A demon of a writer, that's Gabo.
About Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel García Márquez: On her twelfth birthday, Sierva Maria, the only child of a decaying noble family in an eighteenth-century South American seaport, is bitten by a rabid dog. Believed to be possessed, she is brought to a convent for observation. And into her cell stumbles Father Cayetano Delaura, who has already dreamed about a girl with hair trailing after her like a bridal train. As he tends to her with holy water and sacramental oils, Delaura feels something shocking begin to occur. He has fallen in love, and it is not long until Sierva Maria joins him in his fevered misery.
Unsettling and indelible, Of Love and Other Demons is an evocative, majestic tale of the most universal experiences known to woman and man.
I first read this in 2004 and fell in love with it immediately because of Marquez's gorgeous language and a love story steeped in the religion and superstition of 18th century Colombia. I dug up my old copy so I could reread it for the Read the Nobels 2016.
My two cents
But you already know I wax poetic over Marquez having read a number of his books. I already know that I can never write a review that does this book justice. I have been agonizing over this review for far too long that I know if I don't just write it, I will never hit publish. So here goes ...
The inspirationI always find it fascinating to learn where authors derive inspiration for their stories. Inspiration alone makes me wonder about Gabo who opens his book with two and a half pages explaining just that: in 1949, cub reporter Marquez in search of a news story visited the historic Convent of Santa Clara in Colombia where burial crypts were being removed to give way to a five-star hotel (you can see the proof here of what replaced the convent).
Marquez witnesses the wholly unsentimental exhuming of bishops and abbesses buried there for hundreds of years. Until they come upon a crypt of a young girl whose copper hair fairly bursted out of the crypt ... all 22+ meters of it! Hair grows even in death and based on scientific calculations, the young girl had been dead for over 200 years.
If fact wasn't strange enough, Marquez makes an uncanny connection with a legend he heard in his boyhood: a marquise with coppery hair that trailed behind her, venerated by many for the miracles she performed, who died of rabies. Talk about serendipity! And I am always in awe of how Marquez is able to weave something beautiful, with his brand of magical realism!
The storySurprisingly the plot is extremely simple. Set in the 1740s in the remote South American port town called Cartagena de Indias, twelve-year-old Sierva María de Todos los Ángeles, is bitten by a rabid dog. The only daughter of a moneyed, prestigious yet decaying family, is sadly unloved and brought up by the black slaves that served them. She grows up as an oddity, obviously white in appearance but with the language, customs and superstitions of the blacks.
News around the town is the rabid dog is dead and those who were bitten were suffering or dead. Although Sierva María's bite wound is insignificant and she exhibits no symptoms of rabies, the news travels far and wide. Her father, attacked by his conscience, only wants to quell rumours and he seeks out doctors to cure her. When regular doctors fail, quack doctors render painful treatments, resulting in Sierva María's violently resistance. Combined with her black behaviour, she is believed to possessed and then the news reaches the Bishop.
Sierva María is brought by her father to the convent of Santa Clara and the Bishop's protégé Father Cayetano Delaura is tasked to perform the rites of exorcism. Face to face with Sierva María, he is unprepared to fall in love, the "most terrible demon of them all." This love story plays itself out in all glory and all its tragedy.
The powers of love and passionThe themes of love and passion are replete, as is its unbidden powers for good and also the ability to destroy. The main love story is that of Sierva María and Father Cayetano Delaura, a forbidden love between a priest and a teenager believed to be possessed. However, there are more love stories that play themselves out, also unusual and tragic.
There is the sad union of Sierva María's parents, Don Ygnacio de Alfaro y Dueñas and his rapacious second wife Bernarda Cabrera -- a marriage borne not out of love but of trickery and deceit. His first wife who died early meanwhile was a marriage borne out of the desire to observe propriety and ensure stability of wealth. Don Ygnacio felt he had no choice but to spurn his true love but ended up living a life devoid of love all this life.
Bernarda meanwhile is a larger-than-life character (probably my favourite in this book) who schemes to win Don Ygnacio through her sexuality. But it is her unquenchable sexual appetite that is also her downfall, destroying her beautiful body and practically selling her soul to an equally rapacious slave.
Colonization and the ChurchWhat stands out to me is this book's milieu. It is a time where the Catholic Church ruled supreme and everyone followed unquestioning, or risk the so-called fires of hell. Traditional cultures were usurped as countries were colonized by the Catholic Church. Traditional African cultures like Yoruban, Congolese and Mandingo had belief systems that were at odds with or were misunderstood, and by default anything that ran counter to Catholic Church belief was believed to be heretic, demonic. This was exacerbated by the fact that scientific thought was also believed to be heretic and superstition became yet another layer of ignorance for the common person.
Sierva María was the poor victim of cruelty borne out of this ignorance. Despite no symptoms of rabies, her unusual behaviours had their explanation in being raised by Dominga de Adviento, the formidable black woman who taught Sierva María to live as black. At one point Bernarda remarks that "The only thing white about that child is her skin" and sadly Sierva María lived in both cultures but never really fit in either.
The people who did understand Sierva María's true situation -- Abenuncio, and later on another priest -- were in the minority and whose voices did not hold sway in the wake of the powers-that-be of the formidable Bishop and the convent's ignorant Abbess.
Characters to empathize withDo you know how some books leave you cold because the characters are so unlikeable or you simply develop no connection with? I have read the multiple times and I am entranced by how multi-dimensional and oftentimes how complicated these characters are. I felt Sierva María's frustration and annoyance at those "ridiculous white people." I understood why Delaura sought penance for succumbing to his love for Sierva María. I felt as conflicted as Don Ygnacio to save his daughter's soul while sending her to certain death. What surprises me each time, though, is how much I gravitate towards Bernarda, who is probably among the most cruel, grotesque characters. I have a soft spot for her because of her intelligence (even though she is a brilliant scammer) and her desire, even desperation, to give to the one she loves.
VerdictOne of my favourite books by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, its simple plot and easy to read language belies that fact that this forbidden love story is only a facade for a profound look at the effects of colonization on traditional cultures. I highly recommend this read!
This is my second read/review for Read the Nobels 2016!