Roa Bastosmachine

garcia_marquez_jorge_edwards_Vargas_llosa_donoso_y_mu_oz_suaz

Presented at LASA 2015
San Juan, Puerto Rico, May 2015

“Roa Bastosmachine: Explosiveness and Multitude in the Boom”

This is the third of a trio of essays, at present in varying states of completion, in which I explore the relationship between Latin American literature and posthegemony. Each of the three is dedicated to a distinct aspect of posthegemony, though collectively they are united by an interest in machines and the machinic. Hence with their titles I appropriate the formulation of East German playwright Heiner Müller, whose Hamletmachine is a well-known recasting and reinvention of Shakespeare. The other two essays are “Arguedasmachine” (on affect) and “Borgesmachine” (on habit). Together, these essays are also intended to constitute a re-reading of the Latin American canon, and so to suggest that posthegemony is far from being a marginal aspect of literary production, but rather a central and ineludible feature of the so-called mainstream. For there is, of course, no hegemony and never has been.

Boom! Already the name itself of Latin America’s most famous and influential literary movement indicates unpredictability, disruption, and not a little violence. The pity is that it was so quickly and so easily defused, domesticated, captured. Boom! Already the name itself is transcultural, transculturated, transculturating: an English term to describe a phenomenon with global ramifications, from Buenos Aires to Barcelona; Paris, Mexico City, New York. And yet the movement’s key texts are still read in regionalist or localist terms, as national allegories or tales of underdevelopment. Boom! Already the name itself is onomatopoeic rather than signifying, interjection rather than sign: it does not so much refer to something elsewhere, as instantiate and reproduce an sensation here and now; its impact is intense and affective, a matter of feeling and the body rather than interpretation or consent. And yet our reading of the movement’s authors is endlessly wrapped up in issues of representation and representativity. Boom! Already with the name itself there is nothing natural or organic here, rather an explosion that shatters boundaries and sows disorder with immediate effect, before we even have time to catch our breath. It is a mad machine, or volatile conjunction of machinery, that works always by breaking down, in fits and starts, setting off a chain reaction that multiplies and resonates with an entire multitude. What a mistake to have ever said the Boom, as though it were once and once only. Boom! As Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari put it in another context, “Everywhere it is machines [. . .] machines driving other machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections” (). Everywhere they fire and discharge, detonate and recompose something new from the pieces. Boom! Boom! BOOM!

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Cien años de soledad II

Cien años de soledad

Given the criticisms that have targeted magical realism for its easy descent into cheap exoticism and even kitsch–see for instance Julian Barnes’s complaint about the “package-tour baroque”– it’s perhaps surprising to remember that Cien años de soledad ends in such apocalyptic manner: with a mother bleeding to death, her newborn baby eaten by ants, and a hurricane of Biblical proportions that destroys Macondo and its entire fictional universe, all of which is to be “exiled from the memory of men” (549 [417]). There is little here in the way of consolation or hope. It’s closer to James Ellroy or Cormac McCarthy than to the gentle amiability that we expect of the always-smiling García Márquez. Of course, in some ways the book’s concluding gesture is futile: Macondo is far from wiped out from its readers’ memories. And despite the prediction that “everything written” in the manuscripts that describe and predict this holocaust–and so, by implication, everything that’s written in the novel itself–“was unrepeatable from time immemorial and forever more” (550 [417]), there have been innumerable attempts to copy and adapt the magical realist style, with more and less success, from Salman Rushdie to Laura Esquivel. Indeed, if anything tends to be forgotten about Cien años, perhaps it is its devastating climax and the symbolic self-destruction of everything that has come before. It is the dark side of magical realism, its grotesque horror, that all too quickly fades from the reader’s mind, or perhaps is simply not taken seriously enough.

