by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Alfred A. Knopf
At first it seems rather surprising that a translator as extraordinarily gifted as Edith Grossman should have rendered the title of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's new book, Doce cuentos peregrinos, as Strange Pilgrims. The Spanish literally means something like "Twelve Peregrine Tales." Yet a Spanish/English dictionary will tell you that "peregrino," besides "pilgrim" or "peregrine," also means "strange," "exceptional," and "perfect." It's easy to sympathize with Grossman, for there is no way to convey these connotations in one word. However, all those words are perfectly applicable to Garcia Marquez's first book since The General in His Labyrinth.
The stories in Strange Pilgrims present twelve pilgrims, twelve wanderers lost in a foreign land. What makes this deceptively simple Chaucerian structure striking and relevant is that the travelers happen to be Latin American and the foreign land happens to be Europe. Although Latin America and Europe have had a relationship not unlike that of the United States and England, the former interaction is vastly more complicated and tortuous. The U.S. need no longer have an inferiority complex with respect to Europe, such as was depicted in Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad or in just about all of Edith Wharton's novels. The U.S. can now stand as an equal with the European nations; indeed, it has come to overshadow them. Latin America has had no such luck. In all sorts of pervasive ways, Latin America still lives with the burden of Europe, and the stories in Strange Pilgrims play with the meaning of that legacy.
The first story in the collection, "Bon Voyage, Mr. President," introduces a deposed Caribbean leader living in exile in Geneva. His circumstances are reduced, his health failing and he has no friends save a man who wants to sell him a funeral package. The President is a product of the Spanish power structure in the Americas. Dictators like Diaz and Rosas merely continued what the conquistadors and the Spanish monarchy had begun. And so the President is an exile in Europe, the place that engendered his kind, and paradoxically it is not until he returns to Latin America that he finds life.
Next comes "The Saint," a story about Margarito Duarte, a Colombian man whose dead daughter's body has miraculously not decayed and who travels to Rome to have her canonized. He spends twenty-two years on his quest, lugging his daughter's corpse around in a cello case, surviving a succession of Popes and battling the insurmountable Vatican bureaucracy. Garcia Marquez's prose renders this grotesque premise poignant. Margarito is the (Latin) American innocent abroad, encountering a world he knows nothing about and which he is not prepared to confront.
For Margarito, as for many of the other characters in the stories, Europe is a new world, and they become conquistadors of a sort, discovering the people who "discovered" them. Garcia Marquez orchestrates this series of reversals with wry wit and irony. Latin American intellecutals have long remarked that for Europeans the Americas were a sort of blank page on which they could write what they dreamt of and needed and imagined. America was a utopia which they tried to possess and in which they tried to create a different version of Europe. And America was also a wilderness, a primeval and dangerous territory which could swallow the innocent European.
For Garcia Marquez's Amercian peregrinos, Europe is a perilous place, a land of unknown dangers where there are no signposts to guide the traveler. In "Seventeen Poisoned Englishmen," Garcia Marquez writes of Prudencia Linares, and old woman who is making a pilgrimage to see the Pope. As her ship arrives in Naples, the reader is treated to the woman's thoughts: "Every voyage must be like this, she thought, suffering for the first time in her life the sharp pain of being a foreigner, while she leaned over the railing and contemplated the vestiges of so many extinct worlds in the depths of the water."
The characters in the stories all experience in varying degrees "the sharp pain of being a foreigner." And, just as America was dangerous because it was so new, Europe is dangerous because it is so old, so filled with "extinct worlds." Few of these travelers set adrift in their absent father's land survive the perils of the decrepit continent. In "The Ghosts of August," a family travels to an Italian castle owned by a Caribbean writer. The writer has remodeled certain parts of the castle, and thus metaphorically left his mark on Europe, but there are deeper and more ancient powers in the castle that assert themselves in the swift and brutal denouement. In "The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow," a Colombian woman goes into a Parisian hospital to be treated for a minor cut and is never seen again. The protagonist of "I Only Came to Use the Phone" ends up in a Kafkaesque insane asylum. The two children in "Light is Like Water" drown in a current of electric light. In "Tramontana," a Caribbean boy is driven mad by a wind that blows in the south of Spain.
The stories in Strange Pilgrims are remarkable stylistically as well as thematically. As Garcia Marquez narrates in his preface, these stories had a gestation of almost twenty years. This long travail might have made his ideas stale, but instead they seem surprisingly fresh and unaffected. Garcia Marquez's touch is lighter and more collected than in his landmark novels, his style more restrained and assured. Gone is some of his characteristic flamboyance. He almost appears to liberate himself from the magical realism which he left as legacy and burden to the writers of Latin America. He veers towards surrealism at times, and the influence of Kafka is quite noticeable, as are traces of Mexican novelist Juan Rulfo.
These tales are the work of a master entering a new period and painting with smaller brush strokes. They are treatises on exile, displacement and orphanhood that also contain meditations on old age, the approach of death, the suddenness of life and the redemptive power of love. In Garcia Marquez pilgrimage across a vast landscape, the destination is for the most part unimportant; what matters is the wondrous journey.