Michael Woods Key Note Address

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text of his keynote address. All rights reserved by Michael Wood.

[Key West, January 11, 2007]

The Liberation of Macondo

We are often told that truth is stranger than fiction, and the phrase provides the title of a current film directed by Marc Forster, about a fictional character who turns out to be real.   That is, he is fictional as far the novelist who has invented him knows; and real as well, real as far he knows.   Truth is not actually stranger than fiction in this case.  It is the fiction.

But of course truth sometimes is stranger than fiction.  And sometimes it isn’t.  Many truths, as we all know, are far from strange, and extremely boring.   Like the fact that three times four is twelve; that December regularly follows November; that certain baseball teams will never win the World Series; that apples don’t fall upwards; and that real estate prices just don’t fall.   We could agree that any of these propositions could be made interesting.  But they are not, on the face of it, strange.

There is something a little strange about the idea that we might need to be told that truth is stranger than fiction.  What did we think?   That truth is usually steady and dull, scarcely ever strange?   So straight and predictable that its occasional strangeness calls for a special remark?   Hard to see how such a notion could survive a couple of days reading of the papers or watching the news on tv, or even talking to the neighbours.   Many novelists, like Philip Roth, have felt something like despair at the thought of how extravagantly fictional a given piece reality can look; how its sheer unlikeliness seems to do the imaginative writer out of a job.   ‘Who could have invented Eisenhower?’ Roth once asked, and there have been many echoing variations on the question since.   

So it’s no great insight to say that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction and sometimes not, and it is not going to get us far.   Not going to get us anywhere, if we stay at this level of generality.  Fortunately it’s always interesting to look at the details, and we can wonder specifically what is stranger than what, and that is the topic of this talk.

It’s a very great pleasure to be here at the 25th Key West Literary Seminar, and after a few more than twenty-four hours in this magical place, I already feel it is… adequately strange.   It’s a particular pleasure also and a great honour to be giving a talk associated with the name of John Hersey, a man who knew a lot about truth and a lot about fiction and a lot about strangeness.  A little later I’m going to call him as a witness in the case of truth versus fiction, or if you like, of strange versus strange.

I want to talk about a place called Macondo, the place we find in Gabriel García Márquez’ great novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, and quite a bit of his other fiction, and then about certain extensions of the qualities of this place.  I have organized my thoughts around the idea of the liberation of Macondo, a notion I thought I had borrowed from Miles but perhaps he borrowed from me.   I found it in the program anyway.   A sub-title could be  ‘Five Faces of Strangeness’.   This has the advantage that when I get to my fifth face you’ll know I’m nearly done.   I want to talk about Macondo, initially, in a fairly close and literal sense.   And then I want to talk about Macondo in two other respects: as a place transformed not only by what happens there but by the way a writer describes it, a writer’s place; and then as a reader’s place, the Macondo we all know and remember, the place we recognize because we have been there, and perhaps no longer know how to get out of.   When García Márquez describes a trip to his birthplace in his 2002 autobiography, he doesn’t call the town Macondo, but he does literally borrow a description from his own novel, remembering Aracataca, in Colombia, as situated ‘on the banks of a river of transparent (or diaphanous) water that raced over a bed of polished stones as huge and white as prehistoric eggs.’  [‘a la orilla de un río de aguas diáfanas que se precipitaban por un lecho de piedras pulidas, blancas y enormes como huevos préhistoricos’]    Is he remembering the place or remembering his writing of the place in a novel?  How could we tell?  How could he tell?

