Thursday, May 15, 2014

Life in the Time of Gabo

“La vida no es la que uno vivió, sino la que uno recuerda, y cómo la recuerda para contarla.”
 —Gabriel García Márquez

Traveling abroad (for me anyway) used to mean constantly keeping one eye alert for a newsagents/tobacconist/kiosk/shop/whatever that sold foreign newspapers. I was always on the lookout for The International Herald Tribune (since renamed The International New York Times) for a bit of recent news from the States and the rest of the world.

But those were the old days. Now I find myself watching for the café, bar or hotel with the sign promising “Free WiFi” so I can use my iPod Touch to refresh all the same myriad news sources I use daily in the comfort of my own home.

So it was that, during our Easter holiday last month in Italy, I kept looking for opportunities to read obituaries and comments on the life of Gabriel García Márquez. I had seen the breaking news alert about his death just before putting the iTouch in airplane mode ahead of the flight for Naples, and the news haunted me from the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum to the cliff-hugging road on the Amalfi Coast.

I will not claim to have any particularly meaningful insights into the man himself. I can attest, however, that his work came to be very important to me during a consequential period of my life.

By the time I went to Chile in 1977, I had already completed both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. Because my previous university work had not been done in Chile, however, the University of Concepción limited my selection of courses to undergraduate ones. This meant that, to a large extent, I was repeating coursework I had already done at other universities. It also meant that I was four to seven years older than my classmates.

The Institute of Languages at the University of Concepción in 1977
It was by no means uninteresting, but it wasn’t particularly challenging. Moreover, I was sometimes in the uncomfortable position of being used by the professors to shame the local students. I still remember the annoyed young glances coming my way as a prof would say, “Look how well this North American can write, and Spanish isn’t even his first language.” It was an unfair comparison since I was older and further along in my education than my classmates, although one professor did explain to me privately that her frustration with her students actually had nothing to do with me. She said that Chilean universities were facing a generation which had largely missed out on a viable secondary education because of the disruption and tumult during the presidency of Salvador Allende and subsequent coup and military crackdown.

Being North American led to other odd situations. For example, I got a very strange assignment from a literature professor who happened to be a rabid fan of the American author Joseph Heller. Because I was from the United States, he insisted that my class paper had to be on the novel Catch-22, which meant that I had to read and dissect a book originally written in English but in Spanish translation. In a country that had spawned two Nobel literature laureates (Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda), the last thing I ever expected was to be spending my year in South America studying and writing about a North American writer translated into a foreign language.

The one true academic bright spot was getting permission in the second semester to take a graduate seminar on Latin American literature. There were just two of us working with Professor Rodríguez and, as it happened, the other student had been my teacher the semester before. The seminar topic was García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude) which, at that point, had been in print for ten years and was already an international classic. In hindsight, the idea of spending four or more months studying and writing about a single book may seem kind of obsessive. But I had already learned that the academic study of literature was nothing if not obsessive—especially when it came to literature in the Spanish language. Texts were routinely scoured for all kinds of meanings and messages—overt, covert, coded, insinuated, what have you—as if we students were characters in a Dan Brown novel tracking down the Holy Grail. It meant that we did not merely read the Colombian’s novel. We lived it and breathed it and bathed in it—day in and day out for week upon week.

It could have been a long few months if I had not cared very much for the book. But as countless other readers have found, there is a reason that García Márquez’s style, like that of many other Latin American writers of the 20th century, is called Magic Realism. The continuous and interweaving stories of the mythical Colombian village of Macondo (based on the author’s own home of Aracataca) were mesmerizing and seductive. The multi-generational epic of the Buendía family with its repeated use of given names had a way of drawing us in and making us see every development in the story as more profound than it probably really was. It had the addictive quality of a really good soap opera. In the end, the draw of the book was the way it could be escapist fantasy and social and political commentary all at one time.

A half-decade later I would return to Concepción on a visit and call on Professor Rodríguez. He would flatter me by recalling the paper I wrote for the seminar and the way I had noticed that the word soledad in the title was comprised of the words sol (sun) and edad (age) and how that could be a clue to the author’s underlying message. I remembered how the book had made such an impression on my classmate that she seriously considered giving the baby she was expecting the name Amaranta, after multiple characters in the novel. In the end she didn’t, but in the letters she later wrote me, when mentioning her daughter, she would parenthetically append an explanatory “ex Amaranta” after her name.

When I made that return visit, the mother of “ex Amaranta” was no longer living in Chile. In a strange way we had changed places. After being her student and then classmate, I had ended up becoming her English tutor. She subsequently moved to the United States. Our paths would cross a few more times over the years. She would wind up living and teaching in my home state of California, while I would wind up living in Europe. But always that book by Gabriel García Márquez would always bind us—that and her seemingly spiritual fascination with certain filmmakers, notably Ettore Scola and Roman Polanski.

In the weeks following García Márquez’s demise, I relived the experience of being immersed in his writing while at the same time being amused by all the arguing over his politics. Yes, he was an unrepentant leftist and an apologist for Cuba’s repressive Castro regime. And yes, I would love to know the real story of why the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa (whose work may actually better stand the test of time and whose politics certainly will) gave him a black eye very publicly at a movie premiere in 1976. Was it over political differences or was it about the comforting shoulder provided during a tricky time in the Vargas’s marriage?

One of the things I read was by a blogger whom I respect very much. She said that, after enjoying Cien años de soledad years before, she recently picked it up and found it unreadable. That sent a shiver up my spine since I have it, in both Spanish and English, on my iPad waiting for a fresh perusal. Will I risk destroying many fond memories by trying to read it again? It’s a risk I’m willing to take. After all, for me the true beauty in those memories has as much to do with the very real city of Concepción as with the mythical village of Macondo.

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