In Evil Hour – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Love or despise, Gabriel Garcia Marquez is the most notable figure in magical realism.  With his masterpiece ‘100 Years of Solitude’, the Colombian author implements the densely layered definition of the genre-blending magical elements into reality with ease.  Though only five years prior, Marquez would pen his debut novel In Evil Hour, the story of a small Latin American town plagued by mysterious but damning lampoons.

Much like his other novels,  In Evil Hour revolves around an unnamed South American town.  The inhabitants, who have recently recovered from a violent military coup, find themselves once again re-living the tortured past when lampoons cause a scorned husband to kill his wife’s lover.  The Mayor, a lieutenant of the new regime, re-enacts the curfew and suppresses all anti-government material.  Though muzzling the citizens causes more strife than safety.

Without spoiling the intricate narrative of In Evil Hour, readers of Marquez will notice  the usual multitude of characters and their whimsical role in story structure.  Usually the author does this with seamless flow, but his debut novel is bogged by lack of depth. With less than two-hundred pages, Marquez attempts his style of bypassing significant events; we never find out the substance of the lampoons, with disastrous results:

While they were receiving their Wednesday pay, the widow Montiel heard them pass without answering their greetings.  She lived alone in the gloomy nine-room house where Big Mama had died and which Jose Montiel had bought without imagining that his widow would have to endure her solitude in it until death.  At night, while she went about through the empty room with the insecticide bomb, she would find Big Mama squashing lice in the hallways, and she would ask her: ‘When am I going to die?’  But that happy communication with the beyond only managed to increase her uncertainty because the answers, like those of all the dead, were silly and contradictory.”

Even in the most dry readings, we look for an exciting passage to peak our interest. Sadly, Marquez has trouble even delivering something to keep eyes open. It’s obvious that atmosphere, not entertainment, was the author’s intent, but the novel’s omnipresence – a method that would champion 100 Years of Solitude as a masterpiece – is useless without underlying circumstance:

“In his office the mayor was waiting for him with a moral problem.  As a result of the last elections, the police had confiscated and destroyed the electoral documents of the opposition party.  The majority of the inhabitants of the town now lacked any means of identification.  ‘Those people moving their houses,’  the mayor concluded with his arms open, don’t even know what their names are.’ Judge Arcadio could understand that there was a sincere affliction behind those open arms.  But the mayor’s problem was simple: all he had to do was ask for the appointment of a civil registrar.”

While the tragedy is apparent in the text, Marquez takes for granted the sympathy of his readers without adequate backstory.  This is further intensified by most audiences lack of knowledge concerning la violenca in Colombia(at least mine), one of the origins cited for In Evil Hour. Though they only came at rare moments, Marquez finds his stride while recounting the vicious period:

“They didn’t receive precise orders.  Leaping down the stairs four steps at a time behind the mayor, they left the barracks in Indian file. They crossed the street without worrying about the drizzle and stopped in front of the dentist’s office. With two quick charges they battered down the door with their rifle butts. They were already inside the house when the lights in the vestibule went on.  A small bald man with veins showing through his skin appeared in his shorts at the rear door, trying to put on his bathrobe. At the first instant he remained paralyzed with one arm up and his mouth open, as in the flash of a photograph. Then he gave a leap backward and bumped into his wife, who was coming out of the bedroom in her nightgown. ‘Don’t move’, the Mayor shouted. The woman said: ‘Oh!’ with her hands over her mouth, and went back to the bedroom. The dentist went toward the vestibule, trying the cord on his bathrobe, and only then did he make out the three policemen who were pointing their rifles at him, and the mayor, water dripping from all over his body, tranquil, his hands in the pockets of his raincoat:  ‘If the lady leaves her room they have orders to shoot her.”

Written in Paris without a means for income, Marquez was convinced by friends to re-write In Evil Hour for a literary contest in Colombia.  Awarded, the novel was sent to Madrid where, on the behalf of the publishers, all Latin American slang was absolved and replaced by “dictionary” Spanish.  In 1966, a year before the publication of  100 Years of Solitude, the novel was finally re-printed in it’s original form:

“Nobody Writes to the Colonel, In Evil Hour, and Big Mama’s Funeral all reflect the reality of life in Colombia and this theme determines the rational structure of the books.  I don’t regret having written them, but they belong to a kind of premeditated literature that offers too static and exclusive a vision of reality.”

– Marquez admits of his earlier work in The Taste of Guava-a collection of conversations with journalist Apuleius Mendoza.  Having not read Big Mama’s Funeral or the typically lauded Nobody Writes to the Colonel, my opinion is invalid, but In Evil Hour fits well into the author’s definition. There is no escape from Marquez’s “exclusive” vision of reality in the novel, which seems to contradict his following work.

This limited scope in Marquez’s debut novel is further hindered by Gregory Rabassas’s translation. The famed translator, along with Edith Grossman, has transcribed a bulk of the author’s work and seems lost in the Colombian jungle of expressions.  As Robert Coover notes, “There is the Colombian’s love of the idiomatic vaina, for example, which might be translated as anything from “predicament” or “difficulty” to “nonsense,” “trouble” or “fiasco,” but which Mr. Rabassa obstinately renders over and over as “mess,” until he gets in an awful one.”

Researching Christopher Ishwerwood’s debut All the Conspirators, one commenter noted the dismay that arises from completionist reading of an author. Like Marquez, the notoriously sub-par novel from Isherwood is better enjoyed with the hindsight of a more accomplished literary career. Thankfully In Evil Hour allows readers to glean the forerunner of a literary movement, but, in the finale, ultimately feels like the inhabitants of the city:  clueless and apathetic.

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