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Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel García Márquez

Penguin, 2014, 119 p. Translated from the Spanish Memoria de mis putas tristes (Mondadori, Barcelona, 2005) by Edith Grossman

Memories of My Melancholy Whores cover

The title strongly suggests this (short) novel will address at least two of literature’s big three themes. Sex certainly and, if not death, then at least old age. And it does so from the first sentence, where our narrator reveals that the year he turned ninety he, “wanted to give himself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin.” A columnist on a Colombian newspaper, this is a man who has always paid for the women he has had sex with – even if they threw the money on the floor straight away.

He contacts his madam of choice, Rosa Cabarcas, to arrange the contract. In the event, though, when he enters the room the child is sleeping and he does nothing to disturb her. Instead he begins to idolise her and reminisce about his past life.

That title is slightly misleading, there is not actually much about whores in the 119 pages, whether melancholy or otherwise. What there is, are the ruminations of an old man on life, love and obsession, thus hitting squarely on literature’s third big theme. Of women he says, “they know the how and the why when they want to,” and of ageing as a man, “among the charms of old age are the provocations our young female friends permit themselves because they think we are out of commission.” There is also some wit. The state censor at the newspaper, altogether too fond of striking his pen through the whole of a piece of copy, is dubbed the Abominable No-Man.

It is definitely the work of a writer who knew thoroughly what he was doing and how to achieve his ends but also with the sly urge to provoke.

Pedant’s corner:- “the incipient down on her pubis” (the pubis is the pubic bone, not the genital area. The external prominence is the Mons pubis.) “The best part of her body were her large, silent stepping feet” (the best part was,) Praxiteles’ (Praxiteles’s,) Heraclitus’ (Heraclitus’s.)

Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

Windmill, 2015, 378 p.

 Tigerman cover

When I started this it read like some sort of odd fusion between Michael Chabon and Gabriel García Márquez. Why? Well, there’s the boy whose great interest is in comic books (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay). Then the viewpoint character is referred to all but exclusively as “the Sergeant” (The General in his Labyrinth) and the setting is exotic – to me at least. The island of Mancreu in the north part of the Indian Ocean. The Sergeant has seen (messy) service in Afghanistan, Iraq and Bosnia and been farmed out to the island as a British Brevet-Consul with strict instructions to do, or interfere with, nothing. Yet in his new home he has a quasi-police role. Think Death in Paradise with all the twee bits ruthlessly excised except in a different ocean and a menacing air to the whole island.

For Mancreu has been the subject of an environmental disaster in its subterranean magma well (all sorts of undesirable biological emanations now proceed from there at irregular intervals) and is under sentence of death, “so wretchedly polluted that it must be sterilised by fire,” by the international community. People have already left – Leaving parties de rigueur – and the rest of the population is only biding its time. On land an international force known as NatProMan has a sort of rules-enforcement function. Offshore a Black Fleet is up to no good and tales circulate of a criminal/pirate/underworld type dubbed Bad Jack who lurks in the island’s shadows.

The Sergeant has developed a fatherly interest in the boy – who seems to have no parents but is liberally supplied with comic books and speaks fluent comic. In a meta-fictional moment the boy says of the stories in the comics, “There must be development-over-time or it is just noise.”

Things are shaken up when a bunch of gunmen come into Shola’s bar (where the Sergeant and the boy go to take tea) and shooting starts. Shola is killed but the Sergeant protects the boy with a nifty piece of action using for a weapon a tin containing custard powder which he employs as a sort of grenade. It explodes when the gunmen fire at it in defence. This gives the Sergeant the opportunity to overwhelm the remaining gunmen.

After the Sergeant discovers the boy – who may be called Robin but then again that could be a Batman joke – has been severely beaten and some of his comics systematically ripped apart as a punishment they cook up a plan between them. Inspired by the Sergeant’s somewhat magic realist encounter with a tiger (which he has related to the boy) the Sergeant, with the aid of a mask and some painted body armour, will become “Tigerman” to deal with the island’s bad guys. After all, “Myths and monsters were a human weakness, even on places not about to be evacuated and sterilised by fire.”

