Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Conrad’

Literature and terrorism

August 24, 2017

Recent events in Spain and else where turned my thoughts to this topic: pretty nearly everything in real life has been the subject of fiction at some point…

When I think about how terrorism has been portrayed in novels I’ve read, I instantly go to Joseph Conrad, whose The Secret Agent is the best example I know. Written a century ago, it’s still a masterpiece of the suspense genre, as Conrad uses his technique of non-sequential narrative to great effect. So, from the outset we know there is a terrorist outrage in London, but we don’t know who carries it out, or the consequences, until much later in the book, and it’s the narrowing gap in our knowledge that draws us ineluctably and frighteningly forward. It’s hard to say much more without ruining the plot, so I won’t… but the interplay between the plotter and his wife is marvellous.

The time when Conrad was writing was the epoch of nihilism, as well as that of plots against the Russian monarchy, so terrorism and its consequences rears its head in other of his novels, too, perhaps most notably in Under Western Eyes. And Conrad’s attitude to terror and what it seeks to achieve seems to mirror ours today: the perpetrators are warped and deluded people, devoid of conscience and humanity, expecting their outrages to change people’s minds and bring about some kind of momentous change, which it never does: the innocent die and life goes on.

If our minds unconsciously turn to the Middle East when someone mentions terrorism, then perhaps we should go back further in time, reflecting on the Western interference in other nations’ affairs, which is allegedly the prime mover for many of today’s attacks. In the Sherlock Holmes canon, John Watson is an ex-army doctor who has served in Afghanistan and been invalided out because of an injury from a ‘Jezail bullet’. So we’ve been interfering in that country for a century and a half, and still haven’t learned our lesson. In Naguib Mahfouz‘ brilliant Cairo Trilogy, for a vast part of which we are unaware of British rule in Egypt, a demonstration against it suddenly intrudes with powerful and tragic consequences when the beloved son of the family is killed. Remind me again, exactly why the British were ruling Egypt?

A more modern example I’m aware of is in Michel Houellebecq‘s novel Platform when Islamic militants attack a holiday resort favoured by Westerners; Julian Barnes, in A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, recalls an actual incident when hijackers took over a cruise ship in the 1970s 0r 1980s, I forget which…

I’ve mentioned before how much of the world that was open to us to travel in my younger years is now closed to us because of the risks and dangers: no more hitch-hiking along the hippy trail through Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan to India. And it’s rather more perilous for travel writers to make their way through such countries, too. Gone is the physically arduous but not politically risky travel of the 1930s; people still make their way through the territory, but always looking over their shoulder, aware of the possibility that some group may find their presence unwelcome and challenge it, or worse.

I know that hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I can’t avoid the knowledge that the world is a dangerous place largely because we in the West think we have the right to do what we please where we please, economically and militarily; equally, it’s perfectly possible that if we weren’t behaving like this, maybe some other nation would. Lines we drew on maps over a century ago are still wreaking havoc on lives in the Middle East and by proxy here at home, and it seems to me that very few people are minded to ask the right questions about what should be done.

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Josef Skvorecky: The Engineer of Human Souls

August 7, 2017

This is one of my all-time favourite books, and I’ve just read it for the fifth time, according to my records; I was somewhat astonished to see, however, than I hadn’t picked it up since the end of the last century…

Josef Skvorecky was a Czech writer who left after the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968. He had been published in Czechoslovakia before then, but after his departure was only printed in the West. Many of his novels are what I’d have to call semi-autobiographical, or fictionalised autobiography: he appears in the character of Danny Smiricky along with his friends, colleagues and acquaintances from the town of Kostelec, and later from Prague, and writes of his teenage years under the Nazi protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the liberation and strange hiatus before the Communists established their grip. His themes are jazz – he and some friends played in a jazz band before, during and after the occupation – girls, in the ways that almost every teenage boy would identify with, politics as an inevitable part of life, and the desire for freedom.

