Colombian readers—he is a writer of wonderful specificity, whose books are not the magical realist fantasies they are usually taken for in the West, but careful analyses of real situations. In News of a Kidnapping he makes no pretence of invention; and yet the splendid result, in its imaginative force and depth of thought, goes well beyond what reportage, on its own, could achieve.

Few countries have ever been held to ransom by one of its citizens; none, perhaps, has seemed as utterly helpless as Colombia did in the 1980s, under the grip of the immensely rich and powerful cocaine baron, Pablo Escobar. Like other crime rackets across the world, such as the Neapolitan 'ndrangheta, the Colombian drug lords began with real popular support; to their ordinary neighbours, the cocaine exporters seemed more powerful, more benevolent and altogether more effective than the agents of the state. One of the reasons the mafia in Sicily lasted so long was the strong memory of the local capo, in the Twenties and Thirties, fighting against the detested Northern fascists; similarly, in Colombia, if you wanted something done, you went not to the police station but to one of Escobar's lieutenants.

That was no longer the case by the 1980s, when any popular support in Columbia had long since vanished in an atmosphere of fear and rage. But it is important to understand that, though Escobar, with his immense fortune and huge business empire, no longer had any need for parochial support, he and his men still viewed themselves as representatives of a people. The organisation had become, in effect, an alternative state, with its own systems of law enforcement and taxation, its leaders and its proletariat.

This is not quite as absurd as it sounds. It is pretty clear that the powers of the 21st century are going to be the huge multi-national companies, quite as much as the old, 19th-century nation states. Already, and particularly in South America, it is common to meet employees of, say, Shell or IBM who have a loyalty bordering on patriotism for their firm, a feeling based purely on antiquated sentiment for their country. And what was Escobar's business but a huge multi-national? It had everything except a pension plan for its employees, and that only for the reason that none of them were ever likely to live long enough to need it.

News of a Kidnapping takes up this strange story near its end. The Colombian state, having failed to make much of an impact on Escobar's activities, came up with an ingenious plan. The drug barons, once captured, would not be tried in Colombia but extradited to America. To lawyers, this seemed a dubious sort of idea, only to be overcome by viewing drug-trafficking as a crime sui generis; it was hard enough, for them, to see what Escobar, once captured, could be prosecuted for in Colombia with much hope of success. But the proposal had the satisfying result of throwing Escobar, who was now on the run, into a complete panic, and, for the first time, his business had a name: the Extraditables.

What Escobar wanted, and now proceeded to bargain for, was not freedom, but the guarantee that he would be prosecuted and imprisoned in Colombia. The story of News of a Kidnapping is mainly of the means he used to press the government into agreeing to this. His men kidnapped a number of relations of members of the government—mostly women—and held them hostage until he could be sure that the government would not extradite him. Most to the book is a wonderfully imagined recreation of the lives of the prisoners, and principally of the wife and sister of the politician Alberto Villamizar, Maruja Pachon de Villamizar and Beatriz Villamizar de Guerrero; a matter, as the weeks turned into months, of being held in a tiny, filthy room, under close guard; of small privileges extended and withdrawn, of combing television broadcasts for cryptic messages from the police and their families, of living under the constant threat of immediate execution.

The heart of News of a Kidnapping, though, is not with the hostages, wonderful though these chapters are, but with the enigmatic figure of Pablo Escobar. Escobar is handled in a way rather reminiscent of another classic account of a gangster; as in Francesco Rosi's great film, Salvatore Giuliano, the boss's face is never seen. Here, Escobar emerges slowly from veils of mystery and rumour, with stupendous impact; it is only in the last pages that he finally appears, at first in a reported conversation, then over the telephone, and finally, blinking, in person, getting out of a helicopter.

Around Escobar, Márquez builds a series of strange symmetries; he imprisons Maruja and Beatriz and the others in order to lose his freedom, and they are liberated when he can give himself up to captivity. His ‘war’ with the Colombian state comes to seem more like a war between neighbouring states than one between a gangster and the authorities. It involves arguments over territory and borders—at one point Escobar demands the cessation of police activity in Medellin—as well as about the applicability of Colombian law to someone who, for almost all purposes, now lives outside it. It is characteristic of Márquez that he withholds one suggestive and poetic symmetry almost to the very end; throughout, the president of Colombia, Gaviria, is a slightly ineffectual figure, utterly unlike the forceful, shadowy presence of Escobar. Unlike him, Gaviria is always turning up at people's houses and inviting the families to his office for a chat; he is almost too much in evidence. It is not until the very end, though, that Escobar's full name is revealed: Pablo Emilio Gaviria. The curious coincidence of names condenses an argument which has never been far from the surface of the book, that the two Gavirias have more in common than either would admit.

It is a remarkable, expert book, giving the reader exactly the right details and leading him through a complicated series of events with perfect clarity. Few readers, in this country at least, will be familiar with the story in much more than general outline; few will put News of a Kidnapping down without a sense of understanding the situation, and a sense of having had a country, somehow, explained to them. Nothing could be less like the common notion of Gabriel García Márquez and the flowery effusions of the South American novel; indeed, in his suggestive and serious explorations of the shadow-doubles to be found in political and criminal life, he invites comparison with no one less than Conrad. And he doesn't disappoint.

John Butt (review date 11 July 1997)

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SOURCE: Butt, John. “Captive in Colombia.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4919 (11 July 1997): 21.

[In the following review, Butt evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of News of a Kidnapping.]

The Spanish original of this book [News of a Kidnapping] was warmly praised by me in the TLS of October 4, 1996, and my enthusiasm has not cooled after reading this English version. The suspense never flags, even when the outcome is known—which is doubly remarkable, since the author gives away the fate of all the hostages in his own introduction. Not that a reading in translation can be the same experience; on renewed acquaintance, the character of the psychopath Escobar grows in complexity and mystery, as does the troublingly ambiguous relationship between him and Villamizar, the husband of one of the captives. These two seem inhibited by a grudging and irrational mutual respect that probably reflects the moral and political inconsistencies typical both of the vicious chaos of Colombia and of most of García Márquez's writing.

The book recreates, from interviews and diaries, the events surrounding the brutal kidnapping of several Colombian notables by the thugs of Pablo Escobar, the billionaire godfather of the Medellín cocaine cartel. Since it is presented as a factual account of real events, it is far from the magic realism that García Márquez is known for. At its worst and its most characteristic, magic realism is exotic hokum aimed at First World readers, and it has done little for the moral or political authority of the Latin-American novel. To this extent, this soberly documentary account can be seen as a penitential exercise by one of the genre's major fantasists. Nevertheless, News of a Kidnapping is not straight reportage, but highly reconstructive journalism, cast in the form of a novel. There is copious dialogue, which is unusual for an author who usually shuns the reproduction of actual speech in favour of descriptive writing. He also departs from strict behaviourism by writing about un-observable things, for example the state of mind of Marina when she is about to die, revealed in part through the psychic insights of her fellow hostage; clairvoyance and uncanny hunches often supplement factual explanations in this book. The book also offers some tempting food for thought to a certain type of critic; a second reading uncovers an admiration for a romanticized “male” coolness in adversity, specifically the President's, that of his security adviser Rafael Pardo, and to some extent Escobar's, that sometimes seems positively unctuous. Despite the depravity, weakness and tactical failures it describes, this book is liberal in its praise for the character of several individuals and curiously muted in its criticisms of their actions.

The American Edith Grossman is an experienced and accurate translator who writes elegant English, a fact that British readers may not appreciate when she writes “anymore”, “cellblock”, “rearview” and “datebook”, or when she mocks “yellow journalists”, which looks like a crass literal rendering of periodistas amarillos, but is sound American for “tabloid hacks”. But a deliberate trawl for blunders yielded a meagre catch, and this can hardly have been a particularly difficult translation task for her. She falls into the trap of translating the Spanish ilusión by “illusion”—“she conceived the illusion of a Christmas night release—That illusion kept her in a state of anticipation”—when the word means “high hopes”, “dreams”, or “false hopes”, a fact that she must know since she gets it right elsewhere. Spanish attributive adjectives are another notorious danger: estrategias evasivas are “avoidance strategies” or “strategies of avoidance”, not “evasive strategies”. Fisioterapeuta is surely “physiotherapist”, not “physical therapist”. And suddenly to call Richard Becerra “Ricardo”, a curious case of unwanted translation in reverse, is very confusing in a text already crammed with unfamiliar and not very distinctive names.

But these are quibbles; this is a solid, competent and very readable translation whose occasional flatness in fact reflects the sobriety of the original. My earlier review said that the publication of the English version of Noticía de un secuestro would be a major event. There is no need to retreat from this judgment; within its deliberately tight political and artistic limits it succeeds brilliantly.

Kate Saunders (review date 1 August 1997)

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SOURCE: Saunders, Kate. “Pain and Rage.” New Statesman 126, no. 4345 (1 August 1997): 46-7.

[In the following review, Saunders examines García Márquez's portrayal of true-life details in News of a Kidnapping, arguing that the work transcends both reportage and fiction.]

Between September 1983 and January 1991, 26 Colombian journalists were murdered by the drug cartels who were crucifying that wretched country. One woman, Maruja Pachon, suggested to Gabriel García Márquez that he write a book about her kidnapping by the “shadow power”. Márquez soon realised that Pachon's experience was inextricably bound to nine other abductions at the same time. He expanded the narrative to include the kidnappings of Diana Turbay and her film crew, and the newspaperman Pacho Santos.

“Their pain, their patience and their rage,” he says, “gave me the courage to persist in this autumnal task, the saddest and most difficult of my life.”

In the hands of the great Colombian storyteller, News of a Kidnapping grew into a tragedy at once personal, national and international. This is neither straight reportage nor fiction; Márquez's brilliant “j'accuse” embraces and transcends both.

In November 1990 Maruja, a prominent journalist, and her sister-in-law, Beatriz, are kidnapped on their way home from work in Bogota. The gunmen are operatives of Pablo Escobar, the stinking rich, barking mad cocaine chief, terrified by the government's policy of extraditing drug traffickers to the US. “Theirs was an authentic shadow power, with a brand name—the Extraditables—and a slogan typical of Escobar: ‘We prefer a grave in Colombia to a cell in the United States.’”

Maruja and Beatriz are confined in a tiny, fetid cell, with another victim, Marina Montoya. Their guards are slum boys, almost as cowed and crushed by Escobar's organisation as their victims. Sometimes they take sadistic pleasure in the women's suffering, sometimes they assure them they pray for their release.

On the outside, Maruja's husband, Alberto Villamizar, battles tirelessly, caught between the government on one side, the equally powerful Extraditables on the other. Behind him is the Colombian media, controlled almost entirely by friends and relations of the hostages.

In one of the book's oddest episodes, the guards watch Alberto's emotional television appeal, and are impressed: “How young Dr Villamizar looks, how nice he looks, how he loves you.”

They ask Maruja to introduce them to her daughters. They also learn the date of her 53rd birthday, and insist on celebrating it with a bottle of local champagne and a cake “that looked as if it were covered in toothpaste”.

Márquez writes with wry affection and humour of the Colombian propensity for partying in the face of horror: “In Colombia, any gathering of more than six people, regardless of class or the hour, is doomed to turn into a dance.”

For Maruja, watching the television appeal in captivity is like “being dead and watching life from the next world without taking part, and without the living knowing you were there”. Every day is a battle against fear and uncertainty. Orders from above crash into the strangely balanced relationships like bombs.

Marina Montoya is suddenly led away by her favourite guard, whom she calls “the monk”. Maruja and Beatriz are not told what has become of her, but their worst fears are realised when they are awakened by the “moans of a wounded animal”, and see the monk sobbing for the woman he called “granny”.

The genius of Márquez is his ability to veer between the personal and the universal. News of a Kidnapping is a unique document, which everyone should read—particularly politicians fighting the drug war. Prohibition creates gangsters, and the gangsters are spreading their contagion far beyond this Nobel laureate's devastated nation.

Jonathan Levi (review date 10 August 1997)

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SOURCE: Levi, Jonathan. “A Nation Held Hostage.” Chicago Tribune Books (10 August 1997): 3, 6.

[In the following review of News of a Kidnapping, Levi commends García Márquez's gripping portrayal of a series of abductions carried out in Bogotá in 1990.]

A few winters ago, I had lunch in New York with a 25-year-old Colombian man who had spent his previous summer on a farm outside Bogota, blindfolded and tethered to a tree. He had been kidnapped from his family's factory (one of the managers was later implicated) and held for four months until a ransom was paid. I told him the story sounded familiar. “García Márquez,” he said, “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” I remembered the scene from that remarkable book. The old man, the patriarch of the family, José Arcadio Buendia, goes mad and is tethered, one end of a rope around his waist, the other around a large chestnut tree. “I asked the guards,” my friend said. “They answered, yes, they had read the book. That's where they got the idea.”

It is not an exaggeration to say that as many Colombians have been touched by kidnappings as have been touched by the books of Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel laureate and supreme commander of Latin American writers. So there is something oxymoronic in the title of García Márquez's latest book, the non-fictional News of a Kidnapping. Kidnappings are not news in Colombia, and, as my 25-year-old friend can attest, fiction is sometimes more useful in understanding them than is journalism.

The kidnapping of the title was not a single incident but a series of abductions carried out in Bogota in 1990 and orchestrated by drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. He planned to use the hostages as a negotiating tool to force the repeal of a Colombian law that allowed him and other drug traffickers to be extradited to the U.S. Escobar was head of the cocaine cartel of Medellin, “a city martyrized by violence. … [T]wo thousand people in the slums were working for Escobar, many of them adolescents who earned their living hunting down police. For each dead officer, they received five million pesos, for each agent a million and a half, and 800,000 for each one wounded.”

To force the hand of the young Colombian president, Cesar Gaviria, Escobar had his henchmen abduct the sister of a politician; a TV reporter and her crew; the editor in chief of the country's largest daily newspaper; and the sister of another politician, along with the politician's wife, who was also a respected journalist. Colombia, at least on the level at which history is reported, is a nation of half-a-dozen families. They go to the same schools, learn to dance at the same parties, marry each other's cousins. And most of them find their power not in business, but between the incestuous sheets of journalism and politics.

Diana Turbay, a TV reporter and the most glamorous of those abducted, was the daughter of former President Julio Cesar Turbay. Throughout her captivity, her father, along with the father of the kidnapped editor in chief, conferred regularly with Gaviria. Most astonishing was the airwave access of the families of the hostages. Many of them TV personalities themselves, they were able to communicate with their captive loved ones by lacing their programs with coded messages. They paraded their families across the screen, even filmed on location in the victims' houses to show, for example, how a concerned husband had finally installed the library that his hostage wife had always desired. These programs were so effective that they not only gave hope to the hostages but even moved one of their guards to ask permission to date the daughter of one of the victims after she was released.

More interesting than the stories of the kidnapped are the stories of those outside, entrusted with the rescue. The most heroic of those was the well-known politician Alberto Villamizar, an associate of Gaviria's and brother-in-law of Luis Carlos Galan, “the young journalist who, in 1979, had founded the New Liberalism [movement,] … the most serious and energetic force that opposed drug trafficking and supported the extradition of Colombian nationals.” Galan was assassinated in 1989 while running for president.

