Re-reading Marquez’s Memoir

On February 21, 2011 by admin

Manash Bhattacharjee

Many writers and critics have complained about the term “magic realism” used to describe much of Latin American writing by the world publishing market. It was the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier who put a more apt phrase for the kind of Latin American fiction that was forcibly translated as magic realist. He called such works of fiction: marvelous real (“lo real marvilloso”).

Europe is infamous for creating binaries after the Enlightenment experience wherein “magical” was opposed to “real” the way “irrational” was opposed to “reason”. So “magic realism” served as an oxymoronic fusion where the two binaries were retained to serve the double tension between the West’s own self-conscious distinction: between a magic deemed to be medieval and realism deemed to be modern within its own history, as well as between “other” cultures which are supposedly still in the grips of “magic” but – and it’s impossible not to be polemical here – in contact with the modern European form of fiction, also attains the claims of realism. In contrast, the term “marvelous real” simply conjures up an image of a fictional world where the word “marvelous” does not suggest something other than the real, but holds the marvelous as an attribute of the ordinary aspects of real life itself. Carpentier distinguished his idea of “lo real marvilloso” by contrasting it with the most vibrant literary movement in Europe during his time, surrealism: “In the first place, the sensation of the marvelous presupposes a faith.  Those who do not believe in saints cannot be cured by the miracles of saints… Thus the idea of the marvelous invoked in the context of disbelief – which is what the surrealists did for so many years – was never anything but a literary trick”.

Surrealism was a violent escape from the traps of Christian values and bourgeois life. It was a fusion of Marx and Rimbaud: a radical aesthetics aiming to liberate society by re-inventing love. In their search for a new future, the surrealists aimed to destroy conventional notions of both (Christian) morality and (bourgeois) reality by embracing the psychic/irrational depths of language. It led them to search and recover the resonances of pre-moral/primordial/pagan origins. Some of the primordial/pagan influences were however marketed into the imagination through a colonial route from non-European cultures.

The surrealist movement can also be read as an attempt to counter the various factors which produced in modern Europe what Weber called “disenchantment”, in the wake of capitalism and the Protestant ethic. Against this rationalization of life and faith, the surrealists introduced an aesthetic of re-enchantment. But, as Carpentier right pointed out, instead of welcoming faith, the surrealists took a critical look at faith, influenced by secular/Marxist traditions. Figures like Salvador Dali were however more ideologically ambiguous than leftist surrealists.

Carpentier’s criticism however, taking the example of Dali’s paintings, is that surrealism’s attempt was “the fabrication of the marvellous”. It is a criticism regarding the codification and manufacturing by Dali and other surrealists of a marvellous reality which wasn’t palpable in modern Europe as opposed to the raw translation by Latin Americans like Marquez of the marvellous which was tangibly experienced in their culture. Though this view holds water, it is important to qualify this crucial distinction. In the case of Latin American fiction, the marvellous was pretty much an easily obtainable material, from which a mise-en-scène could then be created. In surrealism, one could detect the structural influence of the Freudian revolution, with imageries of dream-states and the techniques of deciphering and interpreting them having a huge impact not only on Dali’s paintings, but also on Andre Breton’s concept of “automatic writing”. Carpentier argued how in Latin America, “the marvellous was around every corner”, whereas in Paris “one had to milk reality with great effort in order to extract the marvellous”. Carpentier seems to separate (artistic) labour and magic. He didn’t suspect the possibility that only labour can offer the radical means left in a culture besieged by the power discourses of religious beliefs and bourgeois rationality, to extract, however painfully, remnants of the lost and the buried forces (imageries) of culture. The surrealist enterprise of labour however suffers from a sociologically, if not existentially, alienated productivity.

This alienation can be grasped if one bears in mind that while the post-colonial Latin Americans kept alive their ties with the popular, the surrealists experimented within the artificial confines of an elite environment. The difference also lies in the condition (or situation) which the surrealists faced, where the exceptional had to be produced against the everyday. The surrealists, being revolutionary atheists fighting Christian dogmas, also found it difficult to say what Gabriel Garcia Marquez, despite being a communist, could suggest from a popular register of culture: “If you don’t believe in god, at least be superstitious”. This difference endorses Carpentier’s attempt to see the Latin American literary-scape vis-à-vis Europe through a prism of radical otherness and elsewhere-ness.

Latin American fiction, like any genuine fiction from the non-West, holds up a different version and vision of the world and of life. Even though the modern form of the novel began in Europe, with Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Milan Kundera’s assertion of the novel being “Europe’s creation” is merely an assertion about the creation of a form which has been re-created differently elsewhere. Writers from other cultures, faced with a Europeanizing modernity forced through their colonial histories, have tried to fuse the novel form with its older forms of story telling. The imaginations of fiction in such countries were, in a way, a paradoxical experience of appropriation and resistance. The fact that Marquez could achieve this specific task of fusing the Western form of the novel with his Columbian roots of storytelling is just a case in point. But writers from different cultures have not been necessarily busy in mimicking Europe. They also parodied their own world. As much as Europe was part of their colonized history, in effect, sometimes Europe itself got parodied. Marquez was of course busy in something different altogether: he invented a country (and a culture) through narratives in which both – that particular country and the rest of the world – could together come to read the unique story of its existence.

