Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Book: Living to Tell the Tale - Marquez autobiography

"Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it" writes Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his memoirs titled Living to Tell the Tale.

The sad news of the demise of this wonderful writer came last Friday while I was still midway through reading his amazing memoirs written twelve years ago. The book had been my constant companion for a few days during my commutes to work and the news of his departure made me sit through and complete it during the weekend. A kind of silent last respects to an author who had a tremendous influence on the way I look at literature itself.

It was in the Eighties that I first read about this master storyteller in an editorial written by the kannada writer-journalist P. Lankesh, in his influential weekly journal Lankesh Patrike. Marquez's novel Love in the Time of Cholera had been published around that time and Lankesh had written about the poeticisation of old age and love in that novel.

The first Marquez book I read was around the late Nineties and the book was his Nobel prize winning novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Looking back now, after more than fifteen years, I can only vaguely remember the story. It was not one of the regular novels with a regular storyline. It was something altogether different. What I remember clearly to this day is the absolute spell that the story had cast on me. A sense of desolation, gloom, and melancholy. The sheer power of words to create an atmosphere!

Sample this: “Then, for more than ten days, they did not see the sun again. The ground became soft and damp, like volcanic ash, and the vegetation was thicker and thicker, and the cries of the birds and the uproar of the monkeys became more and more remote, and the world became eternally sad. The men on the expedition felt overwhelmed by their most ancient memories in that paradise of dampness and silence, going back to before original sin, as their boots sank into pools of steaming oil and their machetes destroyed bloody lilies and golden salamanders.”

A story of seven generations, set in a fictional town of Macondo, One Hundred Years of Solitude was first published in 1967. The book has been subsequently translated into thirty seven languages, selling more than thirty million copies. Marquez employs the device of magic realism, where the supernatural and the mundane combine to express reality. Like all great works of art, this novel works on so many levels.

The next Marquez novel I read was Love in the Time of Cholera. I consider it a great sentimental story about the enduring power of love. Albeit that there are critics who mock at such an opinion on the book as being too simple.Marquez himself is believed to have said in an interview about this book - 'you have to be careful not to fall into my trap'. Well, it's a matter of looking at excessive romantic love as either "ideal" or "depraved". The plot contains elements that make either of the judgments possible.

Take a look at the paragraph from the novel- “To him she seemed so beautiful, so seductive, so different from ordinary people, that he could not understand why no one was as disturbed as he by the clicking of her heels on the paving stones, why no one else's heart was wild with the breeze stirred by the sighs of her veils, why everyone did not go mad with the movements of her braid, the flight of her hands, the gold of her laughter. He had not missed a single one of her gestures, not one of the indications of her character, but he did not dare approach her for fear of destroying the spell.”

The next Marquez book I read was the novella Of Love and Other Demons. A short, charming book, again on the topic of love. If in the previous novel Marquez alludes to the metaphor of love as a disease, in this one he goes one step ahead and alludes to love as madness! With his magical skills with words the author manages in this novella to turn what was essentially a journalistic assignment into a beautiful love story.

The last Marquez book I read before reading his memoirs was nearly ten years ago and it was titled The General in His Labyrinth. This book is based on the real-life story of Simon Bolivar, the extraordinary South American general. There are fictionalized elements in the book- some dealing with Bolivar's intimate moments. Considering that the book is almost a non-fiction, related to a part of South American history, there can be no better way to learn that bit of history than through an author like Marquez.

I had been aware of the publication of Marquez's memoirs Living to Tell the Tale and the book was on my wish list for some time now.

Living to Tell the Tale exceeded my expectations. This was to be the first of the three parts of his memoirs, and the book tells the story of his life from 1927 to mid-1950s. Unfortunately, the first part is all we are going to have. Just as the auto-biography of M K Gandhi that covers only the early part of his life, Gabriel Marquez's auto-biography too is going to be only about the early part of his life.

As you go through the pages, you realize that right from his childhood Marquez had both a talent and an inclination to tell a story. For those who have read his novels, there is a lot of interesting material available in these memoirs about some of the influences and experiences shaping the novels. It is amazing how he has dipped into his own experiences and incidents from his life to weave masterful tales that have so profoundly influenced so many readers.