On the evening of Nov. 7, 1990, Villamizar's sister, Beatriz, and wife, Maruja, were kidnapped as they were returning home from work in Bogota. A survivor of several attempts on his own life, Villamizar decided to devote himself to obtaining their release. He tried to come up with a plan to negotiate with the kidnappers, but kept running up against the government policy that left open the threat of extradition as a way to pressure them into surrendering. Rafael Pardo Rueda, security adviser to Gaviria, told Villamizar that he could not “‘overstep the bounds of the capitulation policy.’” “In other words,” writes García Márquez, Villamizar “could do as he wished in his own way, using all his imagination, but he had to do it with his hands tied.”

While official negotiations went on for release of the hostages and the surrender of Escobar and other narcotics traffickers, Villamizar met with Escobar's lawyers and enlisted the aid of two former presidents and a bishop, all of whom publicly pleaded for the lives of the captives.

Villamizar eventually became involved in the official negotiations. As the months passed and Escobar dug in, Villamizar was the only negotiator to recognize Escobar's deepest desire. He not only wanted the government to negate its extradition policy and build him a private prison outside Medellin in return for his surrender, but he wanted the government to see him as he saw himself—not as a common drug dealer but as the leader of a political party like the guerrilla group M-19, which, a decade earlier, had negotiated a move from the jungle into the parliament. Escobar wanted respect. He saw that Villamizar understood this, and he hung onto Maruja long after the fates of the other hostages had been decided.

“For Escobar,” García Márquez writes, “the only lifesaver in the water was Villamizar's mediation, and the only thing that could guarantee it was holding on to Maruja. The two men were condemned to each other.”

With the negotiations stymied, Villamizar decided to go to Medellin to try to discuss the situation with Escobar face to face. But numerous trips to and from Medellin, prison meetings with Escobar associates, and several exchanges of letters with Escobar failed to get him to agree to meet with Villamazir. Eventually, Escobar agreed to meet with Father Rafael Garcia Herrero, a saintly priest known nationwide for his TV show, “God's Minute.” Afterward, Escobar agreed to surrender—as long as Villamizar was there when he did.

After Maruja was released, Villamizar went to Medellin to take part in Escobar's surrender. He then escorted him to his custom-built prison:

“‘Let's go …,’ Escobar said. You and I have a lot to talk about.’

“He led him to the end of the outside gallery [of the prison], and they chatted there for about ten minutes, leaning against the railing, their backs to everyone. Escobar … expressed regret for the suffering he had caused Villamizar and his family. …

“‘I know you and I can't be friends,’ he said. But Villamizar could be sure that nothing would happen to him or anybody in his family again.

“‘Who knows how long I'll be here,’ he said, ‘but I still have a lot of friends, so if any of you feels unsafe, if anybody tries to give you a hard time, you let me know and that'll be the end of it. You met your obligations to me, and I thank you and will do the same for you. You have my word of honor.’”

García Márquez began his writing career as a newspaperman, and News of a Kidnapping contains a potent mixture of the newshound's well-documented detail and the novelist's tragic vision. In the book's acknowledgments, García Márquez says:

I interviewed all the protagonists I could, and in each of them I found the same general willingness to root through their memories and reopen wounds they perhaps preferred to forget. Their pain, their patience, and their rage gave me the courage to persist in this … task, the saddest and most difficult of my life.

It is sad that it took an episode revolving around narco-trafficking to bring García Márquez back to journalism. But perhaps, when journalists and politicians are abducted, it is to our novelists that we must turn for the news.

Charles Lane (review date 25 August 1997)

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SOURCE: Lane, Charles. “The Writer in His Labyrinth.” New Republic 217, no. 8 (25 August 1997): 30-8.

[In the following positive review of News of a Kidnapping, Lane provides biographical background on García Márquez, his ideological development, and the political situation in Colombia.]


The Falklands War produced its share of sensational stories, but none was more sensational than the one published by Gabriel García Márquez in the Madrid newspaper El País on April 6, 1983, a year after the war ended. It was an account, based on a purported “letter” from an unnamed “witness,” of gruesome atrocities perpetrated by the British Army's Nepalese auxiliaries, the Gurkhas, García Márquez, who had won the Nobel Prize for Literature the year before, wrote that the “legendary and ferocious Nepalese decapitators,” wielding “assassins' scimitars,” beheaded one Argentine prisoner “every seven seconds.” And “because of some strange custom they held up the severed head by the hair and cut off the ears.” The “beasts were so crazed,” García Márquez reported, that “they continued killing the English themselves, until the English had to subdue them with handcuffs.”

There was one problem with García Márquez's story. Nothing remotely like it had actually taken place. The only kernel of truth was that the Gurkhas, who carry not scimitars but curved knives called kukhris, did appear briefly in the Falklands. (They cleared mines after the fighting ended.) Confronted later with the facts, García Márquez conceded only that his numbers might be a little off. But too late: Radio Peace and Progress, a Soviet-operated service, had picked up his tale and beamed it to every corner of Latin America, at a time when the continent was still seething over Argentina's defeat.

For a lesser writer, a mishap such as the Gurkha massacre story might have been some sort of a setback. But not for García Márquez. He has a proven genius, after all, for the exciting and unexpected application of imagination to reality. His reputation was secured three decades ago with One Hundred Years of Solitude, a masterpiece; and, throughout the Americas and Europe, the Colombian writer is celebrated as the authentic voice of the downtrodden peoples of Latin America. Now his new book of reportage, News of a Kidnapping, is being hailed as a literary and historical achievement. Here, in one book, you get the high pleasures of García Márquez's style and a true story of great importance. “More like a novel than all my novels,” García Márquez boasted in an interview with Newsweek last year, and yet, as he declared at a 1996 seminar of Latin American reporters, “every single detail in this book is real.” Call it magical realism journalism.

García Márquez's book is set in Colombia in 1990 and 1991, when the Medellín cocaine cartel used a campaign of murder, bombings and kidnapping to force César Gaviria, the newly elected president, to abandon his predecessor Virgilio Barco's policy of honoring an extradition treaty with the United States. Under the treaty, drug lords were delivered to the United States to stand trial in courts that they could not corrupt. Pablo Escobar, the boss of the cartel, calculated that public opinion would turn against extradition, if he made enough Colombian blood flow.

Colombians tended to see the war on drugs, at best, as a sop to the United States and, at worst, as a threat to their income. In the slums of Medellín, Escobar was something of a folk hero, a latter-day Dillinger. So Escobar's strategy paid off. As García Márquez puts it: “after the first bombs, public opinion demanded prison for the terrorists, after the next few bombings the demand was for extradition, but as the bombs continued to explode public opinion began to demand amnesty.” Gaviria could not withstand the cries for peace at any price. In May 1991, Escobar agreed to turn himself in to a “golden prison” near Medellín, in return for Gaviria's promise not to extradite him. Not surprisingly, Escobar continued to run his drug cartel from this phony jail, then bribed his way out anyway. He was finally killed in December 1993, in a shootout at the end of an American-orchestrated manhunt.

News of a Kidnapping tells the story of several prominent Colombians, most of them journalists, and most of them friends or acquaintances of García Márquez, whom Escobar seized as bargaining chips in his war against extradition. Two of these people, Marina Montoya, an elderly member of a prominent political family, and Diana Turbay, a TV journalist and daughter of a former president, were killed—the former by the kidnappers, the latter in a bungled rescue attempt by the police. The others were eventually freed in the deals that produced Escobar's sham confinement.

This must have seemed like powerful stuff when García Márquez's friends, Maruja Pachón, a journalist, and her husband Alberto Villamizar, a well-known politician, came to him and proposed that he write a book about her kidnapping. So the writer chose this subject for his grand return to reportage. The bulk of García Márquez's book describes the tense efforts of hostage families to negotiate their release, or the hostages' nerve-racking life in captivity. But fruitless negotiations are not all that spellbinding a subject, except for those who were personally involved, and neither are the gray days of a bored and frightened prisoner. Many years have passed since these events occurred.