This novel, which I rate as his best, is about feelings of exile, loss and rootlessness, and I suspect that these themes draw me back to him. Skvorecky values his freedom in Canada, and finds it impossible to explain the complexities of his past to his literature students in Toronto. Episodes relating his younger years playing jazz, chasing girls, doing compulsory labour in a Messerschmitt factory alternate with those relating his life as a college lecturer on English and American literature and his relationships with his students, and others portraying his life among the Czexh exile community in Canada, with their strange attitudes and beliefs. We also catch up with various people from his youthful past via letters. So it’s a complex read in some ways, and I did find myself realising that fairly soon it will be impossible for a Western reader to understand Skvorecky’s life without detailed annotation… the novel was only written in 1984!

The novel raises quite a few interesting reflections, perhaps firstly as to whether it’s a boy’s book, if that makes sense. Certainly the teenage, girl-chasing unrequited love and sex years may give that impression: I’ve never met anyone else who’s read any Skvorecky, let alone a female reader, so if there is one out there, I’d love to hear from you.

Then there’s the question of exile, and it was reflecting more generally on this theme in a previous post that drew me back to the novel in the first place. The entire novel is pervaded by a tone of sadness, wistfulness, regret, nostalgia, a powerful sense of loss; happy to be in Canada his heart wants a home, yet he shows us how those who go back are also lost, because it’s now another country, and he also shows us how those who visit from Czechoslovakia yearn for freedom and want to leave… there is no answer to the problem. As we approach the end of the novel, some friends die, some suffer from the compromises they have to make to stay at home, others lose their identities as they wander rootless around the world.

Skvorecky is a highly political writer, although by no means didactic; his ultimate philosophy seems to be to live for now because one can never be certain what horrors the future may hold, and that freedom is indivisible, it can’t be compromised on; he is Conradian in his attitude to revolutions and what they (don’t) achieve, and it’s interesting that one of the books he writes about studying with his students is Heart of Darkness. All politics is a game, a dirty one about power and nothing else.

There is a wonderful strand of humour running through the novel, and yet the horrors of the past break through in small, very powerful ways at times. It is a marvellous book, with so many layers to it which I still don’t think I’ve unravelled even after several readings; it’s not an easy read for someone unfamiliar with the region and its history. And, I found myself wondering if it’s actually the last time I’ll read it, because of the very powerful feelings it stirs in me…

On translation (again!)

March 12, 2017

The Qur’an is only the Qur’an in the original Arabic; if it’s in another language, it’s only a ‘version’, not the authentic Qur’an. At least, that’s my understanding of its status, and it led me once again to thinking about the business of translation. Obviously in my learning of languages, I’ve had to do plenty of it; I first became aware of the complexity when studying French at university. Turning the French words into English ones was straightforward enough, but making the whole read and flow like something in real English was much more of an art, and in the other direction was far harder, for coming from outside French, as it were, how well could I judge whether my effort felt like proper French? Nuance and idiom were everything, both ways…

Speaking the language was different: the revelation, epiphany even, which had come much earlier, before O level, when I was visiting my French pen-pal, was that I could speak the language more than passably and was understood by real French people, and that what I was saying did not involve any translating from English to French. The thoughts were there in my head, I articulated and they came out in French, because I was in France, talking with French people.

So what is a translation? Etymologically, from the Latin trans = across and latum, supine of the verb ferre to carry, so ‘carried across’. What do translators do? Somehow they enable us to read and understand a text written in a language we are unable to use. This involves putting the meanings of all the words into our language, and so much more: the sense, the feel, the meaning of the text as a whole also must be conveyed; idiom ideally is retained so we get a sense of the style of the original, the nature of the diction, the impression that the original author was trying to convey to her/his readers in the first language. Once you think of all these aspects of the task, it becomes formidable. And how can I be sure that, as a non-Russian and a non-Russian speaker (for these are surely different things) I’m actually getting what Tolstoy or Dostoevsky was saying?