When we first hear of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude, in the sentence that includes the words I have just quoted, it is a village of twenty houses made of mud and straw.   ‘The world was so new (or so recent) that many things didn’t have names and to mention them you had to point at them with your finger.’   A little later the village has a population of 300 souls, and we are told that ‘it was truly a happy village, where no one was older than thirty and where no one had died’.   By the end of the novel it is a place where three thousand people have died in a single day, in a brutal massacre of striking workers, and nobody remembers who these dead people are, or that the event ever happened.  Now Macondo is called a ‘city of the mirrors, or the mirages’, ‘de los espejos (o de los espejismos)’.   Even Colonel Aureliano Buendía, who appears in the first sentence of the novel and dominates much of its action, especially its moral and political action, has been forgotten, and his name gives rise to this wonderful piece of melancholy humour.  One of his later relatives, also called Aureliano Buendía, is trying to trace his own ancestry, and the local priest, on learning the young man’s name, tells him to give it up.   ‘Many years ago’, he says, ‘there used to be a street here called that and in those days people were in the habit of calling their children after the names of streets’.   ‘There used to be a street here’.   Not even the street is there now, let alone any memory of the colonel’s role in the country’s history which led to the naming of the street.  The young Aureliano says to the priest ‘Then you don’t believe it either?’   ‘Believe what?’  the priest says.  ‘That Colonel Aureliano Buendía fought thirty-two civil wars and lost them all’, Aureliano says.   ‘That the army hemmed in and machine-gunned three thousand people and that their bodies were carried off on a train with two hundred coaches to be thrown into the sea’.   The priest gives the young man ‘a pitying look’, ‘una mirada de lástima’.  ‘Oh my son,’ he says.  ‘It would be enough for me to be sure that you and I exist at this moment’.   

In the meantime the railroad and the cinema have arrived in the village, along with a North American banana company modeled on United Fruit.  There have been civil wars, in spite of the priest’s scepticism, and a massacre.   And there have been all the extraordinary, legendary events and inventions that made this novel a by-word for magical realism: flying carpets; the sudden discovery that the world is round; a man who goes mad and starts speaking in Latin, a language no one in the community knows, not even the priest; ghosts who not only haunt the living but get older as they are less remembered; a priest who can levitate by taking a sip of drinking chocolate; a girl who ascends to heaven one day when she is hanging out the washing; a trail of blood that runs through the village from a murdered man’s house to his mother’s house and back again; a young man who is pursued everywhere by a vast flight of yellow butterflies; a child with a pig’s tail, devoured by ants; the final whirlwind that takes away every trace of the town. 

There is a lot of strange material here  –  that is, material that is strange to someone if not everyone.  The novel opens, you remember, in a village where a block of ice is the most fantastic thing the inhabitants have ever seen.  ‘It’s the biggest diamond in the world’, the patriarch says.  ‘No’, the gypsy who has brought this object with him says, ‘It’s ice’.   These same inhabitants find much of modernity fantastic  –  trains, cinema  –  but are never surprised to see a ghost or an act of levitation or a whole array of actions we might regard as miracles.   Here’s the first argument in the case of strange versus strange, or to switch the metaphor slightly, the first face of strangeness I want to propose to you.   The strange is neither false nor true, and it doesn’t have to be a miracle or a wonder, although it might feel like one, and even be one.  It is whatever we are not used to; and we don’t know what we are used to until something strange shows up to remind us. 

But the novelist is laying a subtle trap for us here.   We note that what seems strange in Macondo is precisely what is familiar to us  –  and let it be said, to most of the citizens of modern Colombia too.   In the early days of European and North American reading of One Hundred Years of Solitude and other novels of the so-called Boom, many of us wanted to say, with plenty of ironic encouragement from Gabriel García Márquez, Alejo Carpentier and other Latin American writers, that just as our reality seems strange in Macondo, so Macondo’s reality  –  its ghosts, flying carpets and the rest  –  seems strange to us.   We are just being provincial, need to get our minds round the idea of what other cultures are like.  Reality is marvelous down there, south of the border; only our narrow rationalism prevents us from seeing this.   Magical realism is not a style of writing, just a modest fidelity to the magic of reality in places where we are not.   

