A year or so after leaving Santa Fe, a place of unique beauty and a certain theatrical self-consciousness, I picked up a liking for Latin American fiction. Was I feeling nostalgia for all the tradesmen who said a quick bueno! at the end of any transaction or point of understanding? Could be; that was about 25% of my Spanish vocabulary, other than food items, and I missed my Latino neighbors and the people I had known who grew up in the Pueblos in the area. I missed saying bueno!
My intro to LA fiction was The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a Columbian writer who later won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Unlike his other books, which I then devoured, The Autumn of the Patriarch is written with the feel of an extended “rant.”
But I’m getting ahead of my story. My story begins with the energy that one usually finds in the first sentence of a novel. Here is the opening of The Autumn of the Patriarch.
“Over the weekend the vultures got into the presidential palace by pecking through the screens on the balcony windows and the flapping of their wings stirred up the stagnant time inside, and at dawn on Monday the city awoke out of its lethargy of centuries with the warm, soft breeze of a great man dead and rotting grandeur.”
The translation is by a gifted man, Gregory Rabassa, and I imagine that he has been careful to preserve the Marquez sense of pace by leaving out as many commas as Marquez presumably did. The comma is an interesting little rhythmic tool. When we learned grammar, the comma was just a clarifier of meaning. It had a structural purpose. In the sentence-world of The Autumn of the Patriarch, the comma appears to be reserved, as much as possible, to create large rhythm within even larger rhythm.
That’s a heck of an opening sentence, isn’t it? Did you like the idea of “stagnant” time being stirred up by the wings of vultures? Did you see that instead of placing a comma after “windows,” where it would ordinarily go, and a period after “inside,” where it really does belong in conventional writing, Marquez establishes this ranting by using the comma only to join two sentences that a grammar teacher would have separated with a period?
How about “lethargy of centuries?” There is something surreal about a “great man dead” who apparently held the town in his grasp for centuries.
If I quote you the three sentences that follow the opening one, you will see that Marquez is warming us up for a marathon of ultra-long sentences that, literally, take away your breath if you read them aloud. It is a feat and a feast to read this thin book!
“Only then did we dare go in without attacking the crumbling walls of reinforced stone, as the more resolute had wished, and without using oxbows to knock the main door off its hinges, as others had proposed, because all that was needed was for someone to give a push and the great armored doors that had resisted the lombards of William Dampier during the building’s heroic days gave way. It was like entering the atmosphere of another age, because the air was thinner in the rubble pits of the vast lair of power, and the silence was more ancient, and things were hard to see in the decrepit light. All across the first courtyard, where the paving stones had given way to the underground thrust of weeds, we saw the disorder of the post of the guard who had fled, the weapons abandoned in their racks, the big, long rough-planked tables and plates containing the leftovers of the Sunday lunch that had been interrupted by panic, in shadows we saw the annex where government house had been, colored fungi and pale irises among the unresolved briefs whose normal course had been slower than the pace of the driest of lives, in the center of the courtyard we saw the baptismal font where more than five generations had been christened with martial sacraments, in the rear we saw the ancient viceregal stable which had been transformed into a coach house, and among the camellias and butterflies we saw the berlin from stirring days, the wagon from the time of the plague, the coach from the year of the comet, the hearse from progress in order, the sleep-walking limousine of the first century of peace, all in good shape under the dusty cobwebs and all painted with the colors of the flag.”
I went back into Marquez after reading a new book, Dancing to “Almendra,” by the Cuban writer, Mayra Montero. The story is told by a cub reporter at a minor newspaper in Havana, who becomes fascinated with the presence of the Mafia in the casino business during the last months of 1957. There is revolution in the air, and the Batista dictatorship is cracking down, leaving bodies to be found in the street on many mornings. Here is the opening energy of her book:
“On the same day Umberto Anastasia was killed in New York, a hippopotamus escaped from the zoo in Havana. I can explain the connection. No one else, only me, and the individual who looked after the lions. His name was Juan Bulgado, but he preferred to be called Johnny: Johnny Angel or Johnny Lamb, depending on his mood. In addition to feeding the animals, he was in charge of the slaughter pen, that foul-smelling corner where they killed the beasts that were fed to the carnivores. A long chain of blood. That’s what the zoo is. And, very often, life.”
The book begins in this factual, newspaper style, and by the second page has downshifted into the run-on sentences of a youthful narrator for whom the blurt and rant come naturally. After the opening, set in 1957, the story flashes back ten years. The narrator, Joaquín, and his friend, Julián, are thirteen, and they are at the Hotel Nacional, where Julián’s mother, Aurora, works as a dining room decorator. They stumble onto a meeting of Mafiosos who are planning the execution of Bugsy Siegel, the strongman of Las Vegas. This memory of Joaquín’s is erotically-charged by his fascination with his friend’s mother, and it is in this associative memory that we learn what the novel’s title means:
“At the meeting in the Nacional, they concluded that Bugsy was a hindrance, they decided to wait six months, and then they raised their glasses to signal agreement. He was eliminated on June 20, 1947, while he sat on the sofa in his house in Los Angeles, reading the paper and waiting for his dear friend the actor George Raft, with whom he was supposed to have dinner at Jack’s. That’s what they discussed at the “convention” while Aurora, Julián’s mother, was placing orchids in the centers of the tables, removed from everything, radiant because she was in love, she’d just fallen in love again, though her son suspected nothing and neither did I; it was a secret between her and the man who’d won her. I saw them once, some time later, dancing to “Almendra,” the danzón about the almond. It seemed to me that listening to “Almendra” was like watching a pendulum; it was a melody that could hypnotize the people who danced to it, those two people in particular but also the ones who had the experience of seeing them dance. Aurora and that man, like a single seed, satisfied at last and for that reason strong, their passion spent, I understood this despite my youth. There was something solid and distinctive in the way they connected, in the honored way they followed the rhythm. There was no hope for anyone else.”
You could imagine the laid-back voice of Garrison Keillor spinning a Lake Wobegon yarn like that, or you could juice up the pace and imagine, rightly, that this is a tale spun by a man traumatized and still feeling it.
A few pages later, Joaquín sketches in his family life at home during that time in 1957:
“I asked Santiago, the brother I hardly ever saw at home except for Sunday lunch, for help. Sunday was when Mamá cooked chicken and rice, a tradition her children despised and her husband was indifferent to; my father boasted of eating anything, even stones. Santiago led an intense social life. He was only on loan to us, he barely swallowed two mouthfuls because somebody was always waiting to have lunch with him someplace else, he’d tell me about it in a quiet voice. Often he hid the food in a napkin and then threw it in the toilet. During those lunches, Lucy looked like a corpse, pale and teary-eyed, not because of the food, which after all was merely a passing revulsion, but because she felt uncomfortable in her clothes and had to sit there in front of the entire family, especially in front of my mother and father, who separately were sarcastic but together became binomial acid, above all when they attempted to overlook the ambiguity (the great ambiguity that was Lucy) and called her, not without a certain irony, señorita. Won’t the señorita have more rice?”
This breathless style carries the reader, as if the gas pedal is stuck to the floor, straight to the end of the story, a story written in Puerto Rico by a newspaper columnist who was born in Cuba, and who seems caught up in loving nostalgia for pre-Castro Havana, its popular music and night life, the tourists and gamblers from the states, and the dictatorship locked in an embrace with the Mafia; she writes of Havana as Joaquín writes of his pubescent memory of Aurora and her lover dancing to Almendra.