On Granta, on Marquez, and on re-reading.
I came to know about Granta fairly recently. Growing up in Kerala I had never heard about it; even if I had I wouldn’t have called it a magazine. When I eventually found this publication, it blew my mind. It had one of the most versatile collection of artists. The only other magazine which impressed me so much was The Paris Review — you name an artist, there is an interview with them in it. But this story is not about The Paris Review, this is about Granta. Well, not all about Granta, but about Granta too.
I don’t subscribe to Granta, nor do I buy most of it. It’s an expensive magazine, so I usually buy an edition if someone suggests it or if I find some interesting article. So when a friend of mine suggested that I check out the Spring 2019 edition of Granta, I went about and bought it. It was their 40th anniversary edition, “a selection of fiction and essays published in the magazine between 1979 and 2013”; and what a collection it is! Kazio Ishiguro, Angela Carter, Bruce Chatwin, Amitav Ghosh, Ryszard Kapuscinski, and John Berger just to name a few. But the one which got my eye and the one which I finished reading the day I got the book was none of these — it was an article called ‘Dreams for Hire’ by Marquez which he wrote for Granta 41, Autumn 1992. And like anything Marquez, it was surreal. It was not fiction, mind you. It was reportage, and although I adore the fiction by Marquez, there is something so beautiful and melancholic about his reportage.
Marquez starts by narrating an incident of a terrifying wave that crashed on to the hotel in Havana where he was staying. He goes on to explain the scenes of chaos after the incident. Although it is not clear how many casualties resulted due to the monster wave, he does speak about one particular death — the death of a woman, who was wearing a peculiar ring, an Egyptian ring in the shape of a serpent with emeralds for eyes. He believes it to be a Colombian lady he had met in Vienna decades back. When he had asked her how she ended up so far from her home she told him that she “hires herself out to dream”. Marquez then goes on to narrate the story of this gypsy-like lady. He ends up finding out that most probably it was her body which they found that day.
Marquez, in an interview with Peter Green for The Paris Review, mentions a great technique he uses to make surreal and seemingly supernatural stuff look real to the reader. He says, “That’s a journalistic trick which you can also apply to literature. For example, if you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants flying in the sky, people will probably believe you. One Hundred Years of Solitude is full of that sort of thing. That’s exactly the technique my grandmother used.” Marquez uses this technique throughout his works — be it fiction, non-fiction or reportage; and that makes him special in the world of magical realism. Take any of the big names in this genre from around the globe — Borges, Allende, Rushdie, OV Vijayan, Murakami — none of their works have the allure Marquez’s does. And it is this peculiar quality of his works that makes me want to re-read his works. If he can make facts look like fiction, without adding anything untrue, imagine what he can do with fiction?
I have read One hundred years of Solitude from end to end at least thrice, during different phases of my life. Each time it felt like a new book. I read it first while in high school, too early to comprehend the enormity and complexity of this masterpiece. I saw my mother reading it and I asked her how is it. She said it’s a really cool book. I opened the book — the front page had the picture of the Buendia family tree, with their repeating names, confusing links, and ambiguity. I had recently graduated from Hardy boys and Sheldon to Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and I was getting more confident about exploring new and more serious authors. I did finish the novel, but I am quite sure I did not catch the whole drift of the novel then, especially the historical references. I was fascinated by the structure, the cyclical form, and the presence of an Indian character (but with the Spanish name Melquíades) who writes a book of prophecy in Sanskrit which is central to the main story arc. Marquez mentions that the letters in that book looked like “clothes hanging from a line” which was a funny take on the Devanagari script in which Sanskrit is written. Another thing which haunted me for a while was the part where the whole town gets infected by insomnia.
I read it again much later, probably during my college time. By that time I had a bit more understanding of the history of Latin America. This time I got the reference about the United Fruit Company and the massacres they promulgated. I also understood the constant strife and civil wars which the Colombians had to go through for decades, just because of their geographical proximity to the North American terrorists in Washington DC. Fiction? Fact? No, it’s just Marquez.
The third time I read the book was after reading the first part of his autobiography which is filled with anecdotes and incidents from his early life. It starts with him going back to his birthplace Aracataca with his mother — a journey he is forced to take due to her compulsion. I had read somewhere that Marquez created Macondo based on his home town, but only when I read his autobiography that I understood how closely it resembles Aracataca. Another thing which stood out was the uncanny similarity between Ursula and his grandmother.
So, coming back to Granta 147 — remember I had listed out the names of some of the great contributors in that edition? I must confess that I haven’t read any of those articles yet. But I have read Marquez’s article twice already — the day I got the book, and today. I am sure if I find this book lying around after a few months I would still turn to page number 205 and read the article again; and as with anything written by Marquez, I will once again sit and wonder how much of it is fiction and how much truth.