I don’t think this claim is entirely untrue.  Reality is more marvelous in some places than in others, and we certainly were being provincial in all kinds of ways.   Not least when we thought we had overcome our provinciality.  What is that great line of Randall Jarrell’s about Ezra Pound?   ‘He has taken all culture for his province, and is naturally a little provincial about it’.    But if we think the real simply is marvelous in Latin America, if we think the writers are just transcribing the physical details of a strange world, we are missing the point and the joke.  Water doesn’t flow upwards in Latin America, levitation and human ascents to heaven are just as difficult there as elsewhere, and they get their flying carpets from the same Middle Eastern stock as we do  –  just as the wealthy people of Macondo buy their cut glass from Bohemia, their linen from Holland and their fine furniture from Vienna.   

And yet the writers are, in part, transcribing a reality, and this is true of all the Macondos we may think of, those of Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Graham Swift, Italo Calvino, Gunter Grass, William Faulkner, many others, as well as the Macondo of García Márquez.   It is not the reality of a world governed by the laws of physics  –  the laws of physics, I’m afraid, are not different in Latin America  –  but the reality of a world of story.   Not a world where only true stories are told, but a world where stories are truly told, again and again; a world whose realistic description would be incomplete without these stories.   The telling is as real as anything could be and we might articulate, on behalf of García Márquez and the other writers I have just mentioned, something like a working method: if the stories are real to the community where they are told they must be real to you and the reader.  You don’t have to believe them, you have only to tell them without getting into questions of belief.   Or you may believe, as many writers do, and as I do, that all stories that matter to people are true in some sense, even if they are extravagantly far-fetched in their most literal meanings.   Ice once seemed strange in the tropics because no one had seen it.  Ghosts fail to seem strange in those same tropics not because everyone, or indeed anyone, has seen one, but because everyone has a head full of ghost stories.   This is the realm of what the Argentinean novelist Ricardo Piglia calls ‘the already narrated’.   In Argentina, during dirty war, trains were said to take corpses to the ocean exactly as the train does in One Hundred Years of Solitude.   No one had ever seen one of these trains, but everyone knew someone who had.       

And here is my second argument in the case of strange versus strange, my second face of strangeness.   We may think ice and the cinema are neutral, or even attractive inventions, but we have just seen that a train is not only an ordinary means of transport, and machine-guns are even more closely designed for particular, lethal purposes.   The civil wars of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and the three thousand corpses, are part of the arrival of what we sadly call progress, or even, if we are feeling particularly cynical, liberation; and though they become just as fabulous as ice or ghosts, just as easily swallowed up in story, they obviously bear a different relation to the realm of the actual, to lived history beyond the novel.   How do we treat them?   It is not enough now, I think, to say the strange is what we are not used to; because someone, some agency, some government has an interest in getting us used to some things and not others.   To say ‘this can’t happen’, in many contexts, is just to express a personal sense of possibility or expectation.   In other contexts  –  in the context of the massacre of striking workers in Colombia the year after García Márquez’ birth, for example, or the killing of something between one thousand and two thousand students in Mexico City in 1968, one year after the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude   –   to say ‘This can’t happen’ is to accept a pernicious myth.   

