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.

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.