Some of the observations in this lucid narration are so memorable that you stop and reread the lines. Here are some such instances:

On his decision to be a writer-
"But the doctor thought this was splendid proof of an overwhelming vocation: the only force capable of competing with the power of love. And more than any other the artistic vocation, the most mysterious of all, to which one devotes one's entire life without expecting anything in return." (pg 30)

On his grandparents (brought to me memories of my own maternal grandparents)-
"The impression I have today is that the house and everything in it existed only for him, for it was an exemplary machista marriage in a matriarchal society, in which the man is absolute king of his house but the one who rules is his wife. In short, he was the macho. That is: in private a man of exquisite tenderness that he was ashamed of in public, while his wife burned to make him happy." (pg 80)

On the decision to write his first novel-
" I imposed it on myself like a vow made in war: I would write it or die. Or as Rilke had said: " If you think you are capable of living without writing, do not write." (pg 98)

On his Barranquilla group-
"But I believe without any doubt at all that our greatest good fortune was that even in the most extreme difficulties we might lose our patience but never our sense of humor." (pg 106)

On boarding school (absolutely loved Gabriel Marquez for this!)-
"Dawns in the dormitory had a suspicious resemblance to happiness, except for the lethal bell that sounded alarm- as we used to say- at six in the middle of the night. Only two or three mental defectives would jump out of bed to be first in line for the six showers of icy water in the dormitory bathroom. The rest of us used the time to squeeze out the last drops of sleep until the teacher on duty walked the length of the room pulling the blankets off the sleepers..." (pg 194)

On Arabian Nights-
" Today, as I review my life, I remember that my conception of the story was elementary despite the many I had read since I was astonished by The Thousand and One Nights. I even dared to think that the marvels recounted by Scheherazade really happened in the daily life of her time, and stopped happening because of the incredulity and realistic cowardice of subsequent generations. By the same token, it seemed impossible that anyone from our time would ever believe again that you could fly over cities and mountains on a carpet, or that a slave from Cartagena de Indias would live for two hundred years in a bottle as a punishment, unless the author of the story could make his readers believe it." (pag 220)

On parental pressure-
"They judged me by my grades, year after year my parents were proud of the results, they believed I was not only an irreproachable student but also an exemplary friend, the most intelligent and brightest boy, and the one most famous for his congeniality. Or, as my grandmother would say: "The perfect kid."
"...the truth was just the opposite. I seemed to be that way because I did not have the courage and sense of independence of my brother Luis Enrique, who did only what he wanted to do. And who without a doubt would achieve a happiness that is not what one desires for one's children but is what allows them to survive the immoderate affections, the irrational fears, and the joyful expectations of their parents." (pg 237)

On Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis-
"These were mysterious books whose dangerous precipices were not only different from but often contrary to everything I had known until then. It was not necessary to demonstrate facts: it was enough for the author to have written something for it to be true, with no proof other than the power of his talent and the authority of his voice. It was Scheherazade all over again, not in her millenary world where everything was possible but in another irreparable world where everything had already been lost." (pg 247-48)

Praise for Marquez's story published in El Espectador-
"In the imagination everything can happen, but knowing how to show with naturalness, simplicity, and without fuss the pearl produced there is not something that all twenty-year-old boys just beginning their relationship with letters can accomplish." (pg 251)

On his failed attempt at crime reporting at El Espectador-
"...crime reporting, so well established among readers, was a difficult specialization that required a certain kind of character and an impregnable heart. I never attempted it again." (pg 436)

It is not hard to imagine Marquez failing at crime reporting. This master storyteller is a softie. The one quality to me that stands out in his writings is the unmistakable humanity, the heart, and the feeling.

So much is written about the device of magic realism he employs in his works. I think it is the grace and intensity in every sentence that he writes that makes it possible for him to effortlessly blend the everyday stuff with the miraculous.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech Marquez sought to draw attention to the significance of his writing as something more than merely its literary expression.

Here is what he said in that speech-
"I dare to think that it is this outsized reality, and not just its literary expression, that has deserved the attention of the Swedish Academy of Letters. A reality not of paper, but one that lives within us and determines each instant of our countless daily deaths, and that nourishes a source of insatiable creativity, full of sorrow and beauty, of which this roving and nostalgic Colombian is but one cipher more, singled out by fortune. Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude."

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