The plot sharpens when a missile is fired from the Black Fleet onto the building where the arrested gunmen are being held but it kind of jumped the shark later when the exact relationship between the boy and Bad Jack is revealed.

Along the way the NatProMan chief ruminates, “You had to listen to what a Brit was saying – which was invariably that he thought X Y Z was a terrific idea and he hoped it went well for you – while at the same time paying heed to the greasy, nauseous suspicion you had that, although every word and phrase indicated approval, somehow the sum of the whole was that you’d have to be a mental pygmy to come up with this plan and a complete fucking idiot to pursue it…. they didn’t do it on purpose. Brits actually thought that subtext was plain text.”

The last few pages strive for an emotional reaction from the reader but Harkaway hasn’t done quite enough in the preceding ones to earn it which is a shame as I really liked his previous novel Angelmaker.

Pedant’s corner:- Bad Jack is at one point rendered in French as Mauvais Jacques. I had always thought Jacques was French for James, as in Jacobite, not Jack. Otherwise; the Sergeant is told to “rest up” by the previous Consul (rest up is a USianism, a Brit would more likely say rest,) “which he could use about now” (use is an USianism; ‘which he could do with about now’,)”the bigness of this idea”(x2; what an ugly expression,) mortician (undertaker,) sit-uations (not at a line break so situations,) with with (only one with required,) Freddy Mercury (Freddie Mercury,) “‘She wants a friendly face, is all’” (is all is USian, a Brit would say, ‘that’s all’,) a missing comma before the end quote mark of a piece of dialogue and another missing before a new piece, phosphorous flares (phosphorus,) there were a lot of positions (there were lots of positions.)

The General in his Labyrinth by Gabriel García Márquez

Penguin, 2014, 290 p, including i p map of New Granada, iv p author’s thanks and xi p Chronology of Simón Bolívar. No translator given but it is most likely Edith Grossman as she was the translator for the Jonathan Cape edition from which the original Penguin paperback was derived. First published as El General en Su Laberinto, Mondadori Espana, 1989.

 The General in his Labyrinth cover

This, an account of the last days of Simón Bolívar, The Liberator, on his final trip down the Magdalena River from Santa Fe de Bogotá to the sea, is not typical Márquez. There is no hint of magic realism here and the book often reads more like a history than a novel. In that it is a portrait of a leader in decline it bears some similarities to The Autumn of the Patriarch but it would not do to stretch the parallel. In any case, unlike that novel, this one is not at all experimental in its writing. Márquez’s Bolivar (his name is only given once, and then in full, Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios) – known throughout as simply the General – is all too human, his wife’s untimely death, without which he may never have embarked on his adventures into history, locked away inside him, yet his liaisons with women legendary.

The novel starts in Santa Fe de Bogotá as the General, his hopes of uniting the lands of South America (certainly the former Spanish parts) into one country now lying in tatters, is awaiting Government permission to leave and go to Europe. At a gathering, “No one was certain, however, who was there for the sake of friendship, who in order to protect him, and who to be sure that in fact he was leaving.”

The details of the journey downriver are intercut with scenes from his life and military and governmental careers wherein Márquez has the opportunity to comment on the condition of being a military strong man, or any dictator. When official reports had led the General to believe the scourge of smallpox was being conquered, evidence to the contrary has him say, “‘It will always be like this as long as subordinates lie to make us happy.’”

The General is also biting about any criticism of the harsh measures he had taken in his campaigns, “‘Europeans would not have the moral authority to reproach me, for, if any history is drowned in blood, indignity, and injustice, it is the history of Europe,’” the difficulties of running a newly founded country, “‘I warned (General) Santander that whatever good we had done for the nation would be worthless if we took on debt because we would go on paying interest till the end of time. Now it’s clear: debt will destroy us in the end.’” In a letter he tells another General that, “Every civil war had been won by the side that was most savage.” Then to an aide, “‘Don’t go with your family to the United States. It’s omnipotent and terrible, and its tale of liberty will end in a plague of miseries for us all.’” Despite all his achievements he reflects ruefully, “‘It was not the perfidy of my enemies but the diligence of my friends that destroyed my glory.’”

