Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Fluidity of Time
To understand something of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's work is to understand something of the fluidity of reality within the context of concrete description. Garcia Marquez grounds fiction in detail and elevates it through fantasy and dream. This gives his work a surprising sense of detailed vagueness, where we have a clear sensual grasp on the events described, but often few temporal coordinates. On the issue of description, Garcia Marquez admits the influence of journalism; on the detail within the fantastic, he sees the influence of his grandmother. In an interview in Paris Review, he says, "that's a journalistic trick which you can also apply to literature. For example, if you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants flying in the sky, people will probably believe you. One Hundred Years of Solitude is full of that sort of thing. That's exactly the technique my grandmother used." In the story 'Eyes of a Blue Dog', the narrator describes the central character. "I saw her walk over to the dressing table. I watched her appear in the circular glass of the mirror looking at me now at the end of a back and forth of mathematical light. I watched her keep on looking at me with her great hot-coal eyes: looking at me while she opened the little box covered with pink mother of pearl." This is precise descriptive language within the context of an abstract sense of time, and much of the energy and singularity of Garcia Marquez's work comes from the precision offered in terms of space but contained within the temporally ambiguous.
However, this is not at all to suggest time doesn't matter. Vital to Garcia Marquez's detail is the seasonally specific. Leaf Storm opens with the month of October mentioned three times in the first three pages, while the story 'Monologue of Isabel Watching it Rain in Macondo' begins with: "Winter fell on Sunday when people were coming out of church. Saturday night had been suffocating. But even on Sunday morning nobody thought it would rain...a thick, dark wind blew, which with one broad, round swirl swept away the dust and hard tinder of May." Age is also of importance: we are informed that Father Angel near the beginning of 'In Evil Hour' has turned sixty-one years of age; on page two of Love in the Time of Cholera, "Dr Juvenal Urbino had celebrated his eightieth birthday the year before."
Yet this seems quite different from the temporal specificity evident in Garcia Marquez's journalistic book News of a Kidnapping, about a fellow Colombian, the drug lord, Pablo Escobar, where we hear of one person who "had achieved passage of the National Narcotics statute in 1985", or "the first in that unprecedented series of abductions - on August 30th, 1990, a bare three weeks after President Cesar Gaviria took office - was the kidnapping of Diane Turbay". In the fictional we have abstract time and in the latter concrete time; in the former the ahistorical; the latter the historical. Garcia Marquez may have admitted in a book of interviews, The Fragrance of Guava, that One Hundred Years of Solitude could be seen as an account of the history of a continent, saying, "Latin American History is also made up of immense useless enterprises and great dramas which are condemned to oblivion in advance." Yet it is to this sense of dramas being condemned in advance that seems to interest him. It is the belief that history is not an evolutionary process in Hegelian or Marxist terms, where history has a teleology, a sense of direction. History is instead circular and basically without meaning. Lives may be improved by political amelioration but that doesn't mean there is an historical direction to these changes. Such a take helps make senses of a comment Lydia Nilsen offers in an essay, 'Communist or Anti-Imperialist?' "Marquez does not believe in communism, nor even socialist rhetoric," as if he were not so much temperamentally antipathetic to communism; more temporally so. Garcia Marquez's consistent interest in Left-wing politics is locally ameliorative rather than historically inevitable, and thus we don't have to reduce his fiction to the nature of a political position; but rather notice the philosophy of time in his work that refuses a teleological politics.
"I think a novel is reality represented through a secret code, a kind of conundrum about the world," Garcia Marquez says in The Fragrance of Guava. "The reality you are dealing with in a novel is different from real life." Yet Garcia Marquez also says when discussing fiction and journalism in Paris Review, that "I don't think there is any difference. The sources are the same, the material is the same, the resources and the language are the same. The Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe is a great novel and Hiroshima is a great work of journalism." The difference seems to reside in the secret code;, yet perhaps what makes journalism generally secondary to fiction is that the fictional writer has a greater opportunity to find the secret code; to search out their method. From this perspective, Garcia Marquez cannot quite in non-fictional form achieve the atemporal aligned to the descriptively precise. In a book like News of a Kidnapping its brilliance is quite literally contained by the historically actual, by the prosaic nature of event.
Now, this isn't the place to wonder whether great critics or journalists are the equal of major fictional writers, assuming that fictional writers create their own reality, while the critic merely comments on the created text, and the journalist on the necessities of life. Much contemporary philosophy, for example, has drawn on the fictional work to explore first principle questions of being, from Derrida to Deleuze, while numerous writers have created spaces worthy of fiction within the factual: Capote with In Cold Blood; Mailer with The Executioner's Song, for example, and indeed News of a Kidnapping is a worthy successor to such books. Here we are only concerned with the specifics of Garcia Marquez; maybe journalism could never have quite allowed for the secret code to become manifest: the method that insists on the concrete with the abstract, and that gives his work the sense of vertigo that of course links up to that term we have so far avoided using: Magic Realism. If realism locates itself in the spatial in Marquez's work; perhaps the magic resides in his sense of time.
