April 18, 2017
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In his early journalistic writings, the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez showed he had an eye for factual details, in which he found the absurdity and 'magic' that would in time be the stuff and style of his fiction.
BOGOTÁ — In short stories written in the 1940s and early 50s and later compiled in Eyes of a Blue Dog, the late Gabriel García Márquez, Colombia's Nobel Prize-winning novelist, shows he is as yet a young writer, with a style and subjects that can be atypical.
Stylistically, García Márquez came into his own in the celebrated One Hundred Years of Solitude. Until then both his style and substance took an erratic course: touching the brevity of film scripts in Nobody Writes to the Colonel, technical experimentation in Leaf Storm, the anecdotal short novel in In Evil Hour or exploring politics in Big Mama's Funeral. Throughout, the skills he displayed were rather of a precocious juggler.
Yet one craft, journalism, allowed his style not just to evolve more firmly but, I suspect, became the nurturing source of the hyperbolic, colossal tone of such novels as One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Autumn of the Patriarch and Love in the Time of Cholera.
In the 1950s, García Márquez cultivated two genres: the light commentary on news (whether on the Argentinian government, a film or on coffins), and the chronicle. The first he wrote over several years in El Universal and El Heraldo (two dailies published on Colombia's Caribbean coast), and the second, for little over a year, in this paper, El Espectador.
His light commentaries, compiled and studied by Jacques Gilard in Textos costeños 1948-1952, aspire to intelligent and witty narration, and are at times as grandiose as a passage in one of his great works.
In La primera caída (First Fall), an article on the elderly playwright George Bernard Shaw published in September 1950, he wrote that "at the age when most men devote themselves to the tedious task of turning to dust, Mr George Bernard Shaw goes for a stroll in his garden in Ayot St. Lawrence, still with enough vitality to slip and break his hip." When Bernard Shaw died on the Day of the Dead, as a result of that fall, García Márquez noted, "Mr George Bernard Shaw — timely as ever! — chose to die on November 2, which is undoubtedly the most appropriate day for that irksome task."
His light commentaries are at times as grandiose as a passage in one of his great works.
The irony in his observations ("enough vitality to slip" or the "irksome task" of dying), is not unlike this bovine passage from The Autumn of the Patriarch: "[...] one afternoon in January, we had seen a cow contemplate the twilight from the presidential balcony. Imagine that, a cow on the balcony of the fatherland [...], there were conjectures on how a cow could possibly have attained that balcony when everybody knows cows cannot climb stairs, particularly a stone staircase and much less with carpeted steps [...]."
The same humor, tempered at times by sarcasm, is evident in El Beso: una acción química (The Kiss: a Chemical Action). After relating how a scientist called Mrs Wilkinson had suggested the kiss was the method early humans discovered to ingest salt in hot months, García Márquez writes, "Henceforth there will be no need to invite anyone to come and observe the moon with us. All we need to do is to sit on a park bench and romantically eat a pound of salt."
With the same dryness used to describe (in One Hundred Years of Solitude) a man falling from a rooftop for gazing at the beautiful Remedios, García Márquez writes in Posibilidades de la antropofagia (The Possibilities of Cannibalism) that "it would not be strange if one of these days, when all supplies have run out, the sale of sacrificial victims were regularized."
In A Luis Carlos López con veinte años de muerte (To Luis Carlos López, 20 Years Dead), he writes that an indispensable condition of having known the poet López in person was "to be at least 30 years of age." The choice of an ordinary yet dissonant detail (30, not 32 years of age), would return years later at the opening of One Hundred Years of Solitude, in the form of ice. It is an anodyne element of no particular merit turned into an object of discovery, and a symbol of creation and time, which are the novel's spiraling themes.
As a chronicler of El Espectador, he widened this register's potential by placing it on an eclectic scaffolding of fantasy and realism. It is no coincidence that one of his first set of chronicles (initially destined for the Lámpara review), was devoted to La Sierpe, "a legendary town on Colombia's Atlantic coast."
