Marcel Theroux, Strange Bodies (2013 UK; 2014 US)

February 17th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

My name is Nicholas Patrick Slopen.  I was born in Singapore City on April 10, 1970.  I died on September 28, 2009, crushed in the wheel arch of a lorry outside Oval tube station.

This document is my testimony.

As will shortly become clear, I have an unknown but definitely brief period of time to explain the events leading up to my death and to establish the continuity of my identity after it.  In view of the constraints upon me, I hope the reader will forgive my forgoing the usual niceties of autobiography.  At the same time, I will have to commit myself to some details with a certain, and perhaps wearisome, degree of exactitude in order to provide evidence to support the contention contained in the first paragraph of this testimony:  that I am Nicholas Slopen, and that my consciousness has survived my bodily death. (p. 17)

Body and/or identity-swapping has long been a staple of science fiction narratives (see my earlier review of Daniel Sueiro’s 1968 novel for example).  There is a certain thrill in imagining waking up in another body, having another chance to do things differently (or perhaps just do them all over again).  But there is also an element of dread, of pondering what would be lost in the translation from one body to another.  Would we recall everything?  What gaps would there be that would torment us?  And what if the body/identity swap occurred without our permission?  Would we be who we are elsewhere?  What if something that occurred in one of those gaps will affect us in nefarious ways?  Would our identity as ourselves remain intact, or would the switch involve some imposition of otherness on what we consider to be our true, core identities?

These are some of the questions that Marcel Theroux addresses in his recent book, Strange Bodies.  From the very first paragraphs, where the impossibility of the identity previously known as Nicholas Slopen is shown through the bewildered reactions of former acquaintances, there is a deep mystery that permeates the narrative.  Is this new Nicholas, in a body that differs significantly from his old one, really Nicholas?  If he is an imposter, then how come he mimics so closely not just the knowledge of the old Nicholas, but also many of his mannerisms?  If he is indeed Nicholas, then how come he exists now after death?  Theroux explores and then explodes these questions in a narrative that is heavily influenced by science fiction and mystery/police procedural genres without feeling as though it is completely one or the other.

Over the course of nearly 300 pages, the impact of Nicholas’ (re)arrival is seen through the reactions of those around him, his involuntary commitment to a mental health facility, and in his expounding on the life of Samuel Johnson, a former subject of his literary research.  Theroux carefully explores each facet of Nicholas’ former life, revealing a life that contained its own possibly nefarious mysteries.  Each development slots nicely (almost too nicely; we humans are not precisely machines in our prevarications and bumbling stumbles) into what is established before.  What emerges is a tale that causes the reader to both want to read ahead quickly to learn what happens next and to pause for a reflection of what is being said.

One of the frustrations of writing a review as opposed to a full literary critique is that there is much to unpack here in Strange Bodies that a review of the overall narrative which avoids giving the “big reveals” cannot explore in depth.  While the mechanism for explaining how the “new” Nicholas has come to be is straight out of mid-20th century Anglo-American SF, it is the implications of this plot device that make Strange Bodies a mostly satisfying read.  Too often, writers would focus too much on the means by which the situation has been established and not concentrate enough on the consequences of these developments.  Too easily, Nicholas could have been devoid of a personality outside of his “past” self.  Instead, Theroux develops Nicholas’ character through not just his flashbacks and musings on Johnson and others, but also in how he chooses to interact with his strange, new surroundings.

If Strange Bodies had to be reduced to a primary theme (there are several, including an exploration of a Faustian bargain through different means), it would be that of the persistency of authorial identity in the act of reading literature.  Theroux has referred to this in interviews, but it’s most present in one of his epigraphs, quoting John Milton’s Areopagitica:

For Books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.  I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragons teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men.

Theroux himself refers to this quasi-immortality near the end of the novel:

But the dead are dead.  That may be the truest and most definite fact about human existence.  Death is the bass ground that gives everything else point.  Every generation seems to know this except ours.  I feel I’m entitled to say this.  Who on earth is deader than me?

