If Gabriel García Márquez’s imagination could be bottled, the elixir’s potency would be cause to render it illegal. So rich is Márquez’s talent for description that whole vistas of South America’s countryside are witnessed in a single paragraph; so fantastic are his tales of love that the passion and devotion they contain are too spectacular for ordinary mortals; and so exact is his command of storytelling that the most inattentive reader can be spellbound.
The Colombian native’s newest book Of Love and Other Demons, translated by Edith Grossman, is the kind of literary artistry that swells the ranks of Márquez aficionados. This novella-length tale—powerful in its own right yet no match for One Hundred Years of Solitude or the fervent Love in the Time of Cholera—gives credence to the saying that even mediocre Márquez is better than the best from other big-name authors.
As with other Márquez novellas, notably The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, Demons finds its origins in real life. In the introduction, Márquez reveals that while a journalist in 1949, he was assigned to visit an old Catholic convent in Peru. There, among crypts that were being excavated, he discovered the burial site of a child: “The stone shattered at the first blow of the pickax, and a stream of living hair the intense color of copper spilled out of the crypt,” he reports. “The foreman…attempted to uncover all the hair, and the more of it they brought out, the longer and more abundant it seemed, until at last the final strands appeared still attached to the skull of a young girl. Nothing else remained in the niche except a few small scattered bones, and on the dressed stone…only a given name with no surnames was legible: Sierva María de Todos los Ángeles. Spread out on the floor, the splendid hair meas ured twenty-two meters, eleven centimeters.” Thus begins another fantastic tale.
Born during the colonial era, Sierva María is the only and unwanted child of the Marquis de Casalduero and his wife, Bernarda, an obese woman given to six baths and as many purges a day. The girl finds solace in the quarters of her family’s mulatta servants, who teach her African languages and religious practices rooted in Santéria and Yoruba.
One day, while visiting the market, Sierva María is bitten by a rabid dog, but does not develop rabies. Convinced this is a second chance to do right by his child, the marquis begins to pay special attention to the way Sierva María dresses, where she sleeps, and the language she speaks. But the girl is by now rooted in mulatta culture, and the marquis decides she is possessed. Believing faith will heal her, he sends her to a convent where she is held in a cell to be exorcised. A young priest, Father Cayetano Delaura, falls madly in love with her. But as can be expected from Márquez—who rarely permits his characters the luxury of a happily-ever-after—Delaura and Sierva María’s love is doomed.
Demons is a simple tale, but rendered beautiful and mesmerizing by the masterful weaving of South American and African superstitions, customs, and belief systems. Birds, often used by Márquez as omens of disaster, fly in circles over Sierva María’s village, showering the “streets and rooftops with foul-smelling indigo snowstorms”; a solar eclipse, signifying the loss of light, directs the story toward its tragic end. Márquez’s penchant for historical detail, the kind that strengthens an essay but is too intrusive for fiction, slows his narrative pace somewhat—yet Of Love and Other Demons‘ flaws are tolerable missed stitches in an otherwise fine tapestry of magical realism, forbidden love, and mystery.