Patent Leather and Solitude
April 29, 2014 2 Comments
Gabriel García Márquez was not the first writer I read in Spanish. That was Rosario Castellanos and her novel, Balún Canán, that I read over long bus journeys in Chiapas and Guatemala. But Gabo was the first who I read deeply and widely. At some point towards the end of university, perturbed by the far-off glint that Hispanists had in their eye, I got a copy of Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude) and spent the summer months sniffing around it, measuring myself up to it. There was an English translation of No One Writes to the Colonel in the house, that had been sitting unread on one of my parents’ bookshelves for at least a decade. El coronel no tiene quien le escriba was hidden at the back of one of mine. I started in English. At the second or third repetition of “patent leather”, I went and dug out the Spanish to see why. The word is charol (cuero is real leather). The rhythm was different. I took a dictionary.
As a reader, that was my completist phase. I had worked through most of Kafka’s complete works for my dissertation and the habit took me years to shake. Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Hemingway, Graham Greene, Orhan Pamuk were some of the writers I tried to exhaust during that time. From that moment, Gabo joined them. My hand gripped a dictionary. The books gripped me. Soon enough, I was onto Cien años de soledad and much of the rest.
Now, a decade on and Gabo is gone.
It is awful how only the death of a beloved author will make us read him again; how it will make us feel guilty enough to buy the books (in Colombia, Gabo pushed 50 Shades of Grey in 9th place in the download charts); how it made me feel guilty only to have read In Evil Hour and Innocent Eréndira while I actually lived in Colombia, to have abandoned rereading Love in the Time of Cholera after a month of illness that can only have escaped from the book itself, to have travelled with that book and Cien años de soledad (second copies) at least twice across the Atlantic, waiting, waiting for the right time. But, as Italo Calvino famously reminds us, the classic only comes to be through rereading. Perhaps it is only through this guilt that his contemporaries realize he is immortal.
As I reread Cien años de soledad over the past week, I realized how time can change the way you see the world. The first time, I must have read it, at its most precise, as a Latin American novel: now I feel it unmistakeably as Colombian, and perhaps especially, as a costeño novel from the country’s Caribbean coast. A decade ago, I had no idea that I was reading the words I would be taught by colleagues years later over lunches of rice, meat, soup and plantain. What did I make of them? Did I understand or just skip over them? Words like vaina (a semi-vulgar word for thing or nuisance), sancocho (a type of Colombian soup), cumbiamba (cumbia, a type of music), guineo (banana), turco (Lebanese immigrants who mostly arrived with Ottoman Turkish passports). And the word that echoes most is cachaco, a costeño word to describe anyone or anything from Colombia’s mountainous interior, where—as the stereotype goes—people are as chilly as the climate. There are cachaco prison guards; an important character, Fernanda, is a cachaca. Did I understand then? Did it matter?
When I first arrived in Barranquilla (a city where Gabo was a journalist, supposedly part of the composite city of Love in the Time of Cholera, around 100km from Aracataca, Gabo’s hometown on which Macondo is based) I was told early on by a colleague that the books are much more realistic than most outsiders think. I had plenty of time to wonder about those idiosyncrasies, listening to stories of violence, stories of hope, stories of happiness, after long bus rides across the city to barrios called Me Quejo (I Complain), Por Fin (At Last) or on a bus named El Fin de Mi Guayabo (The End of My Hangover). So much of the costeño life I saw, I had already read about, and then forgotten: the letanías, Carnival contests of extemporized satirical verse; the person who promised, in who knows how much seriousness, to take me to see a donkey for my birthday; the scandalous women who sold coconuts outside work; the journey back from Cartagena with a friend’s father, who talked about people massacred in his village during the civil war of the 1950’s. Even the magical side of the magical realism feels less magical than it must once have done: part must be familiarity; part could be knowing people who have been to witch doctors, having semi-seriously considered going to see one myself.
More than anything, though, beyond the violence, beyond any familiarity of place, is the beauty of the imagery and language. It’s in the yellow flowers that fall from the sky at the death of José Arcadio Buendía, so thick they suffocate animals and have to be cleared with shovels and rakes (wonderful detail this—in a fairy tale, they would lay a neat carpet). It’s in the lost Spanish galleon and “that sea the colour of ash, frothing and dirty”—more true than you’d think down the coast from the grey of the Magdalena River that conveys silt from the whole of Colombia’s interior. It’s in the letter that “continued consuming itself in the inner fire of its bad news”. And it’s in one of the book’s first sentences (and one of its best), where “the world was so recent, that many things lacked names and to mention them you have to point at them with your finger”.
It is this that makes Gabo such an incredible writer; it’s in the wonder and marvel of reading his prose and his world. Reading the book knowing where he’s writing about or knowing nothing about it at all: the wonder is the same and it’s everywhere and it feels new every time. Until earlier this month, he was one of the world’s greatest living writers. Now he is simply one of the world’s greatest ever writers.