If we return to the story from which we first quoted, Eyes of a Blue Dog, how does the vivid mingle with the oneiric? As Garcia Marquez's story offers in the first person an account of a couple in a room, so he separates fact from fiction through space and time. It is the man's perspective we possess, as the story opens with the narrator wondering whether the woman in the room was looking at him for the first time; or whether it was indeed he who was looking at her for the first time. Who is this woman so carefully imagined but so impossible to locate? As Garcia Marquez describes her he does not allow her to exist, merely to be evoked. When the narrator says, "I watched her keep on looking at me with her great hot-coal eyes", or when he says, "she turned her face to profile and her skin, from copper to red, suddenly became sad" the details are not contained by what we might call grounding description. Even though the word skin is used four times within half a page, she remains a figure of obscurity because she remains temporally dislocated, possessed of spatial form but without temporal form.
Now if one thinks of a fine supernatural story by someone like Daphne du Maurier, for example, the person is spatio-temporally located, evident in this passage from 'Don't Look Now'. Here are a couple holidaying in Venice and recovering from their young daughter's death and they receive a telegram informing them their son is ill. "The first thing John did the following morning was to put a call through to the headmaster at the preparatory school. Then he gave notice of their departure to the reception manager, and they packed while they waited for the call." Though it turns out that the husband has second sight, the story doesn't side with the mysterious so much as with the straightforward, so that the irony in the tale lies in the character's inability to see his gift as he grounds himself in practicalities. The supernatural appears as the anomaly in the real; in Garcia Marquez's work the anomalous is the real. When Marquez says that every good novel is a poetic transposition of the real, there is the poetic grounding on the one hand and the poetically transporting on the other. For all du Maurier's interest in the sinister, the stories still seem located. Garcia Marquez's are transportive, and central to this transportation is losing a strong sense of time for a deliberate over-emphasis on space.
However, we should perhaps clarify a little our use of the term space here. Often in Garcia Marquez's work, space is an elaboration of the sensuous world, almost a form of spatial limitation through the specifics of sensation. Near the beginning of Leaf Storm the narrator says, "the heat won't let you breathe in the closed room. You can hear the sun buzzing in the streets, but that's all. The air is stagnant, like concrete; you get the feeling that it could get all twisted like a sheet of steel." In a passage from One Hundred Years of Solitude, we are informed: "there arrived with him a rich group of splendid matrons who were protecting themselves from the burning sun with gaudy parasols, and wore on their shoulders fine silk kerchiefs, with coloured creams on their faces and natural flowers in their hair and golden serpents on their arms and diamonds in their teeth." There is a feeling of writing that wants not to ground but transport; not move narrative along, but still it in the thickness of heat, in the gaze of awe, in the manner in which characters hide from the many storms Garcia Marquez details.
Garcia Marquez offers a narrative torpor, but if we can speak of time slowed down in modern fiction there are many ways in which this can be done, and perhaps nobody has slowed it down more meteorologically than Garcia Marquez. "Noontime was hot in February" we read in Leaf Storm. "My stepmother and I were sitting on the veranda, backstitching some white cloth, while my father took his siesta. We sewed until he went by, dragging along in his clogs, to soak his head in the washbasin." In 'Monologue of Isabel Watching it Rain in Macondo' we have: "and before three o'clock in the afternoon night had come on completely ahead of time and sickly, with the same slow, monotonous and pitiless rhythm of the rain in the courtyard." "On the porch that overflowed with the song of birds," we read in In Evil Hour, "the widow Asis was lying on a canvas chair, her face covered with a handkerchief soaked in Florida water." It is as if space is described because time moves so slowly that it is inevitable space demands more detail than in a writer focusing on a temperate climate. Yet it's also the importance of the image in Garcia Marquez, evident when he says in The Fragrance of Guava, after being asked what is the point of departure for writing a book, "a visual image. For other writers, I think, a book is born out of an idea, a concept. I always start with an image." It is the precision of the image that will shape the entire book or story. Admitting that he attaches a huge amount of importance to the first sentence, he explains, "because the first sentence can be the laboratory for testing the style, the structure, even the length of the novel."
If we look at a few of these opening sentences and think in terms of not the temps mort, as the French call dead time, but if you like dead temperature, one can see how Garcia Marquez creates an expectation not so much of narrative flow, nor quite narrative stasis, but a certain narrative recalcitrance in the face of constant heat. On a number of occasions, Garcia Marquez opens his book with a death. In Love in the Time of Choleraafter mentioning bitter almonds and love the narrator announces that someone has committed suicide. One Hundred Years of Solitude begins, "many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." "On the day they were going to kill him", Chronicle of a Death Foretold begins, "Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on." The opening chapter of 'Leaf Storm' announces, "I've seen a corpse for the first time." Yet often the death is contained by a meteorological torpor that doesn't create the immediacy of narrative, but situational drift as we hear that "the heat won't let you breath in the closed room", in 'Leaf Storm', and that in Love in the Time of Cholera, "at one window the splendor of dawn was just beginning to illuminate the stifling, crowded room".
