“The more he thought about her, the stronger grew his desire to think. He recited aloud the love sonnets of Garcilaso, torn by the suspicion that every verse contained an enigmatic portent that had something to do with his life. He could not sleep. At dawn he was slumped over the desk, his forehead pressing against the book he had not read.”
At the risk of sounding sacrilegious, I’ve never really been enamoured of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I found One Hundred Years of Solitude to be an enjoyable, one-time read, and Love in the Time of Cholera to be over-wrought (and the last section, positively disconcerting). Last week, I took up Of Love and Other Demons. Perhaps it’s a case of third time lucky: this has turned out to be my favourite Marquez by some distance, and a book I could see myself returning to, many times.
In a seaport in colonial New Granada, Sierva Maria, the Marquis’ twelve-year old daughter, is bitten by a rabid dog. After a string of failed medications, she is at last interred in the local convent of Santa Clara, in readiness for an exorcism. But the fates intervene when Cayetano Delaura, the Bishop’s librarian-priest, sent to cleanse her soul of the devil, ends up falling to that most dangerous of all demons – love. Sierva Maria, a child unloved by both parents of a failed marriage, having been brought up entirely in the slave quarters, is a stranger to colonial society and to human desire. Delaura, having studied all his years so as to spend the rest of his years in a library, is equally so. Their love must overcome not only the cloying dictates of the Catholic Church, but also their own corroded selves.
Like other Marquez works, Of Love and Other Demons is filled with an almost unbearably keen sense of place, mixing touch, scent, vision and hearing into a smorgasbord of the sensory perception. In the vast hall of the convent, the “brilliance of the sea [comes] clamouring in“, and the “uproar of the cliffs” sounds close. The cold, clear winters of Toledo are contrasted with “the hallucinatory twilights, the nightmarish birds, the exquisite putrefactions of the mangrove swamps“. Sierva Maria’s hair “gush[es] like bubbles.” And so on. While reading Marquez, I’ve often felt that this bouquet of perceptions becomes so rich and dense that it is almost cloying – and somewhere, the story I’m reading is overwhelmed by pure description. In Of Love and Other Demons, though, that never happens. Perhaps part of the reason for that is that this is also the most political of the three Marquez novels that I’ve read. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, mythic history is the dominant theme; in Love in the Time of Cholera, it is an exploration of the human heart; but in Of Love and Other Demons, for me, the frontal theme was a biting, bitter critique of the Church. Sierva Maria internment in the convent prison, her treatment by the religious authorities, her forbidden love affair with Delaura, Delaura’s own stigmatisation for it, and the lovers’ eventual fate, are all inextricably bound up with the Church, its strictures, and its will to control the subterranean realm of human yearning.
This theme is omnipresent throughout the novel, lending it a kind of structural coherence that allowed me to enjoy it more than I did One Hundred Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera (many will say, of course, that structural un-coherence is exactly the point of those two novels; fair enough). Delaura, for instance, has been battling the Church before – in the question of forbidden reading. As chief librarian, he has “pontifical permission to explore the abysses of written works gone astray“, but always longs to discover a certain book which he had been found reading in his student-youth by an over-zealous Rector. When the Rector asked him how it ended, he said he didn’t know – yet.
“The Rector, with a relieved smile, locked the volume away.
“You will never know,” he said. “It is a forbidden book.”
Twenty-four years later, in the gloom of the diocesan library, he realized he had read every book that had passed through his hands, authorised or not, except that one.”
In the house of Abrenuncio, a heretical doctor, he finds it again:
“Not saying a word, the physician placed before him a volume that he recognised as soon as he saw it. It was an old Sevillan edition of The Four Books of Amadis of Gaul. Delaura trembled as he examined it, realizing he was on the verge of becoming unredeemable. At last he dared to say, ‘Do you know this is a forbidden book?’
‘Like the best novels of our time.’”
In many ways, it is fitting that the book in question is Amadis of Gaul, that great medieval fantasy epic, an entire alternative universe with its own set of codes, and where Christianity plays a negligible role. In fact, in Don Quixote, Amadis is one of the three books that the destroyers of Don Quixote’s vast library think worth preserving, despite its undeniable hold on Cervantes’ mad knight. Abrenuncio’s pithy observation is truer than perhaps even he knows. The Church’s control extends not only to the human yearning for love, but the yearning for imagination as well.
I will end with a complaint. There are two African characters of any significance in the novel: Dominga de Adviento, the Marquis’ slave who brings up Sierva Maria, and Judas Iscariote, male slave who is also the Marquis’ wife’s paramour. Both are disappointingly caricatured. Dominga de Adviento sings Yoruban songs, and Judas has copious amounts of sex, but beyond that, they may as well not exist. In contrast to the other characters, who are brilliantly drawn, with their histories, dreams, desires and hearbreaks, the two Africans are stage-props, little more than plot-devices, railway signals necessary for nudging the story along its destined track. It is a bigger question, though: slavery was economically and culturally absolutely central to colonial Latin America, especially its port-towns. In a book I read recently, called Empire of Necessity, the historian Greg Grandin describes the mind-boggling magnitude of the slave trade, and the role played by enslaved and emancipated Africans in daily life. For all that, when one reads Marquez, or Llosa, or Borges – writers who, by their own admission, are writing about their continent, and are writing with a keen sense of history, it seems that the Africans have just been… written out. They exist, if at all, on the margins, footnotes to the main story, and even where a black character plays a substantial part (such as Llosa’s The War at the End of the World), it still feels… secondary.
I wonder why.