Author: Isabel Rodríguez Vergara
Title: Haunting Demons: Critical Essays on the Works of Gabriel García Márquez
WRITING, CREATION, AND DESTRUCTION IN
STRANGE PILGRIMS: STORIES *
Jai débuté dans la littérature
en écrivant des livres
pour dire que je ne pouvais rien écrire de tout.
Three years after the publication of The General in His Labyrinth (1989), Gabriel Garcia Márquez served us a delicious dessert ready to be brought to the table after all its wandering from pillar to post, its struggle to survive the perversities of uncertainty (xiii), with the twelve entertaining stories in the volume titled in English Strange Pilgrims. Stories.1 The stories depict the strange things that happen to the Latin Americans in Europe (viii) and that the author has been cooking for the past eighteen years. A variety of Latin American characters, among them outstanding writers, stroll both the big cities of Barcelona, Geneva, Rome, Arezzo, and Paris and the cramped, intimate spaces of an airplane, a ship, or an airport, exposed to the clash of unknown cultural codes.
In an attempt to impose a structure on the uneven volume, the fruit of diverse literary genres of the writers multiple autobiographical experiences over eighteen years and of García Márquezs open participation in the world of literary criticism, three sets of themes have been proposed: the first consisting of texts in which the Latin American perspective prevails, defined by Luz Mery Giraldo as Macondo goes to Europe; the second, of texts ruled by the vital power in the ultimate joy of existence, called by the critic the unstable pleasure of modernity; and the last, of texts in which absurd, almost malign experience prevails, described as perversity and abandonment. 2
In spite of the useful thematic classification and the comments offered by Giraldo, neither her article nor the reviews and studies thus far published on Strange Pilgrims Stories have gone to the trouble of analyzing the outstanding seven pages of the Foreword (longer than some of the short stories), which I consider essential to setting guidelines for an interpretation of the stories. In this study, I propose to make a detailed critique starting from the Foreword and three stories intimately connected to it; I Sell My Dreams, I Only Came to Use the Phone, and Maria dos Plazeres.
As a whole, the twelve stories are a hybrid of the various literary genres the author has cultivated: chronicle, story, newspaper article, and film script. At the same time, they move the frontiers of rhetoric and of literary genre. They dramatize a fiction that is created inside its own destruction, that erodes a single concept of truth and a single meaning of language. The idea of dismantlement is expressed in the very title of the seven-page Foreword: Why Twelve, Why Stories, Why Pilgrims? On the one hand, García Márquez deconstructs the title he gave the book in Spanish (literally, Twelve Pilgrim Stories) as a justification of his strange volume, of the palimpsest written, erased, and written anew on the paper. On the other hand, he satisfies his desire to extend his authority as creator to the vast field of literary criticism. The Foreword establishes the relationship between the writers discourse and that of the critic seeking to fill the gap between sign and meaning. As metalanguage (of that discourse that takes form from a previous discourse), the critical discourse of the Foreword gives form or meaning to the sign. However, the writers discourse reciprocally operates in a breach between real and virtual language, between sign and meaning. This implies that the language of the critic and that of the writer constitute the obverse and reverse of the same language.3 That is to say, in this text García Márquez consciously consolidates himself as author, character, reader, and critic, making sign and meaning one, and, at the same time, he reads himself in the language.
The very title of the collection becomes a debate that dismembers the literary act as a metaphor whose genealogy deserves full reflection,4 a meditation, on the text itself, its origin, its story-telling structure, and the sign with all its possible meanings. The first term, as to which García Márquez asks Why twelve? harks back to the literary genesis of the stories, which the writer, as a critic, traces to previous journalistic notes, to a television series, and to a recorded interview. As he says in the text:
The Twelve Stories in this collection were written over the last eighteen years. Before they reached their current form, five of them had been journalistic notes and screenplays, and one was a television serial. Fifteen years ago I recounted another during a taped interview with a friend who transcribed and published the story, and now Ive rewritten it on the basis of his version. This has been a strange creative experience that deserves to be explained . . .. (13)
On the second term, to define the concept of story (how does one create a story?) the author himself alludes autobiographically to his devotion to different genres at different times of his life, dramatizing the frontiers of narrative and testing its reflection on literary discourse while questioning the individual authority of the creator by showing the act of writing as a collective process: What I never foresaw was that my work in journalism and film would change some of my ideas about those stories, so that now, when I wrote them in their final form, I had to be very careful to separate my own ideas with tweezers from those suggested to me by the directors while I was writing the scripts (xi, my emphasis).