An item I found curious is that Bolivar was initiated in Paris as a Mason “of the Scottish rite”. Odd how often Scotland pops up in these South American fictions.

The novel’s title is an allusion to the General’s last words which were, “‘How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!’” It is, of course, the same way as the rest of us.

This was obviously a subject to which Márquez felt he had to turn, taking up the idea from an unfinished work by his friend Álvaro Mutis. to chronicle the end of a life which may as well be a myth.

Pedant’s corner:- to not deprive (not to deprive,) Elbers’ (Elbers’s,) Andrés’ (Andrés’s,) Páez’ (Páez’s,) Palacios’ (Palacios’s,) duchess’ (duchess’s,) Valdehoyos’ (Valdehoyos’s,) Sáenz’ (Sáenz’s,) English and British are used almost interchangeably, Britain is nearly always referred to as England.

The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez

Penguin, 2014, 233 p. Translated from the Spanish El Otoño del Patriarca, 1975, by Gregory Rabassa.

 The Autumn of the Patriarch cover

It would be difficult to review this book without considering its form and structure, which are not for the faint-hearted, demanding concentration from the reader. There are six sections in all and each one consists of but a single long paragraph containing meandering sentences ranging up to several pages or more in length. Indeed the last section had just one sentence stretching over 45 pages. Within these digressive sentences the narrative viewpoint frequently switches back and forth, neither is there dialogue in the conventional sense, only reports of speech – perhaps interspersed with a “general sir”, or other vocative interpolation, to indicate that the preceding phrase is supposed to have been spoken. But for those viewpoint changes (some of which are in the plural) the prose could almost be described as stream of consciousness – or even stream of unconsciousness as one interpretation is that it represents the patriarch’s last thoughts; his life flashing past him as it ebbs away, “he was condemned not to know life except in reverse,” imagining again the events that brought him to his lonely end.

The autumn of the title is the long period of decay during which the (unnamed and, reportedly, absurdly long-lived,) patriarch retreated into solitude and his power rested on his reputation. The litany of atrocities and sexual peccadillos is what you might expect from a man of this sort, though he is portrayed as having an affection for both his mother, Bendicíon Alvarado, and the woman, Leticia Nazareno, he plucked from being a novitiate to share his bed.

The hall of mirrors that is living under a dictatorship is illustrated by lines such as, “We knew no evidence of his death was final, because there was always another truth behind the truth,” and “a lie is more comfortable than doubt, more useful than love, more lasting than truth,” and “the belief that the less people understand the more afraid they’ll be.” These are lessons always needing to be learned it would seem. There is also an odd passage where we are told the patriarch had had “brought from Scotland eighty-two new born bulldogs …evilly taught to kill by a Scottish trainer.” I wondered why Márquez had chosen Scotland; it’s not particularly known for bulldogs.

The Autumn of the Patriarch is an exercise in form and experiment bearing few of the easy consolations of a conventional novel. It’s a tour-de-force certainly, but it’s not one for the casual reader.

A word for the translator, Gregory Rabassa. This must have been a particularly tricky book to translate and he has done a magnificent job. Rabassa was credited by Márquez of making the English translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude superior to the original Spanish. Sadly, he died in June 2016. So it goes.

And a warning for those who wish to avoid the n-word, in which case don’t read the next sentence. The phrase “nigger whorehouse” appears in the text.

Pedant’s corner:- nowthat (now that,) bureaus (I prefer bureaux,) convenience’ sake (convenience’s sake,) insignias (insignia. Is insignias USian?)

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Fourth Estate, 2001, 646 p, plus iii p Author’s Note.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay cover

I was immediately struck by this book’s opening sentence, “In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of fans at a comic book convention …. Sam Clay liked to declare … that back when he was a boy … that he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini.” In its essential form this has similarities to the first sentence of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, “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.” Not a bad model to aspire to. Chabon’s opening sentence is, however, less stark, more elaborate than Marquez’s, being replete with subclauses and apparent asides. In this it is at one with many of the ones that follow, exquisite, information packed, beautifully constructed sentences unfolding over several lines yet seeming almost effortless, not a word out of place nor too much. Yet other sentences are admirably short. This is a book that has some very good writing indeed. At the same time it is also a compelling story. And it has occasional footnotes. What’s not to like?

