Monday, August 24, 2009

MEMORY OF FIRE by Eduardo Galeano

"Each day of life is an unrepeatable chord of a music that laughs at death." --Eduardo Galeano, Century of the Wind (Memory of Fire, volume three).

Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire trilogy ( a history of the Western hemisphere with a corrective emphasis on its southern half, comprising Genesis, Faces and Masks and Century of the Wind) is very good, at moments sublime, and extremely important, showing us a new way to write and understand history: in vivid fragments, vignettes, poetic images. The act of authorial selection is foregrounded by the form, so there’s no traditional historical legerdemain suggesting that this is the history of the Western hemisphere and no others need apply. It’s a beautiful, nuanced book that shows us just how poetically powerful history writing can be. Galeano takes history out of the hands of the professoriat and makes it sing. He’s a bluesman, and his composition, in three long movements, is a vast blues for the Western hemisphere. On first reading, the work seems sui generis, like what might have happened if Borges and Garcia Marquez had collaborated on a history book–an impossible possibility, given their strongly opposed political views.

The third volume, Century of the Wind, covering the 20th century, is the most impressive of the trilogy. Its vignettes range from beauty to horror, from the exhilaration of successful revolution to the unspeakable sadism of the torture chambers, from summary executions and casual slaughters to a little town in South America called Yoro where, from time to time, it rains fish. "[In] America," Galeano writes (and by ‘America’ he always means the entire hemisphere), "surrealism is as natural as rain or madness." He has written an appropriately surreal, sublimely beautiful and terribly true book that is as artful as it is educative. I wish there was more history like this.

AUTUMN OF THE PATRIARCH by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Autumn of the Patriarch, while not as surrealistically inventive as One Hundred Years of Solitude, is a great novel in its own right and deserves to displace the overrated Love in the Time of Cholera as the ‘other’ Garcia Marquez novel. If Solitude synthesizes Faulkner and Kafka, Patriarch leans more toward the Faulknerian side of things, its prose heavily influenced by Absalom, Absalom! (In Gabo’s geography, Faulkner is not a ‘Southern writer’ but a writer of the northern Caribbean basin. In terms of the location and duration of his influence, this is probably the best way to think of Faulkner. He's the northern grandfather of the late twentieth-century Latin American novel.) The long, run-on, convoluted, marvelously lyrical sentences in this novel give a Baroque flavor to a nightmarish, Gothic story, a combination reminiscent of Old Bill at his darkest. Gabo’s prose makes this a more difficult read than Solitude, but it’s a familiar, Modernist kind of difficulty, the difficulty of complexity, of multiple narrators and a (somewhat) non-chronological narrative, a difficulty that finally enriches rather than obscures.

I admire the way Gabo’s incredibly long-winded sentences–the last 50-page chapter is a single sentence–are like a sea on which the reader floats and in which he is occasionally submerged. We drift into the prose and let it flow over us, let it dominate our consciousness. There’s something genuinely overpowering in this lyricism, as powerful as Faulkner at his best; it’s an insinuating power, that of a melody that moves from the background to become the center of the song...But I prefer the oceanic metaphor. Gabo’s sentence rhythms are tidal, like the rhythm of the sea the general is forced to sell (to Americans who set it up in Arizona, a marvelous bit of satire that Gabo prodigally throws off in a subordinate clause), and the loss of the sea near the end of the book foregrounds this rhythm with an image that tropes the last chapter’s single-sentence structure: a terminal tide that streams out never to return. And this is also, obviously, an image of life, which occurs once and once only, no repetition (unlike my last phrase), no resurrection–a point stated, perhaps too explicitly, at book’s close.


I’m reading One Hundred Years of Solitude for the 2nd or 3rd time. It’s the Great Columbian Novel, a fact often obscured or missed by North American and European critics who designate it a “Latin American” novel. While Gabo deliberately generalizes his tales, never explicitly naming the country in which the novel is set, many of the background events (Liberal-Conservative wars, banana massacre, etc.) are recognizable incidents from Columbian history. I wonder how many North American readers appreciate this, understand that they’re reading a kind of ‘national epic’ of 19th and 20th century Columbian history rather than a generalized, mythologized, ‘South American’ fable.

The most serious flaw I find in this reading is that Gabo forces too big a cast upon himself. There are simply too many Buendias, and the author doesn’t sufficiently individualize them all. (He’s great, but he’s not Tolstoy.) So as we reach the halfway point, the Aurelianos and Arcadios of various generations tend to blur together, and I find myself repeatedly turning back to the genealogy chart in the front of the book. If Gabo had cut out a generation, this flaw might have been less noticeable, but which scenes would we want to lose, which beautiful images would we eliminate?

