Friday, 18 April 2014

GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ: AN INCOMPARABLE, ILLIMITABLE VISION

You could argue that Gabriel Garcia Marquez was the best, and possibly the most influential, novelist of the second half of the last century. One Hundred Years Of Solitude was near the top of my own list of the 20th Century's greatest novels, and it's one of those rare books that both appeals to critics and to the general non-literary public. Love In The Time Of Cholera is not all that far behind Solitude, and he wrote a number of other fine books.

He's often described as the major figure in 'magic realism', though that was a term he didn't have much time for. You might say he, and his contemporaries, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, Manuel Puig, and others who made Latin American fiction so dynamic in the 70s and 80s were influenced by Jorge Luis Borges, and Julio Cortazar and Alejo Carpentier—but they were also influenced by many more traditional story-tellers, not just in the Spanish language. And they were able to find a kind of fiction that reflected the illogically fantastic world of history and reality in Central and South America. What sets Marquez apart from his contemporaries is his sense of historical scope, matched only by Vargas Llosa, combined with a wide humanity, and a loving, humorous approach which can easily be absurdist, a sort of Vonnegut without the stand-up punch lines.

Gene Wolfe once said that magic realism was 'just fantasy written in Spanish' and there is a certain amount of truth in that too—I think these Latin American writers in the 70s were also using elements of that post-modern revolution of the Sixties, breaking down boundaries of fiction, and giving their own familiar tales a new spin. A similar thing was happening on a smaller scale in Canada; you'll think immediately of Michael Ondaatje, maybe early Margaret Atwood, but there were others, most notably Ray Smith and his novel Lord Nelson Tavern, who reflected a similar approach. Later, as the term magic realism took hold, its influence spread, and you can see it in everything from Salman Rushdie to Toni Morrison to Tom Robbins.

I'm surprised that, as magnificent as One Hundred Years Of Solitude is, I don't remember better when and where and how I came to read it. But I don't. I recall vividly my beautiful Avon/Bard edition, which wasn't published until 1971, so it had to have been sometime after that, probably not long.

I do know by then I had read Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch, in its 1967 Signet edition, another handsome paperback not unlike Pynchon's V, and with much of the same appeal. Hopscotch would later be reissued in a later Avon/Bard reprint—I should say that I could fill a shelf with those Bard translation of Latin novels, with their uniform look and imaginative covers. Hopscotch was what we might call post-modern; you read the novel and then went back and re-read it in a different order selected by Cortazar. You can see the link with Borges, and in its playfulness, the link to Marquez. The translation was by Gregory Rabassa, who would later do Solitude, and for it win the first-ever National Book Award for translation. Marquez has been well-served by his translators—Rabassa and then Edith Grossman.

So I may have come to Marquez via Cortazar, which would mean via Paul Blackburn. I remember reading Blackburn's poem 'The Watchers' in an old New Yorker in a doctor's waiting room; I think I was getting my head stitched up. A little research reveals it was the 10 December 1966 issue of the New Yorker, which means it was probably early 1967, and I was either 15 or 16. My poetic eyes had been opened by E.E. Cummings, but this was something new, another step forward. From there I then noticed somehow that Blackburn was the translator of End Of The Game, a collection of Cortazar's stories that would soon be retitled Blow Up, after the movie based on that story came out. That led me, in my own literary hopscotch,  to Hopscotch, and at some point, to Solitude.

And years later I would meet a woman who had attended Marquez's son's wedding in Mexico City, and it had snowed. I wrote a poem about that, which you can read here.

I have to say I knew even as I was reading the novel, it would be one of the greatest I would ever read, and nothing in the past four decades has changed that opinion. I have huge admiration for his other writing, Autumn Of The Patriarch and The General In His Labyrinth in particular, and as I say, with Cholera he came up with another novel whose beauty resonates on a vast human level. He was an astute journalist and a courageous figure politically—he was barred from the US for decades before Bill Clinton at last invited him to the White House. His politics remained on the left even as Vargas Llosa moved past the third way into a run at the Peruvian presidency as a free-marketeer. The feud which disturbed their friendship was personal, but the political differences widened and strengthened the rift. His memors read almost exactly as you'd expect, as if the magic and the realism were blended together out of personal history. His is an incomparable, illimitable vision.

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