It’s worth pausing over the paradox here, because what’s strange doubles around and comes up in another place.  In the contexts I have just evoked, and in many other historical equivalents, what is supposedly not strange, what is normal and real, is what the official line tells us, what we might read in some Orwellian history books that tell us only convenient tales, versions of history where we were always right and always won and never did anything bad.  What is not strange, in this perspective, turns out to be what is not true.   And fiction, novels and short stories and oral narratives, seek to tell us the strange truths that are otherwise kept silent.   Fiction can’t know these truths; but it often affords us our best guesses, and readers of One Hundred Years of Solitude diligently remember the deaths and the wars the people of Macondo have forgotten, just as readers of Beloved pass on the story that is said to be ‘not a story to pass on’.  Just as readers remember Macondo itself.   Here we are in the year 2007, still talking about Macondo, even though the town disappeared in a whirlwind long ago, and was only fictional to start with.  Think of the brilliant mixture of truth and untruth in the novel’s last sentence:  ‘the city of mirrors… would razed by the wind and exiled from the memory of men…. because peoples condemned to a hundred years of solitude did not have a second chance on earth’.   It’s true that the people and the city of the novel are gone, and that they have no second chance.  García Márquez wants us to understand that second chances are not available to everyone.  But it’s not true that the people and the city are exiled from our memory.   We are their second chance.   And if that cannot help them  –  either the fictional characters or their many historical counterparts  –  still the very idea of the second chance, the second chance they didn’t have, is their legacy and our hope.  This is precisely what Carlos Fuentes means when he says Macondo becomes ‘a site… that will be all sites: a place that contains them all, that contains us all… the appointed place of memory and desire, a common present where everything may start again’.   And he means the same thing when he says the novel is a ‘negation of the false documents of civil status that, until recently, had concealed our reality’.                     

Novelists remind us of differences, show us that what’s strange here is not strange there; record physical and historical worlds; represent story worlds, worlds not necessarily of true stories but certainly of real stories; and where an authentic history is missing, they invent it.   This is a lot.  But so far we haven’t said anything about how they do it, and Macondo  –  all Macondos  –  require a style and a voice, a mode of delivery as well as an inventory of events and people and feelings.   And this is what magical realism mainly is: a way of talking not an investment in strange facts.   The third argument in the case, my third face of strangeness, is strictly a matter of expression.   If it’s strange, don’t call it strange.

I have suggested that writing about Macondo requires not getting into questions of belief, or at least not settling such questions on the reader’s behalf.   This practice is rather more complicated than it looks, or it requires more discipline than it may seem to.   It rarely resorts to any of the tricks of ordinary realism: dates, recognizable city streets, historical personages, diaries, gritty descriptions, invitations to look things up in the newspapers etc.   And it equally rarely resorts to the strategies of fantasy: late night settings, promises of much strangeness, aghast and/or terrified audience of listeners within the tale.   And writing about Macondo doesn’t take its world for granted, although it seems to.   This is the key question.  How do you seem to take something for granted while remaining far from doing any such thing?

Well, like this, perhaps.   Here are the beginnings of three very famous works, by writers from three different countries, and about rather different places.  The first one involves the ice we’ve been talking about:
Many years later, facing the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to see the ice.

When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.

At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.

It’s not that strange things are lacking from these sentences; just that the signals of strangeness are lacking.   Or to put that another way, all the signals of normality, of a narrative of something ordinary, are there in phrases like many years later, was to remember, his father took him; awoke one morning, found himself; had just sat down and was turning her head.   

This is the small change of everyday life, the language of the stories we tell about the days when nothing happened.   The violence or strangeness appears in a sort of parenthesis in two cases and as an odd kind of literalism in the other.   See how easy it would be to make the horrors go away; a simple substitution or two. 
Many years later, facing the flowering cherry at the bottom of the garden, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember…   

At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the sun slipped behind a cloud, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down…

When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he felt as if he had been transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.

The firing squad, the atom bomb, and the literal insect not only invade the normal, they appear in the very place of normality, taking up its space, as if they were normal, as if there were nothing in them to require a change of voice.   As a result we are in two worlds, one completely familiar, the other unthinkable  –  so unthinkable that we are not thinking it, we are just naming the violent event without comprehending it in any way, or adjusting our sentences for it.  Or more precisely, this is what our writers are skillfully pretending to do.   For they have a double job: to register the sudden irruption of strangeness into an everyday world; and to remain faithful to our inability to process it.   

