Saturday, April 17, 2010

I'll take a McOndo meal, supresized

What the hell is this? I thought this was a course devoted to magical realism, the so-called "definitive" form of the Latin American novel. Clearly I was mistaken, as McOndo forgot the magical part of the order. It's ok though, the literary chow is still satisfying, I won't yell at them for airballing my order.

McOndo's flavour is distinctly realist, there's no doubt about that. It's not hard to picture yourself actually experiencing the events and situations presented in the novel. Really, the stories told in McOndo could happen to anyone, anywhere and there's absolutely no sense of disconnect, or difference between Latin American and North American society. Do I like that fact? Sort of.

I understand that McOndo is a movement that was born as a somewhat "frustrated" response to the type casting of Latin American authors after the Boom. The idea of being pigeon holed into a certain genre or writing style simply based on your geographic heritage is absolutely absurd. Latin America is a fascinating place with a rich cultural heritage. The rise of magical realism helped to illustrate that fact and bolster interest in Latin America, its countries and its cultures. However, magical realism is exactly that, it's a magical morphing of reality, a way of exoticizing the reality of life in Latin America. In that sense, magical realism created a strong sense of disconnect for readers, and created an unrealistic image of Latin America. In the end, I feel as though the works collected in McOndo close the gap that was created by the rise of magical realism and illustrates that the vast majority of societal issues shared by every person in the world. As such, in terms of societal issues, there is no significant disconnect between Latin America, and the rest of the world (North Korean might be an exception).

That being said, however, I didn't particularly enjoy McOndo after spending an entire term being tantalized by magical realism. As I read, I constantly felt like I was being cheated, like something was missing. There just wasn't enough magic in my relationship with McOndo for me to form the save kind of love affair I did with Cien años or El reino. I want a divorce.

Cien años III

Well, what a nice little twist of serendipity. I was almost certain that I should simply chalk the blog posts I failed to finish as missed opportunities. Thankfully, I now have the chance to give a piece of my mind some literature once again.

I'd be lying if I said my memory of the 3rd chunk of Cien años was perfect. The reality is, it feels like an eternity has passed since I read that section. However, now that I've had time to sit back and reflect on the book for a while, I get the unique opportunity to make some commentary on the third section of the book, and how I feel it ties into the overall scheme of the novel.

I could choose to focus on providing my thoughts and analysis of numerous distinct parts of the third reading, but I think it's a more useful exercise to provide some of my personal commentary and insight on one component of reading that struck me as being particularly interesting. It is a well established fact that one of the most important components of Cien años is its cast of characters. The characters are integral to Cien años success as a novel, and their interweaving stories are the threads that weave the fabric of the novel. With that being said, I found that one character in particular was of interest in the third section of the novel -- Ursula. Urusula is the matriarch of the Buendía family, and in many ways, is the glue that seems to keep the family from falling apart. She is selfless, and always puts the interests of the family members ahead of her own; she is also very solitary. When skimming through the third section of the novel again, I noticed a made a note on one of the pages that I found particularly interesting. Ursula is getting very old and going blind, and feels very lonely due to the "changes" that have taken place in the Buendia household. The note I made on on the page simply says "Ursula is 100 years of solitude." The solitary and lonely lifetime that she has spent as a member of the Buendia family is the personification of the book's title. Although Ursula is important in this respect, she is also symbolic of the passing of time, and it's somewhat cyclical nature at times -- one of the important pieces of commentary that I feel GGM tried to portray in his novel. I'm not going to pretend that this observation is some sort of profound realization that has never occurred to other readers of the novel.

Anyway, I'm going to stop rambling for now.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The course concludes...

Well, I'd be lying if I said I've been on top of my blog posts lately. This past month has been an absolute nightmare for me. Constant problem sets, massive group assignments, presentations and work outside of school really don't equate to me getting a lot of sleep. I guess I was asking for it by taking 6 courses in a semester and working part-time. Personal struggles aside, I really did enjoy the course, and more specifically the novels that we read. While I must admit my attendance started sliding for the latter part of the course, I still took the time to do the readings at home to keep on pace with the course.