Meanwhile, this final claim that the novel is somehow an unrepeatable event is both an impossible paradox and something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. For Cien años is indeed a singular book, and its astonishing combination of equally enormous critical and commercial success has seldom if ever been duplicated: not by any other of the novelists of the Boom, or even by García Márquez himself. But it is precisely its uniqueness that has ensured that it has never lacked for imitators. No wonder that Barnes or the writers later associated with the “McOndo” movement should plead for a stop to the proliferating repetitions of something like (but not like enough) One Hundred Years of Solitude, whose nadir was probably The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts, by self-confessed “Márquez parasite” Louis de Bernières. More fundamentally, Cien años is also largely a book about (indeed, obsessed with) repetition, and it goes against the novel’s own logic that it should end with such an absolute prohibition of duplication and reiteration. After all, it is the failure of such a prohibition–the injunction against the Buendía family’s “original sin” of incest–that sets its plot moving and drives it forward, as the narrative is full of every variation of incestuous desire until finally the last of the line, Amaranta Ursula and her nephew Aureliano Babilonia, come together and produce the foretold offspring with the tail of a pig. However much you try to do something different and avoid the mistakes of the past, that past continues to haunt you. Indeed, it is perhaps only because by the end the very atmosphere of Macondo is so full of the ghosts of the motley cast of characters that have wandered through the book’s pages, that in the end García Márquez can only end the thing by shouting “enough!” and bringing on a cataclysmic hurricane that will tear the whole place down.

For another irony is that this novel, whose title tells us it is concerned with solitude, does in fact, and thanks in part to its proliferating repetitions, present us with what can only be called a multitude. Even at the end, when Aureliano is practically the only man left in town, the very objects that surround him invoke the continued presence of other lives that live on through shared habits. He sits in a rocking chair, for instance, that is “the same one in which Rebeca had sat during the early days of the house to give embroidery lessons, and in which Amaranta had played Chinese checkers with Colonel Gerineldo Márquez, and in which Amaranta Ursula had sewn the tiny clothing for the child” (546 [414]). His response to feel oppressed under “the crushing weight of so much past” (546 [414]); this may well be a bad multitude. But the point is that his problem is hardly solitude per se, or at least not in any simple sense. Indeed, more generally this is a book that is characterized by excess and overindulgence more than anything else. Indeed, it would be no less misleading if it had the title Cien años de plenitud.

This is, after all, also a book that clearly has ambition to be a “total novel”–another reason for it ultimately to declare that it can never be done again–and in service of that (itself, excessive) ambition, it overflows. It’s not just one multitude, but many: a multitude of Aurelianos and José Arcadios, of butterflies and beauties, of inventions and apparatuses, of firing squads and wars, of gypsies and of bananas and caramels, of flowers and books, of chamber pots and doubloons, of merchants and mistresses, of (mis)interpretations and mistakes, of solitudes (yes, solitudes, too) and friendships. Everything is singular but nothing is single: another will always come along in due time. If anything, Macondo’s problem (and that of its inhabitants) is that it is never alone, that there is no way of avoiding or preventing the various forces and energies that sweep through it. Even shutting oneself away (as so many characters repeatedly do) is simply embedding oneself in the machine, often enough to invest still further in the formidable cycles of creation, production, and destruction that drive the multitude. The task, then, is less to resist the multitudes than to determine which are bad (pestilential or merely kitsch) and which are good, enhancing life in all its myriad incarnations.

Cien años de soledad I

Cien años de soledad

Life is seldom easy or straightforward in Macondo, the small town at the centre of Gabriel García Márquez’s renowned One Hundred Years of Solitude. The first half of the book alone is full of violence, treachery, and deception; things only get worse in the second half. And the Buendía family who are the town’s lifeblood have a particularly complex set of tales to tell: at times over-run with children (legitimate, adopted, or otherwise), at times riven by strife and haunted by ghosts, and forever fragmented by the ambitions or desires of their menfolk. Throughout, it is the matriarch, Ursula Iguarán, who tries to keep things together and look after the house, but there is only so much that even she can do. The Buendías seldom seem to learn from their mistakes–indeed, they delight in repetition–and so it is with some bitterness and desperation that Ursula exclaims, as she sees her grandson going through the same motions as his grandfather: “I know all of this by heart, [. . .] It’s as if time had turned around and we were back at the beginning” (303 [193]). The irony is that both men’s folly is the dream of progress and development; there’s little that’s more unoriginal and hackneyed than novelty.

But it’s hard to blame the Buendías, even the crassest and least self-reflective among them. For they are often at best only inadvertent agents: their most heartfelt goals seldom come to fruition; Colonel Aureliano Buendía, for instance, leads constants rebellions and revolts, to little obvious effect. And on the other hand, the characters are often no more than vectors for energies that come from elsewhere. Sometimes these are broad, historical forces: so Colonel Aureliano, then, is more a personification of the endless warfare that afflicted Latin America in the nineteenth-century–an incarnation of a restless war machine–than he is the agent of his own destiny. But sometimes these energies are more local and more specific, the expression of non-human actants that surround and permeate Macondo. For famously this is a book that opens with the declaration that “Things have a life of their own, [. . .] It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls” (84 [1-2]). And it is this that is the essence of García Márquez’s magical realism: the acknowledgement that objects, too, have their own lives, their own desires and destinies that can both compete and collude with human plans and expectations.

