Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Road to Macondo

When people know you are an avid reader (and if you have found your way here I assume you are), you no doubt have friends who are always buttonholing you and exclaiming with no small sense of urgency, "Hey, you gotta read this book...I'll lend it to you when I'm finished." You're nodding, you're smiling, and deep down you are hoping they never finish the book, because, if they do, they will expect you to put it at the very summit of the Everest-sized stack of books you already want to read, then will ask you daily what you think of it. And, of course, it's not at all the kind of book you would ever pick up on your own--wrong genre, too much (or too little) romance, doesn't agree with your politics, is filled with characters with whom you have nothing in common, is translated from the original Babylonian by a Yugoslavia editor living in France, and, to top it off, you never heard of this writer. Well, yes, that's kind of how it usually seems to work, and you return the book after a month, having read the back cover and a review in Kirkus, and make vapid comments that fool neither you nor your friend, though you both pretend they do; sometimes, however, it all comes together, as it did years ago, when my friend, biologist John Howard, recommended I read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Since Marquez has just passed away (6 March 1927 - 17 April 2014), I thought I would mark the sad occasion with a remembrance of the work that brought him, happily, to my attention.

One Hundred Years of Solitude is set in the fictional town of Macondo, Colombia, which is in many ways based on Marquez's birth town of Aracataca. John Howard's interest in the novel came naturally enough since his wife is from a very small village in Colombia and through her John developed an appreciation for all aspects of Colombian culture. The book is a seven-generation saga of the Buenida family, whose original patriarch founded the town after falling asleep on the riverbank and dreaming of a city of mirrors. My first reaction to getting the book was about what you might expect, but since he had gifted me an English translation (keeping the original Spanish edition for himself) I felt I at least had to skim through it. As I read the lush and exotic narrative and was bombarded with images of a world that was as magical as it was mundane, where visions and dreams were as real as brick and stone, I became a captive of Marquez's prose. At the same time that I was enchanted by the narrative and the parade of characters, generation after generation, I was also caught by the ebb and flow of the history depicted in the novel. Even though these characters lived and breathed in the solitude of Macondo, they were yet caught up in all the critical junctures of Colombian history, the revolutions, the slaughters, and the ravages by the greedy, both foreign and domestic. As they lived their little lives, dreaming of cities of ice and glass, they did not learn from their mistakes they were doomed to repeat their foibles and follies, generation after generation, just as were their fellow Colombians. They could no more escape the destructive cycles of history than can we ourselves.

Instead of John Howard pestering me about how I was enjoying the book, I began pestering him, though, of course, I did not see it as "pestering." I just wanted to talk about the characters and the country, and since he knew first-hand the culture and history of Colombia, I mined him incessantly for information. A day or two after I started talking to him, he started a project that kept him in the field until after I had finished the book and had moved on to other stories...but I am sure his absence had nothing to do with me...I think.

Having discovered Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I went on to read other of his books, and although I enjoyed all of them immensely, as I was both entertained and challenged, none of them quite had the impact upon as did One Hundred Years of Solitude. As both reader and writer, I've sometimes considered the idea that a writer is born to tell one story and one story only, but such is the way of the world that some writers never quite discover the one story they are supposed to tell, while others tell that one story, then keep on writing anyway, ever chasing themselves, trying to repeat the unique. I don't know if the notion is true, but in One Hundred Years of Solitude, I think Marquez told the one story he was born to tell.

Friday, April 11, 2014

My Silver Age Primers

Everybody who enjoys reading loves books, but why did you learn to read in the first place? You might have learned to read because you had an innate love of books as intrinsic objects, but I do not think that would be common. I think most people learned to read, then developed a love of books and the printed word. You might have learned to read, as many people did, in a schoolroom from a primer for a good grade or just to graduate so you could leave your teacher behind; or you might have learned at home from parents. Me? I sorta taught myself before I started school, and my reading material was intertwined with why I wanted to read: I wanted to read comic books by myself and not depend upon Uncle Bob.

Don't get me wrong. I loved my Uncle Bob dearly and appreciated that he took the time to read to me, and that he did not mind reading about the adventures of Superman, Batman, and the other DC superheroes of the Silver Age. At the time, it never occurred to me that Uncle Bob read the comics to me because I was a handy excuse for reading them himself. However, as much as I appreciated his efforts, I thought he was long on enthusiasm but short on skill--he didn't do the voices, he read in a sort of hesitant monotone, and how he handled sound effects left much to be desired. I had probably just turned four when it occurred to me that if I learned to read myself, not only could I enjoy a comic book whenever I wanted, but I could give the four-color heroes and villains the voices they deserved. So I did.

Of course, once I started reading, I discovered there were comics beyond just the few Uncle Bob would sneak home when Aunt Joyce wasn't looking. My first introduction to written science fiction and mystery came courtesy DC's space-oriented titles and their weird fiction comics, such as House of Mystery. I also learned, to my amazement and enjoyment, there were more comics in the world than just DC's line. I don't want you to think I was rotting my mind with just comic books, for once I was hooked on reading I had to move on to children's books like Go Dog Go and The Whales Go By (two of my favorite), then the series of juvenile fiction books like Tom Swift Jr, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.


In the years that have passed my life has been one that could as easily measured in books as it could be in the events that make us who we are. There was the discovery of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke and Ray Bradbury, who influenced me as a writer, and HP Lovecraft and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who influenced me more. There was James Bond and Philip Marlowe, Joseph Conrad and William Shakespeare, and the Bible (especially Job and Jonah) and various encyclopedias (yes, I read them). There have been spies, detectives, world savers, clever dogs, London fogs, alien worlds without number, narrow Arkham streets, the biographies of great men and women, smoke-filled pubs, men without a country, villains who found comeuppance or redemption, courage and cowardice,  exotic Chinese ports, Cairo bazaars, opium dens, the gleaming towers of Science City, and men who overcame fear to do far better things than they have ever done before.

But it all started with comic books...


Two enduring traits came out of learning to read because I loved comic books and did not love the way Uncle Bob read aloud. First, when I read aloud to my grandchildren or the dogs (the dogs actually seem a bit more appreciative, but they are easier to please) I use different voices for each character, complete with appropriate accents, and I am really great at sound effects. Second, I still love comic books, still read comic books and still have comic books...and refuse to call them graphic novels. However, the comic books I have are not the ones I grew up with, but ones I've accumulated since the 1970's. What happened to the old ones, you ask, the ones I cut lawns, recycled bottles and did not spend my milk money to buy? As anyone who has joined the Army knows, you can't take anything with you to basic training except your clothes and the last good haircut you'll have for the next six years; you leave your stuff at the old homestead knowing that your parents value your treasures just as much as you do...I wonder how long I was gone before Mom had her first yard sale. Nuff said!