To me the way the course panned out was rather innovative, and, at times, demanding. The volume of reading in this course was rather intimidating for me, especially as an econ student where reading isn't of paramount importance. I especially liked the blog posts we were assigned - they acted as an incentive to complete the readings and also come up with something unique or, in the best case, insightful to say. Even if you missed class lectures, by reading through the blog posts of the students in the class, you could get a very broad perspective of the material we covered and derive your own personal interpretations from the collective wisdom of the class. In the end, I think this led to a greater appreciation of the literature we studied. I like to think of the blog posts as a sort of "virtual book club" that we all became avid members of during the course.

As for magical realism itself, I now feel as though I am well versed in the subject - well, okay, as well versed as you can be for a novice literary aficionado. Either way, I firmly believe the manner in which the course was presented allowed us to gain a fuller appreciation of the genre as a whole, from its origins, to its climax. Ultimately, it was clear that the first two novels, while important and well written in their own rights, were just a warm up for Marquez's masterpiece. While I enjoyed Cien años I can't help but feel as though it deserves another, thorough re-read on my part. I think it's fair to say that many of the students in the class probably feel the same way. Marquez's work is not something that can be fully digested and interpreted with one simple reading. That being said, it's not surprising that volumes have been written about his book and that an entire course in itself could probably be devoted to the novel. At the end of the day, however, I feel satisfied with my first exposure to the genre of magical realism, even if I'm a complete noob.

I feel thankful for being a part of this course as it provided me nice gradual path to conquering a a truly great piece of literature.

Read a masterpiece... Check.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Trifecta Completed

For some reason I had a feeling this day would come. Today is a joyous day, a day of celebration, for I have the distinct honor of writing a highlight reel of my literary adventures. Well, okay, I'm really not as excited as the preceding sentence might have suggested, but I'm still pretty stoked. Lets get this show on the road!

The three contenders for MVN (Most Valuable Novel) this season are El reino de este mundo by Alejo Carpentier, Cien años de soledad by Gabriel García Márquez and Leyendas de Guatemala by Miguel Ángel Asturias. Each of the three has played well this season, but there can only be one true champion. Lets recap the excitement of this season.

Leyendas was the first player to get notice this season, and for good reason. Page after page, we were left dazzled by the visceral natural imagery and sense of fantasy in the novel. Coach Asturias really did an amazing job of bringing Guatemalan legends to life. Talking animals, divine signs from nature and an unhealthy obsession with linking the old to the new in Guatemala are just some of the features that made this novel stand out from the pack. Ultimately, however, Leyendas came up a bit short in the magical realism league. It definitely had some aspects that one might consider "magical" but came up pretty short in the realism department. Can't argue that this contender definitely made a significant impact though.

Next up we have El reino de este mundo by Alejo Carpentier. It's hard not to like this novel, it's really got some good moves. Set during the Haitian revolution, El reino has roots firmly planted in reality. Many of the characters were real people, and the same applies to many of the events contained within the novel. Luckily, the novel takes some liberties with its base of reality and embellishes the truth in a mystical and captivating way for the reader. Much of the mysticism in the novel helps create a contrast between the differing beliefs, attitudes and religious practices of the colonials in Haiti and the black slave populace. An interesting feature of this novel was undoubtedly the way in which Carpentier explored the gray area between what was distinctly colonial and what was distinctly black. Just as the color gray is a mixture of black and white, Carpentier explored the idea that the lines between colonials and slaves became blurred over the course of the revolution, and a third "hybrid" class was the result (This insight isn't pure bs, it's an observation from the literature for our wikipedia article). In the end Carpentier illustrates the brutal cyclical nature of conflict in the pursuit of progress.

Last but not least, Mr. Márquez's masterpiece, Cien años de soledad was probably one of the most captivating pieces of literature to ever grace my eyes. Reading Cien años was probably one of the single most moving literary experiences I have ever had. From the first page to the last, Márquez tells a story that is truly captivating. While the pacing of the novel itself feels frantic and the passing of time does not always seem continuous, Márquez manages to create an unbelievably deep and complex work. The novel illustrates the rise and fall of the Buendia family, which also coincides with the ascension and demise of the town in which they lived. Oh yeah, there's a revolution that happens too. While telling his story, Márquez tries to create a sense of "reality" through the characters and setting of the novel. However, this reality is distorted and spiked with magical elements. In this respect, Márquez creates a deeper sense of fiction, within his own fiction.

