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The Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz and it’s possible correlation with Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude

 

An essay by Beachmount

Solitude is sometimes thought of as “Longing for a place”, but different connotations can readily be attached to this.  It represents something external, a place different than the normal reality that at any given moment projects its  realism onto the sensory receptors of the human psyche.

Few people ever come in touch with the world of complete solitude.  It is a place where reality is merged with fantasy, where external visions are dimmed and fused with subconscious desires and dreams.  It is a shaman’s world, a world that touches the inner sanctum of the human experience, the universe in which escape from reality means surrendering to another world, where the surreal coexists with the real and blends into spectrums of colourful images acting as protective shields against rejected reality.

The most poignant and germane statement that Octavio Paz made in his didactic literary expose: “The Labyrinth of Solitude[1] that directly relate to Márquez’s 100 Years of Solitude is perhaps the following: “ But sometimes they (society) deny the aspirations of important minorities and too often they even deny man’s profoundest instincts.  When this last occurs, society lives through a period of crisis: it either explodes or stagnates.  Its components cease to be human beings and are converted into mere soulless instruments” (GGM 201)

This is clearly what took place during the 1928 strike by banana workers employed by the American  “United Fruit Company”, who’s greedy, exploitative modus operandi[2] denied even the most basic hopes and desires of the working class, whose presence and efforts made possible the very existence of the company.  It is lucidly clear that Marquez used this incidence as one of several underlying images in 100 Years of Solitude.

 Octavio Paz also refers to “The Orphic cult” one of many which emerged after the destruction of the Greek Achaean civilization.  They were:” uprooted, transplanted beings, who dreamed of fashioning an organization from which they could not be separated”.  It is very tempting to compare Jose Arcadio Buendía and his follower’s migration across the mountains[3] to this kind of “Orphic cult”, having a desire to go back to the beginning of time- to start over again and yet, they could not completely escape the past.  They created a kind of solitude, an escape from reality into a surrealistic world in which a two-way mirror reflected both the future and the past.  Yesterday was relived again and again, yet it wasn’t the past, it was equally much the future.  It was a revolving door kept active by repetitious use of the names of the founding fathers, when christening the newborn of Maconda, and the return of the dead as apparitions.  It was reflections of the past that ensured continuity. Yet, progress into the unknown, the future, resting on the nostalgic laurels of the past, came creeping into the lives of everyone.

In Márquez’s imagery, a hundred years of solitude passed, before the anguish of humanity’s fractured society broke out of its prison.  It was a society ruled by the duplicity of standards our social order had imposed upon itself.   It temporarily broke out of its detention of solitude, only to find itself trapped in another that in its essence was a disguised manifestation of the previous.

Have we entered a new world where solitude imposes different meanings or project images upon our psyche unlike those of the past?  Is it possible to attain solitude and communion with our inner utopian realm of surreal euphoria in a world that has become electronically digitized in practically all aspects?  One must speculate, if not indeed seriously contemplate the possibility that regardless of progress, we still live in a state of self-imposed solitude, where true love is a state of mind existing only within phantom-like parameters in a surrealistic world that only the shaman of the past, that once existed within all of us, was able to infiltrate.

When Aureliano Buendía decipher Melquíades’ parchments he recognized that it was a divination of the last century, written before it began, the century of solitude that included his own destiny never to leave the room he was in, a perpetual life in solitude.  The script could never be repeated.  He said that races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.   Is this not Márquez condemning the past as an unsuitable model for the future, a failure that must be rectified by the introduction of something better, something that must come from within, something imaged in the dreams of men who live in solitude?  A new Maconda.

In an era of literary renaissance, Márquez became an impressionist with a profoundly different way of writing a novel.  He created a literary cocktail of sharply focused realism, blended with surrealistic impressionism and abstractions, flavoured with dashes of sexuality and religion.  His masterly ability to intertwine bizarre fantasy or completely absurd magic with realism and abstract nuances of solitude changed the way in which the literary map of the world is interpreted.

