Two Visits to the Dentist

Michael Mason

A reader who has some acquaintance with Garcia Marquez is almost bound to approach a new novel by him with certain questions about connectedness in mind. There is first of all the issue of the connectedness of his career: which resolves itself at once into questions about the origins of, and successors to, the extraordinary One Hundred Years of Solitude. The commanding presence of this novel has inevitably given the earlier work something of the character of an overture (especially for the English reader, for whom this material has mostly become available since the novel’s appearance), while the more recent writing has generally been assessed for adequacy as a sequel. Then there is the matter of the internal connections in Garcia Marquez’s fiction. There are recurrences of certain characters, events and places: Colonel Aureliano Buendia, Jose Montiel, the Treaty of Neerlandia, Macondo, Manaure. What do these recurrences amount to? Should we even pay attention to them?

There are certainly wrong, even silly, ways to respond to the various solicitations to connect offered by Garcia Marquez’s fiction. The earlier fiction is not a dry run for One Hundred Years of Solitude. And that novel cannot be amended with statements about Macondo and its inhabitants which appear in the short stories and novellas. It is nevertheless right, in fact necessary, to think in the connecting way about Garcia Marquez’s texts, especially those published between 1955 and 1967 (that is to say, the sequence bracketed by the first and last Macondo pieces, ‘Monologue of lsobel Watching it Rain in Macondo’ and One Hundred Years of Solitude). Garcia Marquez’s case is not like that of Joseph Heller, for example, in which the dominance of one work, and the tendency of the rest to be seen as pedestals, buttresses and exit ramps, is adventitious. And the connections inside his fiction need to be grasped – more than the recurrences in Faulkner’s novels, for example. Garcia Marquez more nearly resembles a novelist who otherwise has few parallels in these matters: James Joyce. Joyce anticipates Garcia Marquez in making the idea of career, the sequence of published works, itself a raw material for authorial design. For many readers, Ulysses is the most valuable of Joyce’s writings, but part of its meaning comes from its relations with the earlier works, which themselves take meaning from their relations with each other.

These relations are, of course, not simple. For both novelists, the raw material of the literary career – as with any aesthetically interesting product – must be worked into discontinuities as well as continuities, contrasts as well as resemblances. One form of the wrong response to Garcia Marquez’s fiction is to ignore, or explain away, its deliberately contrastive effects – to homogenise it. The American paperback edition of No one writes to the Colonel announces on its cover ‘nine more miracles of Macondo’. In fact, only three of the stories in the collection are set in Macondo. The title story is not only not among them, but contains a description of an event (the surrendering of two trunkloads of revolutionary funds at the signing of the Treaty of Neerlandia) which does not tally with the account of this episode given in One Hundred Years of Solitude. The blurb on the newly published English translation of Mala Hora (In Evil Hour) says of the novel: ‘It was written early in the remarkable career of Gabriel García Marquez and points expressively towards his later achievements in One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Autumn of the Patriarch.’ This is at once nervously vague about the resemblances between In Evil Hour and One Hundred Years of Solitude and misleading about chronology. Garcia Marquez’s career started in 1947; In Evil Hour belongs to 1961 (and One Hundred Years of Solitude was published in 1967).

In Evil Hour is not set in Macondo, though it contains some references to that town’s history. One of these makes Father Angel the predecessor of Father Antonio Isabel as curate of Macondo, thus reversing the order of events reported in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Also, ‘Big Mama’ is said to have died in the town in which In Evil Hour is set, and this is a Macondo event according to one of the authentic Macondo stories, ‘Big Mama’s Funeral’. In Evil Hour even contradicts a description by Garcia Marquez elsewhere of an event in its own territory. The tale of the Mayor with terrible toothache who forces the dissident dentist to pull his tooth, also the subject of the short story ‘One of These Days’, is related here in a substantially different version.

These two bits of text are almost exactly contemporary with each other, and they constitute a most striking refutation of the more pedestrian accounts of how Garcia Marquez’s early fiction hangs together. It is indeed uncanny to read the two tooth-pullings side by side. Each is brilliantly told and seems at the time decisive, not corrigible. There is a core of feeling which they share, of something undignified, sinister and melancholy, and it is as if Garcia Marquez is testing the atmosphere of the event through different versions. His literary imagination is fissile. It lives in the sense of what contrasts with its own products. Even One Hundred Years of Solitude, which sets out in such a drivingly self-sufficient way, eventually communicates, through the uniformity of its motifs and style, the narrowness of self – sufficiency – its solitude.

Garcia Marquez has said that he was thinking about One Hundred Years of Solitude for 17 years. In this time, apart from a few, typically disparate stories about Macondo, he concerned himself with Macondo’s twin, the community which is always called simply ‘the town’. In Evil Hour is the longest and most elaborate of the Town writings, and in this sense a companion piece to One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The Town has no name, but, unlike the Macondo of One Hundred Years of Solitude, it has a time. Some of the stories are almost obsessively explicit about dates. The action of In Evil Hour opens at 5 a.m. on 4 October and closes at 5 a.m. on 21 October. In the Town, significant action works on a smaller scale than time, so to speak, but in Macondo time usually moves faster than human experience, which is calibrated in years and even decades. Each community has a recurrent and distinct personnel. The Town’s occupants make up a sociology – doctor, bar-owner, dentist, mayor, landlord – while those in Macondo compose a dynasty, the Buendia family. The individual episodes of In Evil Hour work as epiphanies. They are reticent assemblages of detail which brilliantly register, if we care to ponder them, the mood of a society. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, everything is told, and explained. There is nothing that purports to be simply given and documentary, and nothing enigmatic. As readers, we have to take the narrator’s word for everything. So bewildering is the narrative that we feel that this narrator could even recast the previous events in the novel, in retrospect, without our noticing.

