Editor's Note: We are happy to welcome back one of our favorite contributors, Christian González, with this selection of classic books you may wish to re-vist (or visit for the first time) as we head into a new year.
I had a pretty solid 2017. I finally managed to move out of my (dad’s) house for college and in so doing reached the delicious stage of semi-adulthood. I think it will be difficult for anything in my future to top this stage. Semi-adulthood, at least as I have experienced it, confers many of adulthood’s privileges (living alone, drinking, setting up your schedule as you please) without imposing any of its accompanying responsibilities (paying bills, rearing children, and the like). Aside from all that, though, I read some stimulating books, and — more importantly — have become increasingly able to understand them! As I begin my 2018, I want to reflect on some of my favorite encounters with writing in the year past.
The three books don’t exactly have anything to do with one other, but they are three classics that have endured for many years — and rightly so, in my view. (Well, one could argue that all books are related because they all reveal some aspect of the human experience and blah blah, but I won’t do that here.) I picked them because I liked them. Anyways. In no particular order, here they are:
Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
The title of the book is revealing — it is the chronicle of a murder that everybody in a town saw coming but did absolutely nothing to stop. The story is told in the style of narrative journalism: an (unnamed) university graduate returns to his hometown to investigate the murder of Santiago Nasar at the hands of the brothers Pablo and Pedro Vicario. In the course of his investigation he discovers that nobody warned Santiago because everybody assumed that 1) the brothers were not really going to kill him or 2) that someone else had already warned Santiago. Unfortunately for Santiago, the brothers did mean to murder him and nobody did actually warn him.
One of my favorite things about Marquez is his uncanny ability to portray men’s voracious sexual appetites as well as women’s abilities to deflect these men’s advances. At the beginning of the novel, Santiago lusts after his maid’s daughter, grabs her by the wrist, and says to her, “The time has come for you to be tamed.” The maid comes to her daughter’s rescue, brandishing a knife and telling Santiago, “You won’t have a drink of that water as long as I’m alive.” (Marquez is certainly capable of employing colorful language…)
Thankfully, not all the romance in Marquez’s novel is weird or predatory — sometimes it is comic, or tragic, or both. (In real life it is often both, I think.) Part of the story revolves around the failed romance between Bayardo San Roman — a wealthy, upstanding gentleman of the sort that in-laws love — and Angela Vicario. The two are set up in an arranged marriage that Angela does not want. On the night of their wedding, as they are about to consummate their relationship, Bayardo discovers that Angela is not a virgin. Bayardo, furious, returns Angela to her family and refuses to marry her.
At first, Angela is somewhat content to have escaped an undesired marriage. But, realizing that Bayardo was actually an okay guy after all, she falls in love with him with the intensity born-again Christians feel after re-discovering their faith. “[Angela] had only to close her eyes to see him, she heard him breathing in the sea, the blaze of his body in bed would awaken her at night,” Marquez writes. So Angela decides to send him letters, long, passionate letters professing her love and begging him to return. And then, after seventeen years of these letters, Bayardo returns, “carrying a suitcase with clothing in order to stay and another just like it with almost two thousand letters that she had written him. They were arranged by date in bundles tied with colored ribbons, and they were all unopened.”
This romance, failed at first and successful seventeen years later, is related to Santiago’s death: Santiago was the man who took Angela’s virginity. This transgression was the reason Angela’s brothers, Pablo and Pedro, felt it necessary to murder Santiago; they had to restore their family honor. In the end, then, Santiago was murdered by an archaic social norm and by a town too apathetic to care, and all this for the great crime of making love to a woman to whom he was not married.
2. The Gods Will Have Blood by Anatole France.
This novel is set during the French Revolution, right after Maximilien Robespierre and his radical Jacobin faction take power. The story follows Evariste Gamelin, a zealous revolutionary thoroughly committed to achieving the revolution’s objectives.
The novel takes a brilliantly satirical view of the Revolution. The first scene occurs in the Palais de Justice where, “on its classical, façade, battered by weather and mutilated by man, the symbols of religion had been smashed with hammers and above the door was inscribed in black letters the slogan of the Republic: ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity—or Death’.” Even without ending with the ominous “or Death,” the entire sentence is meant to make us feel uneasy. If everything is so great and everyone so equal, then whence the need to declare it in such a portentous way? And why did the traditional symbols have to be mutilated to begin with? Questions of this sort haunt the rest of the narrative, as slowly the reader discovers that the Revolution hasn’t made heaven appear on earth, as was promised in the advertising.
Evariste, the protagonist, gets a job on a revolutionary tribunal. With ever-increasing glee, he hands down “guilty” verdicts, one after another, with utter disregard for evidence and for the consequences that the people he condemned were to suffer. He begins to derive a sensual pleasure from watching the accused insist on their innocence, as he “knows” that they were really all counter-revolutionary scum who deserved nothing other than the guillotine. Little by little the prison sentences become more capricious, the charges more outrageous, the evidence more fabricated, all until Robespierre himself gets charged with treason and is murdered by the very revolution that he helped launch. The novel thus warns against revolutions that end in the nightmare of replacing one despotism with another that is still more barbarous.
3. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass- Frederick Douglass
I was delighted to see that President Trump discovered who Frederick Douglass was earlier in 2017. Jokes aside, when Trump said that Douglass was “being more and more recognized,” it reminded me that the last time I’d heard of Douglass was when I was a sophomore in high school, when my social studies teacher had assigned Douglass’ autobiography. As it turns out, I had Douglass’ Narrative lying around my room, so I decided to revisit it.
One of the most striking things a critic like Douglass can do is to highlight the despicable aspects of slavery that weren’t already obvious. Of course, Douglass devotes much of his book to carefully describing the horrors of slavery: the floggings, the verbal abuse, the rapes, the never-ending torture, and so on; Douglass does this with incredible power and precision. But he also describes the comparatively lesser and less conspicuous humiliations to which slaves were routinely treated. One these less conspicuous outrages in particular has stuck with me.
I don’t think I could do justice to Douglass by summarizing what happened to his grandmother, so I’ll just reproduce it below:
“If any one thing in my experience, more than another, served to deepen my conviction of the infernal character of slavery, and to fill me with unutterable loathing of slaveholders, it was their base ingratitude to my poor old grandmother. She had served my master faithfully from youth to old age…[And after the slaveowner’s death], she was nevertheless left a slave—a slave for life—a slave in the hands of strangers.”
After re-selling Douglass’ grandmother into slavery, the slaveholders, with their “base ingratitude and fiendish barbarity,” then “built her a little hut, put up a little mud-chimney, and then made her welcome to the privilege of supporting herself in perfect loneliness.” Through his writings, Douglass told his contemporaries and reminded his successors about the extent of the brutality that the slave system engendered. It’s a lesson the United States can never allow itself to forget.