Gabriel Garcia Marquez celebrates his birthday this month, and with him TNS celebrates what perhaps is his greatest novel
By Ammara Ahmad
The great South American writer and Nobel laureate, Gabriel Garcia Marquez celebrated his 84th birthday on the sixth of this month. Marquez, lovingly known as “Gabo”, has been a special favorite of mine for many years now, ever since a dear friend introduced me to his work. Though familiar with many of his works, this article will briefly dwell on some of the major highlights of his magnum opus One Hundred Years of Solitude (first published in Spanish, 1967); a multi-layered, multi-dimensional work of great beauty and richness.
One Hundred Years of Solitude is a novel based on the epic story of seven generations of the Buendia family, in a fictitious town called Macondo that was founded by the progenitor of the family, Jose Arcadio Buendia, along with his wife Ursula. The town becomes the centre of remarkable and fantastical activities, along with misfortunes, war, brutality, disease and all the cycles of life and death. Eventually, it is destroyed by a fierce tropical hurricane. The saga of the family and the town is spread out over a hundred year’s period, ranging from the 1820s to the 1920s, and is “full of the variety of life itself,” as a critic remarked.
Along with the work of the earlier, influential Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges, this particular work by Marquez is ranked amongst the finest examples of a unique style evolved in South America, termed as “magical realism,” where elements of the fantastic, magical and illusionary quality blend almost seamlessly with everyday reality, so that readers are left baffled and enchanted--where does reality end and the magic begin? And how may one perceive such “magic” in one’s everyday life? Vital questions indeed.
During the course of the novel, many strange and bizarre events occur. Strange people come and go and the teeming life of Macondo is enlivened by these events and occurrences and we are made witness by Marquez to a whole host of exquisite, fascinating and repulsive images, a host of them that descend upon us line after line, and make this book such a wonderful experience. Indeed, as Harold Bloom, the famous American scholar and critic remarks: “the act of rereading One Hundred Years of Solitude is a kind of aesthetic battle fatigue, since every page is rammed full of life beyond the capacity of any single reader to absorb... There are no wasted sentences, no mere transitions, in this novel, and you must notice everything at the moment you read it.”
Thus, the whole tale is a literary tour de force of the highest order, calling for our full attention and involvement. Sometimes, we have a rain of flowers cascading from the skies; sometimes a beautiful maiden ascending to heaven, while doing her laundry; or a person swarmed constantly by yellow butterflies--there are no fixed patterns, no “usual” points of reference, as we are transported into another world altogether.
Marquez’s characters, too, are very fascinating, well-conceived and constructed. They range from high nobles and aloof aristocrats to simple rural shepherds and natives of the wilds of the Amazon; they are blessed with very full and rounded personalities and great complexity and depth; passionate, jolly, amorous, hungry, lively and tired, all their emotions and upheavals and joys and tragedies are intensely human and, at the same time, colored with the unique tinge of “Marquezian” fantasy.
Some of these characters are very memorable indeed. One such character, who appeals to me strongly, is the gypsy, Melquíades, who enters Macondo with a band of gypsies and several charming items from across the globe. Melquíades is said to have died in Singapore, but he returns to live permanently with the Buendias because he couldn’t bear the solitude of death. He starts writing mysterious parchments that are deciphered in the end--and we learn that he is, in fact, an alter-ego for the author/narrator himself. Two of the women characters are equally interesting, Ursula and Pilar Tenera. Ursula is the mother of all the Buendias, whereas Pilar is the local woman who mothers the children of Ursula’s sons. Ursula is the archetypal matriarch providing food, shelter and guidance throughout the novel, whereas Pilar is the sexual matriarch, a sensual creature, often the first lover of Buendia men, who eventually returns to Macondo despite being married.
Some aspects of Marquez’s works can pose difficulties for the average or first-time reader, making some of them drop the book before time. One is the lack of a linear time-frame because Marquez believes that people and history have cycles and patterns; these do not always progress along straight, neat, linear paths. Secondly, his depiction of sexuality, incest and promiscuity is also distractive, especially for readers from this part of the world. Lastly, the fusion of reality and magic is so smooth that one is truly baffled, even though we may be enchanted by the wealth and profuseness of Marquez’s imagination and creative power. The myths, illusions, legends and truth merge to give us a flavour of Marquez’s South America, and to outline the point that reality is subjective, absurd and seldom fully understood.