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I’ve enjoyed many of the novels of Ismail Kadare, some in English, more in French. And, to the best of my knowledge, most of the translations available in English until recently were done from the French, not the original Albanian. So how far am I from Kadare’s original meaning when I read Broken April, or The Pyramid, for example? Or, looking at an example in the other direction, consider Joseph Conrad, nowadays rather a neglected modernist writer. First language Polish, second language French, and yet he wrote brilliant novels in English, his third language, for heaven’s sake! Yes, you can detect French-isms in his English occasionally, but not that often…

I was struck many years ago when I read a comment by Umberto Eco about his translator into English, William Weaver. Eco actually said that he thought Weaver’s version of The Name of the Rose was better than his (Eco’s). Now (a) what does this mean, and (b) how could Eco actually know? My head spins. And for me, it is a brilliant novel – Weaver’s version, that is, for I don’t read or speak Italian. So what have I read?

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I’m currently reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from A Dead House, translated by the well-known pair of translators of Russian literature, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. From articles I’ve read, one either hates their translation style or loves it. I’ve read many of their translations, and I’m firmly in the latter camp: for me they bring the stories alive, and with a modern enough idiom to make them comfortable to read unlike some of the stilted and wooden older translations. I’m not qualified to comment on accuracy or anything like that as I don’t speak Russian, but what they do works for me. But the more I read and think about translation as an art, the more in awe of its practitioners I am.

Paul Theroux: Dark Star Safari

January 5, 2017

41d180a54cl-_ac_us200_It took a long while to get into this book: I found Theroux‘ approach initially very annoying. The whole premise of his journey came across as self-indulgent, and his attitude to many of the people he met seemed patronising, to say the least. Then I found myself coming back to my taxonomy of travellers and travelling, and realised that here was another example of wealthy and sophisticated Westerners being able to do just what they liked: when he feels like it, he can hop on a plane, take a train or a taxi, spend a night in a luxury hotel…

I’m also being terribly unfair here: Theroux lived and worked for several years in Africa when he was younger, and obviously developed an empathy with and understanding of its peoples, too; here is is re-visiting some of his earlier haunts and meeting up with some of those he knew and worked with in those earlier days. What I was trying to tune in to, with varying degrees of success, was his attitude to Africa’s perceived current problems, and what he thought possible solutions might be.

There is a good deal of excellent description of places and travelling in this book; his approach is thoughtful, once I’d tuned in to it, and he clearly was both shocked and conflicted by the lack of progress, the regression even, that he saw since he had last visited some of the places he writes about.

A great deal of Africa’s problems stem from whites, colonisation and exploitation which lasted several centuries; Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness serves as a shorthand for such attitudes and behaviours. Tourists compound the problems, as much infrastructure serves them rather than Africans, and tourists come away with totally false perceptions of what the continent is like. Parasites is too kind a word.

Foreign aid is another serious issue, and Theroux is rightly scathing about this. Aid exists in its own self-perpetuating bubble, creating its own elite, again divorced from the realities of the continent and what it really needs: the charities recycle foreign money endlessly in a closed loop, and very little goes towards building African economies, supporting African ways of life. This, in turn, tends to foster corruption in governments and leaders, whose interest lies in things staying the way they are, rather than any change of direction…

At times, it feels like a portrait of despair, and that Africa really is the basket-case that many glibly name it. Theroux clearly loves the place with a great affection, and his frustration bursts through at various points as we see outsiders doing all the wrong things because it suits them, and Africans being fatalistic and unwilling to help themselves, almost expecting others to provide them with a living. It’s the cities that are the real problem; out in the sticks, people muddle along as best they can as they have always done, when wars don’t intrude…

As the Irishman said when asked for directions, ‘If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here…’; this is what I felt by the time I’d got to Cape Town in Theroux’ company; our interference has compounded so many problems, perhaps we need to leave and let the people begin to sort themselves out. And yet, there’s the small question of our (partial) responsibility for the chaos in the first place. A sobering read, ultimately.

