Source:  LitHub via SJP For Hogart

By Claire Adam, February 19 2019


Time Passes Differently in the Tropics

I have come very late to the work of Gabriel García Márquez. I cannot quite explain why it has taken me so long to read one of his books: perhaps there was too much of a sense of duty about the endeavor, a Nobel-laureate-male-pillar-of-the-literary-canon kind of duty.

I remember One Hundred Years of Solitude on my parents’ bookshelf when I was a child: it was the “one hundred years” that put me off: it sounded like it must be something to do with history, very boring history; “solitude” didn’t sound like much fun either. I imagined it was about a man being alone for a hundred years, talking endlessly to himself in the manner of “To be or not to be?” There was also Love in the Time of Cholera, which I assumed must be about cholera. (There were many medical textbooks in the house, both my parents being doctors. I had often leafed through The Handbook of Tropical Infectious Diseases, and knew all about cholera.)

However, when I was in my twenties and happened to be browsing in the English-language section of a bookshop in Amsterdam, I picked up One Hundred Years of Solitude and read the first sentence. I read the rest of the paragraph, and then down to the end of the page, and then I went back and read the first sentence again. I put the book down and moved on, but as I wandered around the bookshop, I occasionally glanced back towards the table where the book lay. I left the bookshop empty-handed and went on with my life, but, over the next twenty or so years, the sentence kept returning to me, and, every time, I listened to the sequence of words, trying to put my finger on what was so intriguing about them. It was something to do with time, I felt—something that connected the “many years later” to the “distant afternoon,” and something about the surprising way in which the main verb had been rendered. The full sentence, in one English translation, is this:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

And, of course, we must have it in the original Spanish:

Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo.

I will come back to this sentence, but, before I do, I would like to mention another little experience, something that happened more recently—only a couple of years ago. I was, as I am now, living in London, married, with children, and trying to write. I had been trying to write for some time, with mixed results. I went to a writing course and the teacher talked about time. “Time,” this teacher said, “goes in one direction. Forward, not back.”

She was a very good teacher; what she was saying was unarguably true, and I wondered how I had neglected to notice such an important and obvious fact; a greater awareness of this fact, I realized, would improve my writing considerably. “Indeed,” she continued, “we only have to look at the seasons, at the leaves falling in autumn, to be reminded of the passing of time.”

It was in this moment that a number of things occurred to me. Firstly: that sentence and its unusual presentation of time. Second, that García Márquez was from the tropics, like me. Third, that in the tropics we do not have four seasons—in fact, it might be said that we simply do not have seasons at all. “What you are saying does not apply to us in the tropics,” is what I thought. “Time is different for us.”

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

You see it everywhere in fiction: the passing of time denoted by the change of the seasons—authors show us summer turning to autumn and winter turning to spring as a means of indicating the passing of time, each season with its accompanying symbolism. Now that I have lived in a temperate climate for such a long time, I understand the pervasiveness of it. As I write this, for example, it is winter: it is nearly four o’clock, already dark; I have been busy all day, and haven’t been out for a walk, and now the day is nearly gone! And yet the months of winter seem to drag by; we eagerly anticipate the return of spring.

Summer comes with a sense of permanence, as though it might go on for ever, but all too soon the leaves are turning, and then falling from the trees, and again as you walk down the street, you think, “Just like that! Another year gone!” In a temperate climate, the world is constantly shifting before your eyes: the environment presents a constant reminder of the passing of time.

But it is not so all around the world. In the tropics, there is no autumn. There is no widespread falling of leaves. There is no winter or spring. Consider the pattern in the country I come from, Trinidad & Tobago, which is a small, twin-island nation eleven degrees north of the equator, off the coast of Venezuela. It is, more or less, the same temperature all year round—80-90°F in the daytime. Every day of the year, the sun rises at around six in the morning; it is directly overhead at midday; and it sets at about half past six in the evening.

The fluctuation throughout the whole year is by about twenty minutes, little enough to feel as if there is no difference at all, as if every day is pretty much the same as the one that went before. There is no lengthening and shortening: either it is day, or it is night, simple as that. The trees have their own rhythms, but they do not coordinate with each other. There no widespread shedding of leaves, no sense of death or rebirth. Aside from the question of whether there is rain or no rain, every day is exactly the same as the one before.

In fact, the only real variation is the rain. For half of the year, it is very dry: we call this the dry season. For the other half of the year, it is very rainy: we call this the rainy season. Dry season, rainy season, dry season, rainy season: that is how it goes. Thus our rhythm is a simple one-two: dry-wet, or day-night. Dry-wet, day-night, dry-wet, day-night, a never-ending one-two one-two, like the endless ticking of a metronome. And then, of course, everywhere, at our perimeter, is the sea. Think of it. The wave comes in, then goes out. In, out. In, out. Does it ever end? Do you see any death and rebirth? Dry, wet, day, night, in, out. No, our landscape does not suggest the passing of time, as your landscape does to you in your temperate climate. Our landscape suggests something entirely different: the eternity of time, the never-endingness of time.

Our rhythm is a simple one-two: dry-wet, or day-night.

Let’s look at that sentence again.