Pilgrimage, the third term of the title, (Why Pilgrims?) expresses varied linguistic, biographical, and existential connotations, from those offered by the Larousse Dictionary to those printed in the Foreword. The dictionary defines it as a trip abroad, a sacred visit to a sanctuary, or an earthly trip that serves as a passage to eternal life. 5 The trip abroad coincides with García Márquezs travels through Europe for eighteen years and his open intention of compiling and rewriting old texts: literary and biographical. The sacred pilgrimage consists of a meditation on the act of writing as a maiden voyage, without divine grace; creation not yet revealed but by a hand abandoned by God. It is a reflection on the anguish of the creative act, of writing without knowing what is going to be produced, and the encounter of the writer (himself) as a language being built. 6 Pilgrimage also alludes to writing imagined as a text coming and going to and from the garbage can and to the image of the author caught in the tricks of memory recalling his itinerary through the various cities of Europe, as he existentially examines his fear of death (a recurrent topic in this collection of stories).
Though a reading of Strange Pilgrims gives the aesthetic pleasure produced by poetic language, we should be aware that this reading has been mediated by García Márquez himself by his making literary criticism the object of interest in his Foreword. His gesture is similar to that of Umberto Eco in his Postscript to The Name of the Rose in which he makes us believe that he decided to write a novel set in the Middle Ages only because he wanted to use the voluminous notes and files on this period that he had accumulated since 1952.7 In Strange Pilgrims, García Márquez takes pains to explain the strange creative experience (that is, the uncertainties of language) that stories are even if only so that children who want to be writers when they grow up will know how insatiable and abrasive the writing habit can be (vii). García Márquez combines systematic criticism, articulating its genetic sources, with the unsystematic one of the writer who perceives writing as an uncontrollable process.
If in his function as critic García Márquez has told the reader, in the Foreword, about elementary details of literary criticism such as chronology, the genesis of the stories, and previous publications, what, then, is the focus of attention they deserve, to which the author is trying to lead us? In my opinion, the stories should be read as a metaphor of literary creation, as a discussion of the act of writing (sheer pleasure, according to García Márquez), of the sense of logic (the importance of language), and of the process of interpretation (upon declaring their oneiric character).
The Foreword thus becomes a discussion of writing and interpretation; of how fortuitous and accidental literary creation is through the postulates of the old game of disappearances and encounters in the manuscripts; of the endless reconstruction (rewriting) based on false memories that have little to do with reality and whose ultimate truth lies in the signs that express it. To emphasize the fortuitousness of the whole writing process, the author tells us that the idea of writing these stories came to him out of a dream about his own funeral. This dream as a text of another logic, of another world (the unconscious), will be the theme of the discourse in several stories of this volume.
The discourse of the Foreword shows García Márquez recanting the most compromising forms of interpretation. It affirms the interpretative process as incidental, arbitrary, and dependent on innumerable linguistic and cultural variants. It describes the signs playing multiple parts in the game of language, as already formulated by Wittgenstein.8 The false appearance of García Márquezs Strange Pilgrims as his intent to disavow any authoritarian perspective in the interpretation of its own fictitious discourse should be seen in the light of his manifest concern with matters of interpretation, with the authority of discourse, and with the certainties and uncertainties of meaning. His gesture of knitting and unraveling the text, as recent theory (Foucault, Derrida) reminds us, humorously questions the codification of authority with which textsand meaning in generalare associated.
The Foreword describes the creation of the stories as in part the construction of a particular class of reader. The interpreter, already molded with the complicity of the author, should confront García Márquezs concern with the readers constitutive role in all interpretative enterprises. The old concepts of unity, time, order, and logic have in turn also been dismantled; that is why, when he asks himself, How does one know, then, which is the final version? He answers, In the same way the cook . . . knows when the soup is ready, that is a trade secret that does not obey the laws of reason but the magic of instinct (xiii).