This is where style comes to the rescue! García Márquez believes that he can freshen up old news through the sheer accretion of outlandish details, rendered in his poetically controlled, matter-of-fact tone. As he told that seminar in 1996 (thorough accounts of it have appeared in The Paris Review and World Policy Journal), “one must keep the reader hypnotized by tending to every detail, every word.” (And every slash of that Gurkha scimitar?) “It is a continuous act where you poison the reader with credibility and with rhythm.” Never mind the irony. The sort of journalism that is exemplified by García Márquez's book accomplishes precisely what he thinks it should accomplish: it poisons the reader with credibility.

Of course, there are passages in this book that remind one that the reporter is also a writer:

Everything was dismal and oppressive. In the corner to the left of the door, on a narrow bed with iron posts, sat a spectral woman with limp white hair, dazed eyes, and skin that adhered to her bones. She gave no sign of having heard them come in; not a glance, not a breath nothing. A corpse could not have seemed so dead. Maruja had to control her shock.

“Marina!” she whispered.

Marina Montoya, kidnapped three months earlier, was thought to be dead …

And there is the florid pointillism for which García Márquez is famous. Some of the kidnappers liked Guns ‘n’ Roses. One group of hostage negotiators flew in a six-passenger Bell 206, but a second group used a twelve-passenger Bell 412. Gaviria woke up at five in the morning on the day Escobar surrendered, and “without the help of an alarm clock.” Still, how many different ways can you describe a day in a dark room? The details become hypnotic in a way that García Márquez never intended. Even he seems to lose interest, dozing off into clichés. “Power—like love—is a double-edged sword.” Characters are “pursued by demons,” “besotted with drink,” “pale as death.” And so on.

But these failures of style are related to more serious matters of journalistic practice. For detail alone does not produce “credibility.” Quite the contrary. The accumulation of particulars is a fine way to provide the appearance of verisimilitude in the absence of its reality. It is possible to get the minor things right and the major things wrong. Simple declarative statements of the fantastical can be a form of propaganda. (“They held up the severed head by the hair and cut off the ears.”) This is especially likely when the magical realist journalist is himself close to the people and the events that he is writing about, but does not feel the need to disclose this fully to his readers. García Márquez's just-the-facts posture is not only tedious. It is also dishonest.

The essential background to any work of nonfiction by García Márquez is his own participation in the ideological and political dramas of Latin America. The extraordinary success of One Hundred Years of Solitude and the Nobel Prize have made “Gabo” a figure of enormous influence; it has been a long time since he could be plausibly described as a detached observer. At every opportunity, he has sought to involve himself in the high-level affairs of the powerful, in his native Colombia and elsewhere in the region. And, at every opportunity, he has used his prestige to advance a particular political agenda, whose only consistent principles have been mindless hostility to the United States, and mindless obeisance to Fidel Castro.


The origins of García Márquez's unreconstructed anti-Americanism lie in the mists of the 1920s, when the United Fruit Company still held sway on Colombia's Caribbean coast. Born in this region in 1928, García Márquez was raised by a grandfather who supported the populist wing of Colombia's anti-clerical Liberal Party, and who weaned his grandson on the legend of the great banana strike of '28, which ended when Colombian soldiers purportedly massacred hundreds of workers for demanding better wages and conditions from the gringos. That incident, vividly transmogrified in One Hundred Years of Solitude, hardened in García Márquez's imagination into an imperishable emblem of the entire historical relationship between the United States and Latin America.

But the Colombia of García Márquez's young adulthood was consumed by even worse killing, and it was entirely domestic in origin. La Violencia, as the civil war of 1948-1953 between the Liberal and Conservative Parties was known, caused about 150,000 deaths and lastingly undermined the legitimacy of the Colombian state. This war eventually petered out, and, after an interlude of military rule, the two parties agreed to trade power by means of periodic quasi-free elections. But soon came the wars waged by Marxist guerrillas, and then by right-wing death squads, and then by the drug cartels. La Violencia may have ended, but the violence never did.

Like many Latin American intellectuals of his generation, García Márquez felt shame and revulsion at his country's chaos and militarism, and sought explanations in large, impersonal forces: class conflict and American imperialism. Given his first lessons in Marx by teachers at boarding school, he joined the Communist Party of Colombia in 1950, when he was a 22-year-old beginning journalist. (These facts come from an interview García Márquez gave to his friend Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, published in Colombia in 1982.) Over the next decade or so of his clandestine membership, he used the party's underground leaders as sources for his newspaper stories, and collected dues for the party from other journalist-members (according to a biographical essay by Jacques Gilard in the authorized collection of García Márquez's journalism, published in Spain in 1983). García Márquez's political leanings were discernible already in his journalism of the 1950s, beginning with a series in the Bogotá paper El Espectador in 1954 about the plight of Colombian veterans returning from what García Márquez depicted as a pointless war against communism in Korea.

On three different occasions between 1955 and 1957, García Márquez traveled to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. His reports on the trips were first published by Momento of Caracas, Venezuela, in November 1957; they appeared as a book, A Voyage through the Socialist Countries: 90 Days Inside “The Iron Curtain,” in 1978. His account of life in the orbit of Soviet communism was sometimes critical, sometimes not. East Germans were the “saddest people I have ever seen,” but he met “not one Czech who was not more or less content with his lot in life.” The Poles, who were “just as anti-American as they were anti-Soviet,” told him that what they really wanted was “socialism … now.”

In Moscow, as a credentialed delegate to a Youth Festival, he admired Khruschchev's “reforms,” but he seemed unsure whether to believe the worst accounts of Stalin's terror. In Hungary, just a few months after the Soviet invasion, he noted the regime's police state tactics, but also the danger that “reactionaries” might exploit the weakness of the party. And, even in this context, García Márquez found reasons to blame America. Both the Hungarian government and the Soviet government “would have taken advantage of an opportunity for a decorous retreat,” he wrote. “But the West has not proposed a formula that permits them to save face, and the Hungarian people are the ones who are paying the consequences.”

Overall, as the biographer Stephen Minta writes, “the experience of the socialist states of eastern Europe led to no obvious changes in García Márquez's political attitudes.” He came back disillusioned with the Soviet model. He wrote in 1959 that the execution of Imre Nagy, Hungary's reform Communist leader, was a “political murder” that would play into the hands of capitalist propaganda; and, obviously, he resisted socialist realism as a literary method. But, still, he sought a collectivist alternative to American-style modernity. Democracy as we know it was never really the object of his desire. It was, in any event, a consequence of the economic circumstances. “Democracy in the developed countries is a product of their own development, and not vice versa,” he told Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza. “To try to introduce it in a crude form into countries with other cultures—like those of Latin America—is as mechanical and unreal as to try to introduce the Soviet system.” García Márquez's dream of a united Latin America was the dream of a great leap forward. It expressed a longing not so much for prosperity and freedom as for power: for a magical formula that could make gleaming cities rise out of the backwaters of Bolívar's continent, and unite its happy and heroic people into a mighty whole, capable of contending as equals with the colossus of the North.

It was not long before a proletarian Latin American hero appeared to answer García Márquez's longing. His name was Fidel.

Another early milestone in the evolution of García Márquez as a journalist was his visit to Havana in January 1959. He was invited by Castro to cover “Operation Truth,” or the trials—and executions—of hundreds of former officers of the Batista regime. García Márquez came away from this grim spectacle a believer, accepting an offer to help open a bureau of Prensa Latina, Castro's official wire service, in Bogotá. He spent the second half of 1960 working at Prensa Latina in Havana, and by early 1961 he was at Prensa Latina's bureau in New York—where he lasted only a few months. Aníbal Escalante's Moscow-line faction of the Cuban revolutionary elite tried to take control of the state press. Escalante distrusted García Márquez's mentor at the agency, the Argentine journalist Jorge Ricardo Masetti, who was too close to Che Guevara. One step ahead of the purge, García Márquez fled to Mexico and returned to his novels. In 1967, he produced the great One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Despite this brush with the revolution's mounting internal contradictions, García Márquez never gave up the ambition of being useful to Castro. His chance came in 1971. In that year the poet Heberto Padilla became the target of a cultural crackdown personally led by Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl Castro, the defense minister. Padilla's arrest prompted a group of leftish European, American and Latin American writers, including Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa and García Márquez, to sign a letter advising Castro of their “misgivings” about the treatment of Cuban writers. Castro responded with vitriol. The intellectuals wrote another letter, expressing “shame and anger.”

For many Latin American intellectuals, most notably Vargas Llosa, the Padilla case was the end of the honeymoon with Fidel, the Cuban Revolution and socialism in general. For García Márquez, the Padilla case was also a turning point—in the other direction. He refused to sign the second, tougher, letter from the intellectuals to Castro. Indeed, he began to protest that he had never approved the wording of the first one. Given the astounding impact of One Hundred Years of Solitude, his stance was important to Castro. The writer helped to mitigate what could have been an even worse embarrassment. And the caudillo reciprocated. García Márquez was welcomed into the inner circle of the Cuban regime. He was showered with privilege: his own institute of cinema in Havana (to support the making of films “sustained by the principles of sovereignty and unity against the principal enemy”), a mansion, a Mercedes, a staff of servants.

Now, many years later, the artistic repression, the economic failure and the political despotism of Castro's revolution are almost universally acknowledged. And still, Castro has no more fervent defender than García Márquez, who last year told Newsweek that “Cuba's doing very well emerging from its problems.” This is crazy. Why does García Márquez persist? Norberto Fuentes, a Cuban writer who was once close to both Castro and García Márquez, but has since left for Miami, told me that Cuban intelligence must control the Colombian through “some mechanism of blackmail, the exact nature of which I don't know,” but which may involve García Márquez's leftist past. Maybe, Maybe not. The reason for García Márquez's stubborn support of Castro is probably not so mysterious, however. García Márquez loves Castro because Castro hates America. “More than anything else,” he told the Mexican political analyst Jorge Castañeda, “when I finally got to know Fidel in 1972, for me he was a barrier to the United States in Latin America, a true Latin Americanist barrier.” “If it weren't for Cuba,” he told Newsweek, “the United States would be in Patagonia by now.”

On drug trafficking, too, García Márquez's attitude is basically an expression of his hackneyed antipathy toward America. Now, a case can be made that consumption in the north, and not production in the south, is the real problem: in the matter of drugs, the United States has not exactly covered itself in glory. But the criticism that may responsibly be leveled against the United States is nothing like the criticism that García Márquez levels against it. He criticizes the United States only in the most demagogic terms.

In November 1989, for example, García Márquez published a newspaper column in Colombia calling then-President Barco's decision to send six traffickers to the United States “shameful.” He told the Medellín newspaper El Mundo that “Colombia cannot give up its sovereignty and turn it over to a foreign nation. The next step would be to allow U.S. troops into Colombia to fight drug trafficking, and that would be totally unacceptable.” He also condemned the Gaviria government's “hypocrisy” for offering Escobar a deal while continuing police operations against the cartels. Even his proposal for the legalization of drugs, launched in a February, 1994 New York Times op-ed, is couched in anti-American terms. Legalization, he wrote, would end “the useless war that the consuming countries have inflicted on us.” “All the money Colombia invests in fighting drugs should be invested in the United States to research synthetic cocaine,” he told the Times in March 1995.

It seemed not to matter to García Márquez that his president could not seriously negotiate with the traffickers if he unilaterally stopped enforcement efforts; or that the specter of an American invasion of Colombia was a paranoid fantasy; or that the crimes with which the cartel bosses were charged included not just selling drugs to gringos, but murdering countless Colombians. Nor did García Márquez care much that the alleged violation of sovereignty represented by extradition was committed in accordance with a treaty that Colombia had ratified. Extradition is a perfectly common and necessary arrangement among states. When Canada recently sent a Saudi national suspected of terrorism against Americans to the United States, it did not thereby sacrifice its sovereignty. Only an extreme and irrational nationalist like García Márquez could feel threatened by transnational cooperation against transnational crime.

And only in the progressive imagination of someone like García Márquez could the Colombian drug lords be portrayed sympathetically as the victims of imperialism. The net effect of the writer's rhetoric was to bolster the traffickers' cynical efforts to wrap themselves in the mantle of Latin American solidarity. When Gaviria's government finally let Escobar dictate the terms of his “surrender,” it was obliged to do so at least in part because García Márquez had undermined its ideological position. If Colombians “demanded extradition, and then began to demand amnesty,” it was in part because their most illustrious countryman counseled them to give up the fight.

On the day of Escobar's sham surrender, the headline in Bogotá's El Tiempo was “TERROR WON.” For his part, García Márquez suddenly scrapped his earlier condemnations of Gaviria. He described the president's cave-in as “a triumph of intelligence.” News of a Kidnapping continues the prettification of the abject strategy that García Márquez advocated. “The plan did not propose negotiations with terrorism in order to conjure away a human tragedy for which the consuming nations bore primary responsibility,” García Márquez writes. “On the contrary: The aim was to make extradition a more useful judicial weapon in the fight against narcotraffic by making nonextradition the grand prize in a package of incentives and guarantees for those who surrendered to the law.”


That judgment is owed not only to García Márquez's doctrinaire anti-Americanism, but also to another, even more troubling aspect of the writer's mentality. All his passions and his principles notwithstanding, García Márquez has an unconquerable weakness for power, a self-described “obsession with different styles of power,” which, he has written, “is more than literary—it's almost anthropological.” It is also quite amoral.

García Márquez's power-worship was already evident on his early trips to Eastern Europe. Visiting Stalin's mausoleum in Red Square, he stood transfixed by the “delicacy” of the tyrant's embalmed hands: “They [were] the hands of a woman.” He found even Janos Kádár, the Hungarian party boss who called in Soviet tanks in 1956, to be an “intelligent, capable, and honest” leader, who, “in other circumstances, would have been the man of Hungary.” In more recent years, certainly, García Márquez's enthusiasm for the great man theory of history (more specifically, the great communist man theory of history) has been reflected in his words about Castro, which have been hagiographical. The Cuban dictator, he wrote in 1990, is afflicted by “shyness,” and yet he is “one of the greatest idealists of our time,” a profound intellectual who “breakfasts with no less than 200 pages of news from all over the world,” reads treatises on orthopedics in his spare time, and has the “faculty of discerning the evolution of a matter all the way to its remote conclusions. As if he could see the projecting mass of an iceberg at the same time as the seven-eighths of it underwater.”

César Gaviria is no Fidel Castro, and no dictator. But he had the power; and since 1991 he and García Márquez have become friends. The ex-president is now secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), a position that makes him eminently relevant to the writer's political machinations. Thus, García Márquez portrays this Colombian pol in the fustian that he usually reserves for, well, Castro. Gaviria “rested with the same discipline he applied to work.” (“A long time ago,” García Márquez wrote in 1990, Fidel “said ‘as important as learning to work is learning to rest.’”) Gaviria “could fall into a deep sleep for five or ten minutes, even sitting at his desk, and wake refreshed, while his colleagues collapsed with exhaustion,” (Castro, too, “left an intense work session at nearly midnight with visible signs of exhaustion, and returned in the predawn hours fully recovered after swimming for a couple of hours.”) When Gaviria learns something is amiss in his realm, he has only to demand, “‘When the hell is the ministry going to resolve this mess?’ The solution [is] instantaneous.” Remember: “Every single detail in this book is real.”