English Literature and me

August 28, 2015

A friend has reminded me of the tricky territory which is the distinction between English and British. We don’t (often/usually) talk about ‘British’ literature, but when we speak of ‘English’ literature, what do we mean, exactly? Not literature written in English, but sometimes it seems to include writers from other areas of the British Isles than England. So, for instance, James Joyce was on my ‘English’ Literature syllabus at A level, and at university. It gets more complicated the more I look at it, so I will try and be as careful as I can with terminology…

English is my language, and I love it, and always have, its weirdnesses and idiosyncrasies, its vastness and its splendours, the ways it sings in the writings of Shakespeare and Milton, to name a couple of my favourites. And yet I can only claim to have scratched the surface, as far as our literature is concerned: yes, I met all the usual greats at school and university, and taught a fair few of them during my time as a teacher. But there’s so much that no-one can now claim really to know it all: the broad sweep, perhaps, but no more. Because I did a joint degree, I never had to go further back in time than Mediaeval English, so the joys of Anglo-Saxon are unknown to me, other than through translations of Beowulf.

How brilliant is Shakespeare? How does one get beyond centuries of hagiography, and academia? I found myself wondering this summer, when I saw a Marlowe play (The Jew of Malta) and two Shakespeare plays (Othello and The Merchant of Venice) at the RSC: there’s some wonderful language in Marlowe, but the play was let down by wooden characterisation and unsubtlety of plot in comparison with Shakespeare. Shakespeare is pretty consistently powerful across his entire career, and there’s clear and evident change, development and experimentation over time. And yet, though I enjoy his sonnets, as a lyric poet I find him somewhat limited in comparison with his contemporary John Donne, who is much more experimental and bold, as well as more wide-ranging in style and subject-matter.

My love of Milton is a minority taste nowadays, I find, when I wax lyrical about Paradise Lost to anyone. The language flows beautifully, he experiments and invents words as much as Shakespeare does, he tells a marvellous story, bringing his characters to life in a way that the book of Genesis does not.

I have grown to love Jane Austen‘s novels as time has passed, despite being faced with the most demanding one for close study at university (Mansfield Park, since you ask, and it’s still my favourite); her style and command of the nuances of the English language is masterly, particularly given the narrow focus of the world of her characters. Somehow she is quintessentially English (and what do I mean by that?). I have developed avoidance strategies for a great deal of nineteenth century English fiction over the years – Dickens really does (over)-write by the yard (though I make an exception for Hard Times) and Hardy is just too laden with heavy symbolism which gets in the way. I can cope with Charlotte Bronte, and love Villette even more than Jane Eyre. At the turn of the century I have plenty of time for Joseph Conrad, perhaps partly because he was Polish, and certainly out of admiration for the fact that he was writing in his third language. The characters and atmosphere of Nostromo are wonderful, and seem to lay the foundations for the worlds of Gabriel Garcia Marquez several generations later.

I haven’t found a lot to admire in the twentieth century. Joyce I’ve mentioned earlier: Ulysses is a masterpiece, though some of it has to be endured rather than enjoyed or marvelled at; I find his skills with our language astonishing, on a par with Milton’s, though very different. Lawrence we had to study at university and I now find him absolutely toe-curling in his approach to sexuality – almost unreadable, and I do wonder how much longer he will be widely read, if at all. Graham Greene I admire for the moral dilemmas he explores with such nicety, and keep meaning to go back and re-read his oeuvre but haven’t so far; I like what I’ve read of Anthony Burgess, and I really enjoyed Anthony Powell‘s Dance to the Music of Time, but other than those, I haven’t really read that much…

For me, the golden days of English Literature are past: we developed the drama and more or less invented the novel, but have passed the baton on to other writers and nations, at least at the moment; my perception is that currently we are very uncertain of ourselves and our place in the family of nations, and this shows in many ways, including our literature…

Travelling, audiobooks, librivox

July 20, 2015

I’m working up to getting this blog going again after a travelling break. When I’m driving, I like to listen to audiobooks, and they are quite expensive, so apart from must-haves like David Timson’s wonderful recordings of all the Sherlock Holmes stories and Anton Lesser’s superb performance of Milton’s Paradise Lost, I turn to the Librivox website to download my listening.

