Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Last Post

Cien Años de Soledad sat on my shelf long before I took this course but I had never read it. I kept telling myself that I didn't have the time, that I'd pick it up when I had enough hours in the day to wander leisurely through it. But instead I read it at top gear, jumping into into it at every spare moment, just to keep up with class and avoid the untimely revelation of secrets in unread chapters. Every time I picked it up 20 years would go by, the cast of characters would be shaken up with a handful of births, deaths, and people loosing their sanity. At least I kept my Josés and Aurelianos straight. In the end I was left with a powerful impression of the book as a whole, undiluted by too much of my own life happening in between. Amongst the most vivid of my vicarious memories are those from Macondo, like time-lapse footage of a plant that sprouts up from a patch of barren earth, sends out a multitude of shoots during the wild rotation of day and night, then rapidly withers, crumbles, and is blown away like dust.

I enjoyed this class for a number of reasons. Firstly, the reading selection was very good, exposing us to writers from across the map who treated the themes of the course in diverse and interesting ways. Secondly, I liked the themes, they structured the course well and provided some illuminating points of inquiry into the texts. Lastly, although it often pained me to sit down and do them, the blogs were good. I liked being able to access this pool of ideas and they made me stop to really think about what I had just read and capture impressions that would otherwise be forgotten. That said, I will definitely enjoy returning to these authours at a later date without having to tax my brain over them every Sunday night.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Cien Años - End

So I think I’ll talk about change. We witness Macondo transforming from when the first humble houses were established into the throes of a violent modernization. Initially, the town becomes rooted into the ground with the first births of children and the first burials of the dead, then eventually it becomes drawn into the reach of governmental authority with the arrival of the magistrate, and tainted by political colours which draw the men out into a protracted and pointless war. The foreign influences that flow into Macondo increase in volume and have further points of origin; from the strange and enchanting objects peddled intermittently by gypsies to the permanent market of goods of increasing technological sophistication. These products have profound impacts on daily life; the light bulb lengthens the day and the train enables rapid and far-reaching transportation. The arrival of the gringos – with their cultural impositions and labour exploitation – seem to signal the beginning of the end.

However, how many of these changes are, in a way, superficial? Have they actually altered the character of the people, the way they interact with each other, or the way they perceive everyday life? I’ll give an example; say that a McDonalds is built outside of the US in an otherwise un-corporate town. Though I'd say this is a bad thing for the negative impacts that it would have on local people, I disagree with those who call this total Americanization, a cultural disaster, a signal that the world is becoming homogenous. This underestimates how strong and deep local cultural meanings and values are. Likewise, I was interested to see in class when we made our list of “cambios” and “continuidades” that the latter category was bigger, that more remained the same. That recurring characteristics, enduring practices, persistent obsessions, and eternal circumstances carry on as if written into the landscape upon which all of this flux occurs. Some things may change, but through it all what is essential about Macondo and its characters remains intact.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


You have to see this for yourself. Painstakingly handcrafted newborn babies called Reborns. Take Beveline for example - wet pouty lips, mottled chubby skin, deep shining eyes - for the price of $5200 on eBay. Here are some features copied straight from the page:

!!An AMAZING Head of ULTRA-REALISTIC Hand Rooted Mohair!!
Doe Suede Jointed Cloth Body Weighted to have a Realistic Baby Feel
**Amazing Factory Made Baby Fat Inserts**
Full Vinyl limbs with soft body, for Optimum Cuddliness & Posablity

This is a serious business. Beveline was "born" not "made" and is "adopted" rather than "bought". The artist calls for "a mature loving parent to adopt and take care of her" - this is not a child's toy or a mere decoration. What's more, only one of each Reborn model is made, making the buyer unique like any biological parent. The only thing missing, which could be solved with, say, some tubes pumping warm water, is human warmth. Las Hortensias anyone?

To take a look enter the item number 270094789246 in the eBay browser.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Cien Años - Part Two

There are two theories of time that are seen in all novels and films about its disruptions, such as traveling through it or following alternative branches. In one, the future is a nebulous and shifting realm of possibilities, possibilities determined by our actions in the present. In the other, the future is a fixed reality that the present inevitably becomes, there is one future and it depends upon our acting it out.

Cien Años de Soledad adheres to the second theory, but with some interesting quirks and lapses. From early on in the novel we get a strong impression that premonitions and destiny are to be taken very seriously. Each character comes into the world with his or her future already written; this can be read by certain individuals by signs in nature, fortune telling cards, and predictions from family history.

In the second part of the novel, Marquez plays with time in various ways, while still keeping the lives of his characters under the dominion of an inevitable fate. At one point, for example, the renegade present gets the details wrong and a man who is not destined to die that night is killed by one who is. Time corrects itself by sending two bullets to strike down Captain Aquiles Ricardo after his lethal shot at Aureliano Jose, yet nothing can be done for the girl who would have married the latter, the cards showing her future are left blank. With a small margin of error, there is only one future that may occur. Another example is how characters can lapse behind future scenarios that depend upon their actions. This is true in the case of Colonel Aureliano Buendia, who finds that his orders are being carried out before he even gives them.

Even though their destiny/future is fairly rigid, the characters do have ways of tinkering with it. Ursula, for her part, is against naming anyone else Jose Arcadio or Aureliano. When names carry so much importance for character, naming children differently might improve the fate of the family. It would at least make our reading experience a little easier.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Cien Años – Part One

I loved this novel right away. Having to read a significant portion of it in a short space of time in preparation for class allowed me to get completely involved in the shifting and expanding collection of characters, each one complex and multi-dimensional in their own right, as well as the richly described circumstances of their everyday lives. This is the first time that I have read a book in the genre of magical realism and I love the way that the fantastic is so seamlessly woven into the mundane. Márquez has constructed this world very subtly. The magical elements could easily affront our sense of reality but somehow they don’t – perhaps because we are taking cues from the characters who so casually engage with them. The distortion of time also adds an interesting element to the novel – sometimes I get the sense that it is elongated and other times collapsed – it is cyclical in the way that we re-encounter characters and events repeat themselves, but it is also measured in that we are always a certain distance away from those final moments before the firing squad.

Doubtlessly this work is highly revered and forms an important part of Colombian, and on a larger scale Latin American, cultural heritage. However, I came across the name of a movement not too long ago that, when I researched it further, revealed something problematic about this. McOndo (a wordplay on Macondo and McDonalds) is a recent literary movement in Latin America that seeks to distance itself from the tradition of magical realism. Supporters feel that magical realism has dominated Latin American literature at the expense of new forms of literary expression and contemporary thematic material. I’m sure that Jon would have something to say about this in his class on bad literature. It's not hard to make the connection between the popularization of magical realism on an international scale in the 60s and 70s and the demand for Latin American novels of stereotypically folkloric and exotic content in the market today. Perhaps we’ll discuss this later.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

First Half Overview

I’ve enjoyed this course a lot – because of the works themselves, how they are presented, and our ways of responding to them. I like how they were selected. Not only do they represent a variety of countries and literary styles, but each makes a vivid and distinct contribution to our understanding of the family, while at the same time providing fuel for other discussions. As we follow the lives of our demure and deranged families, we’ve also touched upon topics like nationalism, subalternity, gender roles, nature, class values, and anxieties of the modern age. The only odd one out is Neruda, who was enjoyable to read and discuss, but seems more engaged in feminine contours and his own experience of artistic awakening than anything to do with the family. Any ideas about his place in the course?

There are a few improvements that could be made, but these are all limited by time, so I think the course does a good balancing act between the various factors. For example, a number of people have said that they would like know more historical context, which would be great if the course was longer, but I think that doing a bit of background research outside of class would be better than cutting down on time that new connections and observations can be made about the novel itself. Also, I did find it a challenge to read so much in a short period of time and a bit frustrating to move on from each one so quickly, but then again, it was great to be exposed to such a variety of works. This course so far has been informative and enjoyable, and if the whirlwind tour and unusual selections of the first half didn’t do it for some people, we have the entire second half to explore a masterpiece at leisure.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Piedra Callada

There could not be two more different portraits of family life than those described by Theresa de la Parra in Memorias de Mamá Blanca and by Marta Brunet in “Piedra callada”. The first takes place in Eden; the protagonists exist in an idyllic state before sickness, injustice, and want. Nature is beautiful and fertile, the girls embrace it with imagination and wonder, and it yields a variety of goods to the family. When a death occurs, such as that of the calf, it does so peacefully. The family is ideal, the girls are pretty and bright, they adore their mother and respect their father. They live a life free of hardship.

The second takes place in an environment of entrapment, antagonism, and manipulation. The family is a group of creatures snarling, consuming, procreating, and perishing their way through a world determined by the survival-of-the-fittest. Nature is a volatile element that produces obstacles and danger, and it must be laboured upon to provide sustenance for the family. The protagonists are at the bottom of the social hierarchy, ragged and neglected children, a dumb brute of a man, an older woman without support, and a poor girl physically destroyed by multiple unhealthy childbirths. Nothing in life comes easily, and the characters react to their circumstances with explosive and poisonous anger or silent conniving to secure personal interests at any cost.

Still, the families are similar in their essential roles and power relations. For example, the role of child bearer dominates the character of the mothers, from the doomed Esperanza, unable to avoid pregnancy and unable to continue giving birth, to the mother of Blanca Nieves, who leaves the hacienda periodically and exclusively for this purpose. The children, mostly nameless, roam around in packs. The role of the fathers is the unequivocal master of the house. Both are men of few words, but these dominate over everyone, and neither touches domestic affairs such as raising children or tidying the household.

However, an important factor limits making simple comparisons of the two families, one beautiful and the other basic. The first story focuses on the experience of children and the second on the experience of adults. Leaving aside differences in the standard of living between the children of both stories, they are all reasonably happy. However, we know very little about the parents of Blanca Nieves. Why, for example, do we never hear them speak to one another? Perhaps if the memories in this story were those of an adult, there would have been just as much manipulation, competition, and animosity at Piedra Azul. It all depends on perspective.