What the author appears to be proposing, then, and what will certainly frustrate most of the critics, is a reading of sheer enjoyment, freed from the coded traps that abound in his previous works. It is an invitation to perceive the pleasure not of creating a world, but of writing it and admiring the authors ability as a wordsmith. We shall be holding a dialogue with the principles set out in the Foreword. In most of the stories the writer appears as a witness or as a character living the events,9 which he displays in a limited frame of public language.10
Although it is true that in the volume Strange Pilgrims the novelty of seeing the author involved in his trade of literary critic appears for the first time in so prominent a form as a Foreword, this had already been seen in previous novels.11 The anecdotes in some of the palimpsest-like narratives here touch upon the literary world of his earlier novels. The so-called magic realism of One Hundred Years of Solitude is sketched in The Saint and the journalistic discourse associated with No One Writes to the Colonel in Seventeen Poisoned Englishmen. But the questioning of literary genre can be traced throughout García Márquezs works, starting with his early newspaper reporting; it becomes obvious in Chronicle of a Death Foretold (detective story, novel, or chronicle?) And The General in His Labyrinth (which counterbalances history and fiction) and continues with Strange Pilgrims, a synthesis of all genres, including poetry.
Just as Umberto Eco in his preface nullified the possibility of interpreting the novel whose focus of attention is semiotics itself, García Márquez also explores the Foreword of Strange Pilgrims as an ironic questioning of the linguistic game. So let us now proceed to a reading of three stories, all of them metaphors of creation whose narrative center resides precisely in the act of interpreting, in the search for meaning in muddled signs: I Sell My Dreams, I Only Came to Use the Phone, and Maria dos Prazeres.
Right from its very title in Spanish, I Sell My Dreams announces a linguistic and poetic game. The Spanish Me Alquilo para Soñar, translates literally as I Rent Myself to Dream, which simply defeats the laws of syntax and semantics: in Spanish the verb to rent cannot take a person as its subject, nor can a person dream for rent. However, in spite of the absurdity of the title, the reader ends by accepting it as normal as the reading progresses. The plot takes place in Havana, Cuba, and tells of the peculiar occupation of a Colombian woman nicknamed Frida whom the narrator (García Márquez) had met in Vienna thirty-four years earlier. Because of her capacity as an interpreter of dreams (of texts), the spatial location of the events in Vienna, and the phonetic assimilation of her name, Frau Frida is related parodically to Freud. Her occupation, that of dreaming and interpreting dreams, creates a bridge between the conscious and the unconscious world; she is at once a quack, a fortune-teller, and an active reader-interpreter. To find the meaning of dreams, Freud counseled patients to free-associate and the analyst could then determine what the dream represented, partly through an understanding of the personal necessities of the dreamer. In the same way, Frida required a context of experiences, mental habits, and cultural codes similar to those of her clients to carry on her trade. Through this process, García Márquez confirms the act of reading-interpreting as an act subject to cultural determinants of arbitrary association.
The patients (texts) of the Latin American Frau Frida will thus be first of all religious or superstitious folk, and added to this is the fact that they must be fasting when they tell her their dreams: the time when their oracular qualities are perceived in their purest forms (64). This second fact, the gratuitous one of being told while fasting, dramatizes the arbitrariness of signs, the work of interpreting them, and the multiplicity of their decoding. Frida is there like a metaphor of creation; as a creator (forecaster and fortune-teller) she relates signs to create meaning. This is why in her psychoanalytic work, Frau Frida gives dreams a significance totally unexpected by the reader; for example, it is said that when she was seven Frida dreamt that one of her siblings was carried away by a flood. As interpreters of the same dream, their mother and Frida came to different readings; the mother, due to religious superstition, forbade the boy what he enjoyed most, bathing in the creek. Frau Frida, who already had her own system of prophecy (65), that is, of codea system of magic decoding, of prophetic reconstruction of the conditions of meaning that governs a textasserts, in contradiction of her mother, that what the boy should not do is eat sweets, a verdict that her mother ends up respecting and accepting with a strong hand, convinced already of her daughters predictive gifts. The affair does not end here; rather, confirming Fridas prediction, the boy chokes to death on a candy he was eating in secret. Even though both interpretations are arbitrary, the mothers conclusion would appear more logical to the reader, relating the creek to the prohibition on bathing (water), whereas the level of abstraction in relating a creek to candy belongs in the poetic rather than the linguistic domain. With this success, the credibility of Fridas profession increases, manipulating the complicity of the reader, who, in spite of perceiving the arbitrariness, goes on participating in the same system of deconstruction.