 NOTA BENE:

The immediate area around Santa Marta is very familiar territory to the writer. The banana plantations lie between Santa Marta and Aracataca, where Márquez was born on March 6, 1928.   In 1928, Santa Marta was no more than a sleepy little port town with a few houses and warehouses, mostly belonging to The United Fruit Company.  Today, as well as in the early 1980’s, when I lived in Colombia, it is a highly popular tourist attraction, with wonderful beaches and fine resort hotels.

The banana business is still thriving in the area, long after The United Fruit company departed, but conditions for the plantation workers has essentially not improved.  Disputes between plantation owners and union leaders frequently Leeds to murder and pandemonium.  The dream of  “A new and better Maconda” has not materialized.  Greed and indifference to the plight of the poor prevails; only the banana plantation owners are no longer gringos[4].  History repeats itself, for we are human beings genetically disposed to live in tightly knit clans, structured, classified, stratified and outwardly disposed to appear civilized through self-imposed codes of behavior that  often run contrary to our inherited animal instincts.  Distant echoes from our place of origin still impose the primal edict that only the fittest survive. 

 


[1] Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude, trans. Lysander Kemp. N.Y.: Grove Press, 1961.

[2] “We were told to squeeze every penny possible out of the operation.” A statement once told to the writer by Mr. Cavenar Farr, a personal friend, who for 25 years was chief accountant for United Fruit Company in Honduras.

[3] Cordillera Andino, rising sharply just behind the Pacific coastal plains and forming a natural barrier separating the interior of Columbia from the hot, humid pacific coastal area.  A large swampy area separates the mountains from the coast.

[4] The name “Gringo” comes from the words “Green go” a reference to the green uniforms the United States marines wore during the interventionist action against Sandino in Nicaragua in the late 1920’s.  Green go (home) became Gringo.

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Gabriel García Márquez

BALTHAZAR’S MARVELOUS AFTERNOON

An analytical review

By Kenny Beachmount

Márquez’s story about a poor carpenter and his magnificent birdcage has been the object of much critique and the presumed underlying connotations of this fable-like tale have been subjected to such detailed scrutiny as to border on the absurd. When reading stories of this caliber, we are faced with two possible ways of assessing them. The first is of course a simple critique, the end result of which can be categorized into various forms of likes and dislikes, without going into exhaustive analysis of the deeper meaning of the story. The second form of assessment evaluates the story in light of any potential connotations, hidden implications or vague allusions that in some ways lend themselves to interpretation. In the realm of academia it is a tool used to awaken and sharpen the intellectual faculty of students, and while this in itself should not be assigned any disparaging censure, there are individuals who hold the opinion that in some instances, too much emphasis is put upon this form of literary assessment. The old saying: “Let sleeping dogs lie” may be applied to many great stories. If it is pleasing to the inner bliss of the reader, leave it at that; don’t try to analyze or interpret it for hidden implications.

Balthazar’s Marvelous Afternoon is one of those beguiling stories which may force a reader into a realm of deeper contemplation that often leads to different conclusions by different readers. Thus, an English speaking person reading the story translated from Spanish to English, may well arrive at different theories as to the deeper meaning of the story than a native Latin American, reading the same in Spanish, and whose knowledge and understanding of the environment outlined in the story, is superior. Assuming the author has written the story with built-in deeper meanings, the following is an example of a potential interpretation of some of the possible underlying connotations.

One of the first questions we may ask is why the main character in the story is called ‘Balthazar’, the name of one of the three biblical wise men. Is there some hidden reason for this? Highly unlikely. The name is common in many Latin countries, but the author may indeed have chosen this name for the sake of getting the reader to consider some possible connotation. The same can be said about Ursula’s derogatory comment to her unshaven common-law husband, calling him a “Capuchin”, which of course is her way of likening him to a hairy faced South American monkey.

