18 April 2014

He walks with his words in unmapped territories

My father is a voracious reader, but I don’t recall him reading bedtime stories to us. I remember two occasions, though, when he sat us down and read. The first was when I was about five years old.  He had a Ladybird book open and was trying to teach us to read.  ‘B-L-A-C-K,’ he read out the letters, and asked ‘what’s the word’.  I didn’t know. Neither did my brother who was a year older.  Our sister, two years younger to me, was much smarter. ‘Black!’ she said and received much praise. 

There was a second occasion.  This was in the early eighties.  We knew how to read and we all read a lot.  We didn’t need anyone to read to us. He insisted.  He read the first chapter of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’. That was how Gabriel Garcia Marquez was introduced to us.  From then on I read everything he had written that I could place my hands on.  The one exception was ‘The General in his Labyrinth’.  I must have read the first few pages a dozen times.  I never got beyond for reasons I can’t explain. 

I remember a conversation that took place about ten years ago.  I had read Paulo Coelho’s ‘The Alchemist’ as had my wife Samadanie.  A friend, who was translating Coelho’s ‘By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept’ had given me a copy of the book, requesting that I check the translation.  I had got through about 15 pages when my wife started reading it.  We were both mesmerized by the language.  By the time we were done we were both disappointed however.  We both read it as just another version of ‘The Alchemist’.  She said ‘It’s true then what they say – you can only write one book’.  A moment later, she articulated a thought that was just crossing my mind, ‘Eth Marquez venas neda?’ (But Marquez is different, isn’t that true?). 

She and I have a special reason to be extra fond of Marquez because I had heard about this first year student at Peradeniya reading ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ and brought up the subject the first time I spoke to her.  It was nothing like Florentino Ariza (in ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’) writing love letter for illiterate lovers and finding that he was replying the letters he himself had written, but there was an Ariza element to that union. 

When she and I thought at the same time ‘marquez venas’ I was thinking of ‘Of Love and Other Demons’.  Before I read that book I had thought that Marquez had written everything there is to write on the subject of ‘love’ in ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’.  I was wrong.  And he didn’t stop there either.  He gave us additional dimensions in ‘Memories of my Melancholy Whores’. 

He was magical with his words and he was so real too.  Gabriel Garcia Marquez writes a book about several generations of a single family and gives us the entire political and economic history of Latin America.  Few can accomplish so much through a narrative that holds even if one is not sensitive to political and historical nuance. 

I remember reading a book called ‘Fragrance of Guava’ which was a series of interviews with Marquez by Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza where the Nobel Laureate reflected on a wide range of subjects.  I remember a response to a question on Neruda. I am paraphrasing here:  ‘He was a King Midas of literature; whatever he touched turned into poetry.  Even when he got himself into trouble over his political choices – he was a staunch supporter of Stalin – what he wrote was incredibly beautiful’.  Marquez was a Midas too.  Prose was his thing, but he wrote so beautifully that his stories were like epic poems.  It is hard to think of another writer who could be so lyrical in prose. Coelho, yes, but the man’s limited by what might be called the vattoruva or servility to format.  Simon Navagaththegama, among those who wrote in Sinhala, is no second-best to my mind.  There are probably others, but they don’t come to mind readily.  Marquez was a one-off, one tends to think. 

Marquez always needed a stack of fresh papers by his typewriter apparently.  If he got one word wrong, he would take the paper out and toss it into the wastepaper basket.  He would have written so much more if he was born in a Ctrl-C, Ctrl-X and Ctrl-V generation, one might think.  It doesn’t matter. He’s given so much. 

One day, he recalled, he had finished his work for the day and had come out of his room. His wife Mercedes Barcha had seen his ashen face and asked, ‘you killed him, didn’t you?’  Her husband had then wept by way of answer. For a long time.  The ‘victim’ was Colonel Aureliano Buendia, a character in whom resides many liberators and tyrants, lovers and womanizers, idealists and pragmatists that the continent has known and indeed the world has known. 

He’s done.  Dead.  Like Colonel Aureliano Buendia.  But then again, like the gypsy Melquíades who came from a past with no beginning and showed futures unimaginable, I can’t help thinking that news of his death is eyewash, forever unconfirmed. Colonel Aureliano Buendia still fights wars he is destined to lose, he still makes little fish out of gold, melts them all again only to craft the gold into fish again.  Garcia Marquez is like that.  He can’t be extinguished.  His words ensure this.  I think I will find him in ‘Of Love and Other Demons’ as Father Cayetano inflicted with the worst demon of them all, love, but never once complaining on account of the inevitable pain.