Faced with unemployment, Frida, like Freud, adopts the interpretation of dreams as her occupation in Vienna and goes to work for a family who embody her cultural codeThey were all religious and therefore inclined to archaic superstitions (65)and allow her to reconstruct their dreams. This family takes her in with the sole obligation to decipher the familys daily fate through her dreams(65). The interpretative authority that Frida gains through those other codes, the oneiric ones, distant from physical reality, grants her absolute dominion over the family to the point of commanding the faintest sigh.
But Fridas professional relationship is not limited to the superstitious family; it expands to two characters, both Latin American writers: the superstitious Colombian García Márquez and the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. The former, in response to Fridas prediction of danger, never returns to Vienna; with the latter, in Barcelona, she argues about the relation between dream and poetry. With the García Márquez character, Frida proves that the reality of dreams is more truthful than that of the external physical world, but the bond between dream and reality reaches its climax with the fictitious intervention of the poet Pablo Neruda, who adds another symbolic code of interpretation of the world: poetry. Neruda declares that, he did not believe in prophetic dreams, and that, only poetry is clairvoyant (68).
The story ends in a linguistic game of literary allusions to Neruda and Jorge Luis Borges, and to the infinite system of codification in which the narrator, alluding to the linguistic labyrinths of Borges, has Neruda dream about the woman that dreams simultaneously with Fridas dreaming about the poet who, dreamed he was dreaming about me (69).
But not only does the speech in this story discover a system of arbitrary signs through dreams and poetry, it also comments on the external physical world, juxtaposing cultural, political, and historical codes such as the situation in Europe between the two wars, superstition and religiosity in Latin America, and espionage and the black market in Vienna. It also praises Cuban culture for its volunteer work and its cheerful temperament.
The second story, I Only Came to Use the Phone, displays the same game of reconstruction of semiotic systems. The nineteen pages of this story relate the details of an incident that happens to the actress María de la Luz Cervantes, an almost exact homonym of Alejandrina Cervantes, the town prostitute in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, while she is driving toward Barcelona on a rainy day. While looking for a telephone to notify her husband of a delay caused by the breakdown of her car, María accepts a ride from a passing bus. When it reaches its destination, María realizes that, by mistake, she has been brought to a womens insane asylum. She cannot convince the asylums personnel of the real reason for her presence in this pathetic place, especially against the irrationality and physical strength of Herculina, an enormous woman in charge of the inmates.
In an openly theatrical and carnival-like atmosphere underlined by the characters professions (María, an actress, and her husband Saturno, a magician) and the limited theater of the events (an asylum), the story develops three intertextual versions of Marías condition that oppose and complement one another in a game of signs and cast doubt on a single truth.
The first version, which might be called official, is that of the group made up of the guards, the director of the asylum, and the doctors. The asylum officials, in spite of not having found María on the list of patients who were supposed to arrive on the bus that picked her up, do not take the trouble to investigate, let alone correct, the error; instead they deduce or assume that she cannot be different, but must be just one more madwoman. The text says, That same afternoon María was admitted to the asylum with a serial number and a few superficial comments concerning the enigma of where she had come from and the doubts surrounding her identity. In the margin the director had written an assessment in his own hand; agitated (77), an adjective that is read as crazy and subsequently condemns her to life imprisonment in the asylum.
The second version is that of the central character, María the actress, who, when she realizes her situation in the institution, does everything she can to communicate with her husband so that he can save her. We could say that in spite of Marías being a victim of the misinterpretations of her signs by those around her, the narrator manipulates this version in such a way as to put the reader on her side looking with suspicion at the other versions. María obviously does not share the other logic of the inmates or the absurd myopic stubbornness of the hospital bureaucracy that has condemned her for the mere fact of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The limited, uniform world that the doctors rule does not distinguish or accept the difference of a logic not centered on the asylum. The clash between the official version and Marías creates the tension of a distressing, macabre story that is sustained until the tragic end. Similarly, conflicts of linguistic signs arise with her husband, Saturno, because of her past history and his jealous temperament.
