BOOKS FICTION: The devil of a time with rabies

OF LOVE AND OTHER DEMONS by Gabriel Garca Mrquez, Cape pounds 9.99

GABRIEL Garca Mrquez is renowed for his ability to tell the tallest, most sprawling stories that somehow save themselves from collapse. Instead of attempting even more precarious heights - sure to please the many devotees of the elaborate and expansive aspects of his work - he has taken a more interesting risk with his new novel, a short book written with determined restraint.

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam