Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a Colombian novelist and considered one of the most significant authors of the 20th Century, especially in the Spanish Language. In 1982 he was awarded the Nobel prize in Literature. García Márquez started as a journalist and wrote many acclaimed non-fiction works and short stories, but is best known for his novels, such as One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981), and Love in the Time of Cholera (1985).
Today’s Wednesday literature extract comes from one of his later novels ‘Of Love and Other Demons‘. I was recommended this book by the assistant in Panamericana a few months ago because she said it was her favourite work by Márquez and the one which initiated her into the beauty of his writing. I tried to read his Magnum Opus – One Hundred Years of Solitude in Spanish many years ago, but due to my inadequacy in Spanish I was unable to grasp many concepts, and I didn’t complete it. I recently finished reading Love and Other Demons (the English translated version) and was enormously impressed. He seems to center the story around the metaphor of love as madness and demonic possession.
On her twelfth birthday, Sierva Maria, the only child of a decaying noble family in an eighteenth-century South American seaport, is bitten by a rabid dog. Believed to be possessed, she is brought to a convent for observation. And into her cell stumbles Father Cayetano Delaura, who has already dreamed about a girl with hair trailing after her like a bridal train. As he tends to her with holy water and sacramental oils, Delaura feels something shocking begin to occur. He has fallen in love, and it isn’t long until Sierva Maria joins him in his fevered misery.
In the prologue below, García Márquez claims the novel is the fictional representation of a legend the author was told by his mother when he has 14 years old: of a 12-year-old girl who contracts rabies but was believed to be a ‘miracle-worker’, with long flowing copper hair that continues to grow after death. In this frame-story, it was only after an excavation of tombs that García Márquez is witness to the grave of a similar young girl with long red hair still attached to the skull, that he was inspired to write Of Love and Other Demons.
October 26, 1949, was not a day filled with important news. Maestro Clemente Manuel Zabala, editor in chief of the newspaper where I learned the essentials of being a reporter, concluded our morning meeting with two or three routine suggestions. He did not assign a specific story to any writer. A few minutes later, he was informed by telephone that the buriel crypts of the old Convent of Santa Clara were being emptied, and with few illusions he said to me:
‘Stop by there and see if you can come up with anything.’
The historic convent of the Clarissan nuns, which had been turned into a hospitak a century earlier, was to be sold, and a five-star hotel built in its place. The gradual collapse of the roof had left its beautiful chapel exposed to the elements, but three generations of bishops and abbesses and other eminent personages were still buried there. The first step was to empty the crypts, transfer the remains to anyone who claimed them, and bury the rest in a common grave.
I was surprised by the crudeness of the procedure. Laborers opened the tombs with pickaxes and boes, took out the rutting coffins, which broked apart with the simple act of moving them, and separated bones from the jumble of dust, shreds of clothing, and dessicated hair. The more illustrious the dead the more arduous the labor, because the workers had to rummage through the remains and sift the debris with great carein order to retrieve precious stones and articles of gold and silver.
The fireman copied the information that was on each stone into a notebook, arranged the bones into distinct piles, and placed a sheet of paperwith a name on top of every mound to keep them all separate. And so the first thing I saw when I entered the temple was a long line of stacked bones, beated by the savage October sun pouring in through the holes in the roof and with no more identity than a name scrawled in pencil on a piece of paper. Almost half a century later, I can still feel the confusion produced in me by that terrible testimony to the devastating passage of the years.
There, among many others, were a viceroy of Peru and his secret lover; Don Toribio de Cáceres y Virtudes, bishop of this diocese; several of the convent’s abbesses, including Mother Josefa Miranda; and the bachelor of arts Don Cristóbal de Eraso, who devoted half his life to building the coffered ceilings. One crypt was sealed with the stone of the second Marquis de Casalduero, Don Ygnacio de Alfaro y Dueñas, but when it was opened they found it empty; it had never been used. The remains of his marquise, however, Doña Olalla de Mendoza, had their own stone in the adjacent crypt. The foreman attached no importance to this: It was not unusual for an American-born aritocrat to have prepared his own tomb and be buried in another.
The surprise lay in the third niche of the high alter, on the side where the Gospels were kept. The stone shattered at the first blow of the pickax, and a stream of living hair the intense colour of copper spilled out of the crypt. The foreman, with the help of the laborers, attempted to uncover all the hair, and the more of it they brought out, the longer and more abundant it seemed, until at last the final strands appeared still attached to the skull of a young girl. Nothing else remained in the niche except a few small scattered bones, and on the dressed stone eaten away by the saltpeter only a given name with no surnames was legible: SIERVA MARIA DE TODOS LOS ÄNGELES. Spread out on the floor, the splendid hair measured twenty-two meters, elevn centimeters.
The impassive foreman explained that human hair grew a centimeter a month after death, and twenty-two meters seemed aq good average for two hundred years. I, on the other hand, did not think it so trivial a matter, for when I was a boy my grandmother had told methe legend of a little twelve-year-old marquise with hair that trailed behind her like a bridal train, who had dies of rabies caused by a dogbite and was venerated in the towns along the Caribbean coast for the many miracles she had performed. The idea that the tomb might be hers was my news item for the day, and the origin of this book.
GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ
Cartagena de Indias, 1994.