The third version, that of Saturno the magician, emulates García Márquez by creating his own story (stories) starting from the memory of a dream; besides the dream as a creative source, the analysis of intimate intertexts of Marías life hastens him to the fatal interpretation of the event. In the dream he saw María wearing a ragged wedding dress spattered with blood (78), signs that he associates with the actresss previous behavior as a woman who had abandoned three men at three different times. The conclusion Saturno reaches by interpreting the available signs (like Freud, Frida, and García Márquez) is that María has gone off with another man, a conclusion that does not change even when, two weeks later, the police show up to tell him that Marías car has been found near Cádiz. Saturnos interpretative inflexibility is conspicuous: self-absorbed in his first text, he continues elaborating (creating) on his original supposition, his own semiotic world, remembering events that had occurred in Cadaqués at the Marítim bar. He remembered that in the bar when María found herself without matches, an adolescent lighted her cigarette; that at the end of the autumn they saw him again; and that the way he kissed her, and the way she kissed him back, struck Saturno with the suspicion that they had been seeing each other in secret (81). Saturno continues adding coincidences aggravated by jealousy on which he builds and sustains his own interpretation; among them the finding of a new telephone number in Marías telephone address book, the social background of the intruder (rich, bisexual, known as a consoler of married women), and the refusal of the woman who answers when Saturno tries to call him, which he found to be another confirmation for what no longer was for him a suspicion, but a burning certainty. . . thus he resolved to forget María (83).
The interpretation of the other creator, the character-magician, is the most daring of all as he tries to reconstruct the tricky signs from a memory of a dream. Nevertheless, the results of his assembling is as legitimate for Saturno as Marías version is for the reader.
The dream, the jealousies, the coincidences, all these states alien to the world of logic, have contributed to the assembly of the fatal version on the whereabouts of the rebellious María. In the meantime, María is still refusing after two months to adapt to the other world to which language has condemned her and has not yet adjusted to the life of the sanatorium (83). Her refusal to participate in activities with the other inmates, an attitude that the doctors interpret as an obvious step on the way to integration, is accompanied by her tenacity in getting to speak with her husband on the telephone. After all, said the doctors, every one of them started out the same way, and sooner or later they become integrated into the community (83). When she finally reaches Saturno by telephone, thanks to the carelessness of the authorities, she is surprised and her desperation increases when he, concluding (after his deductions arising out of the semiotic games on her disappearance) that she has run away with another man, hangs up after calling her a whore.
With no alternative other than accepting the sexual proposals of one of the inmates as a means of salvation, María manages to have Saturno visit the asylum the following Saturday. Warned by the director of the institution of Marías supposed obsession with the telephone, for him the only sign of her madness, Saturno adopts a paternalistic attitude that makes her understand the whole truth and this time she screams like a true mad lady. Marías presumed madness means, in fact, the full lucidity of knowing all the versions (like the reader) without being able to alter them. The story is delineated, as in I Sell My Dreams, as a metaphor of creation and language with its intricate interpretative world.
As these versions clash, comments on love are inserted in the form of a quotation from the Brazilian poet Vinícius de Moraes (Love is eternal as long as it lasts 80); there are reflections previously seen in García Márquez on sexual relationships outside of marriage (76); there are observations on communication between the sexes. Thus, when she has finished speaking with the doctor in the asylum and noticed the careful attention he paid her, Maria exclaims, This was, for the first time in her life, the miracle of being understood by a man who listened to her with all his heart and did not expect to go to bed with her as a reward (76). The theater (textually the circus, 90) of cultural and political signs is dismantled by equating the Francoist world with that of the asylum, Spain as a jail under the power of Herculina. This world crumbles when the asylum is fictitiously demolished. The characters of theater who attend the fair in the last scene, when Saturno arrives dressed like his cat in the red and yellow tights of the great Leotardo, a top hat, and a swirling cape that seemed made for flying (90), disappear while María refuses to see her husband, who in turn remarries and goes back to his own country.
