The Fragrance of Guava is a collection of ‘conversations’ between Gabriel García Márquez and Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, first published in 1982 when Márquez was about fifty (after One Hundred Years of Solitude had won him universal recognition but before he was awarded the Nobel Prize). He discusses many things from his life up to that point: his almost superstitious need to have yellow flowers, preferably roses, on his desk when he is writing; the numerous hours he spent alone as a young man reading poetry as he was carried around the city on public trams, until it became too dark for him to read any more; his political views and relationships with political figures such as Castro.
For me, however, the most fascinating elements of the discussions were those that centred around his love for women and his love for his craft. As an incurable romantic, I was touched by his confession that “All through my life there has always been a woman to take me by the hand and lead me through the confusion of existence, which women understand better than men…I think nothing awful can happen to me if I’m with women. They make me feel secure Without this security I couldn’t have done half the worthwhile things I’ve done in my life…”. He also made some quite humourous remarks about feminists, but only because they were true observations.
Márquez’ comments on his literary influences and the authors/works he admired and disliked made me think about the relationship between a work of literature and myself as a reader. At times, I am very aware that I am not reading analytically enough and am therefore missing out on subtleties and nuances in a novel or short story which would probably have contributed to my understanding and/or enjoyment of the way the book has been composed. On the other hand, I am not a re-reader. And I have to ask, is it possible for a reader to extract in one attempt even a tenth of what an author has put into a work? And how much should we attempt to do so? There is always the additional danger of over-analysing and reading into a body of text something which the author had not put in there; Márquez cites an example where he laid what amounts to a booby trap for the critics, by giving a central character the collected works of a certain author to read. The critics then emphasised the influence of said author on Márquez’ work when in fact, Márquez had never read that particular author himself. It is hard to gauge how superficially I tend to read things, but I’m not sure that it matters especially. There are a lot of rather pretentious essays on the internet pontificating on the finer points of being a ‘good’ reader, but all I can conclude after having abandoned several of them in disgust is that one can enjoy a good book without being aware of every literary technique deployed by an author in creating a certain atmosphere or character, every subsidiary theme, the agony that underlay the choice of each adjective. Perhaps it is true that those who write themselves find a deeper appreciation in reading the finely tuned works of the great authors; but the heights of literary analysis aren’t something each individual reader should strive for. (Having said that, I’m sure that I’ll be paying closer attention to the next novel I pick up. But that’s ok; if Márquex can be susceptible to double standards, so can I!)
My only complaint about The Fragrance of Guava is that although it purports to be conversations between two friends, it reads as a somewhat stilted series of interviews which seem to follow predetermined questions and as a consequence, I found myself wondering what Márquez might have discussed had a conversation been permitted to run a more natural course. What digressions might have been made? What more would Márquez have revealed about the workings of his mind? Despite that, reading this book was an experience I didn’t want to end. I don’t know if it is simply that Spanish translates into English extraordinarily well, or if the best authors writing in Spanish have a naturally fluid and almost poetic manner of speech, but I derive a lot of pleasure from Márquez’ linguistic expression, both in prose and in conversation.