The Kavalier and Clay of the title are respectively Joe and Sammy, cousins, both artists, who invent a comic book hero known as The Escapist, inspired by Kavalier’s training as an escapologist in Prague in the 1930s. They meet when Joe Kavalier turns up at the Klayman household in New York after his fraught journey from Czechoslovakia (via Lithuania and Japan) the setting up of which required almost all the money his family could scrape together to save at least one of their number. There are echoes of Márquez’s magical realism in Joe’s escape from Nazi occupation; inside a coffin which also contains the (disguised) Golem of Prague. The Escapist character is a great success – punching Hitler on the nose and otherwise bashing Nazis speaking to a latent emotion – as are other creations of theirs such as Luna Moth, riding the boom in comic books of the time. Despite exploitation by their publisher (the standard contract handed over the rights to their characters) they still manage to make a fair bit of money. Joe is continually worried about his family in Prague and his cash mostly goes to finding out their well-being or otherwise and to bringing his younger brother Thomas and other Jewish children to the US. In amongst details of their personal lives – Joe’s affair with Rosa Luxemburg Sax and Sammy’s incipient homosexuality laying the ground for later developments – Chabon also delivers to us a history of the comic book.

Given my interest in Art Deco and Moderne architecture I was particularly delighted by the scene set in the abandoned remains of “that outburst of gaudy hopefulness”, the New York World’s Fair 1939-40.

In a sentence that has striking echoes for the world in which I was reading the book Chabon says, “One of the sturdiest precepts of the human delusion is that every golden age is either in the past or the offing.” Arguably the real delusion is that there ever was, or will be, a golden age.

The shadow of the wider world never lifts from Joe, even if on joining up on the final entry of the US into World War 2 the navy sends him to the Antarctic rather than to kill Germans. A novel of folk caught up in “interesting times” may be a shortcut to wider significance but, “The true magic of this broken world lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish, to become so thoroughly lost, that they might never have existed at all,” is as true of more settled eras. And the events in Europe and elsewhere are backdrop to the human stories here. For all that, as well as a story of love and loss, tragedy and redemption (or a kind of catharsis,) at its heart The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a pæan to the comic book. And Chabon has made art out of its history.

Pedant’s corner:- the local Gestapo bureau (this was on the border between Poland and Lithuania, hence before the German invasion of Poland; so no Gestapo. Even if after the German invasion the border would have been between the Soviet controlled area of Poland and Lithuania so still no Gestapo,) beltoids (deltoids?) from which dangle … an array (an array dangles,) Longchamps’ (Longchamps’s,) “a Brooklyn Dodgers football game” (the Brooklyn Dodgers were a baseball team; still are, though they moved to LA,) lists of dramatis personae (dramatis personae plural would be dramatum personae,) “there were a fair number of moths” (x 2, there was a fair number,) aetataureate (an invention by Chabon meaning “of the golden age”,) missing start quote on a piece of dialogue at a chapter start (probably the publisher’s house-style, but annoying just the same,) a number of orders were issued (a number was issued,) maw (for an entrance. A maw is a stomach,) “‘Oh much more than see him’” (seen him makes more sense,) chile con carne (not spelled chile.)

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Phoenix, 2005, 506 p, plus i p summary, i p about the author, ii p “For discussion”, x p “A walk in the footsteps of The Shadow in the Wind” including ii p maps. Translated by Lucia Graves from the Spanish La sombra del viento, Editorial Planeta, 2002.

The Shadow of the Wind cover

Well, this all started out promisingly enough with ten year old Daniel Sempere being taken by his father to the secret Cemetery of Forgotten Books to pick one out for himself, to keep it alive. This conceit hinted that the novel would be one of those books about books and the importance of the word like The Name of the Rose, especially since Daniel is told, “Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens,” but the novel soon veers off into more conventional unravelling a mystery territory.

