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Gabo vs. A Lifetime of Absolute Normalcy

2014-04-22

Remembering Gabriel García Márquez, Edwidge Danticat writes:

I am often surprised when people talk about the total implausibility of the events in García Márquez’s fiction. Having been born and lived in a deeply spiritual and extraordinarily resourceful part of the Caribbean, a lot of what might seem magical to others often seems quite plausible to me.

 

Of course a woman can live inside her cat, as the character Eva does, in García Márquez’s 1948 short story ‘Eva Is Inside Her Cat.’ Doesn’t everyone have an aunt who’s done that? And remember that neighbor who died but kept growing in his coffin, as in the 1947 story “The Third Resignation”? What seems implausible to me is a lifetime of absolute normalcy, a world in which there are no invasions, occupations, or wars, no poverty or dictators, no earthquakes or cholera.

What seems implausible is a life of absolute normalcy. That’s the great revelation that comes with reading Gabriel García Márquez.

In saying so, it seems to me that Danticat connects two of Gabo’s great talents. The first was his ability to write his part of Latin America, to make what could be seen as strangeness feel familiar—that’s what she means when she talks about the invasions, occupations, dictators, earthquakes and cholera.

But, as Danticat points out, García Márquez could also draw out the strangeness of your aunt’s cat obsession. In other words, he didn’t just make the strange feel familiar; he could also make the familiar seem strange, write the abnormality—the magic—of the everyday. That was a big part of his power, too.

I can’t remember whether I was in high school or college when I started reading García Márquez. In any case, I doubt that at that point I had experienced anything more out-of-the-ordinary than an intense crush. But even then, García Márquez could make my world feel more interesting. An image that sticks with me is the short passage in Love in the Time of Cholera in which Florentino Ariza, desperately awaiting a reply from Fermina Daza to a letter he has written her, gets drunk on a bottle of perfume:

It was also the time when he happened to find in one of his mother’s trunks a liter bottle of the cologne that the sailors from the Hamburg-American Line sold as contraband, and he could not resist the temptation to sample it in order to discover other tastes of his beloved. He continued to drink from the bottle until dawn, and he became drunk on Fermina Daza in abrasive swallows, first in the taverns around the port and then as he stared out to sea from the jetties where lovers without a roof over their heads made consoling love, until at last he succumbed to unconsciousness. Tránsito Ariza, who had waited for him until six o’clock in the morning with her heart in her mouth, searched for him in the most improbably hiding places, and a short while after noon she found him wallowing in a pool of fragrant vomit in a cove of the bay where drowning victims washed ashore.

On one hand, it’s the commonest of scenes: a lovesick boy gets falling-down drunk in a fit of anxiety and self-pity. But García Márquez scratches the bottle of whiskey (or rum, or gin) from the image, and paints in its place a liter bottle of perfume.

That substitution isn’t just a poetic way of describing Florentino’s obsession with Fermina. Instead it suggests all of the different things that a bottle of liquor, or a token of a beloved, can mean in the hands of a young man. It’s an expansion, an opening-up of reality, and if you read enough of that sort of thing, it changes your relationship to the objects that surround you.

I know I don’t look at bottles of liquor, or bottles of perfume, in the same way as I did before reading Love in the Time of Cholera. In that sense, reading García Márquez made me a little less normal than I was. But, as Danticat points out, that’s the point: for Gabo, writing meant making war on the normal, and challenging the idea of normalcy itself.