I’ve mentioned Librivox in passing before, but I’ll say a bit more about it for those of you who haven’t come across it, or visited the site, because my next few posts will be about some of the varied things I listened to on my travels.

Librivox is run from the US, by volunteers who record, check and upload recordings of texts which are out of copyright (in practice this seems to mean anything written before 1923). So everything is free, and there’s an incredible variety of stuff out there. Obviously, many of the classical works of literature which are out of copyright are there, but there are texts from all subject areas, and texts in quite a variety of languages, too. Incidentally, there now also exists a French website (www.litteratureaudio.com) dedicated to doing the same thing with out-of-copyright French language texts.

Nothing is perfect, even when it’s free, and there are things not to like about the site. Because it’s a volunteer organisation, anyone can offer to read and upload a text, and not everyone reads well, or engagingly. Some people may object to listening to English classics read with an American accent – and by far the majority of the volunteer readers are American. Some of the voices are monotonous. Some seem unable to pronounce correctly fairly basic English words. Some cannot be bothered to check the pronunciation of unfamiliar words… you can see, there are plenty of things which may annoy you. But, it’s free and you don’t have to listen. Recordings are, apparently, checked to ensure that they are audible and of reasonable quality. And the avowed aim of the site is to make audio versions of texts available. Some texts have been recorded multiple times, so if one doesn’t suit, another might – that was the case with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for me, for example.

On the other hand, some of the readers are absolutely wonderful, clear, expressive voices that really do bring texts to life – the recordings of Mark Twain’s novels and travelogues are a case in point for me, as are those of the travel writings of Isabella Bird.

All of the recordings carry a Librivox acknowledgement at the start of each chapter, I think as a way of dissuading various sharks from downloading the recordings and easily turning them into commercial recordings to foist on an unsuspecting public.

I’ve been listening to a wide range of different recordings over the last six or seven years or so; I have occasionally been disappointed, but far more often I have been very happy with what I’ve been able to listen to as I’ve been driving around…

Fading into obscurity…

June 13, 2015

I often find myself wondering about how much literature is lost, perhaps forever, just through the passage of time and the changing of fashions. Books go out of print and are forgotten; once gone, how few are ever rediscovered. These thoughts are often prompted by secondhand bookshops, especially the crumbling and ancient ones filled with fusty and mouldering tomes, which I often feel could be tidied by a judicious hand-grenade, and probably belong in a skip anyway…

Then I’m prompted by Theodore Sturgeon‘s observation – which I’m sure I’ve quoted before in a post – that 95% of science fiction is crap, but then 95% of everything is crap. So, much that is written and published deserves to vanish; if, like me you sometimes despair on looking at what is offered for sale (new) in bookshops, you will know what I mean. Does it matter what vanishes? In some ways I feel it does, because what disappears affects our understanding of the past, and I only need to recall the classics rescued from obscurity by a publisher such as Virago to be convinced of this.

When I used to raise the topic with my sixth form students, the touchstone question, to which they could all relate, was “Will future generations still read Harry Potter, or will those books also suffer the fate of the rest?” They were all convinced the books would survive; I was almost convinced then, but am less so now. I suspect they may disappear, to be rediscovered in a couple of generations or so.

What seems to change the situation is the increasing prevalence of digital texts, and the growth in people reading books electronically in preference to on paper. Surely this means that a text is far less likely to remain in print or to be reprinted, and there are also fewer paper copies extant to survive. Copyright lasts for 75 years after an author’s death: should this be shorter so that works can be digitally distributed free and thus survive in the public domain?

I remember two writers who were very much in vogue in the 1970s, when I was at university, and various reputations were being made through research and writing about them: D H Lawrence and Joseph Conrad. Now, I have the impression that it’s almost embarrasing to admit reading Lawrence, and Conrad is just so obscure, few have even heard of him. Similarly, two of the greats of science fiction when I first came to the genre were Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. Though the former was seminal in his consideration of artificial intelligence, he has been completely overtaken by today’s reality, and the latter does seem to have been overshadowed my many great contemporary SF writers, though I still don’t think anyone has bettered The City and the Stars.

