4 out of 5 stars
Cut to the Chase:
The stories that work in this novel are powerful and enthralling… the first line, spoken by a young boy, is “I’ve seen a corpse for the first time.” Each of the stories in this collection is dense, seeming to reach beyond the dramas of each character’s individual events and tragedies, but it is the title story which most diligently holds and mesmerizes us. Though the other stories in the collection are well-written and constructed, I have to admit that they didn’t pull me in the same way – many are fable-like: a man with wings, a vicious miracle-seller swindler whose child assistant becomes a true miracle-worker, an unidentified drowned man who seems to have such fantastical proportions that he eventually changes the way the villages think as well as how they construct and design their houses. The pacing also slows down after the title story, and while the passages are often quite poetic and beautiful, there is often very little action to push the story forward. The stories are still entertaining, just less involving, depending more on lyrical language than compelling or realistic characters.
“Leaf Storm” is short and covers only 30 minutes in the lives of three protagonists, a young boy, his mother, and his grandfather, as they each separately prepare for the funeral of the dead doctor. Through our changing narrators we learn about the history of the town – how the leaf storm brought a banana company which transformed Macondo, at least temporarily, into a thriving, prosperous town. We learn how the doctor, unnamed throughout the piece, first arrived to the colonel’s family and set up his practice, only to be forgotten when the banana company’s physicians replaced him. We’re told that the doctor locked himself into his room, receiving no patients and seeing no visitors for years afterwards – not even Meme, who worked as a servant within the colonel’s household and eventually became the doctor’s mistress. The stories unfold slowly and mysteriously – we start at the end, when the doctor is dead, when the town has already collapsed, become abandoned, and we are taken slowly through the past, so that each of the little mysteries are answered: what happened to the young boy’s father, why the doctor is hated, as well as why the colonel seems determined to secure a respectable burial for the doctor.
Other selected synopses:
- “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” – an old man who speaks an unintelligible language (which a priest quickly concludes is not Latin) and has enormous (though tattered) wings is found hurt and kept in the chicken coop, where an enterprising couple decide to sell admission
- “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” – a fable-like tale about how the discovery of a very large, very handsome drowned man captures the hearts and imaginations of a small fishing village.
- “Blacaman the Good, Vendor of Miracles” — a fable-like tale about a charlatan who sells miracles and restorative ointments and buys a local boy to be his apprentice/accomplice.
- “Monologue of Isabel Watching It Rain in Macondo” – the only one that is linked back to the title story, has Isabel, the middle generation representative from our title story, recalling a large rain storm while her husband was still living with them, she was pregnant, and the doctor (though unmentioned) was still alive.
- “Nabo” – another fable-like tale about a man who is kicked in the head by a horse and afterwards lives in total seclusion and isolation, so that the only reason people know he is still alive is because the food they prepare for him is taken and eaten, three times a day, for years.
Comparisons to Other Authors:
I’ve mostly just read Marquez’s older works, and this is a much quicker introduction to a master writer. Though it veers from fantastical to real throughout the collection, and I think that not all of the stories are as tightly wound as the first, it’s a good set of stories. In terms of other short story collections that tie together as a connected series of short stories, I can’t think of examples that are older, but it seems increasingly common in newer works (Melissa Bank’s The Wonder Spot, the last few stories in Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth — though I would probably pick this collection over either of those).