The scene is set in the opening pages, as the gypsies bring everything from magnets and telescopes to flying carpets and ice to the remote backwater of Macondo. Some of these things are, of course, more “magical” than others, but the point is that they are all treated (more or less) equally, as examples of mechanisms and apparatuses that both expand and frustrate human desire. Caught up in the whirlwind of novelty, Ursula’s husband, José Arcadio, happily installs an alchemist’s laboratory in his own home, and it is this space–that becomes laboratory, workshop, and archive–that is the hub of the book’s fictive universe, however much for long periods it is forgotten, sealed up, and ignored. For the liveliness of things continues whether or not we realize or acknowledge it. And collectively, house, town, and family are no doubt best understood as an assemblage or set of assemblages that variously channel, filter, reproduce, transform, and magnify broader social forces through the intermediation of a complex multitude of smaller parts (buildings, rooms, people, body parts, animals, objects) whose interaction is frustratingly predictable at times and utterly novel at others.

Gabriel García Márquez

Gabriel García Márquez

Anyone who teaches Latin American literature, as I do, has been profoundly affected by Gabriel García Márquez, who has died at 87. For some he may have been their entry into the field. And he certainly is for very many of our students. His short stories and novellas are accessible and (sometimes deceptively) easy to read, so they are often taught at high school or in introductory university classes. More to the point, García Márquez, or what was said about García Márquez, helped shape an image of Latin American literature, and what it meant to study it.

“Magical realism,” the literary style with which he was indelibly associated, seemed to combine exotic sensuality with a vague sense of political commitment. It promised a happy coincidence between aesthetics and politics, such that even the act of reading might make you a better person if not help change the world. No wonder that reading the Colombian Nobel laureate, and especially his classic One Hundred Years of Solitude, was so often experienced as a life-changing event. The spokesperson of the Swedish Academy, at García Márquez’s Nobel Prize ceremony, described his writing as a “spiced and life-giving brew.” This suggestion of vitality crossed with intoxication characterized much of the reception of the Latin American “Boom,” which also included writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes. Moreover, it set the tone for our expectations of the region’s literature as a whole.

But “magical realism” is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is an excellent advertisement: it draws readers in, providing them with rationale and explanation for narratives that might otherwise feel bizarre or even off-putting. On the other hand, it is a reductive and restricting framework that denies the sheer variety of Latin American cultural expressions. It is not really a style characteristic of very many authors. Indeed, it is hardly that characteristic of García Márquez himself, supposedly its prime exponent. I have seen many students search for (and claim to find) magical realism throughout texts such as Chronicle of a Death Foretold or “Nobody Writes to the Colonel,” an exercise that sadly ends up massively missing the point. Victim of the appealing and tremendously successful image of Latin American letters that it had helped to create, García Márquez’s work too often fell prey to its own success.

For these reasons, and perhaps also because of a certain satedness, García Márquez’s work is today sometimes treated as a kind of “gateway drug” for students, rather than as a serious object of scholarship. It is as though we give novices a sniff of a levitating maiden or a child with the tail of a pig, holding out the promise of more of the same, only then to turn around and forcefeed them testimonial literature or avant-garde experimentation, colonial chronicle or postmodern play. No sooner are they hooked on the Boom than we try to wean them off it. Meanwhile, there is less in the way of sustained study and attention to García Márquez than ever. Which is surely a pity.

For there is no doubt that Gabo, as he was (over-)familiarly called, was indeed a great writer, if not always a consistent one. One Hundred Years of Solitude will surely remain the book with which he is most associated, if only for its daring ambition to encapsulate the region’s history in a quasi-Biblical arc from Genesis to the Apocalypse, all via the story of one (admittedly sprawling) family in a small town in an out-of-the-way corner of the Colombian littoral. This is Macondo as allegory for the Americas, a transposition that jumps straight from the local to the continental, and even the universal. But perhaps his true masterpiece is The Autumn of the Patriarch, a sustained investigation of authoritarianism by means of ventriloquy and formal inventiveness. The General in His Labyrinth will also have its supporters, as an examination of the paradoxical powerlessness of power, and of the political quagmires that were written in to the region’s constitutions from the outset.