Worse García Márquez's “anthropological” obsession gets the better of him with regard to Pablo Escobar. The writer does not deny that Escobar committed “indiscriminate merciless terrorism.” But Don Pablo was, after all, a very powerful man. And so García Márquez makes excuses for him. When the drug lords launched their campaign of murder, they “offer[ed] to surrender to the authorities and bring home and invest their capital in Colombia, on the sole condition that they not be extradited.” This was merely the traffickers' traditional game of plata o plomo—take a bribe or take a bullet—writ large. García Márquez presents it as a good-faith proposition.

We learn that Escobar agreed to surrender as a “sacrifice for peace.” He treats a visitor with “cordiality and great respect.” His “devotion to family was proverbial.” In “a voice heavy with fearsome authority” and “with his awesome calm, he expressed regret for the suffering he had caused Villamizar and his family, but asked him to understand that the war had been very hard on both sides.” Tenderly, he asks a priest to bless a gold medal that he wore around his neck. García Márquez repeats the priest's assessment of Escobar without comment: “Deep down all men are good, although some circumstances can make them evil. Escobar is a good man.”

“The most unsettling and dangerous aspect of his personality,” García Márquez writes of Escobar, “was his total inability to distinguish between good and evil.” After reading García Márquez's equivocations regarding the murderer of Medellín, however, we are entitled to wonder if these same words apply to him, too. At the very least, García Márquez's treatment of Escobar is hard to square with his ostensible sympathy for the victims of the drug lord's kidnappings, who are, after all, both his friends and the main sources for “this autumnal work, the saddest and most difficult of my life.”

In García Márquez's mind, however, there is no contradiction. Despite his professed dismay at Colombia's “biblical holocaust,” he sees no need to apportion responsibility for it among Colombians. First, the whole mess is the fault of the United States: “People had been correct in identifying extradition as a contributing factor to social unrest, and in particular to the savagery of terrorism.” (García Márquez himself, of course, was the most prominent of these “people.”) So the Yankee devil made Escobar do it. And, second, the Escobar deal was a guilt-free solution by means of which all the Latin American men of power preserved their honor. Ever since he chided the West for denying the Soviets a polite way out of their Hungarian adventure, appeasement has been García Márquez's prescription for the resolution of conflict. In that spirit, he dedicates News of a Kidnapping to “all Colombians—innocent and guilty.”

Indeed, though García Márquez has been enmeshed of late in the Byzantine politics of Colombia itself, his own forte as a Latin American figure is the discreet brokering of freedom for hostages and political prisoners. His ace in the hole is his access to Castro, who releases the innocent in exchange for some benefit, tangible or intangible, while García Márquez reaps a reputation for humanitarianism. Just last year, García Márquez was the middleman between Castro and Gaviria, whose brother had been kidnapped by pro-Cuban Colombian guerrillas. García Márquez asked Castro to intercede: Garviria's brother was freed; the guerrillas decamped to Cuba. (All the Colombians, the innocent and the guilty, emerged unscathed.) Gaviria repaid Fidel with some friendly words at the OAS.

This is the deep and ugly irony of News of a Kidnapping: here we have a story about hostage-taking by a writer-celebrity whose political specialty is arranging the release of hostages, and whose efficacy in that role is a function of his relationship, direct or indirect, with the captors.

García Márquez, of course, sees it differently. “It's much more important for Latin America that I remain friends with [Castro] than for me to break with him,” he has said. Isn't Latin America better off for his policy of personal engagement with Castro? No, not exactly. A strategy of forever negotiating with terrorists, or their sponsors, tends to encourage more terrorism. Since 1979, when García Márquez and Graham Greene helped to spring two British bankers held by Marxist guerrillas in El Salvador, García Márquez's efforts as a hostage-liberator have had just such a cyclical quality. In 1980, M-19 terrorists seized the Dominican Republic's embassy in Bogotá, taking dozens of diplomats from all over the world hostage. García Márquez helped arrange for the guerrillas to release their captives and to escape to Havana with $5 million in ransom. Sure enough, an enriched and rearmed M-19 struck again in 1985, seizing the Palace of Justice in Bogotá with the entire Supreme Court as their hostages. García Márquez once again offered to broker a deal. “Gabo is a charlatan,” Colombia's Minister of Interior wisely concluded. An horrific battle ensued and dozens were killed, but M-19 was never a major threat again, and ultimately negotiated its peaceful conversion into a political party. (In News of a Kidnapping, García Márquez pointedly contrasts the Colombian government's conduct in the latter case with its conduct in the former, but he does not disclose his own role.)

García Márquez also touts his representations to Castro on behalf of Cuban dissidents. In a press conference in 1992, he claimed to have helped free over 2,000 political prisoners from Castro's jails. This is almost certainly an exaggeration. Even in those releases for which he has been credited, García Márquez was actually less helpful, and more calculating, than he claims. He takes credit, for instance, for Norberto Fuentes's exit in 1994; but Fuentes himself ascribes more importance to his own hunger strike, and to the protests of American writers. Fuentes told me that García Márquez mysteriously began to shun him in early 1989, when Fuentes fell out of favor with Castro. The two did not speak again until just before Fuentes left Havana.

And consider the case of Heberto Padilla. Instrumental in legitimizing the poet's persecution by Castro, García Márquez later accepted praise for assisting Padilla's eventual escape from Cuba to the United States in 1980. But history does not quite support his self-congratulation. In 1978, Padilla, still suffering house arrest and harassment, approached García Márquez at a Havana hotel, importuning him to use his influence with Castro to arrange an exit visa to Spain. García Márquez told Padilla coldly that “your leaving Cuba at this moment would harm the Revolution,” García Márquez warned that counter-revolutionaries in Spain would exploit the event; worse, journalists would be waiting for Padilla at the airport, ready to generate stories that would make Castro look bad.

Most of the pleading with Castro on Padilla's behalf was actually done by Senator Ted Kennedy, García Márquez's role seems to have consisted of lobbying the Venezuelan Congress to refrain from a resolution supporting Padilla that would have embarrassed Castro and, later, of showing up to escort Padilla out. Castro himself told Padilla, cryptically, that “García Márquez has worried a lot about your case.” In his memoir, Padilla suggests this did not mean that García Márquez had pressed the Cuban dictator to release the poet as a matter of conscience. Rather, García Márquez felt discomfited that Padilla's plight had been the occasion for his own falling out with the other superstars of Latin American literature.

Padilla recounts his last meeting in Havana with García Márquez this way:

“… I cannot hide from you the fact that it is annoying to be always walking around with a list of names [of imprisoned dissidents] for me to bring up when I see Fidel,” [García Márquez said]. “One day he'll get sick of me; but my question is this, Heberto: Why do you think it is that the Cuban government has the same problems with writers that the Soviet Union had in the past?”

I was surprised by the question. I thought he had already answered it a long time ago in his probing articles written during his visits to the Eastern bloc countries and to the Soviet Union.

He noticed my surprise. “I can assure you that I will keep whatever you say confidential. I know how to keep a secret.”

“But, Gabriel, those words of yours are already a part of the answer.”

Smiling, he said, “I guess that for a time these dilemmas will not be resolved in any socialist country. The Soviet Union has not found a solution in sixty years.”

Another Cuban who learned the hard way about the loyalties of García Márquez was Ileana de la Guardia. She is the daughter of Tony de la Guardia, the legendary Cuban secret agent who ran afoul of Castro in a 1989 purge. After a grotesque show trial, Tony de la Guardia and three other former high officials of the regime were sentenced to the firing squad. Ileana could not quite believe that Castro would execute a man who had worked so loyally for the revolution. She appealed to García Márquez to plead with Castro for her father's life. After all, García Márquez himself went back a long way with Tony and the other de la Guardias: Ileana's husband was the son of Jorge Ricardo Masetti, the Argentine leftist who had been García Márquez's mentor at Prensa Latina.

