Sunday, April 24, 2011

Leaf Storm: Magical Misery

I’ve just finished reading La hojarasca (usually translated into English as Leaf Storm), by Colombia’s famous Nobel Prize-winning writer, Gabriel García Márquez (now 84).

Gabriel García Márquez - Random House
publicity photo by Patrick Curry 

I should start by saying that I’ve never been a very orderly reader. That is to say, I’ve very seldom read all of an author’s works in a row—with the possible exceptions of J.D. Salinger and Truman Capote, some works of both of whom I’ve read several times—and, much less, in chronological order. So it is not at all strange that I should just now be getting to Leaf Storm, García Márquez’s earliest novella, which was first published in 1955. I read it in a recent Spanish-language edition (La hojarasca, Buenos Aires, Debolsillo, sixth edition, 2007 – Contemporánea – 176 pages, ©1954 by Gabriel García Márquez and ©2003 Random House Mondadori SA, Barcelona, under license to Editorial Sudamericana SA). But it was also first published in English in 1972 by Harper & Row and there have been several other English editions since, usually with this novella as the title for anthologies of the author’s shorter works. Any translated quotes included in this article are my own translations from the original Spanish, not those appearing in any of the English-language editions of this work.
Despite the Colombian writer’s well deserved fame, he was anything but an overnight success. He was making his living as a journalist while studying law when he wrote Leaf Storm, but it took him seven years to interest anyone in publishing this story. Nor was it to lead to a sudden string of successes: He wrote No One Writes to the Colonel (El coronel no tiene quien le escriba) from 1956 through 1957, but didn’t find a publisher for it until 1961. That same year he won the Esso Literary Prize for La mala hora (In Evil Hour), his first published novel, but didn’t publish another book for five years—in this last case, his masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad). García Márquez has indicated that he was writing “Solitude” in his head from the time he was eighteen, but never could find the way to get the story—which, like Leaf Storm and No One Writes to the Colonel before it, was based on his own family’s history—down on paper. But when it finally came to him, he wrote obsessively for eighteen months straight, to such an extent that he had to sell the family car to keep the wolf from the door and his wife had to talk  grocers into giving her credit in order to keep food on the table.
Leaf Storm was where all of this process began, a simple sketch of characters, ideas and artistic concepts that García Márquez would later employ in other works. It also carried hints of the magical realism movement of which he would later be recognized as a major exponent. Nearly two decades after he wrote this novella, García Márquez was quoted as saying that of all the things he had written, La hojarasca was his favorite, because he felt it was “the most sincere and spontaneous.”
There is nothing complicated about the plot, but it does indeed have elements that are unique. It bears the starkness of some of the most ruthless of American Westerns and of similar tales of remoteness and isolation, a largely understated harshness and brutality that rival stories such as Steinbeck’s The Harness or Hemingway’s An Alpine Idyll. But the longer format of the novella gives García Márquez room in which to infect the reader to an even greater degree with the stifling, lugubrious atmosphere that he weaves from the first page to the last.
We have come to the house where the dead man is.
The heat is suffocating in the closed room. You can hear the buzz of the heat in the streets, but nothing else. The air is stagnant, concrete; you get the feeling that you could twist it like a piece of sheet steel. In the room where they’ve placed the cadaver, there is a smell of wardrobe trunks, but I don’t see any anywhere. There’s a hammock in a corner hung from a ring at one of its ends. There’s a smell of rubbish. I think that the ruined and near ruined things that surround us look like things that should smell of rubbish, although they actually have another smell.
I always thought that dead men should have a hat. Now I see that they don’t. I see that they have a steely head and a kerchief tied under the jaw. I see that they have their mouth a little bit open and that you can see, behind the purple lips, the stained and irregular teeth. I see that they have the bitten tongue to one side, thick and pasty, a little darker than the color of the face, which is like that of one’s fingers when they are squeezed by a hemp rope. I see that they have their eyes open, a lot wider than a man’s, anxious and bulging, and that the skin is like pressed and damp earth. I thought that a dead man looked like a person still and asleep and now I see that  it’s just the opposite. I see that he looks like a person wide awake and furious after a fight…I don’t know why they’ve brought me. I had never entered this house before and I even thought that it was abandoned…          
In this way, García Márquez allows his most impressionable character—a young boy for whom the very concept of death is as yet unfathomable, drafted to accompany his mother and grandfather to the house of a man who has died alone and rejected by his town—to describe the breathless environment in which the entire story will take place. It is, in fact, the boy’s descriptions and thoughts that give this story its near magical feeling and its mysterious nuances in what otherwise could be merely a dark, sordid tale of lust, rejection, isolation, vengeance and suicide.
