A pair of ragged claws
I WAS away when Colombian master Gabriel Garcia Marquez died, aged 87, on April 17, so this is the first chance I’ve had to put down a few thoughts. In the responses to his death, what stood out for me were the pedestalpolishing tributes by other world famous writers. I don’t say that in a tarnishing way; surely some pedestals deserve polishing.
Peter Carey, writing in The Guardian, said his life was changed by “the greatest writer of our time”, specifically by his 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, which “threw open the door I had been so feebly scratching on’’. Ian McEwan put Garcia Marquez in the same class as Dickens, an assessment endorsed by Salman Rushdie: “No writer in the world has had a comparable impact in the past half-century. No writer since Dickens was so widely read, and so deeply loved …” Chilean writer Isabel Allende said: “My maestro has died. I will not mourn him because I have not lost him: I will continue to read his words over and over.” That last point is comforting. We never lose great writers because their words outlive them (and us).
My own relationship with Garcia Marquez, who was named Nobel laureate in literature in 1982, is not as deep as I would like (a common theme that). I read One Hundred Years of Solitude and his 1985 novel Love in the Time of Cholera when I was a young man and thought them remarkable books. But for whatever reason I didn’t go on to read his other works. Nor have I revisited those two celebrated novels. My colleague Nicolas Rothwell, whom I trust on such matters, says Gabo’s greatest work is his 2002 autobiography Living to Tell the Tale, so there is yet another addition to the to-read list.
Coincidentally enough, when I went to my haphazard bookshelves to check something in Gerald Martin’s well-received 2008 biography of Garcia Marquez, I noted that the next book along was Sir Vidia’s Shadow, Paul Theroux’s skin-peeling (for author and subject) 1998 memoir of his friendship with VS Naipaul. Which popped a thought into my head before I could arrest it: is Naipaul, the 2001 Nobel laureate, a greater writer than Marquez? Well, all I can say is that I’ve read a lot more Naipaul.
Carey makes an important point in passing when he says that “while a writer’s greatness can be marked in many ways, it can be objectively measured, across the barriers of translation and oceans, by his or her influence on succeeding generations’’.
The key word is “translations”. Garcia Marquez wrote in Spanish, so when Carey says One Hundred Years of Solitude changed his life, some of the credit for that must go to the translator. “Translating means expressing an idea or a concept in a way that’s entirely different from the original, since each language is a separate system. And so, in fact, when I translate a book written in Spanish, I’m actually writing another book in English.’’ That’s Edith Grossman, who has been Garcia Marquez’s main English translator for more than 25 years, talking to The Washington Post after the author’s death. In the same interview, Grossman was asked which of his books was most difficult to translate. Her reply: “Everything he wrote was gold. They were all wonderful to work on; I can’t say which was the most difficult.’’ She said while Garcia Marquez was “not particularly engaged in the process”, he disliked adverbs that ended in the English equivalent of –ly. (“I sometimes felt like a contortionist as I searched out alternatives.’’)
But the best quote in the interview comes, fittingly, from Garcia Marquez. Grossman says that when she signed up to do a translation of Don Quixote, Garcia Marquez said “Dicen que me estas poniendo cuernos con Cervantes”, which she translates, faithfully one assumes, as: “I hear you’re two-timing me with Cervantes.’’
May 3-4, 2014