In Posthegemony I point out that “For all his fame as a novelist of magical realism, and so purportedly of surprise, creativity, and delight, Gabriel García Márquez is as much a writer of habit, tedium, and repetition” (178). This is nowhere more true than in the Colombian writer’s early novella, La hojarasca.
Of course, it is not as though García Márquez were only a writer of “habit, tedium, and repetition.” The very concept of the “hojarasca” or leaf storm that gives this book its title suggests the tumultuous forces of modernization and industrialization that tear through even a town as remote as Macondo (introduced here for the first time) in Colombia’s otherwise sleep Caribbean litoral:
Suddenly, as if a whirlwind had set down roots in the center of the town, the banana company arrived, pursued by the leaf storm. A whirling leaf storm had been stirred up, formed out of the human and material dregs of other towns, the chaff of a civil war that seemed ever more remote and unlikely.
Even here, though, in the story’s opening lines, there are some strange tensions. What does it mean for a whirlwind to “set down roots”? Even the exceptional becomes, somehow, rooted in the everyday–and isn’t this after all the classic formulation of magical realism? Or at least the whirlwind becomes routine until, just as suddenly as it arrived, it leaves.
For the events recounted in La hojarasca take place long after the leaf storm has up and left. And these events are minimal indeed: we are in a boarded-up house where an old man (a doctor who has long since abandoned his practice) has died, has committed suicide by hanging; another old man (a similarly long-retired colonel), with his daughter and her son, has come to the scene to prepare for the ensuing funeral. The dead man’s body is placed in a coffin; there is a minor disagreement with the mayor as to whether the burial can go ahead as planned; finally, it is agreed that it can, and the house door is forced open so the coffin can be carried out to the street. The whole action takes place over the course of exactly half an hour, between two and three o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon.
These small, ritual actions and the long pauses between them (the wait for the mayor to return in the suffocating heat) provoke a series of reflections and recollections on the part of the three members of the funeral party, and it is of these that the narrative consists: the old man and his daughter think back to their history with the dead man; the grandson observes them as they remember and considers what he might be doing otherwise, if it weren’t for this brief interruption to his routine. But even the history that the older two recount takes places almost entirely after the leaf storm has already departed, concerns long periods in which literally nothing happens, and focusses mainly on a couple of brief, dramatic interludes in which, again, stubbornly and unyieldingly, nothing happens.
Indeed, perhaps García Márquez’s genius resides, both here and elsewhere, in his masterly evocation of the intense drama he shows us can be found in anticlimax, in disappointment. In the end, everything takes place as it always would have taken place. García Márquez’s theme is this inexorability of a fate that at almost every point looked as though it could have been avoided, but never is.