Reading the book after the 2000-2001 Bushite takeover of the U.S., I feel an eerie shock of recognition in some scenes, particularly the stolen election that leads Col. Buendia into rebellion (so much like the events of late 2000 in that most Caribbean, that most Latin American, that most magic realist of our United States). A new, deep-freeze chill also accrues to the banana massacre and its Kafkaesque aftermath of delusional official denials. Here is where magic realism becomes realism proper, reflecting hallucinatory reality.

Again and again the book surprises me, even upon re-reading. It is a triumph of the engaged imagination, a great left-wing novel that is also (rare thing) a great novel, fully deserving its prestige. Its strengths greatly outweigh its weaknesses, rendering them negligible, barely worth mentioning beside the great plagues of insomnia and amnesia, the suicide attempt of Col. Aureliano, the ascension of Remedios the Beauty, the train of corpses, and so much more.

This is a novel as lush and fertile as a Columbian rain forest (and filled with as many intoxicating substances), a book of Dantean inventiveness and richness. Yes, I’m gushing now, but this novel deserves it. Gabo’s inventiveness does not flag (as Grass’s does in Tin Drum); even the last two or three chapters contain marvels: the “brothel of lies”; Aureliano and Amaranta’s amour fou in the house that succumbs to nature exactly as they do and is destroyed along with them; the old Catalonian bookseller with his shopful of treasures that the citizens of Macondo see as so many piles of printed junk; the tour de force ending in which the last Buendia reads of his own death at the moment it occurs–a very tidy clearing of the stage.

The book is a supreme example of writing that is both politically engaged and wildly imaginative. There is enough melancholy and wistfulness in Gabo’s tone to keep his fantasy from becoming mere whimsy. And it’s a melancholy born of the nightmares of Columbian history, a history like a freight train packed with corpses (a central image of the novel’s second half), a wistfulness born of what that history might have been. It’s not a perfect book (I’ve mentioned a few flaws above), but it is one of the very greatest.


Having read the first two books of Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, I find the work tedious, monotonous, redundant, tiresome, boring, soporific, get the picture.

There are brief passages of genius, truly inventive and outrageous comic scenes (the journey into Pantagruel’s mouth stands out), but these joyous moments are, to coin a phrase, few and far between. Even if we consider ‘Master Alcofribas’ (a name that makes me think of alcohol and freebase and Richard Pryor aflame) the most unreliable narrator of all time and the book a massive deconstruction of itself, the text does not become a bit more interesting. This is a book made to be skimmed, scanned, skipped-through, sampled, sipped, tasted, tested, tippled, tinkled-upon, etc, etc, etc,...

One non-comic aspect of the book that does interest me is the way that some elements of Rabelais' style analogize with contemporary trends in the visual arts. Rabelais’ sartorially detailed descriptions of clothing and nauseatingly clinical depictions of wounds (this last surely a comic device meant to satirize the goreless slaughters of medieval romance) can be seen as analogous to the trompe l’oeil, photographically exquisite details of Mannerist painting (the draperies in Bronzino’s portraits, for example). Like all books, G&P is of its moment, an artifact of the first half of the 1500's in France, the Mannerist Fontainebleau era.

A brief thought about MOBY DICK

A brief thought about a book that cannot be thought of briefly:

Moby Dick is the American Bible, the only canonical New American Testament. It’s a highly critical secular scripture that puts opposing philosophical positions in play and questions them all even as it questions the very ground of human knowledge and the validity of interpretation. More than an adventure story (although it is, of course, a great, tragic one of those, too), it’s an epistemological adventure, a hermeneutical quest--hence the multitudinous images of unreadable writing and uninterpretable signs that barnacle the skin of this whale of a text. The reason no one could understand the book when it was published is simple: a century and more had to pass before our intellectual culture could catch up with Melville’s mind (and we surely haven’t definitively caught it yet...). We needed to assimilate the ‘linguistic turn’ of philosophy, the structuralism of Levi-Strauss, and the poststructuralism of Derrida before we could begin to see all that Melville accomplished here–not because Derrida and Levi-Strauss explain Melville but because Melville contains them (and probably a critique of them besides). This is, moreover, the relationship the greatest art often has to philosophy, and we should begin to read fiction and philosophy accordingly. Reading Moby Dick in this light, we might see that while the white whale is the novel’s master-image of mystery, it is only the novel’s penultimate point of hermeneutic and epistemological failure. The ultimate mystery, the vast unknown, the gap for which that between the signifier and signified is merely one more trope, is that mystery of which the white whale is agent: death.