31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 21: “The Sea of Lost Time” by Gabriel García Márquez (trans. by Gregory Rabassa)

May 21, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From Collected Stories

Collected_Stories_Gabriel_Garcia_MarquezJorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Clarice Lispector, Roberto Bolaño, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa: for whatever reason – perhaps a volatile history, perhaps the ability to tap into a rich cultural heritage, perhaps just something in the water – writers from Latin America are among the most intriguing, exciting, and persistently challenging in world literature. The one who has achieved the greatest international success (arguably) is Colombian-born novelist, story writer, and journalist Gabriel García Márquez, whose particular brand of magic realism has come to represent the region’s writing in the eyes of many. (Wrongly, for this posits much too narrow a view of Latin American literature, but that’s a matter for another day.)

Written in 1961 and included in the Spanish-language collection The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother (and, like many of the stories in this year’s 31 Days, appearing in English – in a somewhat different form – in The New Yorker), “The Sea of Lost Time” is representative of the author’s approach and central concerns: it is a magic-realist tale dealing with the pull of history, the inevitability of death, and the rapacious forces of outside influence on Latin American society.

The story is set in a poverty-ridden seaside town. Each year near the end of January or the beginning of February, the sea becomes violent and dumps its accumulated flotsam and jetsam on the town. It is typical of Márquez to announce this fact at the opening of his story only to undercut it in the very next breath, informing readers that the year the story takes place, the sea did not revolt, but rather “became smoother and more phosphorescent and during the first nights of March it gave off a fragrance of roses.”

Roses are used to mask the odour of decay when corpses are sent out to sea, but because the town in the story is “arid, with a hard soil furrowed by saltpeter,” it is rare (and expensive) for the flowers to be imported for this purpose, and many of the townspeople are unfamiliar with their smell.

The association of roses and death is combined with other images of age and decrepitude that pervade the town, including the music from Catarino’s gramophone, which stirs up memories of lost youth: “When they heard the music, distant but distinct, the people stopped chatting. They looked at one another and for a moment had nothing to say, for only then did they realize how old they had become since the last time they’d heard music.”

The breeze that carries with it the smell of roses helps revivify the town, luring back those who had abandoned it in despair, and with them musicians and show people, along with “fortunetellers and gunmen and men with snakes coiled about their necks who were selling the elixir of eternal life.”

But it is the arrival of Mr. Herbert, a gringo, that most profoundly affects the town and its inhabitants. Mr. Herbert claims to be the richest man in the world and says that in the absence of any need for himself, he has decided to travel the globe helping people in trouble. He carries with him a suitcase full of money, but he refuses to provide handouts to the needy townsfolk. Instead, he demands that they perform for him – mimicking birdcalls or playing checkers in exchange for payment. In one case, Mr. Herbert prostitutes a young woman who claims to be in need of 500 pesos by rounding up 100 men and allowing them to have sex with the woman for the price of five pesos apiece.

That Mr. Herbert is a malevolent interloper becomes clear fairly quickly. He is also a rich gringo, who inserts himself in the town to solve the problems of the people, only to make them exponentially worse. It is not a stretch to view Mr. Herbert as the personification of the United States, whose actions and interventions in Latin America have a long and sorry history. (This reading allows for a bitter irony in Mr. Herbert’s name, recalling as it does Herbert Hoover, the architect of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy” regarding Latin America.) At the least, Mr. Herbert seems to represent the ravages of unbridled capitalism, which appears benevolent at the start, but in the fullness of time ends up literally prostituting the people it is meant to help.

When Old Jacob, in need of forty pesos, engages Mr. Herbert in a game of checkers and loses, he finds himself “in debt to the tune of five thousand seven hundred forty-two pesos and twenty-three cents,” a sum, it goes without saying, he will never be in a position to repay. When Mr. Herbert asks Old Jacob whether he has anything left to settle his debt, the old man replies, “My honor.” But Mr. Herbert, who had something more concrete in mind, ends up appropriating the old man’s house as payment. “He also took possession of the houses and property of others who couldn’t pay their debts, but he called for a week of music, fireworks, and acrobats and he took charge of the festivities himself.”

The bread-and-circuses tactic Mr. Herbert engages in to make the townsfolk forget or ignore the depredations he is wreaking on them is successful in the short term, but eventually people begin to abandon the town once again. Old Jacob and a local priest play a game of checkers that lasts several days, during which Mr. Herbert sleeps, oblivious to the damage his presence has caused.

The story closes with a frankly surreal scene in which Mr. Herbert and Tobías, one of the townspeople, descend to the bottom of the sea in search of food. They enter the land of the dead, where they witness, among other things, Old Jacob’s late wife, whose appearance has been restored to its youthful glory. When they return to the surface, however, Mr. Herbert warns Tobías not to tell anyone about the things he has seen. Capitalism’s invidious tentacles (Mr. Herbert is at one point compared to an octopus) are only effective insofar as those they cling to don’t realize that they have alternatives they might avail themselves of. “Just imagine the disorder there’d be in the world if people found out about these things.” Just imagine.

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