In an essay on a fellow South American writer Machado de Assis that Susan Sontag published in Where the Stress Falls, she reckoned "digression is the main technique for controlling the emotional flow of the book. The narrator [of Epitaph of a Small Winner], whose head is full of literature, shows himself adept at expert descriptions - of the kind flattered with the name of realism - of how poignant feelings persist, change, evolve, devolve." One of the great defenders of the digression in modern literature is Garcia Marquez's friend, Milan Kundera, who in The Art of The Novel calls it "meditative interrogation" and regards it as the "basis on which all my novels are constructed." Elsewhere, in Encounter, he says "with Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, the art of the novel seems to emerge from that dream: the center of attention is no longer an individual but a procession of individuals; they are each original, inimitable, and yet each of them is merely the brief flash of a sunbeam on the swell of a river..." However, narrative slowness in Garcia Marquez rarely comes from the digression Sontag sees in de Assis's work, nor the meditative interrogation Kundera sees in his own, but much more from the climate. When Kundera notices in the Encounter essay that, as he was rereading One Hundred Years of Solitude, he saw that though only 1 per cent of the world's population is childless, "at least 50% of the great literary characters exit the book without having reproduced", it is a fascinating and very Kunderan observation. It is the sort of digression that could easily appear in one of his novels, but what is often interesting about Garcia Marquez's work is how unlikely such a statement would be in one of his own.
Certainly, Garcia Marquez creates space for reminiscence, but even here these are rarely thoughts expressed; they are more like sensual memories reactivated, so that the memory doesn't hold together ideas, but generates sensations. Garcia Marquez expects memory to evoke sensation in vivid detail, while Proust is the great writer of the memory of sensation giving way to an idea. When in one moment in Time Regained the first person narrator is invited to a restaurant, the invite is chiefly an opportunity for the narrator to digress on the question of ageing. The sensual dimension is insignificant next to the emotional and psychological. It justifies the term digression. However, when Garcia Marquez's third person narrator recalls a character's love for a woman in Love in the Time of Cholera, Garcia Marquez is more interested in the embodied state than the disembodied thought. "He was very thin", we're informed, "with Indian hair plastered down with scented pomade and eyeglasses for myopia, which added to his forlorn appearance. Aside from defective vision, he suffered from chronic constipation, which forced him to take enemas throughout his life." Digression gives way to evocation, as memory becomes a thing of the body and not especially of the mind.
We seem perhaps to have hit upon a contradiction. We have been arguing for the absence of concrete time in Garcia Marquez's work, but are now also insisting that his fiction is sensually specific, so much more than many writers who allow a digression to exist chiefly as disembodied thought, and thus readily further outside of time than Garcia Marquez's work. However, where both Kundera and Proust generate abstract ideas, their fiction is usually located in historical time: Kundera's in Post-War Communist Czechoslovakia, no matter if he never offers the country by name, Proust in end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century France, evident in the focus on the Dreyfus affair for example in Remembrance of Things Past. Garcia Marquez is simultaneously more concrete in description yet more abstract temporally. If for Kundera the novel's importance lies in creating existential enquiries, and in the investigation of being in time, for Garcia Marquez it resides in an evocation of the sensuous, so evocatively specific that history recedes as the five senses take over, even to the point of exploring the inner body. In Love in the Time of Cholera a character "felt the shape of his liver with such clarity that he could tell its size without touching it. He felt the dozing cat's purr of his kidneys, he felt the iridescent brilliance of his vesicles, he felt the humming blood of his arteries." One might even conclude, finally, that the purpose behind Garcia Marquez's work lies in the abstraction of time and the concreteness of space; the need to explore specific states without at all being beholden to historical circumstances. The senses beyond time.
There has been fiction indicating more political specificity, and indeed Garcia Marquez talks in Paris Review of this. "After having written 'Leaf Storm', I decided that writing about the village and my childhood was really an escape from having to face and write about the political reality of the country. I had the false impression that I was hiding myself behind this kind of nostalgia instead of confronting the political things that were going on. This was the time when the relationship between literature and politics was very much discussed. I kept trying to close the gap between the two. My influence had been Faulkner; now it was Hemingway." He also knew, though, "that when I finished In Evil Hour, I saw that all my views were wrong again. I came to see that in fact my writings about my childhood were more political and had more to do with the reality of my country than I had thought." It is as though Garcia Marquez's work defends not so much a cause (no matter his consistently Left-wing politics), but a state, even a sensibility. The great political journalist Eduardo Galeano says in Open Veins of Latin America, "underdevelopment in Latin America is a consequence of development elsewhere, that we Latin Americans are poor because the ground we tread is rich, and that places privileged by nature have been cursed by history." Garcia Marquez shows the privilege of nature over the curse of history, but that leaves a sort of regional politics that demands not the intrusion of capitalist history, but more the cyclical awareness of seasons and the senses.
© Tony McKibbin