The OF Blog: What Macondo means to this gringo

Monday, November 10, 2008

What Macondo means to this gringo

A few weeks ago, there was talk at wotmania about discussing Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez's famous 1967 novel, Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude in English translation) starting today, November 10. However, the person who initiated the talk has had some issues with the story and I am uncertain if the planned discussion there will occur. In a way, I am not surprised at her reaction or at the few negative comments I have read in those linked threads, because of the story's structure as well as the historical and cultural elements that inevitably are lost in translation.

I first read Cien años de soledad back in the late winter of 2004. I possessed a copy of the Gregory Rabassa English translation and an annotated Catedra paperback Spanish edition and I read the two editions in a sort of parallel text. My Spanish was very, very rudimentary back then and in fact this was the first novel I ever completed in Spanish. It took me almost two months of reading 5-10 pages a night and writing down every single word I didn't know before I completed the story. I remember feeling both relieved and saddened when I reached its devastating conclusion. I put the books on the shelf and I never touched the story again for three years.

In the interim, I quickly broadened my knowledge of Spanish to where a year later I was able to read novels without needing a parallel text and with only the occasional bilingual dictionary consultation. I discovered Argentine authors such as Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares. I explored the Crack Manifesto and McOndo writers such as Jorge Volpi, Ignacio Padilla, Edmundo Paz Soldán, and Alberto Fuguet. I took two high intermediate/advanced Spanish grammar courses at a local university to develop further my ability to read and write in my second language. I read the online editions of dailies from Colombia and Argentina, among others. In short, minus regular contact with native speakers after my move back to Tennessee from Florida in 2003, I worked hard to become reading fluent in Spanish.

So by the time I decided in early 2007 that I wanted to read more of García Márquez's work, I had not only imbibed grammatical elements from that list of outstanding authors, but also I took in much of their attitudes toward the world. While I will never be confused with a native, I have had discussions with friends of mine from El Salvador and Argentina online about certain favorite stories of theirs and they have expressed surprise at what I "get." I am uncertain if I accept their platitudes, however, since after all, what I mostly noticed in Gabo's stories, especially his earliest novels, is a very close familiarity with the literature of my native South, particularly that of William Faulkner.

When I read La hojarasca, La mala hora, El coronel no tiene quien le escriba, and Los funerales de la Mamá Grande last year, it was my viewing them through the twin prisms of my cultural awareness of Southern literature and my acquired knowledge of 19th and 20th century Latin American historical and cultural developments that enabled me to view García Márquez's Macondo novels in a different light. My perception of Cien años de soledad changed radically as a result.

I mentioned Faulkner above. While it is debatable as to the amount of influence that Faulkner had directly on the techniques and motifs of the Boom Generation writers, there certainly are several points of explicit similarity that his Yoknaputawpha County and Gabo's Macondo. Both are fictional creations that serve to stand in place of the "real" Mississippi of the early 20th century or of the "real" Aracataca of the early-to-mid 20th century. There are Biblical allusions to floods and plagues as well as to moments of little triumphs and a greater awareness of the darkness that lurks in the human soul. Faulkner's Snopes novels perhaps might find its spiritual kin in Gabo's first few stories, contained in La mala hora and La hojarasca. Each author uses narrative techniques (such as Faulkner's application of stream of consciousness in The Sound and the Fury and García Márquez's reliance upon magic realism in Cien años de soledad in particular) to heighten the reality of the events transpiring in the novels. In the end for both authors, the unreal doesn't usurp the urgency of the real, but rather it complements it, creating metaphors and connections that eventually collapse into conclusions that can be very dark, depressing, yet also emotionally powerful.

There are of course differences; Faulkner's South contains different tragedies than does Gabo's Caribbean coastline. While there is a hint here and there of imposed social change in Faulkner's story as a consequence of the devastating American Civil War, in the Macondo novels, it is more of a post-colonial reaction to the days of Big Stick and Dollar Diplomacy, when American imperialism infiltrated Latin American societies and governments in a much more insidious fashion than British or French imperialists could penetrate the African societies that they conquered in the late 19th century.

Becoming aware that events in the Macondo novels such as the segregation of Macondo's population from the United Fruit compound or how the nameless colonel suffered through poverty and broken promises are all based on very real events such as the Banana Massacre of 1928 and the Thousand Days War of 1899-1902 has allowed me to gain further insights into why the stories are structured in the way that they are. Many people have complained about the lack of a "regular" time in the Macondo novels. It is not so much that Gabo aimed for a "timeless" feel, but I suspect it is more to convey the sense that change is ephemeral and that throughout the course of Macondo's development (whether it be seen as a more Naturalistic set of period pieces in the earlier novels or as a biblical/mythical allusion in Cien años de soledad) one can see the trail of lies, broken promises, and impositions from outside on the lives of the village's inhabitants.

When I started this latest re-read, I couldn't help but to think of these novels not as examples of the intermingling of fantasy and realism, but as very real and powerful metaphors for some of the nastiest, most hurtful, and tragic events of the past two centuries. Colombia has had a bloody past and present. It has been consumed by a three-part low-level civil war since the 1960s, around the time of these novels' publications. The paint colors of Macondo's houses takes on a whole new meaning when read as a commentary on the Liberal/Conservative divide that has produced the Thousand Days War, the infamous Treaty of Neerlandia, as well as sparking the formation of FARC. Not many Americans are going to be aware of what is transpiring under the surface of these novels. Either they'll love the prose and the hints of tragedy, but the dark humor and the full impact of the tragic events and their connections to Colombian history will be missed. Lost in translation applies to much more than how to render words. How does one translate a shared cultural/political past with a forastero?

But yet it is possible in an imperfect sense to gather more than surface-level impressions if one is not a native. However, it is very tough and it took me multiple re-reads, consultations of other fiction and non-fiction, and numerous conservations with Latino friends of mine to grasp just a few more facets of some very multi-faceted literary gems. Perhaps others here have had an easier time grasping the nuances of another culture via translated literature (or literature read in the original language)?

1 comment:

Elena said...

Addressing your question at the end about having an easier time picking up nuances:

My experience of reading in Spanish is limited (sadly, and you are inspiring me to change this) to high school. I took I think 6 Spanish classes, including AP lit my last semester (which was basically an independent study with me and a native speaker who struggled almost as much as I did with the novels). I think reading the stories and novels we did gave me an insight into how much of the culture I was missing, kind of the opposite side of the same reaction? But I could tell there were a lot of references I wasn't catching and attitudes that I didn't quite understand. The issue was not one of misunderstanding words but rather of not sharing the same cultural fabric.

I have had a similar experience reading certain American writers--for example the novel Giant (Edna Furber) had me, as a native Texan, grinding my teeth at her misperceptions--so your comments about Southern lit make a lot of sense to me, as well.

I've never gotten more than about 50 pages into cien anos, so I can't comment much about your thoughts there. But it's still on my shelf, still the spanish version, so maybe someday... :)

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