Hersey writes about six survivors in Hiroshima and says they ‘still wonder why they lived when so many others died’.   ‘Each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see.  At the time, none of them knew anything’.   The writer wants to stay close both to what they know and to what they don’t know; to when they know and when they don’t know.   At the end of a later chapter, Hersey quotes the ‘matter-of-fact essay’ of a boy who was ten at the time of the attack: ‘The day before the bomb, I went for a swim.  In the morning, I was eating peanuts.  I saw a light.  I was knocked to little sister’s sleeping place.  When we were saved, I could only see as far as the tram.  My mother and I started to pack our things.  The neighbors were walking around burned and bleeding…’   Hersey doesn’t conclude, and we shouldn’t conclude, that these apparently affectless sentences reflect the total condition of the boy’s psyche.   Indeed, their power lies in the fact that they cannot do that.  That is why, in his way, the boy is also a writer of Macondo.  The day before the bomb, in the morning, when we were saved.   Many years later, facing the firing squad.   Such phrases, such sentences, remind us how unready we are for horror and death, and how little we can say about them.   

They do more.  They enact our distrust of people who can talk about such things, they evoke moments when eloquence is not only unavailable but inappropriate.   They also suggest that failing to be surprised  –  and that is what these sentences are, imitations of failing to be surprised  –  is not necessarily a failure of feeling or imagination.   It may be a tactic of survival.   We don’t mistake the strange for the normal, we just treat it as normal, in the hope of getting back to the ordinary words and deeds of the world before the horror struck.   It’s not a negligible strategy.  It may not work, but it’s not a negligible strategy.

The boy was perhaps just writing in a rather dry, declarative way, the way many schoolchildren (and not just schoolchildren) do, but the fact of Hirsohima turned this prose into a style.   This was the style Hersey learned, and showed to us.   I don’t know where Kafka got his style, and it may be that what we are looking at here is one of the great styles of the 20th century, a version of deadpan that matches the 20th century’s excess of the unspeakable; that it is found in many places, and that it has no single author.   But it is certainly the case that García Márquez took a crucial element of his style from Kafka.   García Márquez could perhaps have invented Macondo on his own, but he himself makes very clear that he couldn’t have told the story of Macondo without his encounter with Gregor Samsa’s bad awakening.  Or more precisely, perhaps, without an intriguing combination of this scene and his grandmother’s mode of narrative.

His grandmother, García Márquez says in an interview published in 1982, ‘told me the most atrocious things without any sign of emotion as if they were things she had just seen.  I discovered that this imperturbable manner and this wealth of images were what most contributed to the verisimilitude of her stories.  Using my grandmother’s method, I wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude.’  Atrocious things, no sign of emotion, sense of eye-witness.  Deadpan manner, wealth of imagery.   This is exactly what we have been looking at.   By ‘verisimilitude’ here García Márquez must mean the truth to actually life that ordinary attempts at being lifelike must miss.  So, the interviewer says, it was through your grandmother that you discovered you were going to be writer?  No, García Márquez says promptly.  ‘It was Kafka who, in German, narrated things in the same way my grandmother did…    When I saw Gregor Samsa could wake up one morning converted into a gigantic insect, I said, “I didn’t know it was possible to do that.  But if that’s the way it is, I’m interested in being a writer”’.  Kafka offered the example of a kind of escape from the constrictions of reason, García Márquez goes on to say, but it was not a question of fantasy, of inventing whatever one feels like.  Imagination is neither closed logic nor free association.  The goal is to use one’s imagination as ‘an instrument for the elaboration of reality’.    Consider again the difference between Kafka’s sentence and the bland substitute I proposed a while back. 
When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.

When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he felt as if he had been transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.

