Love is a very powerful emotion that can overwhelm even the strongest and most disciplined character, especially when it comes by surprise and for the first time. Love always feels like magic, but sometimes it appears to the outsider as if a potent spell has been cast on the lovers or only one of them. When the passion is so strong that it becomes harmful and destructive to the people concerned, it isn’t a long way to think that a demon must be at work. This is what happens in the historical novel Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel García Márquez set in a time when and a place where superstition was common. It tells a story of first love under particularly unfavourable circumstances and between a most unlikely couple, namely between a scarcely adolescent girl alleged of being possessed by demons and her already middle-aged exorcist in an eighteenth-century sea town somewhere in South America.
Gabriel García Márquez was born in Aracataca, Colombia, in March 1927 (1928 according to other sources). He passed the first ten years of his life in the loving care of his maternal grandparents and the experience strongly influenced his writing. During his law studies at university he got involved in journalism, a career that he pursued for many years and that took him to Venezuela, Europe, the USA, and eventually Mexico for long stretches of time. He made his literary debut with the novella Leaf Storm (La hojarasca) in 1955 after having tried in vain for seven years to find a publisher. Fame didn’t come before 1967, though, when the author released One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad). Others of his notable works of the period are for instance Autumn of the Patriarch (El otoño del patriarca: 1975), and Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Crónica de una muerte anunciada: 1981). In 1982 Gabriel García Márquez was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Among his later novels above all Love in the Time of Cholera (El amor en los tiempos de cólera: 1985), The General in His Labyrinth (El general en su laberinto: 1989) and Of Love and Other Demons (Del amor y otros demonios: 1994) stand out from the rest of his life work. Gabriel García Márquez died in Mexico City, Mexico, in April 2014.
Being only twelve years old, Sierva María de Todos los Ángeles knows little Of Love and Other Demons that people see at work always and everywhere in the 1740s, especially in the remote South American port town where she has passed all her life. Her parents are Don Ygnacio de Alfaro y Dueñas, Marquis de Casalduero and Lord of Darién, and his second wife Bernarda Cabrera, but unloved and uncared for by them she has been brought up by their African slaves learning their languages as well as their customs. One day she is bitten by a stray dog. The wound is insignificant, just a graze at the left ankle that heals without leaving a trace, and yet it subjects the girl to gossip because the dog was rabid and superstition has it that she must therefore be possessed by a demon. When her father hears of it, he moves Sierva María from the slaves’ quarters in the courtyard to a room in the run-down mansion. Unaccustomed to the environment and the company of her father who is a complete stranger to her, she is terrified. That he has doctors come to treat her makes things still worse since they only succeed in making her sick in fact letting blood and infecting the wound. Moreover, they spread the rumour of her (seemingly) crazy behaviour that eventually reaches the Bishop. He orders that Sierva María be taken to the convent of Santa Clara where an annoyed and superstitious abbess puts her into a prison cell right away. Father Cayetano Delaura is sent to perform the rites of exorcism to save the girl’s soul, but meeting the scared teenager with the long train of copper-coloured hair the priest in his late thirties falls in love for the first time in his life…
As is characteristic of all works classed as magical realism, also in the short novel Of Love and Other Demons reality blends convincingly with imagination. Here the author’s starting points were the excavation of a convent that after two hundred years brought to light the skull of a girl with exceptionally long hair the colour of copper attached and an old legend about just such a girl who died from rabies. The story told certainly is about love in all its different shades and about the sometimes destructive force of passion, but at the same time it exposes the dangers of ignorance and half-knowledge that nurture fear along with prejudice and superstition leading to boundless hatred and intolerance. As we all know, throughout centuries the Catholic Church (but also other powers) demonised communities, behaviour and thoughts that were or just seemed to be at odds with the accepted doctrine although love even of the enemy is at the heart of the Christian faith and should rule all actions of the faithful. The result was much cruelty that often wasn’t even perceived as such like in the case of Sierva María or the violent evangelising of the indigenous population of new colonies. Although the plot is concise, it is also dense and multilayered allowing interpretation from very different angles. The characters making an appearance in the novel are marvellously varied and depicted in the necessary psychological depth to understand their motives and actions. Despite its high literary quality the book is a quick, easy and pleasurable read.
In fact, I enjoyed Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel García Márquez so much that I re-read the slim volume to be able to write this review today, i.e. years after the original experience. The love story between Sierva María and Father Cayetano Delaura itself didn’t particularly interest me although it isn’t an ordinary one, either. I definitely preferred the historical background and the variety of characters or rather types peopling it, but most of all I loved the fact that the book made me think. Not all Nobel laureate produced novels that I would recommend as readily for reading as this one!
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