Writings / Essays

Gabriel Garcia Marquez and an African Fable

Sanya Osha

Carlos Fuentes when describing “the cultural context of Latin America” wrote on these terms:

We are a balkanized polity, yet we are deeply united by a common cultural experience. We are and we are not of the West. We are Indian, black, and Mediterranean. We received the legacy of the West in an incomplete fashion, deformed by the Spanish monarchy’s decision to outlaw unorthodox strains, to mutilate the Iberian tree of its Arab and Jewish branches....

And this balkanization is amply reflected in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel, Of Love and Other Demons (1995) which can be read as an enthralling tale of a Latin American society caught on the throes of diverse influences and transitional phases, and like any other society undergoing the pains of metamorphosis, it is the most revolutionary individuals who pay the highest price and who are ultimately destroyed. The outline for the story is quite simple but in the process of narrating this seemingly simple tale, entire worlds collide, civilizations are shaken, and then old orders are reinforced with perhaps even greater harshness and intolerance. Sierva Maria is the twelve-year-old heroine of the novel and tragedy befalls her when she is interred in a convent because it is suspected that she suffers from demonic possession. Previously, she had been bitten by a rabid dog and those bites, as we all know, can be quite fatal. In Sierva Maria’s case, it does prove tragic because it eventually provokes a concatenation of events which truncate her life. The priest, Cayetano Delaura, who is assigned to break the demonic spell troubling Sierva Maria soon falls in love with her, ruining a promising career and the monolith of his orthodox faith. In short, everything that has ever been dear to him. On her part, Sierva Maria dies whilst enduring the crucible of exorcism, separated from her beloved, Cayetano Delaura. And so ends the simple tale in which an unflagging Catholicism wages a mortal war on secularism, and also one that portrays the excesses of medievalism locked in combat with a few tentative strains of modernism.

But what concerns us here, is the "Yoruban" element in the work, that is, how Garcia Marquez creates a sense of blackness. Is it salutary or does he repeat the flaws of a typical racist artist? Indeed, these questions are pertinent when viewed against the background of those Chinua Achebe asked regarding Joseph Conrad’s racial motives in Heart Of darkness and then in Joyce Carry’s Mister Johnson. More than a decade ago, Niyi Osundare, the Nigerian poet, re-opened the debate by decrying the rather partial readings of post-structuralist theorists dealing with Conrad’s novel.

Both Achebe and Osundare fault the undifferentiated mass of blackness Conrad presents as Africa. Africa, as it were, is a dark, savage continent. Indeed, in Conrad’s eyes, its people are characterless when they are not savages, and the land is dense with unspeakable horrors. The sense of sub-humanity he depicts is totally overwhelming. Nonetheless, this kind of insensitivity to the subjectivities of blacks from one who is widely acknowledged to be a great literary artist could only reach such intolerable heights in an epoch plagued with racial bigotry. Conrad not only robs blacks of their humanity, he also goes ahead to invest them with a singularity that amounts to nothing more than abuse and disfiguration.

Ordinarily, singularity is meant to differentiate; in other words, it marks out a separate order of existence. But instead, Conrad’s bestowal of singularity on the blacks in his novel divests them of individuality and is in fact a re-statement of their inhumanity. Critics and theorists of black resurgence and consciousness have always looked for such traumatic apertures in Western texts. The point, then, is to see to what extent Gabriel Garcia Marquez diminishes or heightens the humanity of black subjects—not for the purpose of gaining some sort of moral leverage, but instead with the objective of naming the positionality of blacks in this novel.

In the very beginning of his novel, it is announced, "for everyone feared an outbreak of some African plague," (5). A rage of food poisoning had decimated almost an entire cargo of slaves before it reached the port in the New World. And then we are told that, "a single article worth all the rest" could compensate for the loss of human lives. That article is no other than:

[A]n Abyssinian female almost two metres tall, who was smeared with cane molasses instead of the usual commercial oil, and whose beauty was so unsettling it seemed untrue. She had a slender nose, a rounded skull, slanted eyes, all her teeth and the equivocal bearing of a Roman gladiator. She had not been branded in the slave pen, and they did not call out her age and the state of her health. Instead, she was put on sale for the simple fact of her beauty. The price the Governor paid, without bargaining and in cash, was her weight in gold (6).

And that beauty, for which so much was paid, is primarily Western in conception. Two telling phrases attest to this, "a slender nose" and "equivocal bearing of a Roman gladiator." So is her sexuality—no matter how fleeting it is—which is also conceived in a Western mode. She does not utter a word; no one presumes she can be more than just an object in the novel.

Don Ygnacio de Alfaro Y Duenas, Sierva Maria’s father is an aristocrat who maintains a "resounding courtyard" of slaves, procured primarily through the shrewd business initiatives of his wife, Bernarda Cabrera. Of course, large numbers of these slaves were brought from Africa. In the entire novel, only two blacks are invested with a semblance of character. The first:

Dominga de Adviento, a formidable black woman who ruled the house with an iron fist until the night before her death, was the link between the two worlds. Tall and bony, and possessed of an almost clairvoyant intelligence, it was she who reared Sierva Maria. Domingo de Adviento became a Catholic without renouncing her Yoruba beliefs, and she practised both religions at the same time, and at random. Her soul was healthy and at peace, she said. Because what she did not find in one faith was there in the other, she was also the only human being with the authority to mediate between the Marquis and his wife. Only she could drive the slaves out with a broom when she discovered them in the vacant rooms committing calamitous acts of sodomy or fornicating with bartered women (10).

