24 July 2013

‘Techniques’ of magical realism in ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’

A few weeks ago, somewhere in Australia, someone had to speak on the above subject.  ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’, perhaps the best known and most read of Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novels, is a love story, a history, a handbook on humanity and other things besides for more than 30 years. For me. 

My father, who received the book as a gift, read the first chapter to his three children.  That was the first time he had read anything to me, as far as I can remember.  It stuck.  Back then, though, I hadn’t heard of ‘Magical Realism’.  Even years later, when that term came to be commonly used to refer to his work and had taken on the status of genre, it seemed strained.  Such is the conditioning that terminology has, however, that when I encountered the missives of Subcommandante Marcos of the EZLN in the mid-1990s and especially the communiques of Don Durito, a beetle with Quixotic fantasies, it was impossible to distinguish the magical from the real.
With that as preamble let us consider ‘technique’ and its worth in reading or rather dissecting Marquez’ novel.

Techniques are but instruments deployed to obtain specific outcomes.  Thus, if we want to talking about ‘magical realism’ as a technique, we need to indulge in a bit of conjecture about Marquez’ intent, which itself is a moot point, considering the dictum that word belongs to reader and not necessarily the author. 
What is ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ about?  An account of a family, a village, the play of power, love and eternal verities over a period of 100 years or thereabouts?  A representative tracing of a particular epoch in Latin America?  A political comment disguised as fictional narrative?  A balanced blend of laughter and tear provoking anecdotes neatly embedded in a familiar story in which are resident believable characters with a dash of the inexplicable that can either be glossed over or privileged to construct genre-theorization?  A meaning-composite of all-of-the-above, perhaps? 

The problem is that we take one reading as given and then seek (and invariably) discover ‘technique’.  So when we note the ‘fantastic’ in the book we can get excited and even overly excited about it.  If it was just about the technique of holding reader, then we could look at how many copies have been sold, into how many languages it has been translated etc., but even then we have to get a sense of how much the technique is doing, in terms of other technical elements. 
We see, from the 20th century and now 21st century, that there’s no magic in ice, no magic in false teeth and no magic in other bewildering things we find in the book.   There are ‘fantastic’ things that are fantastic only if you have heard the dominant version of world history or even regional history, the kind of things if articulated gets dismissed as ‘conspiracy theory’.

Then they are the truly out of this world stuff, like a girl taking off in a carpet from Macondo and from the narrative thereafter, the rain of flowers, the yellow-butterflies, the clocks chiming an interminable hour upon the suicide of Pietro Crespi and the propagating exuberance of Jose Arcadio Segundo’s farm animals, compared to which the death of Jose Arcadio pales in the manner of a mystery like the many mysteries that are never unraveled. 
The question is, had Marquez not included that devise, would it have been a lesser story?  The fantastic, after all, does not intrude, does not shock, but is woven effortlessly into the overall narrative.  That’s good story telling, because it doesn’t come off as ‘contrived’ but perfectly acceptable.  

We read from a fantastic world, though, a world where fantasizing of all kinds is such a part of the dominant system of commerce that the world is at once bursting with metaphor (as it always has) and made up of nothing else except advertisements, and a world where fantasy is salve that allows us to stagger from one wound to another.  We read from a world where people go to war in order to neutralize non-existent weapons of mass destruction and where the neutralizing involves the deployment of WMDs to the wide cheers of those who believe the lie, call the non-existent ‘existent’ and the existent ‘necessary’ (no, not even ‘necessary evil’). 

So what’s so fantastic about a mysterious death, ghost trains and fornicating fury?  And in these days of cloning, terminator genes, GM foods and such, what’s so fantastic about a baby with a tail? 
Was Marquez anticipating 2013?  I would think not.  There’s been so much fantasy in capitalism, so much of myth and legend in dominant economic theories and paradigms of development, that had the book been written in the late 19th Century, its embedded magic could arguably be weak compared to the political economy of magic outside the text. 

It frills. It delights.  It stimulates.  It does not frame. It is not foundation.  Maybe it is an over-extended metaphor devised by a readership of critics that is reluctant to step out and look around a little.