Book Review

Review: Strange Pilgrims, by Gabriel García Márquez

3/5 stars

For me, this was the ultimate Marmite collection of stories – they either wowed me or they left me cold. I did enjoy a lot of the stories in the collection, but the ones that didn’t engage me affected by experience of the collection as a whole, and that’s why my rating is probably a lot lower than it might otherwise have been.

The set of twelve stories detail the haunting ‘journeys’ of Latin Americans living in Europe. They’ve been translated from Spanish by Edith Grossman. This is one of my first times reading a translated work (I should really improve on that) and I did read up on what others thought about the translation out of curiosity.

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From the title, we are introduced to this theme of journeying, travelling, and the ideas of foreignness and alienation that this movement entails. The stories explore these themes from various angles – men, women, children, coming from and living in various cultures and countries. Some of Márquez’ pilgrims have just arrived in their new surroundings; others have not seen their native countries for decades. Whether it’s by cars, boats, planes, trains, or putting one foot in front of the other, people are constantly moving.

In one story, ‘Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane’, Márquez portrayed that sense of being in limbo when one travels, of being ‘somewhere’ and ‘nowhere’, through an airport and airplane setting which I thought was very well done. It levelled all of the characters, even as it focussed on one. No matter where they were going or why, they were all travellers, all in that ‘between’ space of movement. It compounded the ideas and feelings being explored throughout the stories.

I also liked how open-ended a lot of the stories were – Maria dos Prazeres being one, for it is another means of reiterating the ideas of movement and journeying. The characters may reach their immediate desired destinations, but their story continues on. In Maria dos Prazeres, the reader is left almost at a crossroads with the titular character – we are left to wonder which direction she will turn to.

The diversity of characters included in the collection added a lot of texture to these overarching concepts; strangers to one another’s stories, these characters were nevertheless united in what emotions their experience provoked.

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This extends to the readers: while the focus within the stories is Latin Americans in Europe, the loneliness, and the homesickness, of travel – or alternatively the feelings of liberation – are universal. A lot of the stories are deeply moving, resonating across time and place, as well as being warm and witty in places too.

The allusions to magic and superstition were powerful for eliciting these themes. There was also something ‘timeless’ about the stories. Although there were markers for time references – cars, computers, and the like – I experienced a sense in my reading that these stories could be taking place in any time, or even out of time.

The prose felt beautifully weightless as a result, like a gentle breeze brushing over these lives, however briefly. The most clear example of this is Light Is Like Water, perhaps my favourite story in the collection.

“Household objects, in the fullness of their poetry, flew with their own wings through the kitchen sky.” – Light Is Like Water

The darkest story of the collection was, in my opinion, ‘I Only Came to Use the Phone’. I mean, this was intense – terrifying even. It was a compact psychological thriller that delved into understandings of female mental health.

As I mentioned at the beginning, not all the stories were engaging. Seventeen Poisoned Englishmen and Bon Voyage Mr. President really dragged for me (although the difference in page length is relatively big). The latter story in particularly meandered too much for my liking. They lacked the warmth of the other stories, and even the stunning prose seemed temporarily absent. It was a shame really, but I simply couldn’t get into these stories.

There were also a few problematic portrayals of sexuality as well, particularly women’s sexuality. For instance, one story made use of an ‘evil lesbian’ trope that was uncomfortable to read.

There’s a lot to discover in these stories – there were things to enjoy, and aspects I struggled to comprehend, hence the average rating. The warm, witty characters and gorgeous prose won out…just.

Thanks for reading!

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