The book Daniel picks is titled The Shadow of the Wind by one Julián Carax. Daniel reads it and is enthralled, wishing to find out more about its author and any other books he may have written. But Carax is an elusive creature. Very few of his books (most of which sold in pitifully small numbers) survive. In addition a mysterious man going under the name Lain Coubert, a character in Carax’s Shadow of the Wind, is going around buying them up – in order to burn them. Already we are in a recursive situation, a loop which is in essence claustrophobic. Too many of the characters in the book are bound up either with Daniel, Carax or both.

Daniel’s first infatuation is with the blind Clara, quite a few years his senior. Their (necessarily) chaste relationship – and her entanglement with her piano teacher – is somewhat reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez but as if off-key, though paradoxically, given Marquez’s magic realism, none of this aspect of Zafón’s novel feels natural. It appears forced, occurring only at Zafón’s will. Other backstories read like information dumping and there are too many parallels between Carax’s life and Daniel’s; between his friend Tomás Aguilar and Carax’s, Jorge Aldaya, between his first lover Beatriz Aguilar and Carax’s, Penélope Aldaya.

As an example of an authorial misstep Zafón has Daniel tell Bea about Carax’s The Shadow of the Wind that, “This was a story about lonely people, about absence and loss, and that that was why I had taken refuge in it until it became confused with my own life,” inviting us to draw a parallel that had been obvious long before. Yes, Daniel’s friend, Fermín Romero de Torres, is a memorable character but the villain of the piece, Inspector Francisco Javier Fumero, tends to the cartoonish, his obsession with Carax insufficiently founded – at least to me. There are, too, frequent recapitulations of the story to other characters. The Aldaya mansion on the Avenida del Tibidabo, though, is a gothic enough creation, along with the statues in its grounds.

Attempts at background verisimilitude also fall down at times. An old quack’s “sole remaining wish was for Barcelona’s football team to win the league, once and for all, so that he could die in peace.” This is an odd observation for someone to make in 1954 as Barcelona had most recently won La Liga in season 1952-3 and also the one before. Again in 1954 a restaurant manager apologises for poor service by saying, “‘But s’afternoon, it being the European Cup semi-final, we’ve had a lot of customers. Great game.’” The first European Cup semi-finals did not take place till 1956. Similarly there is a mention of the League Cup – but the La Liga Cup did not start till 1984 (and only lasted four years.) Did Zafón perhaps have the Copa del Rey in mind?

Still, “‘Mysteries must be solved, one must find out what they hide,’” and I suppose this is what keeps us reading but while it may be true that, “People tend to complicate their own lives, as if living weren’t complicated enough,” I’m not sure I agree with the assertion, “‘When we stand in front of a coffin, we only see what is good, or what we want to see.’”

Set where and when it is The Shadow of the Wind could not avoid touching on the fallout of the Spanish Civil War but it does so only tangentially. It is eminently readable but in the end it doesn’t manage to achieve the stature that the author is clearly striving for. Quite simply in this book Zafón is trying too hard.

Pedant’s corner:- “a couple of nuns …. mumbling under their breath” (ought really to be breaths,) polanaises (polonaises; this correct form is used later in the book,) “froze the blood in my veins” (really? Especially when followed on the next page by “my blood froze,”) the Barcelós apartment (Barceló’s,) for goodness’ sake (goodness’s,) automatons (okay it’s acceptable in English – as well as automata, the plural from the Greek,) “none of the drawings were more than rough sketches” (none was more than a rough sketch,) faggotry (a USianism,) “‘It’s my fault,’ I said. I should have said something…’” (missing open quote mark after “I said.”) “An act of charity or friendship on behalf of an ailing lady” (‘on the part of’ is meant,) “which violated at least five of six recognized mortal sins,” (shouldn’t that be “five or six”? – and violated here seems to mean committed,) morgue (mortuary,) with sudden heartfelt hug (with a sudden,) catlike smile the smile of a mischievous child (a missing comma after the first smile,) garoted (garrotted,) Jacintaʻs vision (has a backward, and upside down, apostrophe,) “so that he can have a brain scan” (a brain scan? In 1954?) Barnarda (her name everywhere else in the novel is Bernarda,) passion (passion,) a benzine lighter (the term used in English is cigarette lighter,) “and whose specialty was Latin, trigonometry, and gymnastics, in that order,” (that’s three specialties.)
Plus points for “not all was lost”.

