R L Williams’s A Companion to Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Review

October 20, 2015

Williams, R L 2013 A Companion to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Tamesis, Woolbridge.

Reviewed By Colm McNaughton ©2015

This companion, authored by US academic Raymond Leslie Williams, is an attempt to introduce the reader who is assumed to have no prior knowledge, to the complex and mercurial Colombian author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Explaining Garcia Marquez to the uninitiated is no easy task because he and his literary works sit at the very juncture of history, memory and imagination in the Latin American reality. Thus, to contextualize Garcia Marquez you are necessarily encountering the very processes Latin Americans have at their disposal to reflect on where they come from and where they might be headed.  Of course there are numerous critics, especially those north of the Rio Grande who will disagree with this assumption; but this is the very battleground which Uruguayan historian Eduardo Galeano so eloquently referred to as La Memoria del Fuego/ the Memory of Fire.

In placing Garcia Marquez both as an author and as a person into the maelstrom that is the unfolding of Latin American history, what I am proposing is that his works can best be understood and appreciated as a creative response to the historical/ political/ economic contexts in which he found himself and his fellows at a certain time and place. To do otherwise is to consciously (or even perhaps unconsciously) decontextualize and depoliticize both him and his works, and as a consequence you may be contributing to ongoing forms of imperial/ state violence against the Latin American body. This I will suggest is precisely the fundamental weakness of this volume. This text essentially approaches Garcia Marquez through a narrowly compartmentalised and siloed off discipline of literature, and as a consequence what we are encountering is but a distorted caricature of the Colombian author. Omitted from this perspective is any sense of the revolutionary seer, who throughout his working life develops an arsenal of metaphors, incantations and stories to confront and attack the reach and power of imperial imagination. Garcia Marquez’s frontal assault on the pernicious master’s imagination is akin to the Cuban Revolution of 1959, which not only overthrew Batista, the US backed dictator, but also left a significant dint in the their beloved Monroe doctrine. Sadly, the Garcia Marquez we encounter in these pages is but an apparition of his marvellously real self.

This companion is divided up into six sections, the first of which places Garcia Marquez in the context of the Latin American Boom. Unfortunately the Boom is understood very narrowly as primarily a literary phenomenon and is not placed in its broader historical and geo-political contexts. The next section is concerned with the Macondo Cycle, and the numerous novels and short stories that helped to forge the imaginary space that frames his magnum opus, Cien años de soledad/ One Hundred Years of Solitude. This section contains a number of brief but very useful overviews of Garcia Marquez’s early writings and how they contributed to the development of the parallel universe that is Macondo. One of the highlights of this section – and it must be stated of the companion as a whole – is that all direct quotes from Garcia Marquez’s texts are in Spanish first, which are then followed by an English translation. This method makes a significant contribution to developing the flavour and pace of the ensuing discussions. Even though Williams observes that Cien años is his ‘most elaborate metaphor for Latin America’ and as such is a ‘metaphorical compendium of Latin American history, culture and society’ (p.74), the author does not have the adequate tools to demonstrate to the reader precisely how and why this is the case.

At this juncture I feel I need to make an intervention. In discussing the various literary influences on Garcia Marquez’s literary work, Williams points out that William Faulkner, Franz Kafka and Luis Borges are major influences. On page 74 he goes on to argue that Cien años is ‘written in the tradition of Faulkner and other modernists’. This statement concretely encapsulates and reveals the problem of decontextualizing and depoliticizing the discussion surrounding Garcia Marquez. Williams himself concedes that Cien años is ‘Marquez’s most comprehensive novel dealing with the Spanish medieval and colonial legacy in Latin America’ (p. 52). If this is the case, how could Garcia Marquez, a conscious Latin American and anti-imperialist leftist, look to a North American – albeit from the South – as his main model for making a break from the colonial and imperial imaginations? In making this point, I am not suggesting that Faulkner is not a truly great writer, or that he does not influence Garcia Marquez, but rather there are substantive reasons why an author from Colombia, who is supremely aware of the staggering contradictions of the Latin American reality and the centrifugal role the United States plays in these dynamics, cannot look to one of their greatest authors for inspiration. The Irish authors James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney, albeit in a different context, also struggled with how best to respond to the colonial/ imperial legacies upon their imaginations and the dangers of writing in the coloniser’s language. As a consequence Joyce and co., for a range of pressing historical, cultural, linguistic and geo-political reasons did not, could and would not look to an Englishman such as William Shakespeare for inspiration and guidance, instead gravitating towards the medieval catholic Florentine, Dante Alighieri. Likewise, Marquez cannot look to authors from North America to find the tools and imaginary spaces to liberate Latin Americans from the dominance of the very same empire. As African-American poet Audre Lorde reminds us, ‘the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house.’ The author of this companion, in approaching and developing an appreciation of Garcia Marquez the author, completely misses this vital point.