Found himself, felt as if.   García Márquez knew it was possible to write sentences like the second, where the imagery is safely kept in the realm of imagery, just a way of saying how a person feels.  And he also knew it was possible to write science fiction, say, about human beings transformed into insects.  Both forms of writing, for all their considerable virtues, leave the world as it, rigorously respect the realm of ‘as if’.  They tell us they are pretending, tell us where the analogy starts and ends.   What García Márquez didn’t know until he read Kafka was that one could, in fiction, alter the world, not just copy it or create an alternative.  This is what a great critic, F W Dupe, once described as the major stylistic move of the 20th century: a very special version of the deadpan, involving the surreptitious abolition of the very idea of ‘as if’.   For Dupee the break occurs in the generation after that of Henry James:
The quality of nightmare enters James’s story [‘The Beast in the Jungle’] principally by way of his metaphors.  The Beast of Marcher’s fate is a figurative beast; Marcher’s search for his past is a figurative search: “The lost stuff of his consciousness became thus for him as a strayed or stolen child to an unappeasable father; he hunted it up and down very much as if he were knocking at doors or enquiring of the police.”  Among the writers of Joyce’s and Kafka’s generation the “as if” becomes “is”; the beast springs to life and devours us, the police materialize and knock at our doors with a summons to the all-justifying courts, the strayed children and unappeasable fathers hunt one another up and down the streets of tangible cities.   

This is the grandmother’s method, we might say, meeting up with the force of history itself, which at some unspecifiable date, lost track of the difference between dreaming of things and doing things, between saying, ‘I could kill him’, knowing you won’t, and saying ‘I could kill him’, thinking you might or even knowing you will.   Thomas Pynchon has a remarkable line about this in V, where a character suggests that World War I  –  the time frame is the same as Dupee’s  –  ‘destroyed a kind of privacy, perhaps the privacy of dream.  Committed us… to work out three o’clock anxieties, excesses of character, political hallucinations on a live mass, a real human population’.  No one we have heard of in history has woken up as an insect, but many have woken up just as far from the person they thought they were, and not just in metaphor.      

But Macondo is not all living nightmare and of course strangeness is not always horror or violence.  Life is pretty tragic in García Márquez’ Macondo  –  even apart from the firing-squads and the massacre, the place is full of sudden deaths and broken hearts, manias ad absences.   It may start out as ‘a happy village’, but it doesn’t remain one long.   Still, it is a place we are happy to remember, to return to literally as re-readers and to return to often in our minds.   We are not returning because of the sudden violence, just as we do not return to Kafka solely in order to repeat the shock of the opening sentence of ‘Metamorphosis’.   We are returning, not just because things happen in Macondo and are narrated in an interesting deadpan style, a style that refuses to tell us what is metaphorical and what is not, but because we have lived there, and there is always a degree of happiness in returning to any place where we have lived.  This is true, isn’t it, even if the time we lived in a place was horrible; although it may only mean that no time is ever purely horrible for a person who is capable of happiness.   This brings us to my third Macondo, the reader’s Macondo, and to my fourth face of strangeness.

If strangeness is  –  to run through the previous arguments and faces  –  what we are not used to, what someone wants us not to be used to, and what we can’t talk or think about, it is also something a little more intimate, something we have inside us as well as something we discover outside; a feature of home as well as of abroad.   It sounds contradictory, but we couldn’t recognize strangeness if it didn’t have a touch of familiarity in it.   The absolutely, totally strange wouldn’t be strange at all, it would be unnamable.   When we read John Hersey, for example, we are with the people of Hiroshima as they get through the day  –  those who do get through the day.    The bomb is certainly strange, horribly strange, to them and to us.   Strange enough.   But somewhere in our minds is the thought that the bomb was not a natural event, like a hurricane or a cyclone.  The men who decided to drop the bomb did not think the act was strange, they thought it was an extreme but rational and defensible measure.    

Freudians would invoke the uncanny at this point.  You remember the German word ‘unheimlich’ contains and denies the word ‘home’.  It means not like home, but it also suggests a condition perhaps too much like home, home in an alienated disguise.   The French, not having a word for unheimlich or uncanny, paraphrase rather than translate the term.  So if you were a French Freudian you would say ‘étrangeté inquiétante’, disturbing strangeness.  It’s a nice paraphrase, because it gets at the idea that strangeness couldn’t disturb us if strangeness was all it was.   