Texts are largely preserved nowadays by elites and academia: perhaps this was always the case? Again, in discussion with students, I would raise the question of what one might call the ‘eternal themes’ of literature: love, death, war, growth as aspects which might ensure a work’s survival; many texts focus on these themes, so it is not them alone which make a work survive. There has to be something which transcends time, crosses generations and their different interests and preoccupations, whereas it seems that texts which disappear into obscurity are too rooted in their own time to speak to future generations. And there I come full circle in this post, and realise that if we want to understand a particular time, then we do not just need history books and ephemera from that time, but also its literature.

What of our age’s literature will be remembered and preserved?

Joseph Conrad: Almayer’s Folly

December 1, 2014

51HlPDwijGL._AA160_I discovered Conrad at university, and have always enjoyed his novels, perhaps partly because he was Polish. I have the impression of a novelist slowly fading into obscurity, perhaps because his major theme – white men’s colonisation of the world – is now deemed to be part of the past, and can therefore safely be forgotten. Perhaps Nostromo and The Secret Agent may survive, along with the supreme Heart of Darkness.

Almayer’s Folly was Conrad’s first novel, and it seems to foreshadow much of what came later. Almayer, the white Dutchman who has never seen Europe, stuck in the middle of nowhere in the Dutch East Indies, fails to make his fortune, loses out to other commercial rivals, makes an unhappy marriage with a native Malay woman, and eventually disowns his beloved mixed-race daughter because she chooses a Malay… and the background is small groups of people squabbling with each other, striving to get one up on each other, trying and failing to outwit the Dutch masters. It feels almost tragic: why did he waste his life on all this?

And this is what, to me, Conrad seems to understand, as a result of his own origins, and his travels as a merchant seaman in those faraway parts of the world – it is all a waste. Colonialism is a nightmare, an insanity for the people engaged in the actuality of trying to make it work. He has been criticised for not being politically correct in his approach to race and to indigenous populations; this is of its time, I think, and does not invalidate his picture. Conrad is very perceptive, in many ways.

He sees the sadness of a white man isolated in alien surroundings – where he does not belong and never can, where he can never be happy because he does not understand – lonely, prey to all kinds of disease and illness, fearing those who must live there because they belong and can be fulfilled. Almayer’s life, like the lives of many others in his novels, leads a wasted and pointless existence, driven by never satisfied cupidity, dreaming increasingly crazed dreams of a wonderful future to mask the empty present.

And the outsiders, the colonists are resented and loathed by the indigenous people: Conrad sees this clearly and presents it mercilessly; they delude themselves when they think otherwise. The only ones who get anything from this are the anonymous, faceless ones that inhabit the mysterious Brussels offices in Heart of Darkness.

Of course, Conrad’s perceptiveness did not stop any of this. But he saw through it all, from a white man’s perspective – and who else’s could he see it from? – and presents an indictment of a dreadful episode in our history through fiction, just as others have detailed it in personal narratives and historical analysis. I do not think we should overlook his achievement.

Joseph Conrad: Nostromo

June 13, 2014

41SC8pityRL._AA160_It took me a long time to settle into this re-read (fifth); I thought perhaps I had gone off Conrad, and his greatest novel, but it was not so. As I reached the end, the powerful sense of tragedy gripped me again: truly, the desire for money is the root of all evil, and the undoing of many.

This time round, I was very aware of Conrad’s cynicism, perhaps symbolised in the character of the journalist Decoud, whose shallowness is the ultimate cause of his suicide. At university I hated Conrad’s anti-revolutionary stance, his distrust of any attempt at change; now I perceive him not as conservative or reactionary, merely totally without faith in any good or improvement ever coming from anyone’s attempts, which are futile. It’s a dark view, perhaps understandable in view of Conrad’s personal background… I just thought about Tony Blair and New Labour, with much sadness.