The difficult question that now must be answered is what can be said about these novels, in a comparative sense? As Jon mentioned in one of the first lectures, these novels represent the path to the birth of what we now refer to as magical realism. Leyendas was a bit raw as a novel and, in many respects, was not so much a novel about magical realism but rather a retelling of legends for future generations. As with any good story teller, Asturias presented the legends with his own personal twist that enriched the legends. Of the three novels, I feel that Leyendas has the least in common. Carpentier and Márquez's novels undoubtedly have the most in common. Thematically, Márquez and Carpentier both use their novels as a means to provide commentary and the brutal nature of armed conflict, and the futility of revolutions. This theme is central to Carpentier's novel, but plays a somewhat lesser role in Márquez's work. What really separates the two novels is the fact that Carpentier's setting and characters are based in reality, whereas Márquez creates a reality. Both novels have so called "magical" elements coursing through the pages, but the impact of these magical elements seems more pronounced in Márquez's novel.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The End of it All

Well well, we've finally arrived at the end of Marquez's masterpiece. I have to admit, I didn't get a chance to write my blog post last weekend since I was bogged down with massive projects from my other classes. Determined to get to the end of this novel, I sat down today and read the last 170 pages that I had left to get through. When I finally reached the end of the novel I felt like I was in a state of shock, deeply affected by the experience Marquez had given me.

Ultimately, I felt as though the final section of this novel was the most significant. Don't get me wrong, I'm not making this statement as though it's some sort of profound epiphany. Every novel follows the same formula - plot develops, builds to a climax and concludes. Therefore it's natural that things get more exciting around the climax and conclusion. It is the way in which an author takes us through those steps that separates the ordinary from the extraordinary. Clearly Marquez's novel is an example of the latter. Cien años has garnered its esteemed reputation for good reason and if a literary novice like myself can recognize that fact, it's a damn good sign. So, what pray tell made the last section of the novel so significant to me? I think it was the fact that I never would have predicted the novel ending in a manner so vastly different from what I expected. I would never have imagined that Marquez's novel would end in a pair of tragedies. Since the massacre in Macondo and the torrential rains that followed, it seems as though the town of Macondo had been afflicted by some sort of natural plague. The destruction wrought on Macondo and the banana plantation are ultimately the beginning of the end for not only Macondo, but also the Buendia family. It is from this point in the novel that Macondo slowly deteriorates and each member of the Buendia family becomes more withdrawn and solitary. Finally, novel culminates with the incestuous birth of a child with a pig tail and the realization, via reading Malquiades' texts that the demise of the family was already written. Macondo is wiped from existence by a tornado, meanwhile the Buendia legacy dies as it began.

It would be impossible to say that Marquez's conclusion is anything but pessimistic. Essentially, Marquez leaves the reader with the thought that time will always go on, it cannot be hidden from and when your time is up, it's over. It is quite an interesting feeling to walk away from a novel with the realization that death is an inevitable part of the future and to actually feel frightened by that fact.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Family Ties

I have to admit, when I started reading the second chunk of Cien años, I didn't quite have the same enthusiasm as I did with the first reading. Perhaps it was due to the fact that I wasn't afflicted with the same sense of intrigue and mystery that I experienced with the first section of the reading. However, after a few pages I was firmly gripped by Marquez's prose once again.

In my experience, the tone and mood of the second reading was markedly different than the first. In the first reading, I was captivated by the mysticism of Malquíades and the sense of adventure when Jose Arcadio explored the surrounding areas of Macondo. In my opinion, the second section of the reading was far grittier. The second section focused on much more political issues surrounding the revolution that was unfolding in Columbia, and more specifically the rifts caused in the Buendia family as a result of the revolution. The most prominent example of the inner conflict in the Buendia family is inevitably the relationship, or lack thereof, between Arcadio and the rest of his lineage. The burden that Arcadio carried with him since his infancy pushed him to betray his family's heritage and drove the most senior members of the family to cut all ties with him and view him as their enemy. At the same time, Marquez sheds light on the solidarity of the rest of the Buendia clan and illustrates the importance of family relationships, which inevitably is a theme that run deeply through the pages of the novel. When reading this section, I couldn't help but draw some parallels between the Godfather saga. Betrayal and deceit within a family are some of the most prominent features of the Godfather films. Inevitably, those who betray the family are cast aside and demonized by those who are loyal; which is exactly what Marquez has portrayed in his novel with the Buendia clan.

