Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Memories of Overdevelopment

[Gerald Martin: Gabriel García Márquez (2009)]

There's some interesting stuff in the preface of this biography of Gabriel García Márquez, which I bought in Borders the other day with one of their special email discount offers. The author, Gerald Martin, reveals that he's been working on it for the past twenty years (ever since his previous book, Journeys Through the Labyrinth: Latin American Fiction in the Twentieth Century came out in 1989, in fact).

It's a fairly hefty tome, but he also mentions that it was originally much longer - roughly two thousand pages long - only he began to despair of finishing it after first he, then "Gabo" (García Márquez's official nickname in the Spanish-speaking world) came down with cancer. Both did eventually recover, but it reminded him that while our studies may have no end, our bodies do. Hence the hasty compilation of this truncated, greatest-hits version of the biography.

I can't help feeling that Martin was wise to take this approach. A striking example of an author who didn't truncate the literary expression of his Herculean labours is Norman Sherry, the biographer of Graham Greene. The first volume of his mighty work (published while Greene was still alive) is informative enough, but after that, in the next two volumes, he goes thoroughly off the rails. Footnotes begin to breed on the borders of the text, replete with strange fancies which appear to have less to do with Greene than with Sherry's own advancing mental illness (I swear there's one that speculates what kind of a news report Greene would have written if he'd present at Christ's crucifixion - hard-hitting, to be sure, but basically true to the facts. It's not that I dispute that Greene might well have written a cogent eye-witness account of Calvary - just what on earth this has to do with anything in particular? Why stop there? What might he have written about the creation of the universe if he'd been present at that? Or about the miracle of the loaves and fishes? Who the hell knows or cares?)

Gabo (or "Gabito", if you want to sound even more unbuttoned) is a writer whose path has intersected with Greene's on many occasions. I'm not sure that it's important to know exactly when or where each of their meetings took place. Martin clearly does know, but he mercifully spares us the details. What's more important is that both are deeply controversial, rather dodgy characters, with an equivocal relationship to tyrants - or men and women of power - throughout the world (Fidel Castro for Gabo, Omar Trujillo for Greene).

Martin's, then, is a fascinating and immediately indispensable account of the Nobel-prize-winning García Márquez's career (indispensable because it fills in the holes in his very partial and self-serving half-autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale - then goes on to tell the rest of the story). The complete version will no doubt see the light of day sometime -- probably after Gabo's death - but it doesn't really matter. This is the book, and it must have been profoundly satisfying to see it finally appear after twenty years.

[Gerald Martin: Journeys Through the Labyrinth (1989)]

Which brings me to the real subject of this post. I guess the real reason I couldn't walk past Gerald Martin's book when I saw it sitting on the shelves there in Borders was because of my vivid memories of its predecessor, Journeys through the Labyrinth. It came out when I was in the last stages of my Doctoral thesis, on portrayals of South America in English literature, and offered me, then, a number of vital clues to my own self-created labyrinth.

Basically the problem was that my series of readings of novels such as Aphra Behn's Oroonoko (1688), Joseph Conrad's Nostromo (1904), & W. H. Hudson's Green Mansions (1904); natural histories by Humboldt, Darwin, Bates & Wallace; poems & translations by Kathy Acker, Elizabeth Bishop & Angela Carter - all of which went to make up the composite picture of "South America" in the European imagination - had to be somehow reconciled with the works of Latin-American visionaries such as Miguel Angel Asturias, Alejo Carpentier, Mario Vargas Llosa, and García Márquez himself.

I didn't want to retreat onto the then-prevalent notion that all "outsider" views of indigenous cultures were automatically spurious. It didn't seem to be a problem for the locals themselves. García Márquez actually remarked in a book of conversations with his old friend Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza that "Graham Greene taught me to write about the tropics." The Post-colonial, postmodernist version of Latin America offered by the Magic realists seemed to be acting, rather, as a self-reflecting mirror, echoing back the technical innovations of Joyce and Faulkner to a continent and culture which could now proceed to make new sense of them.

Joseph Conrad spent a total of roughly eighteen hours on the soil of South America, which doesn't seem to have prevented him from composing a towering masterpiece, Nostromo, about the complex politics of Colombia, Venezuela and the Panama canal region (albeit renamed Costaguana and Sulaco for the purposes of the narrative). Was his work automatically inferior to (say) García Márquez's own political Dictator-novel Autumn of the Patriarch, also set in a composite country of the imagination? Was it necessary to be from a place, or know it exhaustively, in order to evoke it imaginatively?

What is South America, anyway? Geographically it makes sense to draw a line across the isthmus of Panama, parcelling it off physically from that other huge landmass called North America. Culturally, however, it makes much more sense to draw that line at the Rio Grande, dividing the Norte-Americano United States and Canada from the complex Hispanic-language-speaking melting-pot referred to as "Latin America" - incorporating (as it does) those vast identities known as Mexico, Central America, Brazil, Argentina, and even a considerable portion of the West Indies and the Caribbean.

