Gabriel García Márquez
Of Love and Other Demons
(trans: Edith Grossman) Penguin Books 1996
Rabid dog bites girl;
parents, priest, bishop, nuns not
bit but rabid too
I don’t regret having delayed completing Of Love and Other Demons for several years as I don’t think I would have appreciated this novella half of much when I first started. My impression then was that this was a slow-moving story with much description but little happening. How wrong I was! The title is so apt as this is an exploration of how obsessions can take precedence over basic humanity. The enigma that is Sierva Maria is the catalyst for upheaval in a coastal Colombian town (a fictionalised Cartagena) of a couple of centuries ago: bitten by a rabid dog but surviving against the odds, her very existence seems to infect all she comes into contact with. Many of these individuals then exhibit a rabidity that has nothing to do with a physical ailment and everything to do with diseases of the mind: irrational superstition, jealousy, inhumanity and, yes, love, but obsessive love akin to that of a stalker.
Young Sierva Maria gets taken by her father to the convent of the Santa Clara nuns where she is imprisoned before her exorcism, an exorcism that is deemed necessary because she speaks various African languages and appears different, from her long unshorn hair to her unconventional behaviours. Marquez exposes several human frailties in the local populace, from xenophobia to snobbery and from drug addiction to political expediency. After her incarceration and the witnessing of the eclipse of the sun the downfall of Sierva Maria is sealed by the reverberations her mere existence has occasioned: the unexplained deaths of the innocent and not-so-innocent, the collapse of the interrogating bishop, the leading astray of the studious young priest.
In amongst it all are the magical events that one can almost accept as real, epitomised by the belief that hair continues to grow after death when the young girl’s tomb is opened in the mid-twentieth century. Such examples of so-called magical realism are of course metaphors, for Márquez is indicating that stories and rumours also grow even and especially after death. In all of this the one truly rational voice is that of the atheist Spanish Jew who, though he has escaped to the colonies, is still the subject of suspicion and hatred. In this scholarly and gruff medical man we can dimly make out an authorial figure, an outsider whose observations point out the absurdities of conventional thinking and living.
My first Márquez tale, Of Love and Other Demons is beautifully narrated, certainly in this translation by Edith Grossman, with memorable characters and profound questioning of the status quo. As the tragedy moves towards its inevitable conclusion, with a shocking short burst of violence, Márquez still manages to infuse the tale with a sense of optimism despite its critique of human nature. If he manages to avoid any real suggestion of paedophilia (one of the charges levelled recently by the Russian Orthodox Church against his writings) it is done with enough subtlety and ambiguity to escape the notice of all but a few suspicious minds and certainly with no suggestion of approval. The real tragedy is that so few people visit Sierva Maria with the love that all humans need and want, and that those who do, like her father, are often too late.
At another level Marquez’ novella can be seen as a Sleeping Beauty / Snow White retelling, with a hint of Rapunzel. The striking young girl with extraordinary long hair, bitten by a rabid dog, incarcerated in a cell in a Colombian convent and violently assaulted, visited in secret by an infatuated young priest (though there’s no overt suggestion of the rape found in early versions of the Grimm Sleeping Beauty story), whose hair continues to grow even when she is dead and buried: all this may have been an unconscious (or possibly conscious) re-working of the motifs of the spinning wheel spindle, Snow White being cloistered in the dwarfs’ house, the visits by the witch and the prince, and the attraction of female hair like Rapunzel’s for predatory males. All reset in South America and reportedly based on a news item the young Marquez was sent to report on.
The original convent which inspired the news story which inspired the novella is still standing and still functioning as a hotel, and Gabo readers make literary pilgrimages to stay there and marvel at the crypt where Sierva Maria de Todos Los Angeles was buried in a niche. For me her real memorial is this beautifully crafted fable.
Repost of review first published May 22, 2012: I hope to include a few more magic realism titles in my reading for 2016, and this less well-known novel by an acknowledged master of the genre should kickstart that process. Also featured on Zoe Brooks’ online review Magic Realism