Friday, August 6, 2010

Strange Pilgrims by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

In this fine collection we are given twelve short stories with a central central theme of foreigners abroad, living in an exile of their own volition or imposed on them by external forces. Although the stories are not inter-connected, many elements beyond exile are universal throughout the collection; the setting being one of them.

All the stories take place in Europe, however it is a slightly more rustic Europe than what some would imagine. The author doesn't write the affected settings that some American readers love as they remind them of past vacations or honeymoons. Rather he speaks plainly of where events take place and through no real effort makes grand destinations seem normal as only one who has lived in such places can.

My favorite story in the collection, Bon Voyage Mr President, is of an exiled politician living out his remaining days abroad only to find that there is much to life ahead of him than he expected to find. Upon rescinding his ban on vice: drinking, eating red meat, smoking, eating shellfish and others, he finds friendship and the joy of being alive; despite old age and being forced out of his country when he expected to not have much time before him.

Maria dos Prazeres is a similar tale of a retired whore in her seventies who finds that old age isn't what she thought it would be and the only limitations on the pleasure she can derive from life are self imposed. Both of these stories have a similar feel, likable characters who are far from role-models, dealing with advanced age and impending death, but due to the astonishing ability to impart so much detail with so few sentences it is near impossible to get them mixed up.

I don't know that I've come across a writer who communicated more sentiment or imparted more understating of all things happening in so few words. Garcia Marquez at his best makes me want to swear off fiction longer than thirty pages. Even if the stories he writes were all kinds of boring, the words on the page would be nothing short of beautiful.

Most of the stories deal with death and in a rather abrupt and stark fashion. Tramontana, Light is like Water, and Mrs Forbe's Summer of Happiness all take a morbid turn while maintaining the writers light hearted voice through out until the end.

I only Came to Use the Phone, is terrifying and probably the all around best in the collection; a story of a woman whose car breaks down and seeks to make a phone call to her husband at a mental institution and ends up being taken as a patient. This story--while absolutely fabulous--also brought up my only real point of contention with Garcia Marquez's writing: the women of stories speak like men. Should you read Garcia Marquez and be bothered by the same issues, do as I did: Get over it and keep reading.

The Saint and Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane are proof of the writer's ability; they should be flawed as they are repetitive in the extreme; the former about a father's eternal application for his daughter's Sainthood and the latter about a man on an airplane doing nothing but reflecting on the beautiful woman next to him. Instead of simple material that doesn't have enough substance to expand upon, Garcia Marquez's strings together long, breathless sentences that ironically read at an unhurried pace and make you forget that there is little next to nothing happening in the story itself by way of plot progression.

The term 'magical realism' that is near impossible to separate from the author's name surfaces many times in this collection. He plays with the word 'magic' often, and even calls some people wizards and sorcerers. There is a dog that is trained to cry and sheds tears; a couple that falls asleep in one bed and wakes up in another; light bulbs that spew water enough to sail in; a dead girl whose body is both weightless and refuses to decay among other odd things, yet he never quiet crosses the line of 'fantastic' by genre fantasy standards.

He can make you smile with the jest of children functioning in an adult word and shake your soul a page later as they lose the innocents of childhood. There are a few stories that won't strike you as stunning as others, for me The Trail of your Blood in the Snow proved nothing more than a phenomenal title, but after reading this collection I certainly believe in the power of his novels and plan to seek them out. However, for the moment, I'm more than content to read more of his short fiction.

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