on November 1, 2000
Of Love and Other Demons opens with a description of the author/narrator, in 1949, reporting the excavation of a convent of Clarissan nuns, and seeing "a stream of living hair the intense color of copper" spill out of the crypt. The hair belongs to Sierva Maria de Todos los Angeles, a marquise who is now two hundred years dead, the protagonist of this grotesque, terrible and gloomy story.
This book is pure Garcia Marquez, so you know it has to be good. The world inhabited by the characters is an incredible one; one whose truths are as strange as its demonic magic. Although a love story of sorts, Of Love and Other Demons has none of the comic antics of Love in the Time of Cholera; it reminds one more of the spare and grim Chronicle of a Death Foretold.
Sierva Maria is the only child of Don Ygnacio de Alfaro y Duenas, the second Marquis de Casalduero and Lord of Darien. Garcia Marquez describes him as "a funereal, effeminate man, as pale as a lily because the bats drained his blood while he slept." Don Ygnacio really doesn't do much with his time other than lie in a hammock and look at the world with fear and gloom in his heart.
Bernarda Cabrera, the Marquis's second wife, is Sierva Maria's mother. She is as addict of violent sex, cacao and fermented honey; a woman from the merchant class who had formerly been in love with a slave named Judas Iscariote. Filled with hatred for her own child, Sierva Maria was brought up by black slaves and learned to worship Yoruban gods, sing African songs, speak African languages. Sierva, in fact, prefers the vital, alive slaves to the decadent and perverted Spaniards.
Despite her odd parentage, Sierva is a happy child until the day she is bitten on the ankle by a strange dog. Even though the wound heals with no problem, her father, along with the religious authorities decides that she may be rabid, possessed by demons, and their barbarous attempts to exorcise her form the crux of this story.
The chief exorcist, Cayetano Delaura, an intellectual priest whose secret passion is books of courtly romance, falls in love with the young Sierva and with her coppery hair and it is their love that will chart the course of Sierva's life. Father Delaura's opponent regarding Sierva is a Jewish doctor named Abrenuncio de Sa Pereira Cao. This man is the voice of reason in a world where sanity and reason become wild and twisted. His is the lone voice crying in the wilderness.
There are many demons in this wonderful story of the fantastic, including love. The Bishop (a wonderful character) sees rabies as a manifestation of a demon-possessed body; a superstitious abbess finds a supernatural portent in every ordinary event. When Sierva asks her father if it is true that love conquers all, he answers, "It is true, but you would do well not to believe it."
The real demons, however, are the beliefs held by both the Spanish and the Christians, a theme that has been explored my Garcia Marquez in other books. This is only heightened by the clash of cultures between them and the Africans with whom Sierva Maria has been growing up. Father Delaura believes "that what seems demonic to us are the customs of the blacks, learned by the girl as a consequence of the neglected condition in which her parents kept her." The Jewish doctor, Abrenuncio, believes the real danger for Sierva lies in the exorcism which she is undergoing.
A fear of animals also dominates in this bleak and sad story. As a young boy, Ygnacio was terrified of all animals except chickens. But one day he observed a chicken at close quarters and "imagined it grown to the size of a cow, and realized it was a monster much more fearsome than any other on land or sea." He even tells himself, "I live in fear of being alive." The only animals left on his estate are mastiffs, which, strangely, he loves. Dogs play an important role in Of Love and Other Demons. Abrenuncio's name, Cao is Portuguese for "dog," and one of the characters meets a mysterious and watery death across a bridge "where they had just hung the carcass of a large, sinister dog so that everyone would know it had died of rabies. The air carried the scent of roses, and the sky was the most diaphanous in the world." Heady stuff? Maybe. But not for someone as talented as Garcia Marquez.
Ultimately, Of Love and Other Demons asks the questions: What is body and what survives the death of the body? What is flesh and what is spirit? What is demonic? This isn't Garcia Marquez's very best book, but that doesn't matter; it is yet another tour de force from one of the century's most brilliant and original authors.