And the dead are dead for good reasons, profound reasons, that we ignore at our peril.  There’s a reason why the old father in “The Monkey’s Paw” turns away his dead son when he comes knocking.  The world belongs to the living: to Lucius and Sarah, to Leonora and, though it pains me to say it, to Caspar.(p. 288)

Strange Bodies ultimately is a novel that is about death and the quasi-life of literature.  It is about our hopes to achieve something that outlasts us, even if we ourselves are lost, at least somewhat, in the process.  There are times where Theroux’s points are attenuated by the plot choices he makes, but ultimately his themes on life, death, and our desire to transcend both ring clearly for those readers who view literature as more than just entertainment, but also as something that allows us to commune with the souls that have gone on before us, pondering just who we are and why we are.  These sorts of tales have a timeless quality to them and while Strange Bodies may not be perfect in all of its facets, its imperfections reflect our own, making it a powerful read that has lingered in my mind weeks after finishing the last sentence.

Gabriel García Márquez, La mala hora/In Evil Hour (1962)

February 13th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

El padre Ángel se incorporó con un esfuerzo solemne.  Se frotó los párpados con los huesos de las manos, apartó el mosquitero de punto y permaneció sentado en la estera pelada, pensativo un instante, el tiempo indispensable para darse cuenta de que estaba vivo, y para recordar la fecha y su correspondencia en el santoral.  «Martes cuatro de octubre», pensó; y dijo en voz baja:  «San Francisco de Asís.» (p. 7)

Father Ángel sat up with a solemn effort.  He rubbed his eyelids with the bones of his hands, parted the embroidered mosquito net, and he remained seated on the bare mat, pensive for an instant, the time indispensable for realizing that he was alive and for recalling the date and its corresponding saint’s day:  “Tuesday, October fourth,” he thought; and he said in a low voice, “St. Francis of Assisi.”

In reading Gabriel García Márquez’s earlier long fiction, it is difficult for me to escape comparing the characters of those stories to their namesakes that appear in One Hundred Years of Solitude.  Characters, often in altered form, who make brief but memorable cameos there, like Father Ángel, color the impressions of these earlier tales.  Certainly there were times in reading his 1962 novel, La mala hora (In Evil Hour in English), that certain scenes read differently just because of the names of the characters.  This is not surprising yet is very unfair when it comes to judging these stories, especially in the case of In Evil Hour.

The story is set in a nameless Colombian village (later clarified to not be Macondo) in which a nameless prankster has begun posting anonymous broadsides detailing the sordid lives of the villagers.  This darkly comic premise quickly turns violent, however, as an enraged husband settles the matter of gossip in murderous fashion.  This event triggers a more serious turn of events, as the mayor (named Arcadio, with no surname) enforces a sort of lawless martial law.  This in turn reflects on the very real history of La violencia, where around a quarter-million Colombians died in a massive wave of violence and near-anarchy during the middle decades of the 20th century.

In the story, García Márquez focuses on the dynamics of rumor and retribution, showing how the former fed into the latter, creating a situation in which baser passions come to dominate the socio-political discourse.  Fear engendered by mockery sweeps through the village, yet the source of the lampoons is never discovered, despite the fiercest efforts by the mayor’s goon-like police force.  In a way, this never-solved mystery makes what followed after all the more terrifying to consider, as there are numerous occasions throughout national histories of hysteria feeding the worst systematic abuses of human rights.  Certainly this is the case in this novel and García Márquez’s capturing of this violent “feeding frenzy” is one of the story’s best elements.

Yet there are some weaknesses as well.  Despite the intriguing and occasionally chilling narrative, the characterizations on the whole feel less well-developed compared to the author’s other work.  Mayor Arcadio in particular is more of a figurehead here for the government’s capability of unleashing violence on its own citizens and while that is likely done on purpose in order to make that comparison clearly, it does rob the novel of lively, interesting characters around which this tale of rumor-mongering leading to violence revolves.  Furthermore, the humor at times feels a bit heavy-handed, lacking a consistency of nuanced subtlety that could have made it an even better satirical story to read.

