Reading Márquez is like coming home. The connection of this thinking to the title of this story collection was not an intentional one when I first wrote that line; however, it is, I find now, quite apt. Márquez’s skill at immersing the reader in his places, characters’ situations, and in moments in time is, on reflection, worthy of analysis by any writer looking to hone their own craft. Márquez spends time on his words, and that time rewards his efforts.
In his prologue to this collection (originally published in Spanish as Doce Cuentos Peregrinos, 1992; this English translation by Márquez himself, Penguin Books, 1994), the author delivers the history of the stories. He started with sixty four ideas (notes to form a novel): he wrote some of these ideas up, lost energy on others, lost the notes to many more, reconstructed as many as possible, and whittled those down to the final twelve. As a former reporter and foreign correspondent in various cities across Europe (where the stories are set), Márquez, the Colombian, then needed to check that his memories of places tallied with how those places actually were. He found that they didn’t. He re-wrote the stories, stating that ‘I could not detect the dividing line between disillusionment and nostalgia . . . I had found what I needed to complete the book, what only the passing of years could give: a perspective in time.’ The whole process took some eighteen years, from the early seventies to the early nineties. The stories, these strange pilgrims, had come home.
Reading Márquez is like coming home. His characters, Latin Americans in Europe, spring quickly from the page. Márquez tries to deliver as much hook in the first paragraphs of his stories as he can. This reader’s analysis focuses on some minute but telling details: in his characters, Márquez has a penchant for the full name (immediately giving us some sense of a person; some feel for the possibility of a history; some flavour of the Spanish language flow of the tale that could well be melted into the original language, but which also flows, for the most part, well in English). So, we have María de la Luz Cervantes, Miguel Otero Silva, Maria dos Prazeres, Señora Prudencia Linero, Fulvia Flaminea, Nena Daconte, et al.
This is not all. Márquez’s travels have given him an eye for description of place and how that might feel for his characters: descriptions of the portentous wind at Cadaqués near Barcelona; desolation in the side-streets of Paris; the squalid hotel room of an exiled president in Les Grottes, Geneva. It is this ability to sink the reader down into the fabric of the book, the place and person in the print, that Márquez excels at. To this he also adds to the mix something that every writer ought really to aspire to: that is, the succinct ability to pinpoint a description with a minute but significant object detail (something I have been thinking of for quite a while, and something I currently think of as the ‘specific integrities’ of those objects). Márquez offers up not just ordinary words and phrases, but rather the specific details: ‘he cooked his own food in a can over an alcohol lamp’ (Tramontana); ‘he wore a kind of street pajama made of raw cotton’ (I Only Came to Use the Phone); ‘the glacial factories, the vast fields of Roissy devastated by fierce lions’ (Beauty and the Airplane).
What these stories present, for the most part, is believable patterns of lives, though in the sometimes slightly fabulous ways of magic realism. Could a small wound caused by a rose, such as suffered by Nena Daconte in The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow, really bleed so much on the road trip from Madrid to Paris? Could seventeen poisoned Englishmen in the lobby of a hotel in Naples (‘seated in symmetrical order, as if they were only one man repeated many times in a hall of mirrors’), in Seventeen Poisoned Englishmen, all succumb so to the oyster soup at supper? Could a sea wave issue forth with enough force to embed a car into a hotel wall, in I Sell My Dreams (‘the body of a woman found secured behind the steering wheel by a seat belt . . . [the blow having been] so brutal that not a single one of her bones was left whole’)?
The fabulous infringement on reality, of course, doesn’t matter: intertwined as it is in the stylistic choice. This is the beauty and the power of Márquez’s immersive abilities. As we get to the final stages of the collection, Márquez plays more with the fantastical. Toying with the knowledge that Madrid has no river, landlocked, Márquez tells the tale (with a slight detour into authorial explanation), in Light is Like Water, of two boys, bought an aluminium boat by their parents as a reward for school work, who break a bulb and flood the apartment with light. They invite their classmates when their parents are out and a party ensues, though thirty seven classmates end up drowning in the light there. ‘[Light] spilled over balconies, poured in torrents down the façade, and rushed along the great avenue in a golden flood that lit the city all the way to the Guadarrama.’
