25 November 2020

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014)

[from 2014] I just heard that Gabriel Garcia Marquez died today.  In his memory I would like to cite (part of) the most remarkable sentence I've ever read.   It was 25 years ago that I first read Love in the Time of Cholera, and a year or two later One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Autumn of the Patriarch.  The first two are in my view the better books, but Autumn of the Patriarch [fulltext at the link] has one truly awesome sentence.  It begins like this, at the start of the final chapter of the book...
THERE he was, then, as if it had been he even though it might not be, lying on the banquet table in the ballroom with the feminine splendor of a dead pope amidst the flowers in which he would not have recognized himself in the display ceremony of his first death, more fearsome dead than alive, the velvet glove stuffed with cotton on a chest armored with false medals of imaginary victories in chocolate wars invented by his persistent adulators, the thunderous full-dress uniform and the patent leather boots and the single gold spur that we found in the building and the ten sad pips of general of the universe to which he was promoted at the final moment to give him a rank higher than that of death, so immediate and visible in his new posthumous identity that for the first time it was possible to believe in his real existence without any doubt whatsoever, although in reality no one looked less like him, no one was so much the opposite of him as that showcase corpse which was still cooking in the middle of the night on the slow fire of the tiny space of the little room where he was laid out with candles while in the cabinet room next door we were discussing the final bulletin with the news that no one dared believe word by word when we were awakened by the noise of the trucks loaded with troops in battle gear whose stealthy patrols had been occupying public buildings since before dawn, they took up prone positions under the arcades of the main commercial street, they hid in doorways, I saw them setting up tripod machine guns on the roofs of the viceregal district when I opened the balcony of my house at dawn looking for a place to put the bouquet of wet carnations I had just cut in the courtyard, beneath the balcony I saw a patrol of soldiers under the command of a lieutenant going from door to door ordering people to close the doors of the few shops that were beginning to open on the commercial street, today is a national holiday they shouted, orders from higher up, I threw them a carnation from the balcony and I asked what was going on with so many soldiers and so much noise of weapons everywhere and the officer caught the carnation in midair and replied to me just imagine girl we don't know ourselves either, the dead man must have come back to life, he said, dying with laughter, because nobody dared think such an earthshaking event could have happened, rather, on the contrary, we thought that after so many years of negligence he had picked up the reins of his authority again and was more alive than ever, once more dragging his great feet of an illusory monarch through the house of power where the globes of light had gone on again...  [and ends thus]... he had arrived without surprise at the ignominious fiction of commanding without power, of being exalted without glory and of being obeyed without authority when he became convinced in the trail of yellow leaves of his autumn that he had never been master of all his power, that he was condemned not to know life except in reverse, condemned to decipher the seams and straighten the threads of the woof and the warp of the tapestry of illusions of reality without suspecting even too late that the only livable life was one of show, the one we saw from this side which wasn't his general sir, this poor people's side with the trail of yellow leaves of our uncountable years of misfortune and our ungraspable instants of happiness, where love was contaminated by the seeds of death but was all love general sir, where you yourself were only an uncertain vision of pitiful eyes through the dusty peepholes of the window of a train, only the tremor of some taciturn lips, the fugitive wave of a velvet glove on the no man's hand of an old man with no destiny with our never knowing who he was, or what he was like, or even if he was only a figment of the imagination, a comic tyrant who never knew where the reverse side was and where the right of this life which we loved with an insatiable passion that you never dared even to imagine out of the fear of knowing what we knew only too well that it was arduous and ephemeral but there wasn't any other, general, because we knew who we were while he was left never knowing it forever with the soft whistle of his rupture of a dead old man cut off at the roots by the slash of death, flying through the dark sound of the last frozen leaves of his autumn toward the homeland of shadows of the truth of oblivion, clinging to his fear of the rotting cloth of death's hooded cassock and alien to the clamor of the frantic crowds who took to the streets singing hymns of joy at the jubilant news of his death and alien forevermore to the music of liberation and the rockets of jubilation and the bells of glory that announced to the world the good news that the uncountable time of eternity had come to an end.
What is remarkable is not the content per se, but the fact that I used the ellilpsis in the center of the citation to pass over 53 pages of text - all of it one single sentence.  I once estimated that the sentence comprises about 17,500 words.  One might consider this creation to be a whimsy or a conceit by someone just playing with words, but in my view it is a sort of prose poem by a superbly skilled writer who loves the craft of language.  If you'd like to give it a try, go to this link.