Significantly, the only time we hear of Dominga de Adviento again is when she stumbles upon her mistress, Bernarda Cabrera, having sex with her lover, Judas Iscariote. As for Sierva Maria, we are told:

She could dance with more grace and fire than the Africans, sing in voices different from her own in the various languages of Africa, agitate the birds and animals when she imitated their voices (10).

Within her immediate cultural context, Sierva Maria is a misfit. Her father tries to stop her from associating with the slaves and as Marquez writes, "she begins to blossom under a combination of contradictory influences" such that would preclude her from belonging to any clear-cut cultural socius be it, "Yoruban" or "Western." But this problematic multiculturalism is not new, and in fact, is not always problematic. Dominga de Adviento combines her "Yoruban beliefs" with Catholicism and derives spiritual repose in doing so. Today, these cultural binaries and syncretisms still exist in Africa with the majority of Africans criss-crossing the culture-spiritual divide with bewildering nimbleness. For Dominga de Adviento, this stew of multiculturalism is definitely not a problem because of her immense worldly experience and her status as a slave. But for the young Sierva Maria, an aristocrat to the boot, a certain degree of cultural purity—or perhaps insularity—is necessary otherwise the sort of problems that will result in her tragic end would arise.

The other black of note in Of Love and Other Demons is Judas Iscariote, Bernarda’s lover whom she had bought with money. Apart from being a kept man, he is also an unsavoury character:

Judas became a thief, a pimp, an occasional sodomite, all out of sheer depravity because he lacked for nothing. One ill-fated night, in front of Bernarda, with only his bare hands, he fought three galley slaves in a dispute over cards and was beaten to death with a chair (47-49).

But principally , it is through Sierva Maria that we receive the not unfrequent strains of "Yorubanness." To save her from the disease of rabies, the slaves "had her chew a paste of manaju and placed her naked in the onion cellar to counteract the evil spell of the dog" (32). In relation to Sierva Maria, we also know that Dominga de Adviento had "consecrated her to Olokun, a Yoruban deity of indeterminate sex whose face is presumed to be so dreadful it is seen only in dreams and always hidden by a mask" (43).
She was also purified "with the verbena of Yemaya" a "Yoruban" goddess. When her mother scolds her, she would reply with a "string of Yoruban curses." Furthermore, she invents her own African name, Maria Madinga. Certainly not Yoruba in this case. In addition, she could sing in several African tongues, Congolese, Mandingo, and of course, Yoruban.

These gifts are, to say the least, not beneficial to her. Outside her childish world, a gruesome war is being waged, one that would see a civilization crumble and another flourish from its ruins. Abrenuncio, the atheist medical doctor Sierva Maria’s Father contracts to cure her, captures this battle between two distinct civilizations most appropriately. Abrenuncio tells the Marquis that the Catholic method of "castigation of exorcism" is indeed quite similar to the "witchcraft of the blacks." But the Marquis does not entrust his daughter to their care, nor does he entrust her to the treatment of Abrenuncio. Catholic civilization wins at the end of the day. And Catholicism in this instance is personified by Mother Josefa Miranda, the Abess of the convent in which Sierva Maria is interred. As Delaura observes, she is plagued by "demons of rancour, intolerance, imbecility," an observation that does not go down well with the clerical authorities.

Yet "Yoruban" influences abound. The "blood of Chango"—notice the Hispanic spelling—and the "pale blue beads of Yemaya," another Hispanicized rendering. Ultimately, the "Yoruban" curative method, and by extension, mode of life is relegated into the background, while Catholicism, which in this context can be taken as Western, becomes the triumphant civilization. There is sense in which Sierva Maria’s end blots out the significance of "Yoruban" way of life in the novel. Within the cultural and political socius of Latin America, the "Yoruban" influences cannot ultimately exercise any hegemonic control, not even through Sierva Maria, offspring of the aristocracy.

There is one other thing to be said. Marquez commits the common error of lumping diverse African cultures together. But then, something can be said in his favour. Such an undiscriminating admixture of African cultures can only make sense in view of the cultural realities of the New World. Blacks from Africa were uprooted without the slightest regard for their cultural origins. As immigrants in the New World, their old cultural dispositions were thoroughly shaken and transformed. This profound transformation is reflected in Of Love and Other Demons. Such portrayals of the surviving strains of African culture is not new in Latin American culture. The Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado has undertaken more elaborate depictions of African cultures. And for a Yoruba subject in Africa looking at “ himself” through the mirror of Latin American literature in the hands of master, the effects can be numerous when not indeed spectacular.

When compared with Conrad, Marquez does a lot more to invest his black characters with individuality and hence humanity. But he only does this within the small gap of tolerance available in the Hispanic experience. In his privileged locus, which has to be taken in tandem with Western civilization, marginal cultures cannot achieve the subjective totalization they so much desire. They would still be regarded as the "Other" no matter how much sensitivity is directed at them. And so, the task of realizing the much-needed totalization can only come about when so-called marginal cultures take the pains in establishing or inscribing their own centrality.

About The Author


Sanya Osha holds a PhD in Philosophy and is a senior researcher at the School for Graduate Studies, University of South Africa. He has also published extensively in the fields of anthropology, politics and critical theory. He is the author of Kwasi Wiredu and Beyond: The Text, Writing and Thought in Africa (2005) and Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Shadow: Politics, Nationalism and the Ogoni Protest Movement (2007).

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