Book Reviews

Review Published in HINDUSTAN TIMES

That little touch ...

STRANGE PILGRIMS

By Gabriel Garcia Marquez,
Cape 1993

Those who know Gabriel Garcia Marquez as the Noble Prize winning author of One Hundreds Years of Solitude and the magical sounding Love in the Time of Cholera would no doubt be surprised to know that he has also done three collections of short stories. Before the present one, that is.

But the earlier ones, as Marquez himself says in the prologue, were merely collections of occasional stories and not written as a whole. And that is the first distinctive characteristic of this book when in fact brings to light an entirely new and exciting approach to the concept of short story collections. The twelve stories in the book are conceived as a whole and they read like that. One can read them at a stretch without once feeling a sudden change in locale or tone or metaphor. All of them have the haunting, dreamlike quality which Marquez does so very well and all of them even have a common broad theme – “the strange things that happen to Latin Americans in Europe.”

It is interesting, and educative, to learn something about the tortuous and no doubt painful process of creation that these stories have gone through before one begins to read them. These twelve stories were written over eighteen years, and before they became what that are, five of them were journalistic notes and screenplays and one was a television serial. Another has been rewritten on the basis of a taped recounted by the author fifteen years ago. The ideas where hoarded in a schoolboy’s composition book which was lost and so the ideas were reconstructed and that process itself was selection. Out of sixty four original ideas, there are twelve which survived “their endless pilgrimage to the trash can” and these are the twelve stories in the book.

To know this process is to know the art of story telling itself. There is something awesome about how a little idea, a scrap of conversation, an idle flash of light can stay in the mind for years, apparently forgotten and useless, and the suddenly one day take shape with all the strength it has gathered down the years. Sometimes this hibernation is necessary to give the short story the intensity it so much needs. As Marquez himself says – “The effort involved in writing a short story is as intense as beginning a novel, where everything must be defined in the first paragraph; structure, tone, style, rhythm, length and sometimes even the personality of a character. All the rest is the pleasure of writing, the most intimate, solitary pleasure one can imagine, and if the rest one’s life is not spent correcting the novel, it is because the same iron rigor needed to begin the book is required to end it. But a story has no beginning, no end: either it works or its doesn’t.”

And sometimes to make the short story work, one needs just that little touch, which can send a chill down your spine when it comes upon you. For Marquez this essential element for these stories was a time perspective. He was writing of the Europe of twenty years ago and when he revisited Barcelona, Geneva, Rome and Paris to reacquaint himself and verify his accuracy, he found a different Europe, with no connection to his memories or his stories. “This meant that I could no longer detect the dividing line between disillusionment and nostalgia. It was the definitive solution”.

Against that backdrop, meet the Strange Pilgrims, each an etheral, semi-real character drifting in what can only be termed Marquez country of dreams, visions, death, coffins, love…. for instance the old President in exile, sitting alone and unrecognised on the shores of Lake Geneva and all that happens thereafter to make him consider once again that he might just perhaps go back to his country and lead a reform movement. Or the man who carries around for twenty years the coffin containing the preserved body of his daughter, certain that one day she would be declared a saint. Or the old lady who comes all the way to Italy on as ship to fulfil a lifelong desire to see the Pope and narrowly escapes dying of food poisoning. There’s a little gem of as story called “The Sleeping Beauty and the Air-plane” which brings home the intensity of a trans-Atlantic flight sitting next to a beauty, without so much as the exchange of single word. The intensity is all the more strange since the beauty sleeps through from take-off to touch-down.

There are a few more, all equally readable, and all part of magical whole. The book ends with the sad story called “The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow’ where a young woman bleeds inexorably to death from a scratched finger in a European Setting bound in snow and winter. It’s a lonely and ironic tale made more poignant by the fact that the protagonists are in a foreign land, far from home. All in all, there is little danger of these stories beginning a “pilgrimage, to the trash can oblivion. ”