Marías end, her theatrical assimilation to the codes of the asylum, seemingly lucid and happy to be in the cloister where she leads a normal life, as the story describes it, can be seen as a comment by García Márquez on the non-existence of a true division between the operation of logic in madness and in the sane world, both prisoners of a system of arbitrary signs. By this same reasoning the Colombian writer finds it impossible to detect the dividing line between disillusion and nostalgia (xii). They are all signs waiting for significance through interpretation.
Following the same line of thought as the Foreword and the two stories previously discussed, the discourse of Maria dos Prazeres is shot through with debates on the essence of dreams, instinct, and interpretation. This is the story of a woman marginalized by her trade as a prostitute and removed from her own country (Brazil) when her mother sold her to a Turkish official, who after enjoying her without pity abandons her, leaving her with no money, no language and no name (109). María lives in Gràcia with her dog and her casual lover of the last Friday of every month, the Count of Cardona. Believing that the time has come for her to die (revealed also through her misinterpretation of a dream), María prepares to choose a proper site for her grave, a place that will never flood 99), and trains her dog, Noi, to visit her in that remote place.12
At first, unaware of the misinterpretation, Maria takes practical actionsthe gravesite, the posthumous distribution of her belongings, the care of her dog. But her preparations are upset in the autumn when Maria dos Prazeres began to detect ominous signs that she could not decipher but that made her heart heavier (107). This time the signs are not oneiric but rather instinctive, that sort of private sensation inexpressible in the public language of the conventions13 that María sharpens and deciphers. Her instinct includes both everyday objects, such as the chatter of birdsellers and the whispers of men, and the distant memories of the deep silences of war cripples, and she found unequivocal signs of death (107).
This is how matters stand when Maria, who has everything ready for her death and is leaving the cemetery in the rain, comes face to face, as in a miracle, with a young Catalan driver who offers her a lift. The mans glance takes her breath away and in a fraction of a second she has made a thorough re-examination of the premonitory dream that had changed her life for the past three years, and she saw the error of her interpretation (114). Since she had confused the sign of death with that of erotic love, the only thing left to this seventy-six-year-old Brazilian woman is to enjoy the magic instant that becomes available to her: she knew it had been worth waiting so many years, worth so much suffering in the dark, if only to live that moment (115).
Besides dramatizing the interpretative process already seen in the two previous stories, the discourse of Maria dos Prazeres establishes a connection between death and sex. There is also political speech; this is one of the most political stories in the collection. The atmosphere of conflict of the Basques in the Spanish context is clearly drawn through the presence of the nameless graves of three anarchist leaders murdered during the civil war; the attendance of Maria dos Prazeres at the funeral of a Basque leader, Durruti; the mention of the murder of a student for writing Visca Catalunya lliure; and the expression of the need to write clandestine history at night, even if it is erased in the morning. María participates as a commentator against the Franco regime and as an activist on the side of anarchy though a variety of gestures such as writing the names of the murdered anarchists on their tombs with her lipstick so that they will not be forgotten, obtaining objects of value stolen by the Fascists from the Republicans, and openly telling the Count of Cardona of her desire to poison General Francisco Franco, after which he never comes to see her again (109, 110).
From our perspective here, Strange Pilgrims: Stories, while superficially changeable in narrative theme, should be read taking into account the great power of Gabriel García Márquezs Foreword. Beyond the frivolous description of a climatic phenomenon (Tramontana) or an unlikely adventure supposedly had García Márquezs children in Madrid (Light Is Like the Water), or the magic moment experienced by the author in the historic castle where the Venezuelan writer Miguel Otero de Silva lived (The Ghosts of August), or the cultural clash of Prudencia Linero of Riohacha in Naples (Seventeen Poisoned Englishmen), the collection is a call to the dismemberment of language, the disassembling of fiction, and the enjoyment of text in all its dimensions. The eight remaining stories and the Foreword of Strange Pilgrims: Stories dramatize the act of creation and writing and the semiotic process of interpretation, the focus of the three stories analyzed in this essay. These stories are created from the destruction once the reader dismantles them and the narrator (author) discredits them.