In colonial South America, the doomed love of a 12-year-old girl and a priest thrice her age sent to exorcise her. She is a nobleman's daughter who has been bitten by a rabid dog. The authorities decide she is possessed by the devil and lock her up in a convent. By the author of Love in the Time of Cholera.
Although Marquez may seem to be writing in an extremely accessible style, I think the cautious reader would do well to look between the lines - GGM is a masterful creator of personalities, and produces characters who deserve every bit of reflection one can give them.
Marquez’s writing is certainly unique in its earthiness. He deals with such subjects as sex, bodily functions and graphic illness as if they are parts of everyday life … because they are. It is refreshing.
Marquez is also known as one of the leading practitioners of the literary device of “magical realism” in which events are introduced into the story which are quite fantastic (for example, a character being swept away into the sky as though taken to heaven, a rain event that lasts over four years followed by an absolute drought of ten years). This was a major device used in One Hundred Years of Solitude and perhaps contributed to my dissatisfaction with that work. In any event, both LitToC and Love and Other Demons use this literary device sparingly if at all.
This relatively short work (readable in one or two sittings) focuses on a young woman born to feckless and irresponsible aristocrats. Neither parent cares for the child and she is raised in the slave quarters. Her unorthodox upbringing gives rise to behavior that lead many to suspect her of possession by demons. A local churchman is tasked with performing an exorcism, but instead falls madly and hopelessly in love with her, a love that is never consummated. For those familiar with Marquez, it should be no surprise that a happy ending is not to be expected.
The author’s writing is indisputably beautiful and at times mesmerizing. Much like LitToC, this is a haunting and compelling story, filled with sadness and regret. I can highly recommend this short work as a precursor to the much longer and complex LitToC. If you enjoy this, you’ll almost certainly enjoy the latter.
The Amazon summary:
Of Love and Other Demons is set in a South American seaport in the colonial era, a time of viceroys and bishops, enlightened men and Inquisitors, saints and lepers and pirates. Sierva Maria, only child of a decaying noble family, has been raised in the slaves' courtyard of her father's cobwebbed mansion while her mother succumbs to fermented honey and cacao on a faraway plantation. On her twelfth birthday the girl is bitten by a rabid dog, and even as the wound is healing she is made to endure therapies indistinguishable from tortures. Believed, finally, to be possessed, she is brought to a convent for observation. And into her cell stumbles Father Cayetano Delaura, the Bishop's protege, who has already dreamed about a girl with hair trailing after her like a bridal train; who is already moved by this kicking, spitting, emaciated creature strapped to a stone bed. As he tends to her with holy water and sacramental oils, Delaura feels "something immense and irreparable" happening to him. It is love, "the most terrible demon of all." And it is not long before Sierra Maria joins him in his fevered misery.
The novel centers around Sierva Maria, a young aristocrat girl, and Father Cayetano Delaura, the priest who is sent to exorcise her. Whether the girl really is possessed is not as clear. She is bitten by a dog later proven to have rabies, and though she exhibits none of the symptoms, her father, in an excess of selfless love that is coming far too late, decides that he will do anything to save the child. Sierva never does contract rabies, but her marquise father overcompensates for his total neglect of her until that point, and brings in a myriad of doctors, quacks, and soothsayers, who perform various 'cures' on Sierva that amount to torture of the poor 12 year old. As her mental stability begins to shift with the tumultuous physical pain, the local Bishop decides she must be possessed and sends her to isolation in a convent.
Actually, this first half of the novel I enjoyed (thus the three stars). Not because the content is happy - clearly not - but because Marquez's writing style is so evident and masterful. The characters are all intriguing creatures, and the roundabout way Marquez delivers family history and the strange relational interactions between them all keeps the reader in suspense. The book is very matter of fact about all the strange and wonderful occurrences in its pages.
After Sierva Maria enters the convent, though, I began to enjoy it less. First of all, Father Cayetano falls in love with her, despite the fact that she's a preteen and he's in his thirties. I know that at the time in which this book is set, that was not so unusual, but it was hard for me to read. Second, I have an even harder time reading about demons and possession, because of my faith and because I think they can be real and that they are very frightening. Actually, I just don't read about that subject matter. At first, I thought she wasn't actually possessed, just misunderstood (which I'm okay with), but in the second half she does things that suggest she really could have demons inside. That's not too surprising, since this is magical realism, a genre where the fantastic and the mundane are mixed and it's never clear where one ends and the other begins. In this case, since the story deals with possession, the fantastic elements that Marquez weaves into the fabric of every day life happen to deal with demons. The writing was still excellent, but the subject matter became uncomfortable for me.
In short, for extremely personal reasons, I could not enjoy the second half of this novel. The ending, the very last paragraph, was actually phenomenal, and I still didn't like it. Well written, full of great magical realism that I love, intriguing characters, yet because of my own discomfort with the subject matter, not the book for me.
The title is so apt as this is an exploration of how obsessions can take precedence over basic humanity. The enigma that is Sierva Maria is the catalyst for upheaval in a coastal Colombian town (a fictionalised Cartagena) of a couple of centuries ago: bitten by a rabid dog but surviving against the odds, her very existence seems to infect all she comes into contact with. Many of these individuals then exhibit a rabidity that has nothing to do with a physical ailment and everything to do with diseases of the mind: irrational superstition, jealousy, inhumanity and, yes, love, but obsessive love akin to that of a stalker.