Addendum (2020):

It would be presumptuous of me to offer a review/critique of a novel that is a modern classic, written by a Nobel Laureate in literature, but after giving it a final good-bye reread, I wanted to jot down some notes about it.

Although I'm filing this post in my recommended books category, I have to admit that this is not a book that everyone will enjoy.   To be honest, not much happens in the novel.  A young man falls in love with a young woman who tentatively agrees to marry him ("Very well, I will marry you if you promise not to make me eat eggplant"), but they are separated by circumstances including her marriage, and he waits for her ("... convinced in the solitude of his soul that he had loved in silence for a much longer time than anyone else in this world ever had...") until her husband's death.  "Florentino Ariza never had another opportunity to see or talk to Fermina Daza alone in the many chance encounters of their very long lives until fifty-one years and nine months and four days later, when he repeated his vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love on her first night as a widow." In the devotion of her mourning she rejects him, so he continues to wait, as their lives go from the late nineteenth century to the first decades of the twentieth.

As he follows the two protagonists separately, Marquez uses their lives as a platform for discussing the passage of time ("... contemplating with regret the banana plants in the mire of the patio, the stripped mango, the flying ants that came after the rain, the ephemeral splendor of another afternoon that would never return") and the process of aging:
    "... only then did he realize that his life was passing.  He was shaken by a visceral shudder that left his mind blank, and he had to drop the garden tools and lean against the cemetery wall so that the first blow of old age would not knock him down." 
    "She had barely turned the corner into maturity, free at last of illusions, when she began to detect the disillusionment of never having been what she had dreamed of being when she was young..." 
    "... they marked the passage of his life, for he experienced the cruelty of time not so much in his own flesh as in the imperceptible changes he discerned in Fermina Daza each time he saw her."
And finally a reunion:
"By the time she had emptied the teapot and he the coffeepot, they had both attempted and then broken off several topics of conversation, not so much because they were really interested in them but in order to avoid others that neither dared to broach."

"It was the first time in half a century that they had been so close and had enough time to look at each other with some serenity, and they had seen each other for what they were: two old people, ambushed by death, who had nothing in common except the memory of an ephemeral past that was no longer theirs but belonged to two young people who had vanished and who could have been their grandchildren."

"Then he reached out with two icy fingers in the darkness, felt for the other hand in the darkness, and found it waiting for him.  Both were lucid enough to realize, at the same fleeting instant, that the hands made of old bones were not the hands they had imagined before touching.  In the next moment, however, they were."
Herewith various excerpts, curiosities, and interesting words:

"On Friday, June 8, 1708, at four o'clock in the afternoon, the galleon San Jose set sail for Cadiz with a cargo of precious stones and metals valued at five hundred billion pesos in the currency of the day; it was sunk by an English squadron at the entrance to the port, and two long centuries later it had not yet been salvaged."  I love treasure stories, and the wealth carried by the Spanish galleons was fabulous; I was in awe watching reports of the recoveries from the Atocha.  Apparently the San Jose was located by staff from Woods Hole in 2015, and recovery and conservation efforts are currently underway.

"He was a fine parrot, lighter than he seemed, with a yellow head and a black tongue, the only way to distinguish him from mangrove parrots who did not learn to speak even with turpentine suppositories."  ???

"They brought in live chickens from Cienaga de Oro, famous all along the coast not only for their size and flavor but because in colonial times they had scratched for food in alluvial deposits and little nuggets of pure gold were found in their gizzards."  ??true - or an old wives' tale?

The death of Dr. Urbino: "But he released [the parrot] immediately because the ladder slipped from under his feet and for an instant he was suspended in air and then he realized that he had died without Communion, without time to repent of anything or to say goodbye to anyone, at seven minutes after four on Pentecost Sunday."

"The use of the mullein plant to put the fish to sleep had been prohibited by law since colonial times, but it continued to be a common practice among the fishermen of the Caribbean until it was replaced by dynamite."  No time to look this up - anybody know?

"... the black doll that was sent to her without any letter... it had been bought in Martinique, according to the original tag, and it was dressed in an exquisite gown... it seemed so charming to Fermina Daza that she overcame her scruples and laid it on her pillow during the day and grew accustomed to sleeping with it at night.  After a time, however, she discovered when she awoke from an exhausting dream that the doll was growing: the original exquisite dress she had arrived in was up above her thighs, and her shoes had burst from the pressure of her feet.  Fermina Daza had heard of African spells, but none as frightening as this.."  ??? constructed with dehydrated material that swells with time/humidity, or ?? new larger dolls being surreptitiously switched in place??

