One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

For a long time I could not find words to write anything on One Hundred Years of Solitude, for Marquez mesmerised me into a silence I didn’t know how to break. But I have been commenting here and there on Goodreads and now it is good time, finally, to gather my thoughts in one piece. But this somewhat longer review is more a labour of love than a coherent attempt to review his opus.

Marquez resets the history of universe such that the old reality ceases to exist and a new parallel world is born in which things do not conform to obsolete, worn-out laws. Everything in this world is to be discovered anew, even the most primary building block of life: water. Macondo is the first human settlement of Time Immemorial set up by the founding fathers of the Buendia family. It is a place where white and polished stones are like ‘prehistoric eggs’; an infant world, clean and pure, where ‘many things lack names.’ And it is natural that here, in the farther reaches of marshland prone to cataclysmic events, the mythscape of One Hundred Years of Solitude should come into existence.

The tone of this epic and picaresque story is set ab initio. Take a gander at this:

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.

It is not long before fateful human activity mars the innocent beauty of creation. The more they discover the more they are sucked into the inescapable cycle of life. The primordial myth that moulds and shapes their destinies does not let them advance in their efforts to defeat the infernal solitude of existence, whatever they might do, however they might try. History gets back at them again and again and every generation is but a repeat of the past. It is to emphasise the cyclical nature of time, in my opinion, that names of principal characters are repeated in every generation, sometimes to the confusion of the reader, easily rectified by going back to the family tree provided in the start of the book.

An external, portentous, disastrous, evil-like power guides and transforms the lives of people in the hamlet of Macondo. The sense of foreboding pervades the whole story: the rain continuing for many days and inundating the streets, the unceasing storm before the arrival in town of a heraldic character, and the fearful episode when townspeople begin to suffer a terrible memory loss, so that to remember the names and functions of things they write it down on labels and tie those labels to objects like chairs and tables. It tells us that we cannot hope for a future if our past is erased from the slates of our collective consciousness. Past may be a burden but it is also a great guiding force without which there’s no future.

The only way to retain your sanity is to remember your history and cling to it, or prepare to go insane. When one Jose Arcadio Buendia loses the memory of things, he goes mad:

“Jose Arcadio Buendia conversed with Prudencio Aguilar until the dawn. A few hours later, worn out by the vigil, he went into Aureliano’s workshop and asked him: “What day is today?” Aureliano told him that it was Tuesday. “I was thinking the same thing,” Jose Arcadio Buendia said, “but suddenly I realized that it’s still Monday, like yesterday. Look at the sky, look at the walls, look at the begonias. Today is Monday too.” On the next day, Wednesday, Jose Arcadio Buendia went back to the workshop. “This is a disaster,” he said. “Look at the air, listen to the buzzing of the sun, the same as yesterday and the day before. Today is Monday too.” That night Pietro Crespi found him on the porch, weeping for…his mother and father. On Thursday he appeared in the workshop again with the painful look of plowed ground. “The time machine has broken,” he almost sobbed,…he spent six months examining things, trying to find a difference from their appearance on the previous day in the hope of discovering in them some change that would reveal the passage of time.”

The town is threatened when the change taking place in the outside world begins to spill over into Macondo. Here we have a metaphor for the struggle of Maruqez’s native country and continent which is passing through internecine wars on its way toward externally imposed modernity. Divisions that hitherto did not exist come to define the inhabitants of Macondo and of towns farther afield. One of the Buendias, Colonel Aureliano, takes up a piece of metalwork as new and strange as a gun to mount a revolt and bring the promised glory to his land. New lines are drawn. New alliances are made. Old friends become enemies and enemies, partners. Colonel Aureliano Buendia, when he is about to kill him, tells General Moncada:

Remember, old friend, I’m not shooting you. It’s the revolution that’s shooting you.

The scene above captures the mechanistic element of their revolutionary war; the one below bares the meaninglessness of the conflict, so pertinent to the 20th century militarisation of the whole continent and its endless armed strife led by colonels and generals of all hues and shades.

Tell me something, old friend: why are you fighting?”
What other reason could there be?” Colonel Gerineldo Marquez answered. “For the great Liberal party.”
You’re lucky because you know why,” he answered. “As far as I’m concerned, I’ve come to realize only just now that I’m fighting because of pride.”
That’s bad,” Colonel Gerineldo Marquez said.
Colonel Aureliano Buendia was amused at his alarm. “Naturally,” he said. “But in any case, it’s better than not knowing why you’re fighting.” He looked him in the eyes and added with a smile:
Or fighting, like you, for something that doesn’t have any meaning for anyone.”

