I’m Not Here to Give a Speech by Gabriel García Márquez; book review

 

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The Independent Culture

I enjoyed reading this short collection of Gabriel García Márquez’s speeches but I’m not sure it told me many things I didn’t already know. That might sound complacent – Márquez is, after all, the Nobel Prize-winning author of masterpieces, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) – but, although they can be beguilingly lucid, the insights in these speeches seem unlikely to prove as enduring as scenes from his haunting, final novella Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2005).

Much of what Márquez says, in speeches delivered between 1944 and 2007, is so wise that it can sound obvious. “Private education is the most effective form of social discrimination,” he tells South American leaders. “Writing becomes more difficult the more you do it,” he says on receiving a literary prize. This is well-earned, well-expressed, but, if you read writers’ meditations on their craft, you probably know that many, such as Thomas Mann, offer variations on it. This is one reason why this book might suit serious young readers, hungry for the clarity that can light the path through years of confusion. Some speeches work when read in a similar spirit to Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (1929).

Like William Faulkner, who in his Nobel Prize Speech spoke of “the young men and women… who will some day stand here where I am standing,” Márquez speaks with the future in mind. His own Nobel Speech, from 1982, is this book’s highlight, articulating the challenges faced by Latin American writers of his generation (“the insufficiency of conventional devices to make our lives believable”) and calling for a utopia where “peoples condemned to 100 years of solitude at last and forever have a second chance on earth.”  

Apparently, Márquez, who died in April aged 87, considered oratory “the most terrifying of human commitments.” You’d never guess, although he uses his reluctance to speak as a way to be self-deprecating and forge intimacy with audiences. In the book’s final speech, from 2007, he attributes the popularity of his fiction, not to his own vision, but to Spanish language readers’ thirst and curiosity.

He identifies in his work a thematic “obsession with different forms of power” but language is his love and twice he quotes Guatemalan writer Luiz Cardoza y Aragón: “Poetry is the only concrete proof of the existence of man.” As Márquez describes the devastation wrought by “narcotraffic” in Colombia, he hails his countrymen’s “boundless creativity” and manages to strike an optimistic note. He declares solidarity with Latin Americans, who have been scattered around the globe by war and persecution, but three of the speeches were delivered in Cuba, and what’s to be made of Márquez’s friendship with Fidel Castro? If writers must, as Chinua Achebe insisted, side with the powerless, where does this leave victims of the Cuban regime in Marquez’s reckoning? 

Edith Grossman’s translations generally avoid the convolutions which some critics have cited in English versions of Márquez’s novels. However, a small number of repetitions, which are understandable across a lifetime’s speeches, are detrimental to a short book. “I believe all our lives would be better,” says Márquez, “if each of you would always carry a book in your knapsack.” This volume should fit nicely inside a Christmas stocking, perhaps belonging to a young writer.

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