Though such beautiful arrangements above are evident in this collection, I can’t help wondering if Márquez’s writing is better suited, on balance, to the longer form. Certainly on the odd occasion in this collection, such as in The Ghosts of August, Márquez ends abruptly and seemingly on the cusp of an idea. That we might wake in a room different to the one we went to sleep in is, for this collection at least, not so satisfactory a tale. Márquez seems to enjoy the ‘folding in’ of characters in his stories: that is to say, he delivers a promising opening; he offers us place and character and a rough idea of where those characters are heading in the piece; then he folds in some extra details to give further colour to the whole, before often folding in further still by delivering some back story details to the personal histories of those characters. Sometimes this works and sometimes it’s a distraction. Sometimes the reader is left a little frustrated but then, wait, Márquez knows what he’s doing and this back tale here is needed later, we find. This folding, as I call it, needs space, and that space in the short story is precious.
There are some other minor aspects of this particular translation that cause slight pause for concern, for this reader at least. There is the odd occasion of tortured syntax, the dogged insistence in not splitting the infinitive, and the American English use of such stylistic decisions as capital letters following colons. These quibbles could be a result of translations for the American English version, and/or due to the author’s own writing choices in the original Spanish (the latter I won’t know). That said, in the case of punctuation, even in matters of house style there ought to be some consistency and there are occasions where this does not follow in this collection. Of sentence structure, moments such as ‘we had bathed in a steaming pool of waters so dense you almost could walk on them’ (Miss Forbes’s Summer of Happiness) cause some small irritation.
These moments, however, are more than offset but the abundance of beautiful arrangement, skilled immersion, and the odd flash of wry humour in this collection. Márquez writes, for example, ‘we ate under a mauve sky with a single star’ (The Ghosts of August); ‘We would ride on his Vespa, he driving and I sitting behind, and bring ices and chocolates to the little summer whores who fluttered under the centuries-old laurels in the Villa Borghese’ (The Saint); ‘The functionary who received him in the name of the ambassador looked as if he had just recovered from a fatal disease’ (The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow).
Reading Márquez is like coming home because, once encountered and if immersed, he and his writing are far-flung friends for life.
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The Oxford English Dictionary defines the genre of magic realism as a “literary style in which realistic techniques such as naturalistic detail, narrative, etc., are similarly combined with surreal or dreamlike elements (www.oed.com).” This is clearly not a genre we looked at in class, and yet it is not all that different from other genres we have studied. For example, the OED defines science fiction as “imaginative fiction based on postulated scientific discoveries or spectacular environmental changes, freq. set in the future or on other planets and involving space or time travel (www.oed.com).” If magic realism is the combination of realistic and surreal elements and science fiction of fictional and scientific elements it is not unfounded to say that these two genres are cut of the same cloth.
I was introduced to this genre this semester in my Introducción al análisis literario (Introduction to literary analysis) class; first by reading a short story “La luz es como el agua (The light is like the water or Light is like Water)” by Gabriel García Márquez, and more recently by reading the novel Como agua para chocolate (Like water for chocolate) by Laura Esquivel. At the introduction to both stories my professor mentioned, in passing, that they were examples of magical realism and then in the same breath reminded us to not think of that when writing up our analyses. It was not until sitting and talking with Anne that I realized how weird of a statement that was. Why would we not want to look at the genre in the analysis of these stories? I can imagine that he was afraid that we would look at some of the strange elements that make up magical realism and write them off as nothing more than elements of a genre. It is like he was afraid that we would not look into the meanings that these elements represent. However, I think there is a reason that these authors represented these stories within genres of magical realism. Just like how science fiction uses fiction to represent scientific elements, these examples of magical realism use the surreal, dream-like elements to represent the complexity of human emotions.
“La luz es como el agua” or Light like Water is a short story in the collection Doce cuentos peregrinos or Strange Pilgrims. It is about a family from Columbia that is living in Madrid. The two children of the family listen to their parents talk about their homeland and eventually ask for a small boat, so that when they return to Columbia they can go rowing on the river. While the parents are out the children smash open a light bulb and light starts pouring out of it like water (hence the title). The children explore this light-water in their boat and later with scuba gear they get from their parents. In the end, however, the light fills the apartment to the point where it is pouring out of the windows and onto the street. The children are still inside. They have drowned.
The element of magical realism in this story is primarily the light that behaves as water. This light is a physical representation of the nostalgia that the children feel for the homeland that they do not and cannot remember. The defining feature of that unknown land is the water that they would be able to sail and explore under the guidance of their parents had they not been living in Madrid. It represents the children’s desire to explore and learn about a land that they are connected to but kept from. It is their unfamiliarity with their homeland, and by extension the light, that overwhelms them and manifests in their deaths.
Márquez could have easily written a story where two children missed their homeland; however, using the elements of magical realism he has created this depth to their emotions that I do not know if he could capture otherwise. Their emotions become something tangible. We are captivated by their past because we are focused on this golden light-water and we are devastated by their despair when we realize they have drowned. The elements of magical realism are what allow the reader to really visualize the depth of feeling these children experience.