La Marquesita de la Sierpe begins with the story of a man at the doctor's office, waiting to be rid of the monkey he bore in his belly: he had been impregnated by witchcraft, used so often as a punishment around La Sierpe. His chronicles, which report on a fantastic geography and its bestiary, cite winged and dead bulls that convey conformity with the afterlife by gently tapping a coffin. García Márquez's love of hyperbole and wit find a wider, more fruitful ground in the world of cultural traditions and of mythical, public and inherited fantasies, than in the moving terrain of current affairs.
In this fragment of the series El Chocó que Colombia desconoce (Chocó, Unknown to Colombia), relating a plane trip to Quibdó in 1954, hyperbole combined with a verifiable time and place recalls the utterly realistic irreality of Macondo: "When that plane crosses a storm — which probably happens on every trip as it rains 360 days a year in Chocó — the water filters through the fuselage drains, creating a sense of drowning at an altitude of 800 feet." The reporter's precision with the number of days or altitude recurs in the big novels (Fernanda del Carpio purchasing 72 chamber pots in One Hundred Years, herds of premature babies, always born two months early, in The Autumn of the Patriarch, or the president's 73 years of age in Bon Voyage, Mr President).
An image of writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez during the 28th Guadalajara's International Book Fair, in Guadalajara city, Mexico
In this series too one finds pithy dialogue meant to give a scene brisk solidity.
On a bus with passengers from Chocó, Gárcia Márquez describes a man shouting at reporters there: "'These are the most honest folk you could hope to find. I've got 30,000 pesos of declared assets with me and nobody has thought of stealing them.' It was true. Asked who he was, the little man said, cordially and formally, 'I'm the postal service'."
Aspiring writers tend to seek the approval of the literary world.
Doctor Juvenal Urbino speaks in similar terms, in Love in the Time of Cholera, on finding "among the bitter almonds" the body of Jeremiah de Saint-Amour: "Fool, the worst was over."
One is also reminded of the first José Arcadio Buendía talking to his wife Úrsula who refuses to leave Macondo as she had given birth to a child there: "It's not your home if you have nobody buried there." Such comments do not so much provide character details or advance the story as give situations a strong yet colorful conclusion.
It is interesting that the style that allowed García Márquez to process his life experiences in depth should be more closely identified with his press work than his early attempts at fiction writing. In spite of the craftsmanship involved in such books as In Evil Hour and Leaf Storm, it seems García Márquez found in the innate fantasy of day-to-day events a base whence he could rise and loosen himself.
Aspiring writers tend to seek the approval of the literary world through the imitation of models and artificial depiction of emotions. I would propose that in writing news chronicles and shortish commentaries, García Márquez neither pretended nor imitated, nor sought the approval of the literary world. The freedom of writing mundane chronicles was already turning him into the writer he would become. For his chronicles for El Espectador are only 13 years prior to One Hundred Years of Solitude.
The price of cooking oils and fats has gone up dramatically. Indonesia has even banned exports of palm oil. Suddenly, what type of oil and how we use it to fry foods, dress salads and process products has become an ever more important question.
Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.
Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.
Then there is Mariupol, under siege and symbol of Putin’s cruelty. In the largest city on the Azov Sea, with a population of half a million people, Ukrainians make up slightly less than half of the city's population, and Mariupol's second-largest national ethnicity is Russians. As of 2001, when the last census was conducted, 89.5% of the city's population identified Russian as their mother tongue.
Between 2018 and 2019, I spent several months in Mariupol. It is a rugged but beautiful city dotted with Soviet-era architecture, featuring wide avenues and hillside parks, and an extensive industrial zone stretching along the shoreline. There was a vibrant youth culture and art scene, with students developing projects to turn their city into a regional cultural center with an international photography festival.
There were also many offices of international NGOs and human rights organizations, a consequence of the fact that Mariupol was the last major city before entering the occupied zone of Donbas. Many natives of the contested regions of Luhansk and Donetsk had moved there, taking jobs in restaurants and hospitals. I had fond memories of the welcoming from locals who were quicker to smile than in some other parts of Ukraine. All of this is gone.
Putin is bombing the very people he has claimed to want to rescue.
According to the latest data from the local authorities, 80% of the port city has been destroyed by Russian bombs, artillery fire and missile attacks, with particularly egregious targeting of civilians, including a maternity hospital, a theater where more than 1,000 people had taken shelter and a school where some 400 others were hiding.