So, in this imaginary South American land beset by dictators and revolutionaries (it does remind me of Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude) the evil dictator Guzman Bento ruthlessly tortured and killed his opponents, but brought a long period of peace to Costaguana (Saddam Hussein, anyone?). Ribiera, his replacement, is more human but ineffectual and easily challenged by the Montero brothers, who are powerful, but brutes.

For Conrad, idealists talk and have fine ideas, but ultimately achieve little; real things are achieved by others circumventing these idealists. Perhaps the Englishman Gould and his silver mine show this most clearly: economic power interacts with secular power, merely to serve its own ends: it is amoral; the mine that was a force for some good initially has become another instrument of oppression by the end of the novel. Everyone is either venal or ineffective in Conrad’s world; no-one comes out of it well. On this re-reading the parallels with our twenty-first century world were quite stark, Conrad very prescient. Or I’ve got older.

The eponymous Nostromo, who lives for his reputation, is ultimately corrupted by the silver, too: everyone has his price, and I was struck by the way his eyes were suddenly opened to the way he was used, manipulated by the rich and powerful.

Conrad is a masterful storyteller: the tale is complex, the characters develop slowly, and he plays with the time sequence of events in his story to draw the reader in; the conceit of the silver mine is skilfully woven throughout the novel, its tentacles touching and sullying every character. I am glad I came back to this fine book.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude

May 5, 2014

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After his death the other week, I told myself it was time to re-read Marquez’ classic One Hundred Years of Solitude; imagine my surprise on taking my copy down from the bookshelf, when I discovered it was twenty years since I’d last read it… and I’d been recommending it to friends and students alike all that time, on my memory of the book alone.

So I re-read it, and it’s still brilliant. I found myself comparing it with Love in the Time of Cholera, which I’ve re-read more recently: the former has a much broader scope: a town, a huge family, a century, whereas the latter, though covering many years in the story, seems more narrowly focussed on a group of people, and especially, the intensity of personal relationships. I felt that One Hundred Years was a more youthful, a more playful novel, whereas Love felt like a work of more mature years, more reflective, and, in my memory, more expressive in its language and imagery. I think I might find it harder to say which was the better (if that means anything!) of the two novels.

Everyone says ‘magic realism’ when Marquez comes to mind, and it’s useful genre shorthand, but what does it mean? what is it, exactly? It’s not a fantasy world, in the Tolkein vein, though the setting counts as ‘exotic’ for the Western reader, perhaps (there were times when events in the novel, such as the civil wars and the banana plantation, reminded me of Conrad‘s Nostromo, with its civil wars and silver mine). The sequence of narration is not always linear, but that’s not exclusive to magic realism. The characters seem real, plausible, as do the events and places, but somehow – I think partly through a lyrical written style – Marquez manages to weave in increasingly unlikely happenings and have his reader accept them as part of the story, and eventually some completely impossible events occur, and we are so enmeshed, so drawn in, that we continue… yet the characters never become completely unreal.

In Macondo, which is totally cut off from the rest of the world, travellers arrive with new objects and discoveries, and these amaze and captivate the innocent inhabitants; some of these things verge on the fantastical, or seem like magic to the townspeople; though we know they aren’t, we partake of their sense of wonder, and we are not surprised when a person becomes obsessed with one of them. The story focusses on the Buendia family and its increasingly bizarre descendants – perhaps partially explained by intermarriage and even incest – some of whom are mad, some visionary, some very old: these last eventually becoming ancient caricatures of their original selves, adding to the sense of strangeness, but also endearing us to them because of their permanence. I am still unable to fathom what Marquez is suggesting through the character of the ageing matriarch Ursula, or Colonel Aureliano of the thirty-two civil wars and the gold fish, but there is something about the cyclical nature of time (which leads to the great cleverness of the ending which leaps on you unexpected and left me breathless) and the impossibility of really achieving anything permanent.

One Hundred Years of Solitude is a work of genius (I think I’ve read it four times now and my feelings haven’t changed) and I’d agree with whichever critic it was whorecently said it was the most important or best novel written in Spanish in the twentieth century. It retains its place in my top three novels of all time.

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