Como agua para chocolate or Like Water for Chocolate is a novel about a young woman, Tita, who is unable to marry her love, Pedro, because family tradition states that she is supposed to take care of her mother up until her mother’s death. In order to stay close to her, Pedro marries her sister Rosaura. With this backdrop, the author uses elements of magical realism to help express the complexity of the human emotions and conditions found within the house. Perhaps one of the most iconic scenes of magical realism in the book occurs in the chapter titles Quail in Rose Petal Sauce. I have included a link to the scene in the movie to help illustrate the magical realism. In this chapter of the novel, Pedro gives Tita roses to celebrate her anniversary of being the ranch’s chief. Her mother, seeing the meaning behind this exchange, orders Tita to throw out the roses. However, before she does she hears the voice of her dead mentor, Nacha, reminding her of a recipe that she can use the roses in.
Tita hearing the voice of her dead mentor is one element of magical realism that occurs throughout the novel. I believe it expresses Tita’s desire to be living back when her mentor was alive, before Pedro married her sister. The voice of her mentor appears quite often in other scenes that are similar to the scene I linked to. To go back to the scene above; the magical realism exists in the fact that Tita is able to transfer her love and desire for Pedro through her cooking. The clip shows the family around the table eating the meal that Tita has prepared. They are all visibly affected by the emotions that are living within the food. As a result, the writer (or director in the case of the clip) has created a visual representation of the emotions Tita is feeling. Instead of just describing her intense emotions the reader and viewer are able to see these emotions expressed through the reactions of everyone eating the dish. The scene goes on to have Gertrudis, the sister most affected by the dish, running into the arms of a man and leaving the ranch to go explore her sexuality. Having such drastic events happening really highlights the strength and intensity of her emotions.
We are also able to learn more about Tita as a person through the elements of magical realism. After the birth of Rosaura and Pedro’s first child, Rosaura is unable to nurse the child. Tita, who was also not nursed as a baby, tries to recreate the same teas and foods she was fed as an infant with little success. Surprisingly Tita is able to produce milk to feed her nephew even though at this point she is still a virgin and has never been pregnant. This unrealistic turn of events is a manifestation of Tita’s desire to nurture those she cares about. Her inability to nurture her nephew is so upsetting to her that she begins to create nourishment with her body that should not be possible.
At the end of the novel there is another key scene of magical realism. Years have passed, Rosaura has died and her daughter is getting married. Pedro and Tita are excited for the bride and also because they are finally able to be together without fear of upsetting Tita’s family. After everyone leaves Tita and Pedro are left alone and they make love for the first time without worrying about being caught. Tita sees a gate of light open up in front of her but refuses to go down and it returns to the real world where she realizes that Pedro had gone into the light and died. The explanation for why this happened is basically that as humans we have an internal flame that burns and sometimes it burns so brightly that it uses all of the fuel at once. When this occurs the gate into the spirit world opens and if you enter it, well you die. Tita realizes that this is what happened to Pedro and she wants desperately to join him. So, she begins eating matches while remembering all of the moments of passion between her and Pedro in their lives. Finally the gate opens for her too and she meets Pedro in this other world. When they touch, the ranch catches fire and burns to the ground, leaving nothing but ashes when Pedro’s daughter and new husband return from their honeymoon.
This scene is a culmination of everything that Tita and Pedro are. In other words, the intense burning of the internal flame that leads to their deaths is an expression of the love and passion they hold inside themselves. The actual flames that jump from their meeting in the other world and burn down the ranch where they lived are a physical representation of the love and passion that was greater than could be expressed with just words. We literally see the flames of their passion that destroy not only them but the home they shared for many years.
Magical realism is like many of the genres we have recently looked at in class where there is a merging of reality and fiction. How science fiction uses fiction to represent science, magical realism uses magical surreal elements to represent some real aspect. In the two examples I have been exposed to, these real aspects are the complexities of human emotions, personalities, and relationships. The realism, for me, refers to the reality of emotional life that we all face. Looking at these two stories again with their genres in mind has given me insight into the depth of emotion that these authors are expressing.
Esquivel, Laura. Como agua para chocolate. Barcelona: Grupo Editorial Random House
Mondadori, 1990. Print.
"magic realism, n.". OED Online. March 2012. Oxford University Press. 18 April 2012
Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. Doce cuentos peregrinos. 6th ed. Barcelona: Grupo Editorial Random
House Mondadori, 1998. 187-90. Print.
"ˈscience ˈfiction, n.". OED Online. March 2012. Oxford University Press. 19 April 2012