In the background of this contrast, let us look at Marquez’s memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, as an interesting text which blurs the distinction between fiction and non-fiction, thus moving into the space of marvellous reality through the narrative that affects all literature: the of memory. We will study the memoir and its structuring of memory vis-à-vis texts and forms from Europe which emerged around the same period.

Alastair Reid (in The New York Review of Books, 15/1/2004) gets the point as he calls the memoir, “an exercise in remembering, but without the tensions and contrivances of the novel”. Marquez does not however forget the techniques of story telling as he writes his memoir. The dramatic aspects of fiction is very well infused in the right places to prevent the narrative from appearing like an endless, routine seam of time and events following on each other’s trail. We shall consider a few of them. For now, let us turn to Marquez’s epigraph where he axiomatically draws the correspondence between the structure of life with the structure of memory: “Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it”.

Perry Anderson (in The Nation, 26/1/2004) views it as “an invitation to selective recall, with all the facilities of a convenient amnesia”. He finds it legitimate to “ask how far memories correspond to facts”. The claim Marquez is making about life should unerringly be linked to the aspiration of writing a memoir.  The narrative of one’s life written through a process of remembering across lived time doesn’t need to corroborate mere facts through an objective digging into the past, as memory is vastly imbued with subjective ghosts where the person paints his life over the canvas of lost time, with every event being illumed by how one has been affected then and now rather than by projecting any truth-version. It’s true that Marquez seems to have kept quiet on many incidents and people. This does not necessarily warrant a judgment over selectivity. Even the act of remembering makes choices over which sleeping dogs to be left lying and which specters to bring up. In such a situation, recalling of the past is unavoidably selective but never on self-conscious grounds, and one can call the amnesia “convenient” only out of one’s own objective prejudices. We anyway don’t choose our own amnesia – amnesia, so to say, chooses us.

The act of remembering is never an act of recalling the truth about one’s life but rather a glimpse into the very real fiction of life. The essential difference between literature and philosophy arises from this distinction. For philosophy, “truth” is always the pivotal concept behind the search for meanings ranging from the idea of the state, to the idea of being, to life itself. This attitude turns a narrative moral, and hence justificatory in character, from the point of view of a truth-claim or a claim veering around (or against) truth.

The English proverb tells us that truth is stranger than fiction. What is revealing here is how the word truth is deployed in a way as to depend on the aura of strangeness when compared with and against fiction. The terms can be reversed and said that in literature, truth itself acquires a strange place, dipped in the schisms between words and reality. Literature, in this sense, aims for a more subjective story of human life where the question of truth is exposed to a game.

Marquez’s memoir is the triumph of narrative innovation where the story of his life borders on the fictional, even as it obliquely illuminates the novels he’s written. It reads like a story about his stories, about how he collected his materials from the characters he knew and weaved them into tales. His memoir is a tale that travels through the sideways of his fiction. The structure of Marquez’s memoir is episodic rather than linear. It inevitability is caused by how memory itself structures time. This shilly-shally between past and present life, provoked by memory, marks the flow of narrative-time.

In Living to Tell, Marquez has shown that a storyteller’s attitude and a memoir’s raison d’ etre can make an imaginative pact. A memoir, unlike an autobiography, is a story of encounters without reflective motifs. The encounters are part of pure story, narrated without any philosophical consequence for the writer. Autobiographies are anchored in the self’s predilections. With structural innovation and dramatic techniques, Marquez has managed to radically move the genre of the memoir towards fiction. The memoir gives Marquez ample space to experiment this alliance of genres as he’s clearly not interested in philosophical problems but in telling a story.

The autobiography is traced back to Augustine’s Confessions. Commentators see it as a narrative form where the immanent temporal form of the autobiography is displaced by the ideal and static scheme of allegory. But it is agreed that even when the autobiography took its modern, secularized form, the idea of the “self” always seemed to draw out, under autonomous garbs, certain religious and normative ideas, thus never really abandoning the allegorical influence. The confessional scheme was Christian not only for Augustine but also, years later, for Rousseau. The main concern here is how the autobiography was always an anxious enterprise to describe a journey of the self to be recovered, examined, vindicated, defended or simply guided in time through certain idealized visions. In autobiographies, the drawing of a relationship with one’s self is the central anxiety, ambition and trope.

But a memoir has a different task to deliver. It is about the story, which the self undergoes with others. What the writer pursues in the memoir is not the evolution of the self but the evolution of a life of stories, a story of lives. Marquez’s memoir is further, a tribute to all his loved ones, the way he had once, more playfully commented in his interview with Plinio Apulevo Mendoza, on One Hundred Years of Solitude being “a bit of a joke, full of signals to close friends”. Marquez’s sensibility re-claims that no genuine literary work can take place outside its immediate human sphere; with any pretensions to universality.

