Translated by Edith Grossman
You’ve got to hand it to Gabriel García Márquez—he really gets you going in the preface to his new book, Strange Pilgrims. Apparently wishing to persuade his readers—and perhaps himself—that what he’s offering isn’t merely a variegated bag of tales formed out of fundamentally unrelated circumstances, he treats us to a rather involved explanation of their provenance.
In the limpid, wonderfully balanced sentences that have become the hallmark of his late period, he advises us that the stories first saw life as notebook jottings. Some were turned into screenplays, TV serials, or newspaper columns; along the way, the majority of the 64 ideas he’d jotted were jettisoned altogether. In the ’80s, he decided to write up the chosen remainder as a cycle of short stories. Finally, just when the whole enchilada was almost ready to be sent to the printer, it occurred to him that it had been an awfully long time indeed since he’d visited the European cities that serve as the stories’ settings—Barcelona, Paris, Geneva, Rome—so off he flew to refamiliarize himself with those municipalities. Upon returning to his home in Mexico City, he embarked on a feverish eight-month regimen of completely rewriting all 12 tales from the ground up. Nor is this all, for at a certain juncture he had lost the notebook containing the original jottings and needs must retrieve the fruits of his observation and imagination from the nether world of memory.
Feeling (understandably) inclined to give an author as great as this one the benefit of the doubt, one begins reading the stories thinking that they’ll prove to be all of an intuitive piece—in other words, that the collection will be significantly more cohesive than Leaf Storm and Other Stories and No One Writes to the Colonel and Other Stories, those highly disappointing grab bags of pre-One Hundred Years of Solitude pieces that came out in English translation in the ’70s. After all, this time the man at least had a bit of thematic connective tissue—“the strange things that happen to Latin Americans in Europe”—with which to bind the package.
But the discerning reader, upon inspecting the goods, is not fooled in the least. (Whether García Márquez managed to fool himself is a question we do not feel competent to address.) The author’s convoluted sales pitch notwithstanding, and momentarily leaving to one side the fact that the book does contain stories of exquisite form and incomparable beauty, Strange Pilgrims is not only short on cohesion but exhibits an occasional and rather surprising lack of artistic judgment.
The most glaring example of such a lapse is “Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane.” To fully understand how poor García Márquez’s judgment is in this case, you have to go all the way back to One Hundred Years of Solitude.
One of the more intoxicating components of that supremely intoxicating novel was the story of Remedios the Beauty. Lazy, stupid, indifferent, dressing herself in sacks and shaving her head for convenience, she unintentionally exudes an irresistible sexual magnetism that wreaks havoc among the village males—havoc that is only curtailed when unknown gods spirit her away into the sky while she is shaking out some laundered linen.
A reader whose literary education had been a bit on the spotty side might have had a tendency to regard Remedios as an extraordinarily vivid creation, an inspiration of genius and ungainsayable originality—until coming across the character Eula Varner in William Faulkner’s The Hamlet. (Even a reader of spotty literary education would be aware that García Márquez had publicly claimed Faulkner as a major influence, before growing weary of the association and awarding the influence crown to Kafka.) Here, in Eula, was Remedios not just in embryo but almost fully formed: an infantile backwoods Persephone for whose sake men invited calumny and death. (This girl is so lazy and indifferent that her big brother has to take her to school in a wheelbarrow.)
Now, in “Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane,” this once-mythic inspiration is completely deflated—at least by association (and it’s no interpretive stretch to infer a canonical link between two female characters named Beauty)—into something rather thoroughly quotidian.
For reasons that must remain obscure, García Márquez sees fit to describe his chance encounter—or, really, nonencounter—with a beautiful woman on an airplane. The woman sleeps through the whole trip. She and the writer never exchange a word. He toasts her slumbering form with his in-flight glass of champagne. He’s tempted to wake her but doesn’t. The plane touches down, she awakes, everyone disembarks, and that’s that.
If you were to run into García Márquez (or anyone else, for that matter) at a cocktail party and he were to favor you with this inane and glaringly uneventful anecdote, you would feel embarrassed. Seeing it printed in that nice Knopf typeface only makes it worse.
Wait, though—how can we be sure that the “I” of this story is García Márquez himself?
That’s a good question, and a pertinent one, since an apparently autobiographical “I” tends to pop up in many of the stories, and García Márquez strongly suggests in his preface that the original notebook jottings were for the most part culled from his own experience. Yet in one case, “Miss Forbes’s Summer of Happiness,” the “I” proves to be not the author but an apparent fictitious simulacrum of one of the author’s sons. (The narrator describes his dad as “a writer from the Caribbean of more presumption than talent.”) The less said of this particular yarn, with its mysterious and violent denouement (unpleasantly reminiscent of the symbolically incestuous blood bath that concludes Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!), the better. Where the author’s coy and inconclusive first-person guise gets him and the reader into real trouble is in “I Sell My Dreams.”
