Latin Americans in Europe, in evocative tales by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

October 03, 1993|By Anne Whitehouse

STRANGE PILGRIMS

Gabriel Garcia Marquez; translated by Edith Grossman

Knopf

188 pages. $21 These 12 stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian author and Nobel laureate, strike a wistful, ephemeral key beside his great novels, a key that is no less lovely for being minor. Like all his fiction, these stories are distinguished by rich, evocative and often startling prose. All feature Latin Americans in Europe. Three are as elusive as dreams, and, fittingly, dreaming is their subject.

"The Ghosts of August" is a nightmare in which a guest in a Tuscan castle wakes to find himself and his wife not in the room where they went to sleep, but in the haunted bed of the murderer and suicide who committed his dreadful acts there centuries ago.

In "Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane," a traveler flying from Paris to New York falls in love with his silent, beautiful seatmate, whom he watches in an ecstasy of worship as she sleeps for "the eight eternal hours and twelve extra minutes of the flight" "I Sell My Dreams" introduces a mysterious woman who supports herself by selling predictions about people's futures which come to her in dreams. This story includes a vivid cameo portrait of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, like "a Renaissance pope . . . gluttonous and refined"

All of Mr. Garcia Marquez's great novels begin with a death, from Aureliano Buendia's in "One Hundred Years of Solitude," to Juvenal Urbino's in "Love in the Time of Cholera" and Simon Bolivar's in "The General in His Labyrinth." In many of these stories, death -- anticipated, plotted, evaded, accidental -- is the major theme.

"Light is Like Water" is a fantasy in which children in Madrid, "a remote city of burning summers and icy winds, with no ocean or river" navigate light like water and are drowned in its profusion. "Seventeen Poisoned Englishmen," set in Naples, is shadowed by death, from the drowned man who mysteriously appears in the harbor in the first scene to the comic flourish of numerous Englishmen, sunburned an identical pink, who die from eating oysters in August.

The themes of history and loss, politics and individual ambition, which have led to tragic outcomes in Mr. Garcia Marquez's novels, are shown in comic relief in these stories. In "Bon &L Voyage, Mr. President," a deposed, exiled president from a Caribbean country seeks medical treatment in Geneva.

He expects that death is imminent: "It was difficult for him to believe that time could cause so much ruin not only in his life but in the world." As "One more incognito in the city of illustrious incognitos," he is nevertheless recognized by Homero, a former countryman and ambulance driver at the hospital. Hoping to profit from the president's anticipated death, Homero befriends him: "Like other ambulance drivers, he had made certain arrangements with funeral parlors and insurance companies to sell their services inside the hospital, above all to foreign patients of limited means." But Homero's plan backfires in this charming, ironic story.

"The Saint" introduces Margarito Duarte, who for 22 years futilely pursues his dream of having his daughter, whose body death has preserved as if it were alive, declared a saint. The story is told by a narrator, who met Margarito when he first came to Rome and finds him again a generation later, still trying to arrange for a papal audience.

The narrator discovers that the Rome he once knew exists no longer: "The beautiful girls of long ago had been replaced by athletic androgynes cross-dressed in flashy clothes . . . The Rome of our memory was by now another ancient Rome within the ancient Rome of the Caesars." Given this perspective, Margarito, whom the narrator once thought pathetic, appears as a noble figure.

In "Maria dos Prazeres," a retired Brazilian prostitute living in Barcelona prepares for her death. Her elaborate arrangements are described with wry comedy, from selecting a cemetery plot to training her dog to visit her grave and weep there on Sundays. Set during the Francoist era, the story pits Maria's political sympathies for the martyred anarchists and separatists against the condemnations of her ex-customer and sometime lover, the Count of Cardona. "It took a national upheaval for them to realize, both at the same time, how much they had hated each other, and with how much tenderness, for so many years." The ambiguous ending is a twist on the Romantic depiction of death as a lover.

In a fascinating prologue, Mr. Garcia Marquez describes how the ideas for the stories came to him, were lost, reconstructed and then developed over a period of 20 years. "This has been a strange creative experience that should be explained," he observes, "if only so that children who want to be writers when they grow up will know how insatiable and abrasive the writing habit can be." These are gossamer-like stories, beautifully cadenced and sensuously nuanced, in which fantasy and reality commingle.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer who lives in New York.

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