Although I tried to avoid getting into this discussion, but a review of this work is not possible without throwing in the inevitable buzzword – magical realism. Although the book gets high praise from most readers, it is to be expected that some readers would take a disliking to the basic ingredients from which Marquez draws his style and narrative devices. I want to address in particular one argument from the naysayer camp that pops up again and again: it is not realistic; it can’t happen; this is not how things work. So I ask (and try to answer): what is it with our obsession with “realism” that makes some of us reject the conceptual framework of this novel?

Aristotle in Poetics argues that a convincing impossibility in mimesis is always preferable to an unconvincing possibility. The stress is not on what can physically happen but on mimetic persuasion. This is why some novels that follow every bit of convention, every bit of realistic element in them turn out to be unbelievable stories with unbelievable characters. You want to forget them as soon as you finish the book – and toss it aside. But on the other hand Greek tragedies populated with cosmic characters pulling suprahuman feats continue to enthrall generations of readers. How realistic are those stories? It is the writer’s task to convince us that this could have happened in a world he has created and set the rules for. In that Marquez is more than successful, and this is the basis of the enduring appeal of this work.

The distinction fell into place for me when I replaced ‘realism’ with ‘truth.’ Kafka’s haunting stories are so far from the 19th century convention of realism we have come to accept as the basis of novel-writing. His The Metamorphosis is not a representation of likely human activity (how could a human transform overnight into a large insect?) but it is nonetheless a harrowingly truthful story that advances existential dilemmas and makes a statement on human relationships, familial in particular. We say this is how it would feel like to be an outcast from one’s family. Or consider Hamsun’s Hunger in which a starving man puts his finger in his mouth and starts eating himself. In the ‘real’ world Kafka’s, Hamsun’s and Marquez’s characters cannot exist but the effect of their existence on us is as truthful and real as the dilemmas of any great realistic character ever created.

Marquez, like a god, has written the First Testament of Latin America, synthesising myth and magic to reveal the truth of the human condition, and called it One Hundred Years of Solitude.

(First published in Spanish 1967; in English 1970)

Waiting for Godot – Samuel Beckett

“What happened?”
“Nothing happened.”
“Why did nothing happen?
“How would I know?”
“You would know.”
“I would?”
“Yes.”
“How I would know?”
“Because you read it.”
“Did I?”
“Yes.“
“How do you know?”
“It is on your shelf.”
“What does it mean?”
“It means you have read it.”
“Oh I have.”
“So what happened?”
“Nothing happened.”
“Why did nothing happen?”
“Because they were waiting for Godot.”

Waiting and nothing – I could take these two words and use them in as many combinations as the rules of probability allow to create a ‘review’ that is as much meaningful as it would be meaningless. I could draw upon the elusive symbolism of the text in the manner of a perspicacious hermeneut whose convoluted exegesis would only serve to frustrate him even more. Or like a blurb-writer I could summarise the four-and-a-half characters, the austere landscape, the leafless tree, the role of the taut rope and jangling bucket, and the heap of nonsense, but what would that achieve?

Suffice it to say that the sheer speed of bare dialogue makes you want to slow down and look for something queer happening between the lines, but nothing happens. Yet something very important happens: everything happens. Aye. Beckett in his frugal minimalist brilliance has created in every reader’s mind a throbbing sense of meaningless wait. The act of wait which is an act of life, since every moment of human life is spent at the same time in a concurrent act of waiting – whether it is waiting in the womb of your mother for nine months or waiting for nine hours for your lover to turn up. Or just waiting at the bus stop for a vehicle that never arrives. You wait for things to happen; but nothing happens; yet life happens.

The best review I have read said, “This is a very interesting play.” Which is to say that the best review of Waiting for Godot is precisely the one that is not written down.

(First published 1953)

Thinner Than Skin – Uzma Aslam Khan

After the success of The Geometry of God and Trespassing, I expected Uzma Aslam Khan to build further on her reputation as one of the eminent novelists chronicling the lives of contemporary Pakistanis but this novel has come as a disappointment.

It started well enough, with two lead characters, Nadir and Farhana – the former a Pakistani in the United States struggling to build a life of promise in a country his parents had sent him to study; and the latter, a mix-raced Pakistani-German who wants to discover the Pakistani side of her identity by ‘returning’ to Pakistan which is now gripped in turmoil. Through their uneasy love we see the uneasy love Pakistanis carry for their homeland, which they have many reasons to despair for and leave behind. And the promise of the new lands of the West, which, despite it glitter and glory, cannot fully satisfy the needs of those who have shunned their homelands.