But it is surely worth returning even to the lighter and more sentimental work–and here I include the wildly successful Love in the Time of Cholera–perhaps to rip it, similarly, from the somewhat sickly embrace in which it is cherished and held. For there is and was a harder underside to García Márquez, belied by the almost kitsch picture that he painted both (too) often in his fiction, and for the camera and the press. Maybe it would be best to regard “magical realism” as a rather cynical joke at the expense of its many fans. Maybe it is only a sense of irreverence, in the face of this most revered of writers, that can allow us truly to read García Márquez as he has seldom been read before.

Finally, let me point out with some pride the ways in which our students can give back and produce public knowledge. I taught texts by García Márquez back in 2008, and again in 2010, in courses that had a Wikipedia component with the projects “Murder, Madness, and Mayhem” and “Magical Realism Reconsidered”. Both times, students were asked to write or edit articles on the online encyclopedia, and both times among those articles was the one on García Márquez. And although this entry never became a “featured article” (one of the 0.01% very best), it was adjudged a “good article” (in the top 0.1%) as frankly they quite transformed it: providing sources and references and fleshing it out into a true public resource. So when, unsurprisingly, on the author’s death the numbers visiting his Wikipedia page rocket–from an average of about 1,500 a day in March, to almost 100,000 on Thursday and then almost 210,000 yesterday–it’s a strange but rather satisfying feeling to realize that all those people are reading my students’ words.

Gabriel García Márquez Wikipedia screenshot

fate

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.

genealogy

Cien años coverGabriel García Márquez‘s Cien años de soledad is a long, sprawling novel that lacks much in the way of a conventional plot. Rather, it is full of events and incidents, digressions and flashbacks or flashforwards, not least the famous flashforward with which the book opens:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. (9)

In fact, in a further complication, this is a double flashforward: both to the story of the discovery of ice, recounted some twenty pages later; and to the story of Aureliano Buendía facing the firing squad, which will not be told for another several hundred pages.

But what does appear even in this opening sentence is one of the threads that connects and gives some sense to what might otherwise appear to be a jumble of narrative excess. For in what we take to be his final moments, by recalling the transmission of knowledge from father to son the colonel also highlights the theme of inheritance, of what is passed down from generation to generation. In short, of genealogy.

family tree
For there’s no surprise that some editions of the novel include a family tree. Cien años de soledad is (among other things) a family saga. One of its central concerns is they ways in which sons and daughters, grandsons and grand-daughters, and even great-grandsons and great-grand-daughters, have, face up to, take responsibility for, or negotiate what they have inherited from their forebears.

Still early on in the novel, for instance, we see how José Arcadio Buendía (Aureliano’s father) destroys or uses up his wife’s inheritance–a trove of colonial gold coins previously buried under the matrimonial bed (11)–in his misguided zeal for alchemical progress.

Equally, José Arcadio and his wife, Úrsula, fear that their very marriage may set trouble in store for their offspring. In that they are cousins, and they have heard that other cousins in the family who married gave birth to a child with a pig’s tail, they fear their children will likewise be monstrous. For months after their wedding, Úrsula refuses to allow the relationship to be consummated, out of fear for what might issue. They only start to reproduce after a neighbour, Prudencio Aguilar, mocks José Arcadio for his failure to bed his own wife. “If you bear iguanas, we’ll raise iguanas,” José Arcadio tells her.

Yet indirectly the future has already been set for the couple’s descendants. Spurred in defence of his honour to kill Prudencio Aguilar, José Arcadio has as a result to take Úrsula off in the founding Exodus that establishes the community of Macondo.

So Macondo is troubled from the start by the question of inheritance, of legitimacy, and the ways in which the sins of the fathers (and mothers) may be visited upon the sons (and daughters).

In other words, the novel is also troubled from the start by the ways in which, whether through incest or adultery or any number of other complications, the family tree soon becomes as unruly a structure as the narrative profusion that it is in part designed to contain and control.

Genealogy, intended to produce order and secure legitimate inheritance, is equally a source of disorder and confusion as Aureliano follows Arcadio but is followed in turn by other Arcadios and other Aurelianos. It becomes increasingly hard to keep up. The family tree is soon lost to the multitudinous forest.

tiredness

“The body is never in the present,” Gilles Deleuze notes, “it contains the before and after, tiredness and waiting. Tiredness and waiting, even despair are the attitudes of the body” (Cinema 2 189).