But García Márquez's efforts to save Tony de la Guardia consisted of nothing more than a late night visit to Castro, in which he limited himself to telling his friend elliptically that, if de la Guardia and his codefendants were executed, “nobody on earth will believe that it wasn't you who gave the order.” Now that is speaking truth to power! Needless to say, this purely tactical remark made no impact on Castro, and Tony de la Guardia was shot as scheduled. (The whole story is told in Castro's Final Hour by Andres Oppenheimer.) Meanwhile, García Márquez stopped returning Ileana's phone calls. He showed up in Madrid shortly after the executions, extenuating Castro's deed: “It was a military trial and there is capital punishment for the crime of high treason in all the legislations of the world,” he announced. “That was a little shocking for us,” Ileana told me.


Now the man who brought us the bloodthirsty Gurkhas of Las Malvinas has set himself up as an arbiter of journalistic standards for all of Latin America. In a series of recent speeches and articles, he has decried an ethical crisis in contemporary journalism. He condemns modern newsrooms as “dehumanizing laboratories, where it seems easier to communicate with galactic phenomena than with the hearts of our readers.” He has established a Foundation for a New Ibero-American Journalism in Cartagena, Colombia, funded by Western taxpayers via UNESCO, where he gives young reporters pointers in reportorial ethics and style.

In fact, the Latin American press has never been more vibrant and effective than it is today. The media have played a central role in the regional renaissance of democracy and civil society, exposing corruption and human rights abuses from Mexico to Chile. A few years ago, the Brazilian weekly Veja almost single-handedly brought about the impeachment of President Fernando Collor de Mello. This welcome change is due partly to the growth of the private sector, which has permitted the financing of sophisticated non-state broadcasting, and has freed print media from their traditional dependence on state-supplied paper and government advertising. And it is due as well to the courage of individual reporters such as Gustavo Gorriti of Peru, who has documented both governmental and guerrilla atrocities in his country, and Carlos Fernando Chamorro, an ex-Sandinista who has learned from his propagandist's past and now writes what may be the first trustworthy political reporting in Nicaraguan history.

García Márquez would have us believe that everything was better in the 1950s, when he was a cub reporter bouncing around Bogotá, Barranquilla and Caracas. “We journalists always stuck together, we had a life in common and were so passionate about our work that we didn't talk about anything else,” he told the annual meeting of the Inter-American Press Association in 1996. This self-aggrandizing nostalgia obscures the grim past of the Latin American press: the bribery, the factual inaccuracy, the rampant political clientelism—not to mention the fact that García Márquez himself spent some of this golden age dunning colleagues on behalf of the Communist Party, or the fact that, according to Jacques Gilard's account, García Márquez's own reports from Paris in the 1950s were little more than recycled articles from L'Express and Le Monde, though generally García Márquez did not cite his sources.

In many places in Latin America, of course, reporters are still subject to the bribery and bullying of the authorities. In Peru, Alberto Fujimori recently stripped an Israeli-born TV news entrepreneur of his Peruvian citizenship as retaliation for his station's reports about Fujimori's domestic political spying. It is only in Cuba, however, that independent journalists are systematically harassed and jailed, that the press is still controlled outright by the state. García Márquez has barely lifted a finger to change that scandalous situation, much less raised his voice to denounce it. Indeed, he has claimed for years that he has written a critical book about socialism in Cuba, but will publish it only after the United States lifts its trade embargo against the island.

Uncomfortable with institutions that hold men of power accountable for their actions, and addled by his resentment of America, García Márquez cannot comprehend the role of a free press, or other manifestations of the new democratic and capitalist order in the hemisphere. He seems to believe that the latest covert operation of the United States in Latin America is Latin American democracy itself. “I ask myself if this type of democracy isn't too vulnerable and, above all, if the United States continues to pose a very great danger to us,” he told Newsweek. His posturings have become even more empty and self-contradictory than usual, García Márquez's most recent stunt was to depart for self-imposed exile from Colombia once again, proclaiming that he could no longer abide the corrupt rule of President Ernesto Samper, a man whom he had previously defended from gringo charges of narco-democracy. His refuge? That great drug-free zone, Mexico. (It is just a matter of time before we hear about his intense friendship with, and the Herculean work habits of, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas.)

García Márquez's advice to young journalists is very, very strange. At his seminar in Cartagena last year, a dozen of Latin America's most promising reporters heard him declare that “journalism is not a job, it's a gland.” Picking up the morning Cartagena paper, he turned to the classified ads. A woman was selling her brand-new stove, still in pieces. “Why is the stove unassembled?” García Márquez wondered. “This could be a story. Should we call?” No one at the table knew quite what to say.

But if that non-story qualifies for García Márquez's front page, his own partnership with Castro is not necessarily the news. “This is not an interview,” he barked when a member of the seminar broached the subject. “If I want to express my opinion on Fidel, I'll write it myself, and believe me, I'll do a better job.” (Besides, this professor of journalistic ethics charges up to $10,000 for an interview, using the proceeds to finance his film institute in Havana.) “Fidel is one of the people I love most in the world,” he explained. “A dictator,” someone muttered. The writer shot back: “To have elections is not the only way to be democratic.” But a Venezuelan member of the seminar persisted: “No one has elected you to office. You don't have a public office, why do you act as Fidel Castro's honorary chancellor?” “I will not respond to a question asked in bad faith,” García Márquez huffed. “I do it because he is my friend, and I believe one must do everything for one's friends. I am always running errands for my friends.”

Only a few months after this remarkable exchange, the author of News of a Kidnapping stood before the Inter-American Press Association and denounced “bad journalists [who] cherish their source as their own life, especially if it is an official source, and endow it with a mythical quality, protect it, nurture it, and ultimately develop a dangerous complicity with it. …” The errand-runner lacks a sense of irony. He also lacks a sense of decency.

John Bemrose (review date 1 September 1997)

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SOURCE: Bemrose, John. “Cocaine's Captives.” Maclean's 110, no. 35 (1 September 1997): 56.

[In the following review, Bemrose derides García Márquez's lack of analysis as well as his focus on upper-class characters in News of a Kidnapping, but notes that the book is still an unforgettable piece of journalism.]

One autumn evening in 1990, in Bogotá, Maruja Pachon and her sister-in-law, Beatriz Villamizar, were being driven home from work by Pachon's chauffeur when their lives spun into nightmare. Two cars suddenly cut off their Renault, forcing it to stop. With chilling swiftness, gunmen stepped up to the vehicle, killed the chauffeur, forced the women into their own vehicles and drove off. Pachon and Villamizar had just become pawns in a murderous, long-term confrontation between the Colombian government and Pablo Escobar, the head of the country's notorious international drug trade. The two women—they both worked for a government agency promoting the country's films—were valuable to Escobar because they had strong family connections to several politicians who had waged war against the drug trade. They were at the beginning of an ordeal that would last six months—in a fetid, windowless room where the lights were never turned off, and their guards' guns were ever at the ready.

Pachon and Villamizar are among the 10 kidnapping victims whose stories are chronicled in News of a Kidnapping, by Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez. Best known for such fiction masterpieces as One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, Márquez is also a journalist of extraordinary powers. In News of a Kidnapping, he has woven a complex narrative that focuses on all of the victims as well as several of the country's leading politicians, the victims' families and Escobar himself—endowing their tale with a thriller-like momentum. There is a price to be paid, however, for his emphasis on narrative drive: the book is short on analysis, and the deeper causes and social ramifications of Colombia's drug wars are left in the background. As well, the poor people of the slums of Medellín—the city of 1.6 million where the drug trade has drawn many foot soldiers and victims—are just bit players in a drama that, by and large, focuses on Colombia's upper classes. Still, on a bad day the rich can suffer as much as the poor, and for a gripping account of how a state of near lawlessness can impact on a few privileged people, News of a Kidnapping is unforgettable.

