31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 2: “The Other Side of Death” by Gabriel García Márquez (trans. by Gregory Rabassa)

May 2, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

Collected_Stories_Gabriel_Garcia_MarquezFrom Collected Stories

At the university in Bogotá, I started making new friends and acquaintances, who introduced me to contemporary writers. One night a friend lent me a book of short stories by Franz Kafka. I went back to the pension where I was staying and began to read The Metamorphosis. The first line almost knocked me off the bed. I was so surprised. The first line reads, “As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing short stories. They are totally intellectual short stories because I was writing them on the basis of my literary experience and had not yet found the link between literature and life.

– Gabriel García Márqez, The Paris Review interviews (The Art of Fiction No. 69)

Reading Gabriel García Márquez’s early stories, it is easy to see what the author meant by classifying them as “intellectual” (as opposed to, say, “magical,” a word often used in conjunction with his later work, most especially the major novels). His early stories experiment insistently with the idea of the narrative consciousness, as befits an author heavily influenced by Kafka; they float in and out of different perspectives and often flirt with a kind of dreamlike aspect.

“The Other Side of Death,” in particular, begins with a dream, from which a man awakes “with a start.” The association, in the story’s first line, between death and dreaming immediately calls to mind another literary influence to place alongside Kafka: Sigmund Freud. Indeed, there is a strong Freudian aspect to the dream, when it is described in the story’s long second paragraph. The anonymous man who has awoken from sleep imagines himself on a train, from the windows of which he observes his twin brother – whom we will subsequently learn has recently died – standing behind a tree.

The landscape outside the train windows, we are told, resembles a still life, “sown with false, artificial trees bearing fruit of razors, scissors, and other diverse items.” We will not fully comprehend this strange image until close to the story’s end, when the man recalls the barber who was summoned to “arrange” his brother’s corpse so that it might be presentable for viewing.

In Freud’s theory, the foreconscious, which dominates our waking hours, lies dormant during sleep, allowing our subconscious free rein. “But once the dream becomes a perception,” Freud writes, “it is then capable of exciting consciousness through the qualities thus gained.” Why should the image of the barber shaving his twin bother trouble the story’s protagonist sufficiently to wake him from sleep? Surely, a twin brother’s death is a traumatic experience on its own, but what is it in this particular image that makes it capable of exerting such a psychic pull?

The answer involves another literary device: the double. This motif has been pervasive in short fiction since the form’s inception; the man generally credited with inaugurating a theory of the short story in English – Edgar Allan Poe – employed doubles throughout much of his fiction, most especially in his classic tale “William Wilson.” In “The Other Side of Death,” Márquez incorporates the device most explicitly by making the brothers twins, that is, literal doubles of one another.

But this doubling motif also adopts a psychological aspect in the story. Recalling the barber shaving the face of his dead brother, the character’s thoughts begin to take on an uncanny aspect:

He had the strange feeling that his kin had extracted his image from the mirror, the one he saw reflected in the glass when he shaved. Now that image, which used to respond to every movement of his, had gained independence. He had watched it being shaved other times, every morning. But now he was witnessing the dramatic experience of another man’s taking the beard off the image in his mirror, his own physical presence unneeded. He had the certainty, the assurance, that if he had gone over to a mirror at that moment he would have found it blank, even though physics had no precise explanation for the phenomenon. It was an awareness of splitting in two! His double was a corpse!

There is a conflation here between the brothers’ individual consciousnesses. This conflation manifests itself in the disappearing image in the mirror, a glass which of course reflects the user, in much the same way one would see oneself “reflected” in the face of an identical twin. The idea that there would be no reflection should the protagonist turn the mirror toward his own face involves a psychic (and, in the fantasia of Márquez’s story, a physical) erasure. “He imagined that the separation of the two bodies in space was just appearance,” Márquez writes, “while in reality the two of them had a single, total nature. Maybe when organic decomposition reaches the dead one, he, the living one, will begin to decay within his animated world.”

This dreamlike elision of the two characters – the narrative voice slides from the first to the third person, and there is even the hint of a suggestion that the twin brothers may indeed be one in the same person – is pervasive throughout the story. A further aspect of the protagonist’s dream involves a pus-filled tumour being extracted from his toe with a screwdriver, reminiscent of the tumour that claimed his brother’s life. The dream, with which the protagonist claims to be “displeased,” ends with the image of a woman in front of a mirror, “trying to extract his left eye with a pair of scissors.” The repetition of the mirror imagery is clear enough; the woman’s action resonates in the scene with the barber, who finishes his ablutions by using the tip of his scissors to close the corpse’s eyes.

“The Other Side of Death,” which in its doubling imagery and insistence on mirrors as a pattern of metaphor resembles another early Márquez story, “Dialogue with the Mirror,” is indeed an intellectual exercise, but it is also tightly calibrated and possessed of a marvellous internal integrity. It opens with the protagonist, having risen from his dream, smelling violets and formaldehyde. The association with death and embalming is clear, but looking back over the author’s whole career, it is also possible to see in this an anticipation of the classic opening line from Love in the Time of Cholera, which also invokes a smell associated with death, in that case the bitter almonds of cyanide. His approach may have evolved over the course of a long and remarkable career, but Márquez’s themes and obsessions can be detected, in nascent form, even in his earliest, intriguing output.

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