Parallel to it runs the story of Maryam and her family who are herders for generations. Through them the author has painted a grim picture of the situation the locals of the mountainous north of Pakistan have found themselves in. Hemmed in by all sides in a conflict that spills across borders – trouble in Xinjiang, violence in Central Asian states, perennial instability in Afghanistan, oppression in Kashmir – all this spills into the once peaceful mountainous regions of Pakistan where the state and its rebels fight out each other at the cost of the local people.

The fates of Nadir and Farhana get entwined with that of Maryam and her family when an accident happens during their visit of discovery to the Northern Areas. They are sucked into a conflict which is as much personal as it is public and political.

Our story stalls after the accident, the manner in which the author shows both parties dealing with the accident is…very lacking. There are lots of monologues the characters address to themselves, that do little but confuse the reader. If the author was attempting unreliable narration, it certainly didn’t work.

Maryam’s story and the characters that populate her world, in my view, do not talk and behave as northern mountain people do. An air mystery surrounds Maryam’s family which is not dealt with cleverly. She is also depicted as following some strange pagan cult, even though they are clearly shown to be Muslims, albeit holding on to some ancient mountain rituals for which they get plenty of scorn from Muslims who purport to follow a more ‘purist’ form of Islam. Bluntly put, the writing on Maryam’s family is not intelligent – it has little to hold your attention; it is more like a long and repetitive ramble.

The last part of the novel did not satisfy me. The thread of the plot is lost after the accident takes place. From that point on the story only drags and ends abruptly and nonsensically.

I vacillated between giving it two stars and three stars. If I had given it two stars, this would have been quite harsh of me; if I had awarded it three, this would have meant I liked it more than I had. So I settle for 50/50; I rate this novel as halfway between acceptance – a 2.5 stars out of 5.

(First published 2012)

Sula – Toni Morrison

It is time for change; slowly but inexorably the spirit of the age finds a new voice. The white lords and black slaves – practical slaves if not technical slaves – begin to alter their established, longstanding social positions. From this sense of foreboding out comes Sula.

The black community confined to the hills up there in a small Ohio town is made, through centuries of social conditioning, to treat themselves as different and separate from the white people. What an incredible fact of human psychology that, even if that community doesn’t lose its self-respect and self-reliance, it accepts the role to which its oppressor designates it.

They are scandalised when Sula, one of their own, launches herself on a new path that’s opening up, leaves the town, gets educated like white people and ‘sleeps with white men’. There is nothing more sacrilegious, nothing more insulting and demeaning than a proud black girl willingly and happily letting white men mount her. And then returning to the town to do the same with black men, to ‘steal’ them from their women.

Sula, therefore, becomes a pariah in her own community, reviled and hated. The ominous signs spread about testify to something strange. People see those signs in retrospect, from her birth to childhood, from her growing up as a daughter of a woman abandoned by her husband, the way she walked and sat, ate and gestured. Sula, they reach on a terrifying conclusion, is not a young black girl but a witch.

Sula’s character may be seen as symbolic of the changing values that had held together isolated, nebulous, inward-looking black communities across the United States before the whites took pity on them. Values constructed so carefully over centuries when challenged elicit a response that’s always out of proportion. Sula is a couldn’t-care-less woman whose threatening individuality alienates her from her community. For this she is taken to task. But then why does she send her rather well doing grandmother to an old people’s home that exists for impecunious destitutes there is no one around to care for? Why does she and her best childhood friend Nel, who as though one soul in two bodies, never needing to communicate with each other in words, undergo a painful split when Sula betrays her so unthinkably? Why did Sula’s ten years with white folks change her?

These are the question you’ll have to answer for yourself: in connection with the change that has come or independent of it, something to do with Sula’s troubled early years, living as she did with her mother who had taken to whoring as the most natural vocation a woman might take when her husband walked out on her – thus fracturing relations with neighbours of the street and the town. In that, Sula and her mother aren’t much different. So what made Sula, Sula? Something has definitely changed but what? It is everywhere, when Sula lies on her deathbed, the dark matter of the unknown can be sensed and touched.

I gave it three stars for the unforgivable lacunae in the construction of the novel. It’s a rather short one – 170 or so pages – but there is no trace of Sula for the first 50 pages. If I am reading a novel that relies so heavily on one central character, why should I have to be introduced in so much detail to minor characters that disappear in the subsequent pages. There are quite a few unused “Chekhov’s guns” in this novel.

(First published 1973)

I Take This Woman – Rajinder Singh Bedi

This is a brilliant story from one of the eminent Urdu writers: a portrait of a life of a village woman in mid-20th century Indiia.

When her husband dies young she is, as per custom, required to marry the younger brother of her husband whom she had raised as a son. This is a moral dilemma she doesn’t know how to deal with.

