In his native Columbia, ‘Gabo’ is the most famous man alive (the most famous woman being his friend and fan Shakira). This is the book that made him a global figure and the story has almost become part of folklore, something that really happened. That’s odd, because it’s about a family curse, a book that foretells the future and the weather defying reason to help the people against a foreign company’s dominion. Along the way there’s a girl so pure that she ascends to heaven to evade lustful men and a boy born with a pig’s tail because his parents were too closely related. (See, I told you Middlesex was influenced by this tradition, and probably this very book).
You’re not supposed to read this the way you would a departure-lounge thriller. Neither are you to read it as a Worthy Tome. Amazon have it listed as a children’s book. Our library’s copy has clearly never been opened but just sat on a shelf making its former owner look clever. In Britain, more people talk about this kind of book than actually read them but, as I indicated, these aren’t forbiddingly difficult, just a bit unfamiliar. In Columbia, the book’s something taxi-drivers have all read. English-reading audiences are used to something a bit more well-behaved, with clearly-defined generic boxes to put things in and a linear progression. You have Historical Fiction over here and Fantasy over here and Family Saga over here and so on. Even delineating clear boundaries for what is and isn’t Magic Realism is an attempt to tame writers who don’t fit the bookseller’s neat categories. Most of my favourite books are exercises in taxonomy-evasion. Just to confuse matters, many of the details in the novel are taken from real events and situations. There’s research in between all the fairytale elements, and genuine, uncompromising anger at the causes of these past injustices. To confuse matters further, the main family in this saga tend to give their sons the same names across generations, so there are ‘Aureliano’s and ‘Arcadio’s hither and yon. It’s confused more than a few readers:
You might want to take notes on your first go, or just flag up anything you can’t follow for next time. The reasons why this book is the way it is are complex and connected to Columbia’s murky and bloody history (and, at the time it was written, present) but it’s as much as anything a book where people who inflict their stories on others come unstuck. To paraphrase an old 70s slogan: objectivity is European/ yanqui subjectivity. Malgudi is an island (sort of) upon which one man thought he could impose his will and vision of the world. That’s about all the help you’ll need for a first reading. Enjoy the ride and then maybe come back to it, armed with the copious online resources – which I recommend you steer clear of beforehand… yes, even Oprah – and see what else was in it.
By Tat Wood