I also found myself at a bit of a loss while reading the second portion in the sense that I felt a serious absence of magical aspects. The only passage that truly resonated with me as being a concrete example of "lo mágico" was Rebeca's assassination of her husband. The blood that pooled from the dead body flowed out of the house as though it were alive, snaking it's way out of the house and into the streets. Marquez magicalized (yes, I realize that's not a real word) the blood and gave it seemingly sentient and conscious characteristics.

As a final point, while the writing styles are drastically different, I could not help but think of Carpentier's novel while reading through this section of Cien años due to the fact that both novels deal with revolutions, albeit in different manners.

That's it for now.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Un poco largo, un poco bueno..

Whew, back to reading, studying and attempting to pay attention in my classes. I never would have thought that a two week vacation would equate to complete memory loss - alright, maybe the excessive amounts of alcohol consumed played a small part. Anyway, after 3 days back in the grind, I'm starting to feel like a student again.

The title of this post really doesn't do justice to my feelings about Cien años so far. I picked the book up after class and decided to start reading before a much needed session at the gym. Who would have thought that when I started reading, I wouldn't want to stop. This book is just THAT good; so good in fact, that I had to be dragged out of my room kicking and screaming like a little child. For those readers concerned readers, it's ok - I made it to the gym. Following a delicious protein shake and a shower, I dove right back in and immediately became captivated again. It's really hard to pinpoint the exact reasons why I like this book because, in reality, there are just so many. Over the course of the 100 some pages I read I found myself experiencing a myriad of emotions. I laughed out loud at times and had many "oh man, this is epic" moments. I'm extremely happy we chose to save the best for last, it was well worth the wait.

I can't sit here and sing the praises of the book without adding some commentary on some of the moments that really stood out to me. García Marquez starts the story off with a bang and immediately captivates the reader from the opening sentence. As was mentioned in class, the first line creates a veil of mystery and intrigue that begs the reader to search for answers. From the get-go we are introduced to Malquíades, a gypsy with mysterious powers and knowledge far beyond the borders of the land in which the novel is set. I'm not talking about mysterious powers like Brad Pitt as the "pikey" from Snatch, with his supernatural one punch knockout ability and superhuman alcohol tolerance; rather, I'm referring to gypsies of the magical variety. Malchíades is truly a badass gypsy. I mean really, this guy survived every plague and epidemic known to man at the time and kept on going. Despite being twisted and mangled from his travels and experiences, he somehow manages to miraculously grow a new set of teeth and return to a youthful version of himself. No big deal. This is the type of magical realism I've been waiting for - the seamless and innocuous juxtaposition of the magical in an everyday setting. Although the tales of Malchíades were firmly captivating, the element I appreciated the most while reading was undoubtedly the humor that runs through Marquez's prose. The boiling soup that skitters off the table after a comment from Jose's son was a good for a chuckle, but the details of how José Arcadio Buendía consummated his marriage was truly mirthful. I just can't help but get the ridiculous image of Jose bursting into the bedroom with a bloodied spear, throwing it to the ground and ordering his wife to take her pants off - pretty romantic if I do say so myself. The most striking feature of these "ridiculous" comedic moments is that they seem to downplay the reality of what, by all standards, should be considered "real" in this novel. There is a stark contrast that becomes apparent when the text is viewed in this respect. The so called "real" elements of the book are downplayed with comedic devices; meanwhile, the magical elements are written about with an air of seriousness and rigidity. In all respects, my first taste of this novel has been delicious.

Although Marquez' prose is known to be a difficult read, even for native speakers, I found that the pages went wizzing by, and surprisingly, I didn't feel completely lost. Granted, my vocabulary deficiencies are still are source of frustration at times, it was easy to keep trucking along and enjoy myself while doing the reading.