The reader understands in the end the impossibility of love for women whose whole life trajectory is determined ab initio by hoary ideas of female honour and family name, of their prescriptive marriages and re-marriages to win material favours and enhance tribal positions.

It is women, mostly from lower socioeconomic strata, who are the usual victims but here we have a young man who’s asked to, nay forced to, sacrifice his love for another girl to fulfill a custom that would redeem the family in the eyes of society.

Men, too, it turns out, are victims of the same system that puts them above women.

(First published in Urdu 1967; translated by Khushwant Singh)

Snow Country – Yasunari Kawabata

A metaphor of rotting and unappreciated beauty. Deep in the frozen reaches of the Snow Country a geisha waits out her days for a man who would give her the life of love and dignity that she believes she deserves.

Geishas in the Japanese society enjoyed similar social prestige as the Courtesans of the Indian Muslim culture. They were the connoisseurs of culture and art; they exerted political influence through their patrons; they decided the fates of people who desired their services; they made and broke marriages – they were a soft power centre in the Japanese society.

But in the backwater of the Snow Country only a perception of this power remains. The Geishas there live under crushing poverty and hopeless surrender, maintaining a façade of self-importance but in reality are no more than prostitutes offering affordable services to travelling men.

This novel is a heartfelt depiction of that culture, told through the story of a Snow Country Geisha, Komako, who meets a rich idler from Tokyo, Shimamura, who comes to the town to enjoy the hot springs it’s famous for. Shimamura knows immediately when he sees Komako that she is unlike other Geishas of the town. They develop a relationship but it never goes anywhere. The rich city idler is as though unable to reciprocate the love of Komako who, despite something special in her, is only a hot spring Geisha in his eyes. He tries to involve himself emotionally but can’t stop himself from looking down upon her.

The novel reads like a dream with disjointed and abruptly changing scenes fusing into one another. The writer’s stylistic method is to juxtapose two opposing and contrasting characteristics as in old Haiku: light against dark, sound against silence, being a sex selling Geisha who has a clean and fresh countenance, the whistle of the teapot against the continuous sound of the silence…. and there are beautiful evocations of the stark nature of the Snow Country and the frugality of its people, their lifestyle, travails and their aspirations.

I liked the way the story builds up into a high emotion in so imperceptible a way, without any loud noise-making plot twists. I enjoyed the novel a lot.

(Written during 1935-37; translated from the Japanese by Edward Seidensticker)

Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair – Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda – the name evokes romance and revolution in my consciousness, a riot of metaphors and action, a turbo charged celebration of love and beauty, the most original and compelling images, a flood of high emotion that assails my senses and dulls them so that the only thing I am receptive to when I have Neruda’s verse before my eyes is Neruda’s verse. Everything else blacks out and I’m transported to a world I have never seen before – and it’s beautiful!

When after long deliberation I made up my mind to read him I made it a point to start at the first collection Neruda had published in his life: Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.

But I’m not a very big fan of the limited aesthetic of love poetry, which often rehashes done-to-death old metaphor and similes, stringing the most common emotions in the most common lines; which is rather subpar, of the throwaway variety, read once and never to be revisited. So I approached the collection under review with some reserve.

I was stumped, stunned, silenced. From the very first poem Neruda shamed me. From third poem onwards I was apologising to him. By the time I reached the end of the collection I became Neruda’s devotee. And so I am to this day and will remain forever!

There is no one who marries terrestrial or nature’s metaphors of earth, sea, fire, wind, trees, moon and stars so masterfully to the anatomy of their beloved.

Below I collect some of the beautiful images from the collection:

Take a look at the simple and stunning eroticism of these lines. From the opening poem:

Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs,
you look like a world, lying in surrender.
My rough peasant’s body digs in you
and makes the son leap from the depth of the earth.

And the transition of the beloved from white hills to weapon.

I was alone like a tunnel. The birds fled from me,
To survive myself I forged you like a weapon,…

In ‘Almost Out of the Sky’ we have the most innovative and unlikely metaphors for the beloved. One can only appreciate the beauty by reading and re-reading these lines which have since then become my signature favourites.

But you, cloudless girl, question of smoke, corn tassel.
You were what the wind was making with illuminated leaves.
Behind the nocturnal mountains, white lily of conflagration,
ah, I can say nothing! You were made of everything.

All elements fail the beloved. She is simply ‘made of everything!’

From ‘Every day you play’, Neruda finds the beloved in the most unlikely places. Holding a cluster of fruit is like holding the beloved’s head:

You are more than this white head that I hold tightly
as a cluster of fruit, every day, between my hands.