However, these criticisms are mostly minor.  The prose is clear and yet brimming with colorful expressions and clever humor.  The theme on the causes and effects of state-instituted violence is on the whole treated very well.  While In Evil Hour might not contain a powerful conclusion like those found in No One Writes to the Colonel or One Hundred Years of Solitude, its conclusion does mirror nicely its beginning, bringing the reader full circle after a tumultuous yet entertaining experience.  It may not be one of his best novels, but In Evil Hour certainly is one of García Márquez’s most sobering commenatries about the political climate in his native Colombia in the mid-20th century.

Gabriel García Márquez, El coronel no tiene quien le escriba/No One Writes to the Colonel (1961; 1968 English translation)

February 10th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

El coronel destapó el tarro del café y comprobó que no había más de una cucharadita.  Retiró la olla del fogón, vertió la mitad del agua en el piso de tierra, y con un cuchillo raspó el interior del tarro sobre la olla hasta cuando se desprendieron las últimas raspaduras del polvo de café revueltas con óxido de lata. (p. 7)

The colonel took the top off of the coffee can and saw that there wasn’t more than a spoonful.  He removed the pot from the stove, poured half of the water on the earthen floor, and with a knife scraped the the last bits of the ground coffee, mixed with rust, into the pot.

It is all too easy sometimes to think of Gabriel García Márquez writing in one form, retelling the same type of magical adventures with butterflies fluttering in while innocent maidens are assumed into heaven.  Yet some of his more famous stories are grounded in a rough, sometimes brutal realism that contain a terrible beauty of their own.  In his 1961 novella (actually written in 1957, but not published for another four years), No One Writes to the Colonel, García Márquez captures in miniature much of the disillusionment that pervaded Colombia in the aftermath of the Thousand Days’ War of 1899-1902.  It is an atmospheric, brooding tale that builds slowly to a famous closing line that encapsulates in a single word the entirety of the events that unfold.

The titular colonel, purposefully left unnamed in order to capture better the pervasive sense of endemic lack of faith in the (conservative) government’s promises, is seventy-five years old at the time of the story.  A veteran of the Thousand Days’ War (fighting for the Liberals), he has long awaited the long-promised and yet long-delayed pension granted to veterans on both sides of that bloody civil war.  He and his wife live in straitened conditions, as shown in the opening paragraph quoted above.  He continually makes plans for that future in which the pension has finally arrived.  Much of the narrative is devoted to contrasting his misplaced faith with the deprivation that surrounds him.  This creates a conflict in belief/appearance that makes each individual statement all the more interesting to read, because each self-delusional comment serves to add to the oppressing despair that García Márquez has carefully built here.

At the heart of the colonel’s dreams lies a rooster that he has inherited from his now-dead son, yet another victim in the long period of La Violencia that plagued Colombia in the early-to-mid 20th century.  In this rooster he sees a cockfighter that will earn him much-needed income, allowing him and his wife to live their remaining years in better conditions.  As he trains this rooster, putting much care and resources that he could ill-afford to squander on it, the reader is led to feel sympathy, mixed with puzzled dismay, over this old man’s misplaced faith in things that he will never achieve.

It would be too easy here to dismiss the colonel as a deluded old fool, worthy of the reader’s contempt.  Yet García Márquez imbues the colonel with a sort of quiet, enduring dignity that it is difficult to not wish that his quixotic hopes would become a reality.  But alas, reality does get in the way all too often of our aspirations and it is in the crushing of the colonel’s latest hope that leads to a singular moment that is devastating precisely because the colonel has been developed so well.

