One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Autumn of The Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera is one of the great love stories.) If you haven’t treated yourself to this extraordinary Colombian author, perhaps now is the time. Permeated by national history and attitude, the author’s magical realist books weave what seem like opposing perceptions into rich, oddly credible, insightful tales of fallible humanity.
Solitude chronicles seven generations of the Buendia family from the time its patriarch, José Arcadio Buendía, founds the fictional, utopian town of Macondo. At first purposefully isolated, the settlement resembles Buendia’s imagination so closely it’s as if he conjures it. In changing his perceptions, annually visiting gypsies to expose occupants to the outside world, precipitating its founder’s oddly framed withdrawal. Prosperity ushers in tragedy/slaughter. At the end, we discover everything had been foretold if only…
Patriarch, according to its author, a “poem on the solitude of power,” details are at first insidious, then violent, a coup taking over government of an ersatz, God-like dictator based on Franco and Somoza. Palpable anger fuels description. It’s clear Marquez understands behind the scenes clockwork of repression, deception, influence, and ruthlessness. Compelling.
The Master and Margarita and Heart of A Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov. Like Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, Bulgakov wrote political treatises in the form of fantastical stories. Both authors’ books are entertaining whether or not you possess historical knowledge. Writing is less flowery than Marquez, while equally descriptive.
Margarita: One day, Satan appears in Moscow with a naked female vampire and a trigger happy black cat that smokes cigars. Conscripting the vain, greedy, and faithless, he establishes an organization which dissembles the fabric of the city. Those newly anointed are satirized within an inch of their lives. Margarita is mistress to a philosopher/author called The Master. Tempted by a demon, she surprises even Satan, earning his respect. A parallel story connects the plight of Pontius Pilate about whom The Master has written and the Devil doomed. The book deep dives into decadence and sex as much as it portrays Stalinist terror.
Heart of A Dog is a parody of Communism’s trying to transform mankind. In it, a mistreated street canine follows home surgeon, Filipp Filippovich Preobrazhensky who pityingly gives it a piece of sausage. (The doctor’s name is derived from ‘transformation’ or ‘transfiguration’.) The dog is taken in and named Sharik. Preobrazhensky is secretly conducting experiments. He drugs the animal, surgically giving him a human pituitary gland and testicles. Sharik starts transforming into a primitive man with all the inclinations of his former self. “Progress” is astonishing. The surgeon explains away all his subject’s faults. There’s threat of discovery, a murder, and further change.
For a more recent Russian political take, this one without magic, read the truly marvelous, character-centric, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.
The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication by John Steinbeck. A slight book capturing French sensibilities, the volume finds 1950s astronomer Pippin Héristal suddenly made King of France because of a tenuous relationship to Charlemagne. Caught like a deer in headlights, Pippin unwittingly becomes a pawn for Communists who need a monarch against which to rebel. The poor soul wants none of it. Frustrated by lack of real responsibility, he often exits Versailles on a motor scooter dressed as a commoner. What goes around comes around.
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