And further on:

You are like nobody since I love you.
Let me spread you out among yellow garlands.

Oh let me remember you as you were before you existed.

And if you go on:

You are here. Oh, you do not run away.
Cling to me as though you were frightened.

How you must have suffered getting accustomed to me,
my savage, solitary soul, my name that sends them all running.

Neruda ends the poem with a striking image:

I want
to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.

(First published in Spanish 1924; translated from the Spanish by W. S. Merwin)

Poem: Poverty – Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was a titan of Latin American poetry.  He commands great influence not only on the Spanish speaking countries but throughout the world of poetry. This poem comes from his collection titled “The Captain’s Verses”.

 

 

Translated from the Spanish by Donald D. Walsh.

Ah you don’t want to,
you’re scared
of poverty,
you don’t want
to go to the market with worn-out shoes
and come back with the same old dress.

My love, we are not fond,
as the rich would like us to be,
of misery.
We shall extract it like an evil tooth
that up to now has bitten the heart of man.

But I don’t want
you to fear it.
If through my fault it comes to your
dwelling,
if poverty drives away
your golden shoes,
let it not drive away your laughter which is
my life’s bread.
If you can’t pay the rent
go off to work with a proud step,
and remember, my love, that I am
watching you
and together we are the greatest wealth
that was ever gathered upon the earth.

The Namesake – Jhumpa Lahiri

Book subtitle: I will write down everything I know about a certain family of Bengali immigrants in the United States by Jhumpa Lahiri.

So, be warned, do not expect an interesting story from me; do not set store by the unique view only I can offer by virtue of my special, exclusive, branded status as a real immigrant who has such piercing insight no one can claim to have; do not fume at my characters who are so dull they can’t even articulate what makes them complain ad nauseam from page one til page last; worry not if you can’t put your finger on anything substantial because this is about everything and, therefore, nothing; gape not in horror if I still end up winning a prize as prestigious as was given me.

Need I say more? Perhaps I do. So I will revert to be the bad reviewer.

Immigrant anguish – the toll it takes in settling in an alien country after having bidden adieu to one’s home, family, and culture is what this prize-winning novel is supposed to explore, but it’s no more than a superficial complaint about a few signature – and done to death – South Asian issues relating to marriage and paternal expectations: a clichéd immigrant story, I’m afraid to say.

Gogol’s life, and that of every person related to him in any way, from the day of his birth to his divorce at 30, is documented in a long monotone, like a camera trained on a still scene, without zooming in and out, recording every movement the lens catches, accidentally. A final picture emerges in which nothing in particular stands out; and twists that could have been explored more deeply, on a philosophical and humanistic level, such as Gogol’s disillusionment with his dual identity or the aftermath of (Gogol’s father) Ashoke’s death are touched upon perfunctorily or rushed through.

Some cultural comparisons are made as though to validate the enlightened United States at the cost of backward India. This is a familiar line in immigrant success stories: to justify their decision to migrate to the West by heaping scorn on the country or culture of their origin.

But even that’s not done intelligently. E.g; Maxine’s mother wears swimsuit on the lakeside; Gogol thinks his mother would never do that. Maxine’s parents don’t bother when Gogol moves into their house and have sex with Maxine; Gogol’s parents would have been horrified! It is almost in these words the comparisons are made. Well, of course. We get it.

However, on the bright side, I liked the trope of public vs private names – Nikhil aka Gogol – and how Lahiri relates this private, accidental double-naming to the protagonist’s larger identity crisis as an American and Indian immigrant. But, again, it’s also wasted; it doesn’t stand out; nothing catches your fancy; nothing piques your interest; and you sit with a little impatience welling up inside you.

You just sit there, squinting your eyes, making faces at the text, wondering…Pulitzer? Are you kidding me?

 

Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

Told almost entirely in dialogue-driven vernacular, it is a haunting depiction of the labouring class of Salinas Valley (California). Through the story of two friends who travel to another town to find petty work, Steinbeck has so imperceptibly painted a grim picture of their travails, hardships and dreams. They are hardworking but wasteful but have aspirations for their future. When one of them, due to his mental weakness, does something terrible at the new workplace, their plans to save up and have a patch of land of their own fall into jeopardy.

The novella could really have been a novel. I’d have liked it to explore the previous lives of the lead characters a tad more to put their current lives in perspective. I was apprehensive, in the beginning, for the good deal of dialogue written in slang or vernacular. But it turned out really well. Come to think of it, it is the dialogue in real life tilt which brings out in full force the essence of the labour class characters. All in all a good, enjoyable read, if not for its literary writing than for its simulated slang.

First published 1937