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1988 BOOK PRIZE WINNER: FICTION : Magical Is Only the Adjective

“How odd that my name is Federico.” Federico Garcia Lorca wasn’t proposing a different name for himself. “Federico” had nothing objectionable to it. But why have the same name every day regardless of how you are feeling? Why be the same person? Would you wear a green shirt every day, or eat fish soup? In a floating world, you float. Could the line have come back to him before dawn, when a right-wing gang dragged him from a friend’s house at the outbreak of the Spanish civil war? They shot him precisely for being Federico--poet, surrealist, dismantler of Spanish verities, and homosexual.

It is a line that would have been entirely natural to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Col. Buendia--"How odd that my name is Aureliano"--when he faced the firing squad in “One Hundred Years of Solitude”; to the disemboweled victim--"How odd that my name is Saturnino"--in “Chronicle of a Death Foretold”; or to Dr. Urbino--"How odd that my name is Juvenal"--as he fell from a stepladder in “Love in the Time of Cholera.”

It may seem remote to make a connection between the lyrical Spanish poet who never knew what time it was outdoors until it was past time and the mighty, myth-making Colombian novelist who has the outdoors--the part of it that bestows Nobel prizes and buys hundreds of thousands of his books--firmly at his feet.

But it is a real connection and an important one. Garcia Lorca devised a vision of the world. It was a surrealist vision, but of a kind very different from that of his compatriots Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali. Theirs, formed in France, declared the world estranged by means of estranging images: the sliced eyeball, the bent watches. Garcia Lorca used his surreal images quite differently. Odd and distorted as they were, they declared the world to be not estranged but expanded. His flowers with weeping faces are an unsettling extension of our usual gardens.

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It was, if you like, a sweet surrealism; with the word “sweet” purged of its present-day, diet-conscious, pejorative connotations. And its child--nephew, perhaps, to take account of the many differences--is the magical realism of Garcia Marquez.

“Magical” is the adjective; “realism,” the noun. I think this is important to keep in mind. Perhaps to many readers, a Garcia Marquez novel stands out for its enchantment, its seeming improbabilities, its dream-like derailments.

We have a Buendia woman in “A Hundred Years of Solitude” so supernally beautiful that she ends up drifting into the sky; an arbitrary wind that destroys the town of Macondo just 100 years after its founding; the boat that takes the two aged lovers of “Cholera” eternally up and down the Magdalena River. We have all kinds of prodigious and Technicolored statistics; for example, the 2,500 letters written by Angela, in “Chronicle,” to reclaim her husband.

But all these things work to a purpose perfectly familiar to a Dickens or a Tolstoy: to convey the world as it is. The point, of course, is that the world Garcia Marquez is rendering is entirely different from 19th-Century London or St. Petersburg, or, for that matter, Hemingway’s Upper Peninsula or Updike’s suburbs.

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It is a Third World touched, goaded, invaded by the various material, political and social contributions of the First World, but never really taken over by them. On the contrary, every one of the artifacts and influences coming from Europe or the United States is bent and blurred. The noise of a motorcycle, invading a dream, alters the dream, but in a dreamlike fashion.

And so: A train is “a stove pulling a village.” The stepladder death of the urbane Dr. Urbino comes from stretching too far in order to catch a parrot. The poet-telegrapher, Florentino Ariza, sends love letters to his sweetheart--spirited away to the hinterland by her family--by using the national network of fellow telegraphers. A banana-plantation conglomerate sprouts overnight, disappears overnight.

Literary realism, of course, never simply writes of things as they are. Not even the telephone book does that. My dentist’s phone number has a malaise to it; and lovers have been known to look up their lovers’ names out of sheer longing.

Traditional realism works to a set of values. It assumes a world of evidence that adds up to a certain clarity about purposes, paths, pitfalls. The individual matters; his thoughts, his feelings, his struggles with the world around him. (In socialist realism, the individual might be submerged in a group, but purposes still matter.)

There are causes, effects and mysteries. There is passion or, currently, a studied lack of it; but the lack is passion’s special case, its disease. Above all, there is a functional or dysfunctional relationship between the individual and society.

In Garcia Marquez’s Latin America, the current forms of society and politics are entirely alien. Nothing has the function for which it was invented at another time and in another place. Constitutions are absurd--witness the innumerable wars that Col. Buendia fights on behalf of the Liberal Party--and so are churches and businesses. So, by artistic extension, are bicycles, ice cubes, power lines and forks. So is the macho tradition of honor. So are such showy devices of nature as floods and mountains; and so is the act of lovemaking. Col. Buendia begets 17 bastards on 17 women; Florentino Ariza compiles 600 sexual engagements.

Lovemaking is absurd--but love is not. Humans are not. It’s just that they are engaged in the most intelligent of calculations in a universe where every single premise is wrong.

As used by most American and European writers, the absurd tends to be depressive; it sinks its protagonists in their own struggles. In his sweet surrealism, Garcia Marquez constructs a different message.

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The citizens of Macondo are immortal, even though their town will last 100 years. Col. Buendia can coldly execute innocent prisoners; he can also love, hope, lament, fight off an army and make jeweled gold fish. The killers of Saturnino would rather not find him; the mayor would like to prevent the death but is distracted by a game of dominoes; Saturnino makes no particular effort to get away, and he is the wrong man, anyway.

The line between life and death, between success and failure, is tropically overgrown. People who live will die, but that is more a compliment to death than a judgment on life. The West’s memento mori , addressed to impress the living, can just as well be an equable “remember the living” addressed to cheer up the dead.

The quality of sweetness that marks Garcia Marquez’s style more profoundly than anything else--more than his spectacularly colored chaos and displacements--is of an oddly traditional kind.

It declares a human quality that transcends the vicissitudes, absurdities and misapprehensions in which his people find themselves. His characters are never defined, and never constrained, though frequently assassinated. His monsters are porous and innocent. What survives is what, in another context, would be called their souls.

Mark Twain wrote “Life on the Mississippi” and, of course, “Huckleberry Finn.” The great muddy river meant life, action and a channel to freedom and self-realization. And it meant these things the more unforgettably because, even at the time of writing, they were already a romantic looking back. The Mississippi inclines to silting, low water, stranded barges and industrial deterioration.

Garcia Marquez’s own Old Muddy, a leading figure in “Love in the Time of Cholera,” is the Magdalena River. It is torpid and always has been. There is nothing about it of progress or of lighting out for a new life. It brings down mud and the bodies of cholera victims in its long passage from the backlands.

It is a retrograde river, if you like, and yet it is a prophetic river as well. Garcia Marquez touches us for many reasons, and the obvious ones are his fertile imagination, his humor and the magic of his narratives. But there is something more.

We do not have to go to a Latin American hinterland to notice the decay of Western progress. Things break, fail and turn poisonous. Our air conditioners burn holes in the ozone layer. Our political processes, particularly in the last weeks of a presidential campaign, seem suspiciously Macondo-like. Our garbage travels the world looking for a place to stay.

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Macondo may not be upon us, but the difference between the Mississippi and the Magdalena is less and less clear. And it becomes more important to us than ever that a novelist has been able to show the possibility of writing about love in a time of cholera.

FICTION NOMINEES

SHOWDOWN

by Jorge Amado;

translated from the Portuguese

by Gregory Rabassa

(Bantam Books)

LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA

by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

translated from the Spanish

by Edith Grossman

(Alfred A. Knopf)

THE FIFTH CHILD

by Doris Lessing

(Alfred A. Knopf)

MOON TIGER

by Penelope Lively

(Grove Press)

LIBRA

by Don DeLillo

(Viking)


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