March 06, 2004

Fine detail

I'm reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez' Love in the Time of Cholera right now, in a new (and downright stunning) translation by Edith Grossman. Plenty has been said and written about this novel, making commentary a bit superfluous. I do, however, want to point out that Marquez reminds us what a novelist's erudition should and should not be. Here's his description of Dr. Juvenal Urbino, having returned from his schooling in Paris, confronting the medical superstitions of his hometown hospital:

He tried to impose the latest ideas at Misericordia Hospital, but this was not as easy as it had seemed in his youthful enthusiasm, for the antiquated house of health was stubborn in itsattachment to atavistic superstitions, such as standing beds in pots of water to prevent disease from climbing up the legs, or requiring evening wear and chamois gloves in the operating room because it was taken for granted that elegance was an essential condition for asepsis. They could not tolerate the young newcomer's tasting a patient's urine to determine the presence of sugar, quoting Charcot and Trousseau as if they were his roommates, issuing severe warnings in class against the mortal risks of vaccines while maintaining a suspicious faith in the recent invention of suppositories (108).
I cringe when I try to imagine how a younger, flashier... ugh, postmodern author would have constructed this scene. David Foster Wallace would splatter out pages worth of medical terminology and minutely detailed histories of this or that superstition. Thomas Pynchon might opt for lumbering ethnographies, to similar effect. Now both of those writers are good writers, and their digressions would no doubt be well-written, lively, and informative. But neither Foster Wallace nor Pynchon would further the story along so elegantly, amplifying it in so few carefully measured words, as Garcia Marquez does.

Borges no doubt deserves some credit here-- and some blame. Of course the usual studies on Borges and Marquez try to gather both writers under the net of 'magical realism.' I know little about this, and at the moment don't care. But I do want to imagine that Marquez, Foster Wallace, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, and others have all stumbled on some massively erudite passage of Borges, something like the following (from "Etcetera," an early piece, when Borges was more interested in this sort of detail-laden writing):

History records that the cruelest of the governors of the Sudan was Yaqub the Afflicted, who abandoned his nation to the iniquities of Egyptian tax collectors and died in a chamber of the palace on the fourteenth day of the moon of Barmajat in the year 1842. There are those who insinuate that the sorcerer Abderramen al-Masmudi (whose name might be translated "The Servant of Mercy") murdered him with a dagger or with poison, but a natural death is more likely--especially as he was known as "the Afflicted." Nonetheless, Capt. Richard Francis Burton spoke wiht this sorcerer in 1853, and he reported that the sorcerer told him this story...
Every American postmodernist (etc.) who has read a passage like this thought to himself: "Hey, I like that! I know a lot of stuff. I can load up my novels with baubles like those." And that's what we got. Baubles.

For his part, Garcia Marquez, on reading the same passage, probably thought, "Hey, I like that. But there's no way I can match Borges' bookishness. So I'll have to pick my details carefully, elegantly, with a view towards creating a similar atmosphere, if not quite so intellectual." And he succeeded. Few people-- even Pynchon-- know as much stuff as Borges. There's no sense in trying to outduel him.
-- Brad Plumer 3:29 PM || ||