Yet "South America" was the name which constantly came up - in European literature, at any rate. That composite region of Amazonian Indians, Lost Andean cities, condors, gauchos and conquistadors definitely had its own place in the Western imagination beside the equally equivocal "Darkest Africa," the "Wild West," the "South Seas" or the "Frozen North."

I'm not sure that I ever solved the logistic problems involved in studying so vast and amorphous a subject: no less than a roadmap of a central region of our cultural unconscious. I had a jolly good try, though, and I owe a definite vote of thanks to Gerald Martin's illuminating book for extricating me at the last minute from even worse abysses of uncertainty.

Twnety years, though! I did wonder what he was doing - why the only book of his I'd seen since was an elegant annotated translation of Asturias's classic proto-Magic-Realist novel Men of Maize. It's a long time to be stuck on just one project.

And then came the thought that it's been twenty years (give or take a few) since I last took a good look at my thesis! The subject started to sicken me long before I'd finished it (is it the same with all Doctoral students? Some of them seem to go on to Post-Docs, wallowing round in the same citations and authorities for another couple of years, attempting - sometimes successfully - to turn their vast beached whales into readable books). For myself, though, I felt my mental health required that I change tack completely, start to fixate unhealthily on something else.

That something turned into a five-year flirtation with the 1001 Nights (I call it a flirtation rather than an affair because it had such meager results: a few published essays and conference papers. You can check them all out online here if you're curious why I found the book so fascinating. If it is a book, that is - more, perhaps, like the iceberg-tip of a whole submerged literature ...)

That, in turn, led to my own series of labyrinthine, Nights-inspired narratives: the trilogy of novels that began with Giordano Bruno in 2000 and ended with E M O last year - there's a good ten years of work in there, too.

But twenty years! The thing is, Gerald Martin's hero-quest has inspired me to go back to my own roots and take another look at that great carcass of a PhD thesis. I approached some publishers at the time, but nobody was biting, and of course a lot has happened since in that field, and (indeed) in the whole area of literary criticism and theory. Some of it still seems of interest to me, though - an honest expression of perplexity at the magnitude of an impossible task, but one which perhaps carved a few tracks through the jungle of Western visions / versions / distortions of the Other.

Anyway, whether it interests anyone else or not, I've decided to transfer the whole thing to a website here. It's unfinished as yet. One of the things about that two-decade gap is that it makes me realise how much we've all had to live on the cusp of technology throughout those years. I did write the thesis on a computer - whereas my Masters thesis (1985) was tapped out laboriously on a manual typewriter - but it was the Edinburgh university mainframe, and there was no obvious way to save the data on any kind of floppy disc or other encoding device at the time.

My "thesis", then, consists of three-hundred odd loose-leaf sheets of paper which I'm gradually scanning and collating into an electronic file, and thence putting up online. I'm resisting the temptation to rewrite it too much, but I am replacing footnote references with inline citations,and making various other hopefully labour-saving alterations. The bibliography, appendices and introduction are all up, though, and I imagine by the end of the year (at the latest) that the rest will have followed them into cyberspace.

I conclude this post for the moment, then, with two pictures. One comes from the 1968 film-adaptation of Edmundo Desnoes' classic novel about growing up poor in Cuba, Memories of Underdevelopment - albeit linked to an extremely artful book and film, I guess this image might be said to stand in for the reality of Latin American poverty and political turmoil.

The other, Antonio Ruíz's "El sueño de la Malinche" [Malinche's dream] has fascinated me since the first moment I saw it (on the dustjacket of Gerald Martin's Journeys through the Labryrinth, actually). Malinche (or Dona Marina), as you no doubt know, was the Indian woman who acted as an interpreter to the conquistador Cortes, thus greatly faciliating his otherwise virtually-inexplicable conquest of the Aztec Empire. Interpreter and mistress - she bore him a child, also, who has been described as "the first Mexican" - the first human being to suffer that particular and peculiar imbalance between Old World and New World, Spanish and Indian, Coloniser and Colonised, which has since afflicted so much of the globe we all live on.

Malinche's dream of spires and churches might be seen, then, as more of a nightmare - but was the colossal, merciless violence of the Spanish conquistadors really worse than the monotonous diet of human sacrifice and warfare which the Aztecs imposed on their somewhat more peaceful neighbours? Who knows? Who can possibly say? Weighing up oppressors and miseries against each other can be a rather fraught procedure.

One thing is certain. Ruiz's painting (for me, at any rate) perfectly portrays this point of balance, the single woman on whom the fate of Empires and whole cultures rests - a Indian Madonna with the first Latin-American growing in her womb. It reminds me that I'll never regret having spent five years of my life looking for some answers to the questions posed by such images of colonial (and post-colonial) identity.

To a New Zealander they have a certain everyday relevance which is perhaps a little difficult to convey to Europeans. Finally, though, Conrad, Hudson, Darwin, Bishop and the others still seem to me have vital contributions to make to our understanding of this conundrum of the divided self - the need to feel remorse for a rapacious, violent past, and yet the equally strong necessity not to be paralysed by such a crippling mountain of guilt.