Zil-e Huma Bukhari’s stories are fresh and contain rather unexpected feminist angles
By Moazzam Sheikh
The literary magazines I look anxiously forward to reading are Aaj (Urdu) and Pancham (Punjabi). One of the new voices in the modern Punjabi short story literature that have impressed me is that of Zil-e Huma Bukhari. The reasons are several, the first being the dearth of female voices and perspectives. The second is the fresh and rather unexpected feminist angle(s) that she inserts.
Her first short story rog (Malady) that I ever read had this rare charm as she wrote, with an intentional light-hearted tone, about a woman who suffers from an unknown malady, causes of which lie, though hints are withheld, in her loneliness as her husband lives far away from her due to his job. Her in-laws are shown as kind people but are unable to cure her sudden bursts of sweat and palpitation. In an unexpected twist, her malady gets taken care of by a doctor’s nomadic hand, part flirting and part molesting. Some other writer, feminist or not, might have written the same story by centering the narrative with a woman with unfulfilled sexual and emotional needs only to end on a pessimistic accusatory note about a doctor who breaches his patient’s trust. Her story had the potential to unnerve the hidden patriarch perched inside the heart of even feminist men. The story doesn’t work on psychological and sexual tension alone, it elevates itself metaphorically too when she questions the very idea of what it means to be a doctor. Is it all right to cure a patient by violating her space and trust? What does it convey about the power struggle between ethical obligation and laws of desire?
Her second story shakki mizaj (Of Suspicious Mind) that I had a chance to read was shorter, crisper but with a surprise in the end not too dissimilar in execution as her first story briefly discussed above. It entails a long telephone conversation between the protagonist and her husband (again living on and off away from her) accusing her of seeking male companionship outside marriage. As the reader is allowed into their conversation, it may be hard to gauge whether she was able to assuage her husband’s anxiety or not, the author’s real aim was not the husband but the reader. There she succeeds. The tone and rhythm of the story do well to convince the reader that she is peeking into another classical case of male chauvinism and age old habit of controlling the female body. As soon as the poor husband hangs up, she rings up her lover (platonic or not) and admonishes him for his compulsive phone calls lest the husband catches them red-handed. In this tiny gem of a piece, the reader is taken for a ride.
Her third story was titled chondi chatt (The Dripping Roof) and perhaps her most accomplished of what I have read so far. It is a tale set amidst love and poverty and rainy season. The protagonist is a woman, who takes up cleaning work in people’s houses after her loving husband injures himself and is bed ridden. The family lives in a poor person’s abode where there’s a leaking roof. In this story her description of things around her and the weather before the storm breaks loose displays her skill as a stylist as well. Every aspect of the story is easy flowing and controlled according to the need of the story and avoids melodrama in the face of horror. I mean real horror! On her way home, the protagonist is kidnapped by four men one evening after she wraps up work on the late side of the day. She mixes the motifs of horror and sexual tension skillfully before the scene. Kidnapped, she is taken to a house in the outskirts and gang raped there. Her pleadings fall on deaf ears. The reader expects the worst as there’s a brief discussion among the rapists whether to completely do away with her and erase any evidence of the crime. She pleads again, on behalf of her children, and is shown mercy eventually. The car brings her close to her neighbourhood and carefully drops her off. The criminals insist that she accept some cash which she does despite hesitation.
The next phase of the story highlights the physical and mental strength of ordinary people and how most people cope with trauma and injury in the real socio-economic reality of life. The narrator, who otherwise was unable to save up enough to get the roof fixed, suddenly has money, allowing her to take time off from work to heal and collect herself. The most important thing, as the craft goes, is to note in her piece her single, ending note where she finishes the story that the protagonist needed to stay home for obvious emotional reasons “but the leaking roof too has to be fixed.”
Here, again, Zil-e Huma does something notable with the title phrase by turning it into a more complex metaphor. One cannot but wonder what the dripping roof refers to? Is it the physical challenge in the house or a locus of female desire? And what does she mean by fixing the drip? Does fixing refer to fulfillment? After all, her husband is bed ridden due to bad back, presumably, unable to do the manly deed, even if temporarily. If so, how does the act of brutal rape measure in this scheme of thing? Is Zil-e Huma questioning the male cliché of “she was itching for it”? Or does ‘fixing’ in this context work as a premonition in the face of deteriorating fabric of society where the female sexuality shuts itself up when faced with crude patriarchal aggression? While the storm of speculations the story is able to kick up is something to take note of among the literature lovers and literary critics alike, keen eye also detects a formulaic hole the writer may be digging for herself by honing this particular style of writing, loosely reminiscent of what critics call O Henry-esque.
Her fourth story toon sirf meri ayen (You Just Belong To Me) published in the October/November 2010 issue of Pancham lays bare the weakness of her writing if she insists on this particular style. Although the protagonist is a young woman, it ends up becoming a minor male character’s story because he becomes the inheritor of Zil-e Huma’s repetitive technique of the last twist. Modern writers should, as a general rule, stay away from last twists and turns when they become more important than the story. This is about a daring young girl who uses a boy, an apprentice at her father’s store, as a love letter courier. The letter the boy brings back spells rejection for her. She is heartbroken, and through her mother’s device, everybody ends up agreeing to a marriage between her and the letter courier. The fact that she agrees is odd, not to mention hard to believe, even if the narrator points out her apprehension, which doesn’t do much to conceal the weakness of plot. However the weight of the story shifts when the reader realizes the boy is willing to marry her and live as an in-house son-in-law. The last twist comes in when he rips up a letter, alluding to the fact that the letter courier had secretly loved his master’s daughter and had replaced the other man’s letter, probably of reciprocal sentiments, with the one written by him spelling rejection. On a superficial level, the story and the boy’s antics seem rather cute. Yet a careful look would tell a different story. The twist, alas, hinges on the mother’s whim and maneuvering. The mother could’ve easily looked for a different boy. The story does not give any indication that there’s a shortage of suitors or that the mother has an especially soft corner for the letter courier. I believe this is a situation where the idea of the twist took hold of the writer’s imagination and the story turned out to be the casualty. Her fifth story about the writer not being able to find a suitable topic to write a short story can easily be forgotten.
I truly hope Zil-e Huma Bukhari has many more stories to give to her readers in Punjabi. She just needs to be patient with the stories and tone down the twists a bit. She should concentrate on the larger themes and work on embellishing details. With the kind of talent she has exhibited and the felicity with which she can tackle taboo subjects it would be a tremendous loss if she were to fall victim to a set formula and quick fixes. She owes herself better. More than that she owes it to her readers that she keep a shrewd eye on world events, and that she can braid strands of local and international variety into a single narrative with relevance to our aesthetical and political needs.
Fifty years ago
Gladys Cooper had been a picture post-card beauty. She used to be on the cover of match boxes in her younger days. When I met her, the English rose of her time had a fascinating map of lines into which her face wrinkled. She was a bard-bitten pro, who neither cared much for the play nor the character she was playing. She did whatever she had to, methodically and professionally. She was like a matron who is more concerned with the order in the ward than the need of the patient. Perhaps I am being unkind, but I think that the character of Mrs. Moore became somewhat diminished in her hands.
Of all the writers I met in New York, Harvey Breit befriended me the most. Harvey had been an attendant at the Algonquin Round Table, at which sat all those dazzling wits like S.J. Perelman, Dorothy Parker, Mencken and, towering above them, the redoubtable Alexander Woolcott. Harvey had known them all. He was, at one time, the book editor of the Sunday edition of the New York Times, but he gave up his job when he married the heiress, Patricia Rhinehardt.
The heiress, Patricia Rhinehardt, was all porcelain. She had the most perfectly modulated neck. I always thought of the Urdu expression Surahi dar Gardan (neck like a jar) when I looked at her. She was tall and straight and she walked like a mannequin; Harvey was short and squat and he slouched. Pat had a sharp, Byrn Mawr voice; Harvey spoke throatily as if he was recovering from a tonsillitis operation. What brought them together was their mutual passion for the theatre. Together, they had adapted the famous R.K. Narayan novel, The Guide into a powerful play.
In the late fifties, it was quite normal for newer playwrights in America to ignore the big managements of Broadway and send their work to smaller companies in England who had gained a reputation for tackling new, off-beat plays. The Guide landed at Oxford Playhouse, which under the tutelage of its charismatic director, Frank Hauser, had become one of the most formidable production houses. His last two productions had gone straight from Oxford to the West-End. Hauser looked at the play, liked it, and decided that it was a perfect vehicle for me.
* * * * *
A couple of weeks ago I saw in the ‘Fifty Years Ago Today’ section of my daily newspaper the headline “OLIVIER’S TRIBUTE TO ZIA MOHYEDDIN”. Underneath it was the following text:
“Pakistani actor Zia Mohyeddin of a A Passage to India fame has the starring role in The Guide based on the novel by R.K.Narayan which opens in Cambridge on Feb 27… Sir Laurence Olivier has pronounced it a special script and said that the choice of Mohyeddin for the title role “is the most brilliant casting possible.”
The news item brought forth a flood of memories.
By 1961, I had become well-known in the theatrical circles of England but I wasn’t what you might call a box-office draw. Oliver’s statement must have excited the imagination of the theatre-going public because the advance booking had suddenly shot up. The two week run in Oxford was almost sold out. Frank told me that the Management was considering extending the run for another week.
All this should have been very exciting but it wasn’t. Olivier’s pronouncement began to pall on me. What if my performance did not measure up to Olivier’s forecast?
In the Breit-Rhinehardt adaptation of The Guide I had to be on the stage nearly all of the time. It was a dream of a part. The guide, a mercurial character with the gift of the gab, transformed during the course of the play from a scoundrel to a Swami. I had worked enough on the part to know that I had the character in my grasp, but the expectation that had been aroused about my histrionic ability weighed heavily on me. I found it difficult to sleep and I found no joy in eating a meal.
The nimble-witted Frank Hauser, (my mentor) was an exceedingly sharp observer. He took me out to an excellent lunch at Randoph’s, on the day of the opening of the play. Normally, he would begin with “Energy energy, I want more energy from you” but he didn’t. He looked at me for sometime and then said, “Its up to you Pusty. You can fret and shrink like a lily or you can go out and be dazzling - and who’s Olivier?” he asked winking at me with his impish grin. I got up and hugged him. How well he had read what I was going through.
His words acted like a balm. From that moment I shunned all my anxieties. I went on the stage that night and I did not allow myself to think of the audience or the critics. The first night audience is usually more than generous in their applause. The audience that night was no different. I should have felt elated but I didn’t.
Back in the dressing room there were the usual warm hugs from those I knew and those I didn’t know. Frank came in last of all. “You are a good first nighter” he said with a twinkle in his eye. Knowing his enormous propensity for understatement his comment meant more to me that all the superlatives showered on me by other visitors.
Incredibly enough, the notices in the Oxford papers were excellent. Came the Sunday and joy of joys, Ken Tynan’s highly flattering notice in the Observer describing me as an Olivier in the body of Anthony Quinn lifted me to recline on a heavenly rainbow. I wish I hadn’t lost that review.
Fifty years ago to this day I was launched into a career which has provided me with ecstasies as well as devastating disappointments, a career that I would not swap for all the tea in China.
* * * * *
There have been times when I have been tempted to write my memoirs (you have to be pretty old to write memoirs; younger people write ‘stories’ like: ‘The Ian Botham story’ The Douglas Bader Story etc) but I hesitate because I haven’t seriously offended the celebrities that I have known. As Miles Kington, my favourite satirist says, your life story only ever gets mentioned in the media if you offend someone. “The media interviews the offended person and you get a lot free publicity”.
More than anything else I am put off by the prospect of writing a book with the marked price of £24.95 (the average price for a standard 375 page autobiography) relegated to a bargain shop within a week and, along with My Life and Times by the Archbishop of Lower Edmonton, is now being offered at £2 a copy.