Young Sierva Maria gets taken by her father to the convent of the Santa Clara nuns where she is imprisoned before her exorcism, an exorcism that is deemed necessary because she speaks various African languages and appears different, from her long unshorn hair to her unconventional behaviours. Marquez exposes several human frailties in the local populace, from xenophobia to snobbery and from drug addiction to political expediency. After her incarceration and the witnessing of the eclipse of the sun the downfall of Sierva Maria is sealed by the reverberations her mere existence has occasioned: the unexplained deaths of the innocent and not-so-innocent, the collapse of the interrogating bishop, the leading astray of the studious young priest.
In amongst it all are the magical events that one can almost accept as real, epitomised by the belief that hair continues to grow after death when the young girl's tomb is opened in the mid-twentieth century. Such examples of so-called magical realism are of course metaphors, for Marquez is indicating that stories and rumours also grow even and especially after death. In all of this the one truly rational voice is that of the atheist Spanish Jew who, though he has escaped to the colonies, is still the subject of suspicion and hatred. In this scholarly and gruff medical man we can dimly make out an authorial figure, an outsider whose observations point out the absurdities of conventional thinking and living.
My first Marquez tale, Of Love and Other Demons is beautifully narrated, certainly in this translation by Edith Grossman, with memorable characters and profound questioning of the status quo. As the tragedy moves towards its inevitable conclusion, with a shocking short burst of violence, Marquez still manages to infuse the tale with a sense of optimism despite its critique of human nature. If he manages to avoid any real suggestion of paedophilia (one of the charges levelled recently by the Russian Orthodox Church against his writings) it is done with enough subtlety and ambiguity to escape the notice of all but a few suspicious minds and certainly with no suggestion of approval. The real tragedy is that so few people visit Sierva Maria with the love that all humans need and want, and that those who do, like her father, are often too late.
The original convent which inspired the news story which inspired the novella is still standing and still functioning as a hotel, and Gabo readers make literary pilgrimages to stay there and marvel at the crypt where Sierva Maria de Todos Los Angeles was buried in a niche. For me her real memorial is this beautifully crafted fable.
What makes it so worth reading is that is an underrated, superb display of all of the things that make Marquez an amazing author. It has romance, and not the sex-teaser, swooning teens or professions of undying love based on nothing kind, but true romance. Romance in spite of logic, and itself, and even belief in such a thing. This book spells romance with all of it's complications, triumphs, irrationality, and cynicism. It also reads like a how-to guide for social and personal damnation.
This story is about a girl of ~12 years old who may be suffering from rabies or might be possessed by the devil or might just be poorly socialized, depending on whose point of view you take. Marquez set this sometime during the 1700s in some coastal city (presumably Cartagena). I found the lack of specific setting and time irritating as it distracted me -- I was constantly looking for some clue to anchor the story in time and space. I hoped to use the arrival of the new viceroy Don Rodrigo de Buen Lozano to set the time but unfortunately this is not a true historical figure. Therefore, all I could tell was it was after 1717 when Colombia as part of New Granada got its own viceroy based in Bogota and before 1810 when Colombia gained its independence from Spain.
Ninety three days after being bitten by a rabid dog and still not showing any signs of rabies, twelve year old Sierva Maria de Todos los Angeles is put in a convent for observation. Sierva Maria has been put through a series of painful and uncomfortable remedies in order to try and fight the infection that might take her young life.
Her mother and father dislike each other immensely and have allowed the girl to be raised in the slave quarters near their home. This has led Sierva Maria to speak in an African tongue, adopt African traditions and not be close to either of her parents.
Bernarda Cabrera, Sierva Maria's mother, is addicted to sex, cacao and fermented honey. Bernarda slowly deteriorates due to her way of living. Her father, Don Ygnacio, lives a quiet life and although his daughter has been left to live with the slaves, he tries to amend this wrongdoing and bring her home.
Once inside the convent, thirty six year old Father Cayetano Delaura is assigned Sierva Maria's case and is put in charge of performing her exorcism. Delaura is a quiet intellectual and a lover of books.
He becomes smitten by the young girl and makes it his mission to prove that she is not possessed. By doing so he will improve her living conditions and save her from the grueling ordeal of an exorcism.
I have a love hate relationship with Marquez. He pisses me off but I can't seem to break up with him. This time around, he didn't make me too angry, he mostly mesmerized me with this beautifully written, yet strange tale.
Both love and demons play a part in this surreal story. I found Sierva Maria to behave as I'd expect a young spoiled girl abandoned by her parents would. Her behavior as a result of this poor parenting leads her to lie constantly and she even goes along pretending she is possessed.
Sierva Maria's beautiful red hair has been promised to the Virgin Mary, it must not be cut until the day she marries. When loose, it trails down to her feet.
I found Father Delaura's character to be passionate and interesting, this lover of books encloses himself in his room and read for hours every day.
Bernarda, Sierva Maria's mother was another character that had me shocked with her behavior and some truths that she reveals towards the end of the story.
Sierva's father, Don Ygnacio is a strange and complicated man. He seems not to care about his daughter, but then again he seems like he might love her after all.
Exorcisms and being possessed by demons was considered a legitimate danger during the setting of this book and Márquez brings this aspect of the story out divinely. He weaves in magic and realism perfectly and left me wondering what was real and what was imaginary.
I was both shocked and enthralled as I read this sad story about pain, heartache and faith. Highly recommended if you are a fan of Marquez or to those looking for a piece of fiction that will leave them a bit unsettled by its storyline yet mesmerized by its prose.
The final paragraph in Of Love and Other Demons gave me chills. I can't remember a book ever having that effect on me before.
"He had no room in his heart for anything but Sierva Maria, and even so it was not large enough to hold her. He was convinced that no oceans or mountains, no laws of earth or heaven, no powers of hell could keep them apart."
p.122, Of Love and Other Demons