Márquez does sketch in enough about the state of his country at the beginning of the decade to give the kidnappings a context. Torn not only by drug wars but also by the terrorism of various left-wing guerrilla groups, Colombia endured dozens of political assassinations, including bombings that killed hundreds of innocent citizens. In Medellín alone, in the first two months of 1991, there were 1,200 murders, an average of 20 a day. Two thousand people in that city's slums were reportedly working for Escobar, eager to claim the bounties he offered for the deaths of policemen (they got five million pesos—about $9,000 Cdn—for every dead officer). And meanwhile, the police themselves killed slum boys indiscriminately, on the theory that they were probably working for Escobar.

In such a situation, it seems remarkable that all but two of the hostages survived. But Escobar was holding Pachon, Villamizar and the others for a very specific purpose, Hounded mercilessly by the country's security forces, he was exhausted and wanted to surrender—but only if the government would guarantee he would not be extradited to the United States, where he was high on the wanted list. Other kingpins in the drug trade had suffered this fate and been given sentences totalling hundreds of years. So Escobar was using the kidnap victims to lever the government towards an official policy of non-extradition. And in the end, he seems to have been completely successful (though ultimately he was killed by police in 1998, after escaping from his Colombian prison).

The victims watched this political drama being played out on television. They also watched special programs—a great source of hope to them—in which their families wished them well. But the TV was not always a beneficent presence. Some of the guards watched pornographic movies on the VCR, and bragged of the rapes they had committed. The atmosphere was terrifying, but none of the victims was sexually assaulted. They were however, chained to beds, made to talk in whispers, verbally threatened and fed endless meals of lentils. Little wonder many of them spiralled into depression and ill health. Yet all, to some degree, got to know their guards—mostly poor young men Márquez believes were in desperate need of positive parental figures. All the hostages fixed on small rituals that helped keep them sane. Marina Montoya, an elderly woman held with Pachon and Villamizar, became obsessed with giving herself manicures.

Márquez's description of Montoya's murder is one of the most gripping passages in the book. Told she was being moved to another hiding place, she was swept with premonitions that she was going to be killed. She prayed feverishly, filed her nails and finally mustered enough dignity to arrange her hair and walk from the room. Later, her body was found in a field north of Bogotá. Her face had been destroyed by six bullets, but her hands were youthful, pristine.

Márquez has a tendency to cast the principals of his tale—people such as Villamizar's husband, politician Alberto, who worked tirelessly for her release—in a heroic light, as though they were larger-than-life figures from one of his own magic-realist novels. And yet his poetic exaggerations may not be all that far off the mark, for it is clear from News of a Kidnapping that the extreme evil endured by his country also called up courage and resourcefulness of an exceptional kind.

Joseph A. Page (review date 26 September 1997)

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SOURCE: Page, Joseph A. “Unmagical Realism.” Commonweal 124, no. 16 (26 September 1997): 20-1.

[In the following review, Page criticizes News of a Kidnapping, asserting that “perhaps the most glaring weakness of the book is its failure to put these events in a perspective that would render them more comprehensible to readers unfamiliar with Colombia's tortured history.”]

Like the proverbial 800-pound gorilla, Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez can sit wherever he pleases, even if this means abandoning the field of Latin American fiction he has dominated since the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967. So when he decided, as a personal favor to one of the victims, to write a nonfictional account of a series of drug-trafficking-related kidnappings in his native Colombia in 1990, there could be no doubt that his endeavor would find its way into print.

Unfortunately, neither the substantive content nor the literary qualities of News of a Kidnapping come near matching the dimensions of his generous impulse. The book takes as its subject an episode that will scarcely rate as a blip on the radar screen of Colombia's recent history. Moreover, the author's terse style recalls his early career as a journalist, and reflects a conscious choice to let the hostages tell their own stories without impressing upon them the stamp of the García Márquez imagination. (It is as though we were witnessing future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux work on the mound in a slow-pitch softball game.)

The narrative recounts how agents working for the country's most notorious drug dealer, Pablo Escobar, snatched nine Colombians and one German in four discreet operations between late August and early November of 1990, and held them as bargaining chips in negotiations between the authorities and the traffickers, with the latter doggedly determined to avoid the possibility of extradition to the United States. The Colombian government sought the peaceful surrender of the narco-kingpins, who in turn demanded assurances that they would serve prison terms in Colombia and that they and their families would be protected from violent reprisals.

Perhaps the most glaring weakness of the book is its failure to put these events in a perspective that would render them more comprehensible to readers unfamiliar with Colombia's tortured history. García Márquez was obviously writing for his compatriots, which makes inexcusable the failure of his American publisher to provide background information, a simple chronology, or even an index.

The state of near anarchy giving rise to the events described in News of a Kidnapping forms part of a complex layering of turbulence that has enveloped Colombia over the past half century. A political assassination in 1948 triggered an orgy of killing that lasted for more than a decade and claimed more lives than the American Civil War. This tragic convulsion, known simply as “La Violencia” (“The Violence”), combined undeclared warfare between the nation's two major political parties with blood feuds in the isolated communities of the mountainous interior, as well as with unvarnished banditry.

Just when some sort of peace was returning to Colombia, various Cuban-inspired guerrilla groups launched a series of bloody offensives, which in turn provoked extreme brutality on the part of security forces bent on annihilating them without regard for basic human rights.

The curse of violence then took a new and even deadlier turn as a result of the success of the nation's powerful cocaine-trafficking cartels that built an industry generating billions of dollars in income and spreading the rot of corruption throughout Colombian society. The narcotics peddlers resisted government efforts to eliminate them by murdering public officials, political candidates, judges, journalists, and innocent by-standers.

García Márquez makes fleeting references to this historical context. However, readers looking for a more comprehensive treatment should consult Alma Guillermoprieto's brilliant chapter on Colombia in her book, The Heart That Bleeds.

The aftermath of the kidnappings demonstrates their relative insignificance in the broader scheme of things. Pablo Escobar did in fact eventually order the release of eight of the hostages (one was executed and another killed in a shootout when the police stumbled upon the neighborhood where she was being held). Escobar gave himself up and was confined in a specially constructed prison which had many of the characteristics of a country club and from which he casually strolled, an escape made possible by some well-placed bribes. The police subsequently tracked him down and killed him. Yet the cocaine trade continues to flourish, and recent reports of payments made by the drug traffickers to Colombian legislators (and allegedly even to the president) demonstrate the deep roots of lawlessness in the country.

García Márquez presents a somewhat muted portrait of Escobar, whose larger-than-life qualities would seem to have been perfect grist for the author's literary talents. One wonders, for example, what flights of fantasy he might have constructed from the following minimalist passage he tossed off in News of a Kidnapping: “Politicians, industrialists, businesspeople, journalists, even ordinary freeloaders, came to the perpetual party … where Pablo Escobar kept a zoo with giraffes and hippos brought over from Africa, and where the entrance displayed, as if it were a national monument, the small plane used to export the first shipment of cocaine.”

Indeed, the part of the narrative that comes closest to the wizardry for which García Márquez is best known describes Escobar's bizarre surrender, apparently provoked by an appeal from a saintly eighty-two-year-old cleric whose long-running evening sermonettes (“God's Minute”) reached a wide radio audience despite their tendency to lapse into total incomprehensibility. The priest took it upon himself to act as mediator between Escobar and the government, and made personal contact with the trafficker, who thereupon released the hostages and presented himself to the authorities.

News of a Kidnapping displays occasional deft touches, but on the whole it is a minor work by a major talent.

Alastair Reid (review date 9 October 1997)

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