And the author might well have set his mood of stifling incomprehension and mystery by allowing the boy to continue to be the narrator from beginning to end. This in itself would have proven a novel enough approach to a uniquely macabre story. But he has chosen instead to weave a more complex tapestry, to tell the story bit by bit and from three distinct points of view: that of the boy, who is seeing a dead body for the first time in a uniquely brooding and mournful setting, and who is all first impressions of the dead man, the room, the circumstances and the proceedings; that of the boy’s mother, Isabel, who is disgusted by this task and concerned for the impressions her young son is gathering and for what the town of Maconado will think of them for claiming the body of this man whom no one wants to see buried and for whom the town has only contempt, but who out of respect for her father has agreed to accompany him and bring the boy on this charitable mission which her father has taken as his duty; and that of the woman’s father, the boy’s grandfather, “the colonel” as the town knows him, who, though there is no real love lost with this wretched dead man, feels a debt of honor toward him and a need to instill a sense of decency in this town whose people and mayor have vowed—such is their disdain and hatred—that they will not allow this virtual hermit to be buried until they can smell his rotting corpse from the street outside his house.
This is García Márquez at his rawest and yet at his most intimate and meticulously mysterious. The story is a surreal word painting into which the reader is drawn and made to walk the dusty twilit floors of the shuttered room where the true main character—the deceased—has taken his last gasp at the end of a rope after a decade of isolation.
This character too, like the setting, is almost morbidly uncommon. And as unattractive as he is odd. He is known only as “the doctor”—a fallen medical man from an uncertain past, who is as unpopular for his unintentionally unsociable manner as he is for his unabashedly lustful way of observing women. The colonel tells us of how the doctor came to town twenty-five years before and of how he and his family took the stranger in on the strength of a letter of recommendation, datelined Panama, from Colonel Aurelio Buendía (who would reappear in later works by the author) and of  how he ended up overstaying his welcome—and then some—before finally moving into a house two doors down the street. For a time, the doctor makes an effort to appear sociable but seems destined to carry the taint of his unknown past with him wherever he goes and the mystery that surrounds him is enough to make him suspect and to cause the town to shun him. For a time, he maintains a meager practice, but eventually, he shuts it down and shuts himself in…for a decade.
Quoth the colonel:  Although he [the doctor] might have expected the contrary, he was a strange personality in the town, hardly outgoing, despite his obvious efforts to seem sociable and cordial. He lived among the people of Maconado, but distanced from them by the memory of a past against which any attempt at rectification appeared useless. He was looked upon with curiosity, like a sober animal that remained during much of the time in shadows and then reappeared, observing a conduct that the town could only consider assumed and, as such, suspect.
The doctor’s strangeness is enough, of course, for the people of a small town like Maconado—through which the foreign banana company has swept and gone, like the leaf storm of the book’s title—not to accept him. But it doesn’t explain why the people would hate him. And here, García Márquez crafts another turn of the screw in this story of concentric rejection. There comes a day in the civil strife of Colombia’s history, when twelve men are critically injured in the fighting. Maconado’s only other physician is overwhelmed and the townspeople, who previously have done everything to make the now retired doctor feel unwelcome, clamor to his door, pounding and calling on him to lend a hand, to save these wounded men. But the rejected doctor now rejects them, telling them from behind his closed and bolted door, to leave him alone, that he is no longer a medical man. The casualties, bereft of medical attention, succumb to their wounds and from then on, the doctor, whose world is now this room where he will, in the end, take his own life, has become a marked man. Eventually, the townspeople reckon, he will either have to come out or die inside that squalid, shuttered house. Either way, he can expect nothing but revenge from the town of Maconado, not even Christian burial.
Nor is this the first time that the doctor has refused treatment to someone in need. Indeed, he refuses to treat the colonel’s ailing servant, Meme. But that doesn’t stop this lingering house guest from striking his only even semi-intimate relationship with this very same woman. Unbeknownst to the colonel’s family, the doctor eventually seduces the naïve Meme and begins having sexual relations with her even while he is still under the colonel’s roof. When he moves two doors down, Meme goes with him, the only human being with whom the doctor shares his solitude, until finally, weary of his heartlessness and apathy, Meme too abandons him, and takes his unborn child with her. Meme also becomes a mystery for the town, since she disappears without a trace, never to be heard from again, a fact that also raises suspicions among the townspeople.
Aging, crippled and half-blind, the colonel is the stabilizing factor in the anarchy that this story describes. He represents tradition, gentlemanliness, principles and ethical behavior. He never wavers in his purpose of seeking to ensure that this pathetic hermit is given a proper burial and he is willing to risk his own reputation and that of his family to ensure that this happens.
This first major work by Gabriel García Márquez is symbolic of the quality level that he has consistently met and improved upon in his long career as one of Latin America’s—and, indeed, the world’s—finest living writers. And it marks the first steps he took in finally setting to page the history of a family that had been writing itself in his head from the time he was a very young man. Anyone interested in discovering the work of this contemporary Latin American author would do well to start with Leaf Storm.