In each case, it seemed to me then and now, they took a worthy place beside the magicians of the Latin American literary "boom" - Jose Donoso, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, and of course Gabito - by dint of the sheer "intensity of attention" (the phrase is W. H. Auden's) each of them paid to this adopted country of their imagination: call it "South America" or what you will. Intensity of attention ...

"or, less pompously, love."

[Antonio Ruíz: El sueño de la Malinche (1939)]


Giovanni said...

I've been wanting to do that for a bit - migrate my thesis onto a proper site, and it'd have to be blogger on account of my inability to work with anything else. Currently it's a PDF and in that format it's proving popular, especially with students, so perhaps you could consider offering that as well, it should be relatively straightforward once you have the inline notes sorted out.

I imagine the process of textual migration in itself must be quite instructive. What was your MA on? Would you consider doing the same with that?

Jack Ross said...

Yeah - once I have it up electronically, there's all sorts of things I can do with it - definitely a pdf version, too. But it's just such a job scanning it in and then making sense of all the accents and footnotes!

It does make one reread it, though, as you say. I do have hopes of doing the same thing with my Masters thesis at some point. However, since it was a critical study of the novels of John Masefield, I imagine that it will be of only coterie interest ...

Fatal Paradox said...

Haven't read the García Márquez biography yet, but agree that Martin's "Journeys Through the Labyrinth" is excellent.

I discovered it back in 2007 as a second year Spanish student at Otago, and it inspired me to want to read not just the orthodox canon of Latin American "boom" writers but also earlier works like Conrad's Nostromo and the great Peruvian "novela de la tierra" - Ciro Alegría's 1941 masterwork "Broad and Alien is the World".

The thesis sounds fascinating, btw!

Giovanni said...

However, since it was a critical study of the novels of John Masefield, I imagine that it will be of only coterie interest ...

Coterie groups of interest on the Internet are still pretty large. And in fact I can report that many people find my thesis by searching some of the most obscure names in the bibliography - if only because Plato, Philip Dick etc. are covered elsewhere by far more distinguished luminaries of course. Jeff Noon? Not so much.

Anonymous said...

Not signing in because this isn't intended as a blog comment, but I just wanted to suggest that it's a little problematic to label those descended from conquistadores as "indigenous" to Sth America, especially given that there are indigenous peoples there already.

Richard Taylor said...

Jack, one point - I found errors in my book (they weren't tragic but annoying) - as I scanned old poems - "typed" actually - onto my old Amiga - and it (the OCR programme) sometimes let in errors that is an L became a 1 or something(s) such as that.

When I "restarted" writing in 1989 and for sometime I hand wrote everything and used a carbon! But I have never done a thesis or anything quite as long.

I still hand write things first. I never write straight onto a computer.

The "100 Years of Solitude" is an incredible read.

Jack Ross said...

I'm not quite sure what the etiquette is with a "non-comment" comment, but I think you raise an extremely interesting point, Anonymous, so I have taken the liberty of putting up your remarks.

Terms like "indigenous" (& "aborigine / aboriginal", for that matter: ab origine, "from the beginning" (Lat.)) are always somewhat problematic. My Concise Oxford Dictionary informs me that "indigenous" comes (again) from the Latin indi gen: "to be born in". The idea of being native to a place, region, culture, then, is derived etymologically from the idea of "being born in" that place.

In Latin American culture there are various degrees of assimilation, of "being from" the various countries in question. Roughly: los indios, the Indians - descendants of the people who were there when the conquistadors arrived; los mestizos, mixed-bloods - people descended from both groups, generally with a preponderance of blood from - or a stronger identification with - one group or the other; and los criollos, Creoles - "pure-blooded" Europeans born in the Americas ... (yes, not quite the way the term "Creole" is generally understood in English).

The conquest was 500 years ago. Talking about "indigenous" Latin-Americans, then contrasting them with the perception of their culture in Europe, is therefore not so paradoxical as it sounds. It's the colonial / postcolonial dilemma in a nutshell, in fact - hence (as I explain above) the significance of Malinche and her similarly-dark-skinned avatar the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Who came from where "originally"? If there were no human beings in a place when your ancestors first arrived there, does that make you more "native" than a group which has been in a place far longer, but arrived there through a process of conquest or emigration? Purist answers to such questions tend to be a bit on the fatuous and arbitrary side, I'm afraid. The reality of historical and cultural interaction is elsewhere.

Jack Ross said...

btw, I hope the above doesn't sound defensive and/or dismissive. It's a good point and well-taken ...

I've also been enjoying your own blog, Fatal Paradox ... Nice to re-enter the thrilling world of Latin-American lit after all these years ... Have you read any Jose Donoso? I think Casa de campo is a most interesting and effective work ...

Fatal Paradox said...

The only Chilean authors I have read much of are poets (Huidobro, Neruda, de Rokha) - not novelists, so Donoso is as-yet unfamiliar to me.

When I finish my dissertation I have a long list of authors that I would like to read!