But I don’t think Macondo is all about denial and displacement, even if those elements are there, and I want to leave García Márquez ’ Macondo behind now, and talk about the shifting Macondo in our thoughts.   It is strange and it is home; but it is really strange and really home  –  not home in two roles, so to speak, home as itself and home as disguise.  How does this work?  And what does it mean to speak of the liberation of such a Macondo?

Macondo, I am going to suggest, is any place which remains what it is while we change; and which changes when we remain the same.   We can always go back to it.   We can never go back to it.  It is safe from history, always invaded by history; solidly real, always mythological.   It is not quite the black and white Kansas that Dorothy leaves and goes back to, and not quite the technicolour Oz that is the only place moviegoers care about.  Salman Rushdie, the man who turned both Bombay and Kashmir into forms of Macondo, has a wonderful paragraph on this subject.   The Wizard of Oz, he says, is a ‘radical and enabling film, which teaches us in the least didactic way possible to build on what we have’.   This film, Rushdie says, sounding rather like García Márquez on Kafka, ‘made a writer of me’.   And here is the splendid ending of his essay:
So Oz finally became home; the imagined world became the actual world, as it does for us all, because the truth is that once we have left our childhood places and started out to make our lives, armed only with what we have and are, we understand that the real secret of the ruby slippers is not that ‘there’s no place like home’, but rather that there is no longer any such place as home: except, of course, for the home we make, or the homes that are made for us, in Oz: which is anywhere, and everywhere, except the place from which we began.

The imagined world became the actual world.  Rushdie, like García Márquez, sees the imagination as an instrument for the elaboration of reality.  India itself, he says in Midnight’s Children, is ‘the dream we all shared’, and the dream fails because ‘in a kind of collective failure of imagination, we learned that we simply could not think our way out of our pasts’.   They couldn’t get to Oz, in other words, but if the imagination hadn’t failed, reality would have shaped up.  There is a wonderful optimism here, even if it is hiding in a confession of failure.  Oz is always a possible destination, however often we miss the road, because getting there depends on us.   This is why Oz is not quite Macondo.  Macondo is not all gloom, but it is a darker, less malleable place than this. 

There is a flicker of Macondo in the tail end of Rushdie’s paragraph, though, his very last words.  Oz is ‘anywhere, and everywhere, except the place from which we began’.   Couldn’t we make that place into Oz too?   Apparently not.  The one condition for having a home is leaving the place you used to call home.  Macondo, I think, represents the reverse perception, or the other half of this truth.   Macondo was never entirely home, it was always a little too strange for that.  But you can’t entirely leave it, a bit of it sticks to your feet, wherever you go, with or without ruby slippers.  Other places will always look like Macondo, however different they are: too much like Macondo, not enough like Macondo.   This is why the question of liberation is important.  The liberation of Macondo would be a liberation from Macondo.   

This might be the moment to go to Faulkner’s town of Jefferson and the surrounding Yoknapatawpha County, the probable model of García Márquez ’s Macondo. I say probable because García Márquez himself is ambiguous on this score.  First he says the resemblances between himself and Faulkner are geographical rather than literary: a matter of parallels between rural Colombia and the rural American South.  He didn’t read Faulkner until after he had written his first novels.   Confronted with a pile of literary connections, he changes tack completely and says his problem with Faulkner was not to imitate him but to destroy him.  ‘His influence had me screwed up’, ‘Su influencia me tenía jodido’.    I read this as meaning he had certainly borrowed a lot from Faulkner but hadn’t figured out how to talk about it  –   the way he had figured out how to talk about Kafka and Virginia Woolf (‘I would be a different writer from the one I am if I had not, when I was twenty, read this sentence from Mrs Dalloway’).   But if I take off into Faulkner, I shan’t come back for hours, and I’m going to turn to another writer of Macondos, and to a book of many Macondos:  Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. 

The book’s framing device is a series of conversations  –  18 conversations  –   between the Great Khan, the Emperor of the Tartars, and the Venetian Marco Polo, and the bulk of the work records Polo’s descriptions of an extraordinary series of imaginary cities.    There are cities of memory, cities of desire, cities of signs.  There is a city you can’t arrive in, a city that ‘knows only departures’.   There is a city so full of sadness that it can’t recognize its moments of joy, ‘so that at every second the unhappy city contains a happy city unaware of its own existence’.  There is a city that has got rid of all its animals, so if you want to know anything about the old fauna you have to look them up in a book in one of the city’s excellent libraries.  And then the animals return: not the former, actual animals, but the strangest animals in the old books: ‘sphinxes, griffons, chimera, dragons, hirocervi, harpies, hydras, unicorns, basilisks…’   

Each city is another story.  ‘Tell me another city’, the Great Khan says at one point.  Not every city here is a Macondo, but many of them are  –   all of the cities, perhaps different for each of us, that feel in any way as if they were places where we have lived or are still living, strange and not strange.

The Khan has an atlas that at first seems to be a straightforward historical counterpart to Polo’s fabulous geographies.  ‘The Great Khan has an atlas where all the cities of the empire and the neighboring realms are drawn…’ But then we learn that the atlas ‘reveals the form of cities that do not yet have a form or a name’.   There are cities shaped like Amsterdam, York, New York, Los Angeles, Kyoto.    The atlas ‘contains also the maps of the promised lands visited in thought but not yet discovered or founded: New Atlantis, Utopia, the City of the Sea, Oceana, Tamoe, New Harmony, New Lanark, Icaria’.   And it also contains ‘the cities that menace in nightmares and maledictions: Enoch, Babylon, Yahooland, Butua, Brave New World.’    The atlas probably also contains Frank L Baum’s Oz and García Márquez ’ Macondo, although they are not mentioned.   

The Khan gets gloomy at the end of the book, and wants to think only of nightmares and maledictions.  ‘It is all useless,’ he says, ‘if the last landing place can only be the infernal city, and it is there that, in ever-narrowing circles, the current is drawing us.’   Polo answers, and these are the last words of the book:
The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together.   There are two ways to escape suffering it.  The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it.  The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

Hell is real or imaginary, strange or all too familiar, depending on your religious beliefs; but it may of course be both real and imaginary  –  we can imagine real things, and we often have to.   In Marlowe’s Dr Faustus Mephistopheles defines hell as the place where the damned are kept, and Faustus, devoted to the idea that he is smarter than he is, thinks he can catch Mephistopheles out in a mistake by asking him how he comes to be in Wittenberg when he is supposed to be in hell.   Mephistopheles is almost desperate at Faustus’ pathetic logic.  He says, ‘Why this is hell, nor am I out of it’.   Hell, as we all know, doesn’t have to be a place, even though it is always pictured as a place and perhaps can’t be pictured otherwise.  ‘Myself am hell’, Milton’s Satan says meaning his pain is his hell, and will be with him wherever he goes.    Calvino’s Polo manages to turn these figures into ironic advice.   Since we are in hell, and are hell, why not call it something else, and live happily ever after.   That’s Polo’s first solution: not an option in any theological hell known to me, but then neither is his second solution, the chance of finding elements in hell that are not hell.

But this, I think, is what the liberation of Macondo will mean, if it ever happens.   We shall not free the town, or free ourselves of the town; and probably we shouldn’t want to.   But we can find forms of freedom amidst forms of unfreedom, and we can make them endure, give them space.   This would be my last argument about strangeness, and its fifth face.   Strangeness won’t make us free but it will help us, through its very intimacy with what is familiar, to see who we are and where we are, and it is one of the conditions of our freedom.   If we can’t live with strangeness in all its many meanings, we are only pretending to be free.

Michael Wood            


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