Strange Pilgrims by Gabriel García Márquez

Twelve Stories, Penguin, 2013, 195 p + 7 p Prologue. Translated from the Spanish Doce Cuentos Peregrinos by Edith Grossman. First published by Mondadori España, S A, 1992.
Borrowed from a threatened library.

 Strange Pilgrims cover

In the Prologue Why Twelve, Why Stories, Why Pilgrims? Márquez describes the genesis of this collection in a series of notes for 64 stories – some of which became newspaper articles or films – and their final conception as a thematic whole. After many false starts, vicissitudes and throwings-away it came to the point where, “Sometimes I felt as if I were writing for the sheer pleasure of telling a story, which may be the human condition that most resembles levitation.” Most of the twelve concern South Americans adrift in a continent inhabited by those strange people with their strange ways, Europeans.
The opening story, “Bon Voyage, Mr President”, features a deposed President in search of medical treatment in Geneva, where he is recognised by a countryman. They come to regard each other warmly. South America is said to be, “A continent conceived by the scum of the Earth without a moment of love: the children of abductions, rapes, violations, infamous dealings, deceptions, the union of enemies with enemies.”
In The Saint, a man spends twenty-two years in Rome trying to secure the canonisation of his daughter, who had died of an essential fever. When the cemetery back home was relocated to make way for a dam her exhumed body was found to be uncorrupted and weightless.
The narrator of Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane is waiting for his flight when he catches sight of the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in the lobby of Charles de Gaulle airport. She turns out to be on the next seat to him on the plane but not a word is spoken between them.
I Sell My Dreams is the story of the strange intersections its narrator had with a Colombian exile in Vienna who had a talent for dreaming who uses this to make her way in life. Whether or not the talent was charlatanic is up to the reader to decide.
In “I Only Came to Use the Phone” a woman’s car breaks down. She is desperate to phone her husband to tell him she’ll be late. She finally gets a lift from a bus but unfortunately its destination is an asylum.
The Ghosts of August sees a family visit the castle in Tuscany built by Ludovico, who killed his lady in their bed then turned his dogs on himself. The bedchamber has been preserved, bloodstained bedsheets and all. Nevertheless they stay overnight.
Maria dos Prazeres is an old woman who has a dream she will die and spends the next three years preparing for it. Among other things she teaches her dog to weep.
In Seventeen Poisoned Englishmen, after her husband dies, Señora Prudencia Linero makes a journey to Rome to see the Pope. On landing in the country she does not like Italy nor the prospect of the seventeen Englishmen in the lobby of the hotel she is shown to. She dines elsewhere.
The Tramontana is a days-long wind which blows through Cadaqués, the effects of which (even the prospect of which) drives people to suicide.
Despite her surname, the Miss Forbes of Miss Forbes’s Summer of Happiness is a German governess hired to look after two boys spending summer in the Island of Pantelleria. She is strict and they resent it.
Arising from a chance remark about the poetry of household objects Light is Like Water (“You turn the tap and out it comes”) is a very magic realist tale of two boys transforming light into the ocean of their dreams.
The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow is a tragic tale of two young lovers, Billy Sánchez and Nena Daconte. At a reception on arriving in Spain on their honeymoon she pricks her hand on a bouquet of roses. At first this does not seem serious but the bleeding will not stop. When they eventually reach a hospital – in Paris! – he is not allowed to accompany her and told there is no visiting except on Tuesdays, six days away.
These are tales of misfits, delusion and misunderstandings mostly seen from aslant. Good stuff.

Pedant’s corner:- organdy (organdie,) detact (detect,) spit (spat,) carabineriere (carabiniere?)

In Evil Hour by Gabriel García Márquez

Penguin, 2014, 186 p. Translated from the Spanish La Mala Hora by Gregory Rabassa. First published in Spain in 1968.

Borrowed from a threatened library.