The official civilian death toll of Mariupol is estimated at more than 3,000. There are no language or ethnic-based statistics of the victims, but it’s likely the majority were Russian speakers.
So let’s be clear, Putin is bombing the very people he has claimed to want to rescue.
Putin’s Public Enemy No. 1, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, is a mother-tongue Russian speaker who’d made a successful acting and comedy career in Russian-language broadcasting, having extensively toured Russian cities for years.
Rescuers carry a person injured during a shelling by Russian troops of Kharkiv, northeastern Ukraine.
Yes, the official language of Ukraine is Ukrainian, and a 2019 law aimed to ensure that it is used in public discourse, but no one has ever sought to abolish the Russian language in everyday life. In none of the cities that are now being bombed by the Russian army to supposedly liberate them has the Russian language been suppressed or have the Russian-speaking population been discriminated against.
Sociologist Mikhail Mishchenko explains that studies have found that the vast majority of Ukrainians don’t consider language a political issue. For reasons of history, culture and the similarities of the two languages, Ukraine is effectively a bilingual nation.
"The overwhelming majority of the population speaks both languages, Russian and Ukrainian,” Mishchenko explains. “Those who say they understand Russian poorly and have difficulty communicating in it are just over 4% percent. Approximately the same number of people say the same about Ukrainian.”
In general, there is no problem of communication and understanding. Often there will be conversations where one person speaks Ukrainian, and the other responds in Russian. Geographically, the Russian language is more dominant in the eastern and central parts of Ukraine, and Ukrainian in the west.
Like most central Ukrainians I am perfectly bilingual: for me, Ukrainian and Russian are both native languages that I have used since childhood in Kyiv. My generation grew up on Russian rock, post-Soviet cinema, and translations of foreign literature into Russian. I communicate in Russian with my sister, and with my mother and daughter in Ukrainian. I write professionally in three languages: Ukrainian, Russian and English, and can also speak Polish, French, and a bit Japanese. My mother taught me that the more languages I know the more human I am.
At the same time, I am not Russian — nor British or Polish. I am Ukrainian. Ours is a nation with a long history and culture of its own, which has always included a multi-ethnic population: Russians, Belarusians, Moldovans, Crimean Tatars, Bulgarians, Romanians, Hungarians, Poles, Jews, Greeks. We all, they all, have found our place on Ukrainian soil. We speak different languages, pray in different churches, we have different traditions, clothes, and cuisine.
My mother taught me that the more languages I know the more human I am.
Like in other countries, these differences have been the source of conflict in our past. But it is who we are and will always be, and real progress has been made over the past three decades to embrace our multitudes. Our Jewish, Russian-speaking president is the most visible proof of that — and is in fact part of what our soldiers are fighting for.
Many in Moscow were convinced that Russian troops would be welcomed in Ukraine as liberating heroes by Russian speakers. Instead, young soldiers are forced to shoot at people who scream in their native language.
Starving people ina street of Kharkiv in 1933, during the famine
Putin has tried to rally the troops by warning that in Ukraine a “genocide” of ethnic Russians is being carried out by a government that must be “de-nazified.”
These are, of course, words with specific definitions that carry the full weight of history. The Ukrainian people know what genocide is not from books. In my hometown of Kyiv, German soldiers massacred Jews en masse. My grandfather survived the Buchenwald concentration camp, liberated by the U.S. army. My great-grandmother, who died at the age of 95, survived the 1932-33 famine when the Red Army carried out the genocide of the Ukrainian middle class, and her sister disappeared in the camps of Siberia, convicted for defying rationing to try to feed her children during the famine.
On Tuesday, came a notable report of one of the latest civilian deaths in the besieged Russian-speaking city of Kharkiv: a 96-year-old had been killed when shelling hit his apartment building. The victim’s name was Boris Romanchenko; he had survived Buchenwald and two other Nazi concentration camps during World War II. As President Zelensky noted: Hitler didn’t manage to kill him, but Putin did.
Genocide has returned to Ukraine, from Kharkiv to Kherson to Mariupol, as Vladimir Putin had warned. But it is his own genocide against the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine.