BOOKS FICTION: The devil of a time with rabies
OF LOVE AND OTHER DEMONS by Gabriel Garca Mrquez, Cape pounds 9.99
Sunday 23 July 1995
Garca Mrquez once witnessed the disinterment of the skeleton of a young girl with over 22 metres of red hair. While this had a plausible physiological explanation, Garca Mrquez was also reminded of the legend of a marquise who died young of rabies and was said to have had hair "like a bridal train". The novel is based on this legend, and while Garca Mrquez draws from it familiar themes of faith, passion, history and fate, this narrative is markedly more measured and less crowded, its focus averted from the larger events with which it is ultimately concerned.
Eighteenth-century Cartagena is a place through which life passes, literally so as the port is a trading post for slaves. The city is in decay and still dependent upon Spain as the remote provider of cultural sustenance, social status and religious command. The marquise Sierva Maria's parents are equally in ruins: her effete father lies "rotting in his hammock" while her mother, addicted to fermented honey and cacao, stays bilious and incontinent in her room. They despise the girl who has been brought up speaking Yoruban and sleeping with the slaves. As they wait for the rabies to manifest itself, the marquis, in a dubious confusion of panic and determination, issues an open invitation to every kind of quack healer, whose violent ministrations almost kill her. The bishop intervenes, pronounces Sierva Maria possessed and consigns her to a convent to be exorcised. This duty is given to a cerebral young priest, Cayetano Delaura, who wakes from a world of theological ideas to fall fatally in love.
The affair between the priest and the girl is described in staidly florid language which suggests that it is less about actuality and more about an ideal. Their love does not stand a chance in the face of other more voracious demons: religious zeal, superstition, power and greed. Repeated allusions to physical incontinence, disease and death suggest that the body cannot contain these demons of human nature: the terrified girl, told she has the devil in her, smears excrement around her cell; the bloated bishop's wary delicacy implies a fear that he might burst; and the mother's life is a cycle of binges, enemas and purges.
Voltaire appears in the book as a dangerous source of enlightenment, a writer of "perfect prose" whose combination of spareness and surprise is borrowed by Garca Mrquez to contain the resounding contrasts of his story. The narrative is like a seismograph, taut calmness punctuated by bursts of highly charged imagery or language, in a nevertheless unbroken line. Voltaire is also evoked in the priest's railing against "demons of rancour, intolerance, imbecility" and in the characterisation of those involved in the girl's redemption. They are satirical distillations but not caricatures: the cynical, casually manipulative bishop; the unworldly priest; the maverick, humanist Jewish doctor; the abbess lost in a maze of religious dogma. Sierve Maria herself is as inscrutable as an icon.
The novel's epigraph is taken from Aquinas' writings on resurrection, and the story seems most centrally concerned with the struggle to reconcile seeing with believing, reason with faith. In the retelling of this legend, Garca Mrquez has shown how the fantastic and the real support one another: those who flourish accept the paradoxical nature of their experience, a freedom granted here only to slaves, children and Jews, who are already in some way ostracised or without a voice.
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
Shock poll shows voters believe Ukip is to the left of the Tories
New era of cheap oil 'will destroy green revolution'
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Ukip founder Alan Sked and Nigel Farage 'begged Enoch Powell to stand as a candidate'
Ukip candidate jokes about 'shooting peasants' in racist and homophobic rant