European memoirs/autobiographies however couldn’t get away from the Kantian influence. In Sartre’s Words, where he reminiscences his childhood and adolescence, the writing is both lyrical and philosophical. Though sometimes descriptions of people and events do take on a purely literary flavour, the stirrings of a philosophical detachment from the world are writ large in the progress of Sartre’s life. Even as Sartre does offer memorable pictures of the world he was born in (primarily his mother and his grand parents), the “I” of the narrative gains a philosophical stronghold. There is a visible crack in Words, between Sartre’s verbal flourish in describing things, people and his relationship with them, and a Protestant-like analysis of self-growth where he confronts religion, his family, his class and the social morality surrounding him. He sounds having saved himself against his angst by climbing the ladder of reason. He mixes literary aphorisms (“I was born from writing; before that, there was only a reflection in a mirror”) with philosophical insinuations (“The conscious mind can only act later as critic, selector, discarder”). The Kantian anxiety is obvious.

For Marquez, the beginning of memory is however not adulterated by any sense of real, historical alienation. For many European writers, the 20th century came to be the age of exiles. For writers who fled their home country, memory became the cause of anguish. Vladimir Nabokov in his memoir Speak, Memory, draws the most celebrated literary trysts between memory and language. But in contrast to Marquez’s memoir, where the recovery of the past becomes the marvelously real journey for the self, Nabokov’s is a piece de resistance about the displaced and dusty-eyed relationship between the self and its severed past. The exiled literature of Europe sought its self to be recovered, while other worlds like Marquez’s Columbia, threw up stories of a culture to be re-covered. Nabokov, who was forced to flee Russia with his family when he was eighteen, brings in the quiet lyricism of loss to his prose of remembering, while Marquez is content to conjure up the excessive craze-language of his culture. An alienated life turns Nabokov back to the burnt up pebble-shores of his self. For Marquez, the self is merged with inventive abandon into the mythopoetical fold of his cultural life. Nabokov has to force his memory to “speak” with a haunted nostalgia, while memory puts Marquez on a flight-vision of language. Nabokov seizes his clarity in Speak, Memory with this admission: “The break in my own destiny affords me in retrospect a syncopal kick that I would not have missed for worlds”. This kick however slows Nabokov down, as his mind tries to pick up the scents and voices of lost things. It adds a pensive poise to his narrative. Nabokov remembers from afar whereas Marquez discovers within range – lost landscapes of a bygone life. Yet, the subjective worlds of writers can sometimes speak in the same tongue. Like this evocation of temporality that Nabokov brings in Speak, Memory could well have been Marquez’s own: “I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip”.

We shall now look at three moments in the memoir to highlight three important registers of Marquez’s life. In the beginning of the memoir, Marquez mentions how his mother comes looking for him, despite the knowledge that he is drinking with his writer friends. Before he could react upon seeing her, she said: “I am your mother”.

The dramatic resonance of this statement, deployed by Marquez to arouse our attention, is a unique style of transporting the ordinary to the level of the exemplary. The mother’s declaration is authoritative as much as vulnerable. Marquez reminisces immediately about how many pregnancies she had gone through and yet how she managed to look beautiful at her age. It is a registering of pain, dignity and beauty all at once. Just as her statement evokes a bond which is at once bio-logical and socio-logical. In his registering of the mother, Marquez doesn’t forget the woman.

Marquez also speaks in this memoir about his friends and how they differed in their political positions. One was an “orthodox liberal”, another “a reluctant freethinker”, yet another “an arbitrary anarchist”. Marquez himself was seen as “an unbelieving Communist and potential suicide”. Marquez sums up the basis of their affinity: “I believe without any doubt at all that our greatest good fortune was that even in the most extreme difficulties we might lose our patience but never our sense of humor”. It is impossible not to relate to the wisdom behind that experience. Humour does not resolve differences but often helps to dissolve them. It reduces the seriousness of the world into a playground of insignificance – through it we bear the world, register our complaints and mend the strains of solidarity.

Reviewers of this book have taken notice of the incident where Marquez unselfconsciously wrote how he wanted to finish lunch in the midst of blood-splattering eruptions in Bogotá, following the murder of the popular leader Gaitan.  Even when his brother urged him to join a student’s protest against the murder, Marquez decidedly wished to flee. I would like to defend this quail-ish attitude in the writer against his critics.

Marquez said he stopped learning since the age of eight, after he left his grandmother’s house. The intimacy with maids and other women in the house convinced Marquez that women “are the ones who maintain the whole world” while men “throw it into disarray with our historic brutality”. Influenced by a matriarchal culture, Marquez has a unique eye for the masculine aspects of politics. From this decisive angle, he traverses through the frontiers of politics with watchdog alertness but with an equal irony. As he said in his interview with Mendoza: “I see myself as having been forced by circumstances into political activity”. His attitude to politics always retained this ambivalence of engagement and distance. He holds an inimical position that resists an ideological/moral typology, where taking part in a violent political event is held as a political form of duty for a writer. This relationship with politics is also born from and is a consequence of a writer’s unavoidable sense of solitude. Solitude is also the harbour of memory, and of all writing. 

Manash Bhattacharjee is  a poet and a political theorist. This piece was first published in – Biblio, July-August, 2010 – issue.

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