"She learned to smoke backward, with the lit end in her mouth, the way men smoked at night during the wars so that the glow of their cigarettes would not betray them."  I've heard of this before, during wartime.  I wonder if this technique also enhances nicotine absorption by preventing external loss.

"... he allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves."

"She had written versions of the deportment and civics texts in hendecasyllabic couplets, like those used for spelling..."  From the Latin, having eleven syllables.

"... the sibylline fragrance of gardenias on hot nights..."  Literally 'having the characteristics of an oracle' but perhaps metaphorically 'mysterious.'

"... Florentino Ariza learned what he had already experienced many times without realizing it: that one can be in love with several people at the same time, feel the same sorrow with each, and not betray any of them."

Re her husband's death: "Once he had told her something that she could not imagine: that amputees suffer pains, cramps, itches, in the leg that is no longer there.  That is how she felt without him, feeling his presence where he no longer was."

"... at last he put on his chamois mustache cover and lay down without removing his trousers and shirt..."  ??why useful?

Next year perhaps I can add some notes about One Hundred Years of Solitude.


  1. One of my most favorite authors. The world has lost a great man, but his books will live on.

  2. Sorry. This artificial ungrammatical construction does not impress me. It comes off as an academic exercise and pulls the reader out of suspension-of-disbelief.


  3. I found it quite strange how you mentioned him yesterday. It seemed almost portentous.

    1. I have to admit that the coincidence gave me pause. I think for the next linkdump I'd better cite someone who is already dead.

    2. I was thinking the same thing... have been sitting her discussing Marquez and Joyce's Ullysses and their lengthy sentence.

  4. I adore GGM. He's such a marvelous writer.

    There's a very interesting article about him over on Slate ("What Gabriel Garcia Marquez Means to His Fellow Colombians") that explains in part why he is so beloved by Spanish speaking peoples. I think that part of the reason why I love his work so much is because a lot of it illustrates cultural beliefs that I never even realized were missing from literature simply because white people have no idea about them.

  5. Sorry, but a "sentence" is meant to be "a set of words that is complete in itself, typically containing a subject and predicate, conveying a statement, question, exclamation, or command, and consisting of a main clause and sometimes one or more subordinate clauses."

    The idea that "one or more subordinate clauses" can run to more than a few lines and then on to more than 53 pages and be comprehensible is just silly. If that's true, then you could make the case that an entire book could be written that way.

    While you may find it brilliant, I find it tiresome and contrived.

    I agree that some of the things we feel and experience can't be broken down to quantifiable, discreet units/packets, but as far I can see from you quoted above, GGM starts off describing a room and then veers off into...what? Stream of consciousness? Not interesting. I have my own stream of consciousness to deal with, thanks!

    1. An open mind is a terrible thing to waste!

    2. Glad someone else agrees with me. This doesn't mean I bemoan the others who find joy in this work, I just can't see why anyone would want to enter a 50+ page brick of text.

      Of course, I was also of the opinion that Huxley in _Brave New World_ did not make his case that his dystopia was, in fact, a dystopia. (Hmm. The editor's spell-check does not have "dystopia" in it.)


  6. Mullein seeds have saponins in them which are used as a piscescide.
    Smoking backwards is very common in the far east, especially with clove cigarettes.
    In "The Dain Curse," Hammett uses sibylline the same way describing the temple. I took it to mean inciting delirium.

  7. The chamois mustache cover is there to prevent the mustache from getting misshapen during sleep, like a "bed-head" situation. Many men of the time used wax or other heavy products in their mustaches and if the whiskers got bent it was difficult to fix.

    1. Manage it like topiary, then. That's what I do. No need for adhesive goop. Merely every once in awhile snip off whatever sticks out of the desired shape that isn't your nose or an ear.

      I wonder how many men and women in history have inadvertently made their own head into a flaming torch because of mustache wax or hair oil or hairspray or a toilet-paper-stuffed bouffant.

      So I just googled that wonder and got the following result:

      >It looks like there aren't many great matches for your search. Tip: Try using words that might appear on the page you’re looking for. For example, "cake recipes" instead of "how to make a cake."

      >You can also try these searches:

      >my father would womanize he would drink he would make outrageous claims like he invented the question mark some times he would accuse chestnuts of being lazy the sort of general malaise that only the genius possess and the insane...

      In other news: I have learned from this avenue of inquiry that the manufacturer of Brylcreem "stresses that the product is totally nonflammable." And also, you should never play the prank of inflating someone's butt with the nozzle of an air compressor. "It takes only four pounds of overpressure to perforate the colon." Apparently there was a fad for this prank among young motor mechanics in Russia.


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