 In Evil Hour cover

In Evil Hour is a very South American tale set in a town where the inhabitants keep expecting the bad old days of summary execution to return. In amongst descriptions of various relationships in the town there are vignettes such as the local telegrapher spending his free time sending poems and novels to the lady telegrapher in another town. The church is plagued by mice and the town by the clandestine posting of scurrilous notes on its walls while it sleeps. These notes, which the text calls lampoons, contain only gossip everybody knows but have created tension which spills over when César Montero kills the local troubadour Pastor for an alleged affair with his wife. The mayor at first tries to keep things low-key but later, as the tensions rise, imposes martial law and street patrols. There is a hint at the end that despite arrests being made these measures have been ineffective. Apart from the constant threat of governmental violence/coercion the book seems to deal with the more mundane aspects of life and is not as invested with magic realism as others of Márquez’s works. It is very readable though; a testament both to Márquez and his translator, Gregory Rabassa.

Pedant’s corner:- Father Ángel is rendered once as Angel.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Penguin Modern Classics, 2000, 128 p + ix p introduction by Candia McWilliam.

Spark is another important Scots writer with whom the 2014 challenge has given me the impetus to catch up. My only familiarity with her work up to now has been a BBC TV adaptation of The Girls of Slender Means, plus the TV and film versions of this title, all from way back. Candia McWilliam’s introduction to this Penguin Modern Classics edition describes Spark as “the greatest living Scots writer of prose.”

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie cover

I must say I found reading this to be an odd experience. There was just something about the writing style that didn’t sit well with me. Three times in the first few pages and intermittently thereafter we are told that Rose Stanley is famous for sex (or sex appeal), we are also frequently told that Monica Douglas is good at Mathematics. Yet we are never shown these traits, either via dialogue or in any other way, we simply have to take the narration’s word for it. Frequently, too, mention is made of things that will happen later than the immediate moment of the text as the narrative slips forwards from events in the 1930s to post war and backwards again.

Now; foreshadowing is fine, essential even, but this is not foreshadowing, it is relating. McWilliam sees this “proleptic1 use of time” as a strength. I found it irritating. (In this respect The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has something in common with the first line of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.) It is as if the novel is a life recalled. Yet the narrative adopts multiple third person viewpoints, its events are not seen from one character’s perspective; or, rather, some events in it could not have been observed by a single narrator.

Miss Jean Brodie herself, teacher at Marcia Blaine School for Girls, is egregiously self-centred, demagogue rather than pedagogue, neglecting the wider needs of her pupils to indulge in reminiscences of her fallen fiancé, her tastes in art and her leanings towards the fascisti, brooking no contradiction: Leonardo is not the greatest Italian painter; that is Giotto, “he is my favourite.” Her contention, in a later conversation with Sandy Stranger, that she loved art teacher Teddy Lloyd, married to someone else, is not, however, borne out by her actions, which, some descriptions of her interactions with her pupils apart, are always given us at one remove. Her famous catch-phrases, “la crème de la crème,” “I am in my prime,” are there to be sure, but after the first third or so the book concerns itself more with her chosen girls (known as the Brodie Set,) particularly Sandy. At the end I felt, perhaps due to the shadows cast by the TV and film versions I have seen, Brodie was actually more of an absence than a presence. The nature of the final betrayal of Miss Brodie was also problematic for me. No doubt she was a dangerous woman (not least, dangerous to men) but there were plenty of people in Britain in 1938 – even in 1940! – who would not have held Miss Brodie’s political attractions against her.

Yes there are human truths here, Teddy’s inability to paint a portrait without it becoming a representation of Jean rings very true, young minds can be susceptible to influence, but the artifice of the writing made it very hard for me to suspend my disbelief. To judge whether or not Spark is “the greatest living Scots writer of prose” I’ll need to look out for The Girls of Slender Means or others of her novels as, on this evidence, I’d have to say not. (Or am I merely saying that Leonardo is not my favourite?)

1I am not convinced Spark’s use of time in the book is anticipatory.

Gabriel García Márquez

Due to Eastercon I also missed commemorating the passing of Colombian writer and Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez.

I have read only two of his novels, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera but do not regret reading either of them and would happily sit down to other works of his were my tbr pile not so high already. Maybe when it’s shrunk a bit, then.

Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez: 6/3/1927 – 17/4/2014. So it goes.

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