Emerging out of this insight, but one that is never adequately addressed in this volume, is how can Garcia Marquez use Spanish, the mother tongue of the Spanish Empire, in the context of being what Carlos Fuentes refers to as ‘a colony of a colony’, to confront and transform the very legacies of empire in the region? To help him think through these vexing post-colonial questions, Garcia Marquez turned to both Joyce and Kafka, the Irish and Jewish outsiders of Europe, who both wrote and spoke in the coloniser’s languages and who offer many cunning strategies worth reflecting on. Having sidestepped many of the complexities of the politics that are instrumental to Garcia Marquez’s writing, it is not surprising that the ensuing discussion of magical realism in this text is pretty weak. Williams’s discourse about magical realism is very pedestrian and concerned primarily with the narrowly defined discipline of literature. Never does he dare to venture into the other fields such as sociology or anthropology, let alone religion or myth to examine how different types of what could be referred to as magical realism, are not essentially literary forms, but rather ‘common sense’ (in the Gramscian meaning) survival strategies of ordinary people who have to deal with the daily violence of Empire. In missing this link, Williams cannot convey that Garcia Marquez’s real genius is that he takes the perspective of ordinary people and their insights and storytelling powers to confront the power itself. In his discussion Williams essentially reifies magical realism, turning what is a living process into a thing, because if you visit Latin America and engage with the people you will find various forms of magical realistic thinking very much alive and well.

In the next three sections Williams examines what he refers to as Garcia Marquez’s ‘break’ from magical realism and periodizes these sections as: El otoño del patriarca/ The Autumn of the Patriarch and his ‘political’ writing; his ‘postmodern turn’ which includes works such as , El amor en los tiempos del cólera/ Love in a Time of Cholera and Crónica de una muerte anunciada/ Chronicle of a Death Foretold; and his later writings. While the general overviews of the texts themselves are quite useful, what is vexing is how the author attempts to frame each of the chapters. Let me address the section on Garcia Marquez’s ‘postmodern turn’ as an example. The problem arises when Williams tries to explain what postmodernism is, and the best he comes up with is that: ‘the term has been used too broadly to allow a precise definition, but common concepts associated with postmodern culture included discontinuity, disruption, dislocation, decentering, indeterminancy and anti-totalization’ (p. 102). Williams seems content to throw at the reader a jumble of concepts and jargons with no contextualization or guiding discussion as to how they emerged or relate to each other, and then goes onto suggest that this somehow explains a shift in Garcia Marquez’s writing. Really? This is a very poor effort, which will leave most readers confused and bemused. Already on very shaky theoretical foundations, Williams continues to suggest that there is something self-reflexive about postmodern texts and as such they often refer to other texts. Virgil, Dante and Shakespeare are all self-reflexive writers; does this mean that they too are postmodern authors? If this is the case, doesn’t this render the term, at least how it is utilised in this companion, ultimately meaningless? I fear so.

Despite the poverty of the theoretical framing of his discussions, Williams saves the worst until last. To be blunt, the epilogue is quite shocking, as it is largely a blow-by-blow account of the author’s different interactions with Garcia Marquez since he started researching him in 1975. The only thing missing were a few ‘selfie’ shots with Garcia Marquez and few other forms of memorabilia to prove the author’s brief brushes with the literati. On a slightly brighter note, the further reading section and bibliography, particularly because they engage the literature in both Spanish and English are quite complete but not exhaustive, and as such may be useful to students encountering this field of research for the first time. But overall, I would suggest that this companion to Gabriel Garcia Marquez is something akin to the massacre of workers in Cien años, that is, something probably best forgotten.

———-

Colm McNaughton is a Literature lecturer. He received his doctorate in political theory in 2006. In the years that followed he worked for a number of years at Community Radio 3CR and as a freelancer for ABC Radio National. He is a multiple award winning radio documentary producer. He has previously lectured for seven years in Journalism at a range of different institutions.

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One Response to “R L Williams’s A Companion to Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Review”

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