Sierva Maria de Todos los Angeles, the twelve-year-old daughter of a ruined Marquis languishing in a decaying South American coastal city in the early 19th century is bitten by a rabid dog. Does she contract rabies? Or is she possessed? A constellation of bizarre characters with peculiar ways cluster near this simple story hub and weave Garcia-Marquez’s magic around it. The story’s narrator, a journalist assigned to an unpromising story two hundred years later, witnesses discovery of the girl’s skull, still attached to her remarkable red hair–so thick and long it must be braided and wrapped to keep it from under her feet. He undertakes discovery and telling of her story.
Who are these characters? The girl’s step-mother, Bernarda Cabrera, the Marquis’s second wife, is a woman from the merchant classes, former trader in flour and slaves, who later in life falls in love with the beautiful slave Judas Iscariote and becomes addicted to violent sex, cacao and fermented honey. The girl’s father, Don Ygnacio de Alfaro y Duenas, the second Marquis de Casalduero is a ‘funereal, effeminate man, as pale as a lily because the bats drained his blood while he slept.’ In a characteristic failure of good judgment (and the will to go with) he takes his daughter’s care out of the hands of the Jewish doctor Abrenuncio de Sa Pereira Cao, a rare voice of reason in a world of twisted Catholic raving — a man who keeps his horse alive for one-hundred years — and hands her over to the Bishop. The bishop, a man of titanic obesity, suspects demonic possession and assigns Cayetano Delaura, an intellectual priest-librarian with a passion for forbidden books, to conduct her exorcism. The girl, after all, was brought up by black slaves, worshiping Yoruban gods, singing African songs, speaking African languages. She wears their charm necklaces. Surely there’s something there needing exorcism. Cayetano, of course, falls in love with the girl for whom he’s responsible. His love, and her exorcism, eventually handled by the Bishop himself, lead ultimately and inevitably to the girl’s early death.
Garcia-Marquez here contrasts the systematic delusions and institutionalized madness of the conquering Europeans (in this case, mainly displaced Spaniards) with a vital, natural, self-confident world of the ‘uncivilized’ (in this case mainly Africans brought to South America to build upon the wealth of their captors. In this brilliant narrative the Spaniard’s world is worn-out, decaying, bereft of spirit and reason, while the alternative, the gurgling, fertile, breathing world of the slave quarters, is not altogether of this world. The contrast is startling, insightful, and full of good humor. I recommend it without reservation or hesitation.
“Crazy people are not crazy if one accepts their reasoning.”
“Disbelief is more resistant than faith because it is sustained by the senses.”
“This was when she asked him whether it was true that love conquered all, as the songs said. ‘It is true’, he replied, ‘but you would do well not to believe it.”
“He said that love was an emotion contra natura that condemned two strangers to a base and unhealthy dependence, and the more intense it was, the more ephemeral.”
“Her movements were so stealthy that she seemed to be an invisible creature. Frightened by her strange nature, her mother had hung a cowbell around the girl’s wrist so she would not lose track of her in the shadows of the house.”
Of Love and Other Demons (Del Amor y Otros Demonios) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, translated by Edith Grossman. 147 pp. New York: Alfred A. Knopf