There are no distinctly coherent patterns in the story except for the slightly disguised references to Balthazar’s social standing in the town. As with any small town, the society is distinctly stratified according to position, wealth and education. Balthazar is a poor carpenter whose social standing is on the lower rung of the steps leading to privilege and recognition. His only claim to fame is his life-long ability to make bird cages and his two-week long effort to make a cage of outstanding beauty and quality was the chisel he used to momentarily break the social barrier that separated him from the wealthy. He had made an object that was a piece of fine art, and highly desirable. By not selling it to the town’s medical doctor, whose wife desired it, he shows that he had other intensions with his creation. Instead, he went to Chepe Montiel, one of the wealthy people in the town, reputed to be somewhat tight with his money, and in doing so he enters the realm of the Holy Grail, where he otherwise would never be invited. He may have predicted he would fail to sell the cage to Chepe on the pretense that his son Pepe had contracted for it, but it enabled him to present it as a gift to Pepe. This would clearly insult Chepe, who well could afford to buy it. Was this Balthazar’s way of showing disdain for the rich people? Did Chepe perceive he was being called a cheapskate?

His little devious scheme to show the town folks that he could sell his cage to a person who was known to be somewhat of a tightwad nearly failed, was it not for Pepe’s temper tantrum. Pepe was allowed to keep the cage, but Balthazar didn’t get any money. His subsequent celebration in a bar became his “marvelous afternoon” during which he received a great deal of recognition for “selling” the cage. Balthazar ends up in a whore house, drunk and deliriously happy, perhaps for the first time in his mundane life. He departed, leaving his watch behind to secure payment for the bill on the following day, only to pass out in the street and though quite aware of being robbed of his shoes, he chooses not to interrupt his happy dream.

No self-respecting town in most Latin countries will be without one or several whore houses. They occupy quite a different social status than that perceived by someone not familiar with daily life in this part of the world. They are places to go and drink and although the girls are there for a price, they will often just entertain a patron at the table or not bother him at all if he just came to have a few drinks.. It would not be anything out of the ordinary for a local resident to end up in such a place, except in Balthazar’s case, it was the first time he did so.

The story clearly shows that art has a powerful authority in society, but ownership of fine art is often the prerogative of the wealthy. Art is an envoy that carries many messages. The purpose of it is to convey meaning and it does so in numerous ways. It glorifies or chastises, it immortalizes or angers, it hails or rejects, it evokes sadness or ecstasy, it reflects the worst or best of humanity. The quintessence of an artist’s life is recognition of his ability and works of art. Had Balthazar merely given his cage, which he incidentally did not consider a work of art, to some ordinary person, he would not have received any recognition beyond mere gratitude and his life would have continued its monotonous doldrums. By his manipulative actions, he managed to gain a moment of glory in his life, albeit with negative financial rewards.

The fact that some ladies, walking to church for the early mass, encounters Balthazar passed out in the street and walk past him, thinking he was dead, speaks volumes to this writer and awakens memories of similar experiences in Central America.

The above interpretation of the story may be completely individual or quite in consensus with other interpreting readers, but there are some aspects of the author’s intention with the story that perhaps warrant further enquiry. Did he write it in a manner meant to provoke readers to analyze the significance of what he wrote? Did he deliberately create a story that would be a godsend for critical literary analyst? Did he write it in such a manner that it would provoke argumentative and diverse interpretations? Did the author himself interpret an event, either imaginary or real? If so, are we not like Ion, when Socrates[1] said to him : “So you are interpreters of interpreters”. Readers may analyze it to a point of absurdity, finding preposterous meanings in even the simplest words and hailing the authors story as intriguing, brilliant, a masterpiece of prose, while the author’s objective in reality was far simpler. Is it possible that Márquez’s intent was no more than describing the events of a day in the life of Balthazar, without any deeper meaning than that perceived through mere casual reading? The real aim and meaning of the story is known only to the author. We are merely interpreters of the interpreter.

Kenny Beachmount

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[1] Quoted from Great Dialogues of Plato, (unknown edition), page 19.

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