No One Writes to the Colonel succeeds as a narrative because García Márquez has created a memorable character whose travails serve not only as a symbol of the widespread crushing of dreams in Colombia, but also because even those readers such as myself who are not Colombian natives can see bits of ourselves in the colonel and elements of his difficulties in our lives.  It is this mixture of the particular and the universal that make this novella such a powerful read.  If it were not for the 1967 novel that followed, No One Writes to the Colonel perhaps could have been remembered as a powerful longer story by a master of short fiction.  Even so, it still is a fine introduction to García Márquez’s fiction for those who might be daunted by the size and complexity of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Gabriel García Márquez, La hojarasca/Leaf Storm (1955)

February 6th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Por primera vez he visto un cadáver.  Es miércoles, pero siento como si fuera domingo porque no he ido a la escuela y me han puesto este vestido de pana verde que me aprieta en alguna parte.  De la mano de mamá, siguiendo a mi abuelo que tantea con el bastón a cada paso para no tropezar con las cosas (no ve bien en la penumbra, y cojea), he pasado frente al espejo de la sala y me he visto de cuerpo entero, vestido de verde y con este blanco lazo almidonado que me aprieta a un lado del cuello.  Me he visto en la redonda luna manchada y he pensado:  Ése si yo, como si hoy fuera domingo. (p. 13)

For the first time I have seen a corpse. It’s Wednesday, but I feel like it’s Sunday because I have not gone to school and I have this green corduroy dress that squeezes me somewhere. From Mom’s hand, following my grandfather groping with his stick at every step to avoid tripping over things (he can not see well in the dark, and is lame), I passed by in front of the mirror in the room and I’ve seen my whole body, dressed in a green and white starched tie that squeezes my neck to one side. I have seen myself in the round stained moon and I thought: That’s like me, as if today were Sunday.

As early as his first novel, La hojarasca (1955), Gabriel García Márquez had begun to experiment with utilizing dramatic first paragraphs set in media res in order to capture immediately the reader’s attention.  There is a hint here of García Márquez’s memory of ice scene at the beginning of his 1967 masterpiece, Cien años de soledad, not just in the conflation of (near) death and childhood, but also in way that the present and past merge to create something that occupies a nebulous space between the two.  Yet despite this, there is a sense that La hojarasca is less nuanced, as if García Márquez were just experimenting with themes and motifs that he would explore in his later fiction.

The story revolves around the recent death of an unnamed doctor who arrived in Macondo in the wake of United Fruit’s arrival, one, but an infamous one, of the wave of hojarascas (a rough equivalent in English would be drifters) that came to Macondo in the early 20th century.  This doctor was greatly despised by the villagers for reasons that only become apparent late in the story.  There are only three people, the elderly grandfather (a former colonel), his daughter, Isabel, and her young grandson, who observe any sense of decorum.  In a sense, made crystal clear by the quote provided in the epigraph, each of the three plays in some form or fashion the role of Antigone, seeking burial for the hated deceased.

García Márquez does not tell this tale in a linear fashion.  As the PoV moves between the three generations of the grandfather’s family, elements that happened just recently bump up against those of decades before.  Each family member express themselves through a stream of consciousness that manages to capture the tumult of Macondo’s past.  Echoes of Columbia’s devastating early 20th century civil war are seen not just in the first, brief appearance of Aureliano Buendía, but also in references to other characters who gain a greater, sometimes more tragic depth in the later Cien años de soledad.  Through it all, the situation of the now-dead doctor becomes clearer and more central to other events that transpire (or are merely hinted at in certain scenes) throughout the novel.

For a first novel, La hojarasca is better than average, with themes of tragedy and solitude that are later echoed in García Márquez’s later fiction.  Yet La hojarasca feels incomplete, as if there were other, more symbolic, narrative layers that García Márquez did not develop fully.  The entangled web of village hurts and anger only hints at what he later covered in subsequent Macondo stories.  The characters are sketchier, as if García Márquez was uncertain how to develop them beyond the plot exigencies.  These weaknesses, which perhaps are such when compared to the author’s later works, do not make La hojarasca a poor or mediocre novel.  But they do serve as a reminder that García Márquez continued to mine the material that he developed (or perhaps discovered is a more apt verb to describe what occurs here?) to great effect in the following twelve years.  If only there were more first novels that were like this.

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