Gabriel Garcia MarquezGabriel García Márquez’s “No One Writes to the Colonel” is concerned above all with tiredness and waiting–and so also the corresponding attitudes of the body. It provides, therefore, a version of what Deleuze terms the “time-image”:

the series of time. The daily attitude is what puts the before and after into the body, the body as the revealer of the deadline. The attitude of the body relates thought to time as to that outside which is infinitely further than the outside world” (189)

The story opens with the colonel of the novella’s title making his wife a cup of that ubiquitous stimulant, coffee, banishing tiredness with caffeine. The process is described in all its material determinants: the ground beans, the boiling fluid, and a series of containers that themselves leech into the resulting mixture as he “scrape[s] the inside of the can with a knife until the last scrapings of the ground coffee, mixed with bits of rust, fell into the pot” (109).

At the same time, we also get an early insight into the physical maladies that ail both the colonel and his wife. He finds his gut and stomach affected: “the colonel experienced the feeling that fungus and poisonous lilies were taking root in his gut” (109). She “had suffered an asthma attack” the previous night and “sip[s] her coffee in the pauses of her gravelly breathing. She was scarcely more than a bit of white on an arched, rigid spine” (109, 110).

The pair’s deteriorating corporeal condition is a direct result of their long wait for the colonel’s overdue pension. “For nearly sixty years–since the end of the last civil war–the colonel had done nothing else but wait” (109). And in the novella’s sixty or so pages that follow, there is not much in the way of action except for the small routines that occupy the couple in their quiet, desperate poverty.

In the first few of these pages, the colonel makes coffee, winds the pendulum clock (one of their few remaining possessions, a constant reminder of time’s passage), sees to the rooster they are keeping for a forthcoming cockfight, seeks out his suit, shaves, dresses… “He did each thing as if it were a transcendent act” (112). But of course these habits are far from transcendent; they are the endlessly iterated reflexes of a life spent waiting for transcendence, for a response from that department of state bureaucracy charged with allocating money to war veterans.

For of all the colonel’s routines, the most symptomatic is his weekly trip down to greet the mail launch, follow the postman to the post office, and watch him sort the mail. “And, as on every Friday, he returned home without the longed-for letter” (127).

Colonel waitingStill from the film El coronel no tiene quien le escriba
These are, then, bodies that have yet to be scripted into the national narrative. The colonel frequently and somewhat obsessively casts his mind back to his role in the revolution–in which ironically he himself was a type of mailman, whose own arduous journey delivering funds for the war is somewhat belated, arriving only “half an hour before the treaty was signed” (131). But he receives a receipt for his delivery, a proof of his service, and can’t believe that it can now have been mislaid in the national archives. “‘No official could fail to notice documents like those,’ the colonel said” (131).

But indeed, despite the myriad documents and missives that circulate through the story–newspapers, pamphlets, an air-mail letter for the local doctor–the story emphasizes the lives and experiences that never achieve representation. All this writing is characterized by its absences, its lacks. The national papers are subject to censorship, demanding but also frustrating suspicious interpretation: “‘What’s in the news?’ the colonel asked. [. . .] ‘No one knows,’ [the doctor] said. ‘It’s hard to read between the lines which the censor lets them print'” (119). While there’s little hope that any outsiders will interest themselves in local happenings: “‘To the Europeans, South America is a man with a mustache, a guitar, and a gun,’ the doctor said, laughing over his newspaper. ‘They don’t understand the problems'” (127).

And though there are also clandestine missives and messages that attempt to make up for this representational lack, these endlessly say “the same as always,” and the colonel doesn’t even bother reading them (137).

Waiting, waiting, the colonel and his wife are subject to a “slow death” (165). But almost to the end, they maintain their patience, however much it is tried in their various squabbles as they figure out strategies to keep their bodies at least semi-nourished. Should they sell or keep the clock, and above all the rooster whose fight might lead to a big pay-out? “But suppose he loses,” objects the wife (165).

In the end, the couple are reduced to something like what Giorgio Agamben terms “bare life”. What are the two then to eat? And yet it is, strangely, this condition, in its loss of hope for transcendence and realization of pure, immanent materiality, that is portrayed as a moment of almost ecstatic ascesis. After all his hesitations, his anxiety, after all the ways in which he is ignored or taken advantage of by the state and local notables alike, somehow the waiting is over:

It had taken the colonel seventy-five years–the seventy-five years of his life, minute by minute–to reach this moment. He felt pure, explicit, invincible at the moment that he replied:

“Shit.” (166)

(In the meantime, it would seem that García Márquez himself is now tired of writing.)