The difference in factuality which seems to underlie the two methods is no more than purported. The epiphanies of the Town are no more documentary, no less made up, than the legends of Macondo. Garcia Marquez’s multiple versions of certain episodes, such as the tooth-pulling, show this, and these experiments no doubt helped him down the road to the arbitrariness of One Hundred Years of Solitude, where the sense of huge alternatives is always in the air: cowards could have been heroes, or the lecherous celibate. But the purported factuality of In Evil Hour does prohibit the telling of improbabilities, of fantasy, which is the very stuff of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Indeed Garcia Marquez, with his eye characteristically on the contrastive, shows that fantasy is excluded in In Evil Hour, and makes this important.

Characters are several times introduced awaking from dreams, which at once become forgotten or unintelligible parts of their experience, not bearing on their behaviour. Near the beginning, Cesar Montero is dreaming about wild elephants. He wakes, and within minutes has shot his wife’s alleged lover, an act that precipitates the return of governmental terror to the Town. (The victim is a clarinettist, a variant on the dead trumpeter in No one writes to the Colonel.) The imagery in Cesar Montero’s dream comes from a film he has just seen, and the cinema, keenly if clandestinely attended by the population and severely monitored by the curate, is another token of excluded fantasy. Almost the only films given unmitigated approval in the curate’s index are about pirates, a subject which the rapacity of the Town’s civil authorities and landowners brings ironically close to home.

And it is a fantastic or, at least, a Macondo-like, legend-forming impulse, situated outside the Town’s morality and outside the terms of the narrative, which is responsible for the Town’s disasters. Cesar Montero kills in response to a lampoon alleging his wife’s adultery. These lampoons, which enshrine popular rumours of uncertain truthfulness about the secret, alternative behaviour of respectable citizens, are at once the main topic of the novel, and scarcely part of it at all. The official response to them hardens into martial law, and the nightmarish oppression of recent memory returns to the Town. But the perpetrators of the lampoons, unquenchable by the severest tyranny, are never identified for us, and it is anyway strongly implied that the recrudescence of political brutality was only a matter of time, lampoons or no lampoons.

This may be called the siphon theory of political possibility. It is very melancholy, and superbly conveyed by Garcia Marquez. We see tyranny – in the brief span of 17 days – finding its level in the Town through a series of partly careless, partly amiable, partly corrupt, and always plausible actions by the secular and religious authorities. There is a very considerable leniency towards the men who are the agents of this process. Garcia Marquez feels the bitterness about politics which may be expected of a native of modern Colombia, but he is strikingly neutral about individuals. Politically, there seems to be no scale of personal virtue for Garcia Marquez.

This plays its part in his fascination with split or alternative visions. Father Angel in In Evil Hour, though he is an important piece of mechanism in the return to tyranny, would scarcely be recognised from his description in One Hundred Years of Solitude: ‘a crusader of a new breed, intransigent, audacious, daring’. His predecessor/successor, Father Antonio Isabel, appears to have a dotty apocalyptic vision of the Wandering Jew in One Hundred Years of Solitude, but in the story ‘One Day After Saturday’ this is represented, through a more inward account of the curate’s thoughts, as a sop to the credulous. What may be broadly called the ethical aspect of style must have preoccupied Garcia Marquez a good deal. He has explained his 17 years delay with One Hundred Years of Solitude by reference to ‘difficulties of tone and language’, and one may surmise that such difficulties became conspicuous in the story of ‘Big Mama’s Funeral’, which attempts a legendary tale of the One Hundred Years of Solitude type (specifically, a variant of Ursula’s life), only with a black or malevolent feeling. The result is not satisfactory, and may have suggested to Garcia Marquez that the idiom of One Hundred Years of Solitude has, ethically or judgmentally, an affirmative tendency. He has returned to the problem more recently in The Autumn of the Patriarch.

There is an embryonic stage in Garcia Marquez’s fiction in which differentiation has not started. It is most clearly represented by the long 1955 story, Leaf Storm. Here the components of Macondo and the Town are to some extent mixed: the story is set in Macondo, but a lampoonist is at work. The form is one not used again by Garcia Marquez for a long time after this period: first-person narration. This vehicle was evidently not radical enough for Garcia Marquez’s later purposes, but his way of employing it is suggestive. There are several speakers, each participating in the same sad and bizarre communal event, so the exploration of contrasts and alternatives is already under way. Garcia Marquez’s subsequent work may be thought of as a search for formal methods which will accommodate, in the manner of the monologue-sequence but more thoroughly, an idea of multiplicity. This idea does not dissolve certain communal disasters but it does tend (perhaps in a spirit of resignation) to dissolve individual responsibility for them.