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

There are many wonderful things about this sentence, but the treatment of time is what I would like to talk about. Many years later connects two points in time. There’s a time, let us call it X, in the past, and the time many years later, call it Y. Many years later connects those two points, and hints at the path taken between them. Something that happened on day X is related to something that happened on day Y, and if you imagine making two dots on a piece of paper, one to represent day X and another to represent day Y, you can draw a line between them, and the line you draw is its own entity, an entity which is some function of X and Y. It’s as if it transcends the one-dimensionality of each of those coordinates, and it becomes a higher order piece of information. And we can visualize this line, the line between X and Y, as any kind of line at all: it could be a straight line, or a wiggly line, or a spiral. Whatever it might be, it is described by “many years later.” 

Now, of course, many writers may use such a phrase. When I was in my twenties, in a bookshop in Amsterdam, I read the first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Many years later, in my forties, living in London, I read it again. X is when I was in my twenties, in Amsterdam; Y is when I was in my forties, in London. Many years later represents the twenty or so years that have elapsed between the two events. But does the sentence give us any suggestion that there’s anything special about the period of twenty-or-so years? Could we substitute “the next day” or “some months later” or “one year later”? I think we could. I guess there’s a possibility that the author of these sentences (in this case, me) will come back and attach meaning to the “many years later,” but so far, there’s nothing to suggest that there’s anything special about that particular period of time. So all we have is:

Something happened.

Time passed.

Something else happened.

There’s nothing wrong with that; I write stuff like that all the time, and so do many other writers. The point I’m making is that to use the phrase “many years later” is not in itself a stroke of genius.

So what has García Márquez done differently? Consider the next phrase: when he was to face the firing squad—here’s where it all begins to get a little crazy. First of all, here we are, in the opening line of a novel (a long novel at that), and we’re side by side with a character who’s facing a firing squad. One moment: cosy armchair in your living room, maybe with a cup of tea next to you, say a crackling fire, the cat at your feet; the next moment: firing squad. Secondly, we are presented with knowledge of something which is usually unknowable, the moment of one’s own death. Immediately, we move into the slightly surreal territory of omniscience: that is to say, we keep one foot in reality, because, sure, a skeptic might reasonably point out that this character’s death is imminent enough for him to see it coming; but the other foot is not so firmly rooted to reality, because to foresee the moment of one’s own death is not part of our normal existence at all. 

Next, we come to the was to remember, sometimes translated as would remember (había de recordar). Where are we in time? Are we at X or Y? The moment when the character does the remembering happens at time Y, but was to remember seems to place us somewhere outside time Y, even to suspend us outside time altogether.

At the end of the sentence, we find the X, which fulfills the many years later we encountered at the beginning: that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. Later in the chapter, we find out that the ice is actually ice carried around in a cool-box by a gypsy, but in this opening sentence, it could be any ice—it could be a huge and ancient glacier. The fact that it is the father taking the son to “discover” something hints at something ancient, something further past even than the “distant afternoon,” and gives the impression of knowledge of previous generations rippling through time. (The Spanish is “conocer”, which is sometimes translated as “take to see for the first time”, but it also means “to meet” as in to meet a person, or “to become acquainted with” or “to be acquainted with.” “Discover” is certainly a very beautiful choice in English.)

So, by the end of the sentence, those first three words, many years later, quietly reverberate with added meaning, because they contain almost the sum total of this man’s life, having almost reached its end. There’s a pathos in those words, depicting a character in his final moments, simultaneously reaching back across this great expanse of time—and that, in itself, is a transcendence of time—and, on the other hand, having a complete knowledge of his future. All this is captured in this single elegant sentence, this brief moment when he is able to see the whole stretch of his life, from end to end.

García Márquez presents an alternate conception of time, of time not simply as something linear, but also as something never-ending.

I’ve since gone on to read a little more of García Márquez, and it’s only through close reading of some of his other works that I’ve gained a better understanding of why this particular sentence made such an impression on me. My hypothesis is that García Márquez presents an alternate conception of time, of time not simply as something linear, but also as something never-ending.

In one sense, my teacher was, of course, quite right to say that time moves in one direction, forward and not back; none of us can ever go back to a past moment to do or undo, to say or unsay. It is a law that governs all our lives, and if fiction in some way is a reflection of what it is to be human, then fiction too must obey this law. Indeed, now that my eyes have been opened to this fact, I notice again and again that good fiction observes this law, and bad fiction ignores this law. García Márquez obeys. He does more than obey: he stands to attention, and salutes—and then he gives a little wink.

Because, simultaneously, he also manages to present an alternative notion of time, the one which I think is suggested by the tropical climate: time as infinite. Everywhere in his stories, we see notions of circularity, of endlessly repeating cycles. I have been through some of his works with a fine-tooth comb, and marked sentences according to whether they refer to future or past, and I have been not entirely surprised by the pattern that emerged, of future-past, future-past, future-past . . . the forward-back, forward-back of a ticking metronome. Just as he does in that first sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude, often García Márquez writes as if there were a kind of parity to past and future, almost as if there were no forward arrow of time at all.

As a developing writer, I find García Márquez’s treatment of time fascinating and exciting. There are, perhaps, “rules” to good writing—and yet here is someone who did not confine himself to the space defined by these rules. These rules may have—unintentionally, invisibly—been defined by a certain portion of the world—and here they have been challenged by someone from a different part of the world, a part of the world that I myself come from. It gives me a certain confidence. It makes me feel as if anything is possible.

Source:  LitHub via SJP For Hogart

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