Since 1988’s Love in the Time of Cholera, the saga of two lovers mutually alienated in youth but reconciled in their sunset years, García Márquez has shown a special preoccupation with the poetics of old age—with mixed results. Cholera itself is his least satisfying major novel, and incidentally showed all too clearly that he had mined his trademark “magic realism” vein to the point of utter depletion. (His treatment of that mother lode in the ravishing and headlong phantasmagoria of The Autumn of the Patriarch is tantamount to repeated blasts of dynamite, probably illegal.) Fortunately, and as a demonstration of the writerly good sense that he usually possesses in abundance, he followed it with The General in His Labyrinth, a surpassingly lucid and tender novel about the final days of Simon Bolivar in which he not only succeeded in sounding his valedictory note with irresistible beauty and compassion but did so while giving “magic realism” a well-deserved rest. (Unhappily, “magic realism” continued to roam the literary world through the vehicle of lesser artists’ fiction, not unlike the humanoid handiwork of Mary Shelley’s famous scientist.)
In Strange Pilgrims, García Márquez occasionally saddles his magic horse once again, but that steed—swaybacked by now—doesn’t have the stamina to carry him very far. “Light Is Like Water,” for example—a mercifully brief excursion concerning two boys’ nocturnal navigations of an apartment that they have flooded with waterlike illumination by poking a hole in a light bulb—is not only overdone but resembles a not-very-successful recasting of Conrad Aiken’s “Silent Snow, Secret Snow.”
In “I Sell My Dreams,” a first-person narrator tells us about an old Colombian woman who has always earned her livelihood by attaching herself to affluent European households where her dreams are used as advisories for daily living. This is magic realism at a moderate dosage, since a family retainer of this sort is entirely within the realm of possibility (never mind the authenticity of her gift). This is also an opportunity once again for García Márquez to unlimber his fascination with the elderly, and in this regard the story is a complete bungle—in part because of the author’s apparent (and probably unacknowledged) need to make subtly slighting remarks about Pablo Neruda.
Pablo Neruda? Yes, folks, here he is, big as life, the late, great Chil ean poet. García Márquez—or “I”—encounters him in Barcelona.
“I have never known anyone closer to the idea one has of a Renaissance pope: He was gluttonous and refined,” we are told. “Even against his will, he always presided at the table. Matilde, his wife, would put a bib around his neck that belonged in a barbershop rather than a dining room, but it was the only way to keep him from taking a bath in sauce.”
That Pablo—what a diamond in the rough, what a genius, what an overbearing slob.
The narrator introduces the poet to Frau Frieda, the dream lady, who happens to be in the vicinity, but Pablo is wholly unimpressed by her talent: “Only poetry is clairvoyant,” he says. (An egomaniacal slob to boot.)
Wait, there’s more. A bit later, a walk through town is interrupted because “the rest of the group had stopped to wait for Neruda to finish talking in Chilean slang to the parrots along the Rambla de los Pajaros.” (An inconsiderate egomaniacal slob, always hanging people up with his childish antics.)
The interest and compassion we are meant to feel for the putative heroine of this tale is lost in the shuffle as García Márquez gets these nervous digs in at his only competitor for the title of Latin American Author Who Has Made the Greatest Contribution to World Literature.
Areporter once asked Quincy Jones for his opinion of Michael Jackson’s personal foibles, an impertinent query to which Jones graciously replied that giving undue consideration to those foibles was like visiting the Sistine Chapel and devoting all one’s attention to a cobweb in a corner of the ceiling. Jones’ strictures are even more appropriately applied to what we have noted above about the pitfalls of Strange Pilgrims.
Because, really, the shortcomings of “I Sell My Dreams” and “Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane” and two or three of the other stories in the book amount to almost nothing compared to the profound and deeply felt artistry of such other tales as “Bon Voyage, Mr. President,” “ “I Only Came to Use the Phone,’ ” “Seventeen Poisoned Englishmen,” and “The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow.”
The latter tale is among the stoutest arrows in the author’s quiver, accomplishing the astonishing feat of introducing us to a wealthy young lout about whom we don’t expect to care and proceeding—via a narrative sea change—to make us care about him enormously.
It is Billy Sánchez de Ávila’s young bride, Nena Daconte, whom we fully expect to fall in love with as the newlyweds travel from Cartagena de Indias across the Atlantic for a honeymoon in Paris. Brave, strangely pure, and passionate, she is bleeding from a slight cut to her ring finger. As the bleeding becomes unaccountably profuse, García Márquez removes this charming young woman from our presence by having Billy take her to a Paris hospital. As though we’ve been thrown together by emergency circumstances with a distant relative for whom we’ve never felt any fondness, by default we stay with Billy as he checks in to a hotel. Days pass.
Billy’s vigil unfolds like a silent movie shot in the clearest, most pristine black and white—a silent movie because he doesn’t speak the language, has no one to talk to, and is not the sort of guy to say much in any case. He breaks the lock on his suitcase (Nena has the key, and by now she has slipped beyond his reach entirely—some dimly perceived bureaucratic mix-up at the hospital prevents him from seeing her). He is perplexed by everything. He waits. The people at the embassy are no help. He waits some more. “For three days the same filthy rain that had been falling the morning they had arrived continued to fall. Billy Sánchez, who had never read an entire book, wished he had one to fend off his boredom as he lay on the bed, but the only books he found in his wife’s suitcases were in languages other than Spanish.”
This story evokes an irresistible sense of sadness and loss. When these feelings break the surface, the reader is past worrying over the silliness of “Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane” or the passive-aggressive treatment meted out to Neruda. Any writer who can treat a character like Billy Sánchez with such meticulous and persuasive sympathy should be forgiven an occasional lapse into self-indulgence.