Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sanctification by Woman

In the stories “The Saint” and “Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane,” Gabriel Garcia Marquez presents strange experiences that convey a sense of wonder and awe to the reader.  In both stories, there is the implication that the story just fell into the writer’s lap.  All he had to do was tell the events as they happened.  The major figure of “The Saint” is a Columbian man named Margarito Duarte who has spent his life traveling with the perfectly preserved, and weightless, corpse of his seven-year old daughter.  Duarte is seeking canonization for his daughter because it is a miracle.  The deceased daughter must be a saint.  The narrator of the story believes Margarito is an obvious character in search of an author, the right person to tell his strange odyssey: “…I thought Margarito Duarte was the character in search of an author that we novelists wait for all our lives, and if I never allowed him to find me it was because the end of his story seemed unimaginable.”(37)  In both stories, the narrator seems to be Marquez himself, and the author fears that no one will believe these miracles.  After being seated next to the beautiful woman on an airplane, the same woman he had seen earlier that day in the Charles de Gaulle Airport, the narrator of “Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane” thinks to himself, “’If I ever wrote this, nobody would believe me.’”(57)  The stories are presented as real events, ones which restore a sense of religious faith.  Religious sanctification and personal transformation are triggered by the strange beauty of womanhood, in death and in sleep.  The human imagination is stretched and inspired by the real world as it is newly discovered by the narrator. 
Both stories have a strong sense of archetypal wonder.  Beyond just the inexplicable state of Margarito’s daughter, the central miracle of the story, there are any number of natural wonders in “The Saint.”  At the pensione where Margarito and the narrator are staying in Rome, just opening the window brings live opera music to start the day, with the singing of famous tenor Ribero Silva.  One day he is joined by Maria Caniglia, a famous soprano, in an unplanned aria through the open windows.  A lion likes to sing in response to the music, and this magnificent beast also roars at Margarito, singling him out, in compassion not anger, when the Columbian goes to the zoo.  The zookeeper believes the lion is talking directly to Margarito.  Naked women are mistaken for ghosts in the pensione, which is always a pleasant haunting, wandering the hallways.  In “Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane,” the first appearance of the beautiful woman is also the stuff of revelation, of religious vision: “She was a supernatural apparition who existed only for a moment and disappeared into the crowd in the terminal.”(54)  The woman has an “aura of antiquity”(54), and Margarito had the appearance of “an old Roman.”(36)  There is a sense of ancient mystery in these fictional works, which are presented as eyewitness accounts.  In both stories, the supernatural is portrayed with realistic detail; it becomes only natural.  The “apparition” is a real, breathing woman who flies across the Atlantic just inches from the worshipful narrator.  The daughter of Margarito’s weightless preservation is verified by everyone who sees her, including church officials.  The magical realism is mostly reasonable in the telling.
Religion is directly addressed by “The Saint,” while many might find “Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane” more profane than pious, which just isn’t the case.  It is also a story of sanctification.  Both stories have an undeniable sense of transformation by men in proximity to two female bodies, one dead and one sleeping.  The casket and small body of Margarito’s daughter are the magical remnant of his contact with extraordinary female beauty in his lifetime, which is marked by tragedy.  Margarito Duarte is a figure of tremendous mourning because he has known great beauty, and great loss: “At the age of eighteen, when he was village clerk, he married a beautiful girl who died not long afterward when she gave birth to their first child, a daughter…Even more beautiful than her mother, she died of an essential fever at the age of seven.”(37)  The beautiful body of the daughter is presented as a religious miracle, and there are no detractors in the narrative, though she is never canonized.  Margarito spends his life seeking recognition from the Catholic Church, which fails him as an institution, first because Pope Pius XII has hiccups when Margarito comes to Rome on his fatherly pilgrimage.  In the two stories, the lifetime search for canonization is contrasted with one night next to a sleeping woman, but the sense of a miracle is present in both stories: “It was an ardent journey.  I have always believed that there is nothing more beautiful in nature than a beautiful woman, and it was impossible for me to escape even for a moment from the spell of that storybook creature who slept at my side.”(58)
The wonder and strangeness of both stories are genuine, and sustained like saints’ relics in Marquez’s fiction.  “The Saint” presents a more directly religious context of canonization, while the airplane flight has the magic of a fairy tale.  However, the first time the narrator sees the daughter in “The Saint,” the religious and the mythological are mixed together in the myth of Persephone: “”She did not resemble the kind of withered mummy seen in so many museums of the world, but a little girl dressed as a bride who was still sleeping after a long stay underground.”(38)  In both a religious and storybook context, both females are sleeping beauties.  The sense of nearly religious ritual is present as the narrator watches the woman on the airplane prepare for her sacred slumber: “..she placed a cosmetics case with copper corners, like a grandmother’s trunk, on her lap, and took two golden pills from a box that contained other others of various colors.  She did everything in a methodical, solemn way, as if nothing unforeseen had happened to her since her birth.”(58)  With an erotic element to his worship of her, the narrator performs a kind of religious ritual in appreciation of her beauty.
“With each drink I raised my glass and toasted her.
‘To your health, Beauty.’”
The religious symbolism is much more extensive, and obvious, in “The Saint.”  There are two Maries in the story, just like the two Maries of the Gospels: Bella Maria and Maria Caniglia.  Though there is no evidence that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, the prostitute that Ribero Silva and the narrator procure for Margarito is a kindly soul: “The girls said that in any event she would have spent all the time he wanted and not charged him a cent because there could not be a better behaved man anywhere in the world.”(45-46)  The question of how to tell the story of a miracle or strange occurrence comes up with the issue of film.  The narrator’s film instructor wants to make a movie about the Saint.  Cesare Zavattani, an instructor in screenwriting and plot development, was known for trying to look at human experience in a new way: “He tried to teach us not only the craft but a different way of looking at life.”(48)  The teacher doesn’t question the miracle of the girl, but to make a movie the story will have to become more dramatic.  As he imagines the kind of movie that people will like, the most direct religious allusion to the Gospel of Jesus Christ occurs with Zattatini’s imagined scene: “’One night,’ he said, ‘after something like twenty popes who refused to receive him have died, Margarito grown old and tired goes into his house, opens the case, caresses the face of the little dead girl, and says with all the tenderness in the world: ‘For the love of your father, my child, arise and walk.’”(50)  The storyline for the film is found in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus raises the dead daughter of Jairus, a Jewish man and a leader of a synagogue (Luke -56): “But taking her by the hand, he called, saying, ‘Child, arise.’”(Luke 8:54)  Zattavani’s idea for the film would put Margarito in the role of Jesus, in a miracle that prefigures his own resurrection.  Margarito has become, subtly, the real focus, the central character, in the film that is never made.  But the story itself is written.    
The Gospel writers, along with all the writers of biblical texts, wrestled with how to tell a miraculous story: in a way that people would understand and believe, and in a way that would strengthen their faith because the miracles rang true.  The filmmaker wrestles with the same question, as does Marquez in telling these stories that blur the line between fiction and non-fiction.  Females are presented with a sense of religious devotion in the “The Saint” and “Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane.”  The Other of womanhood, in the eternal body of a dead girl and the sleeping body of an irresistible woman, is the catalyst for religious experiences in men, experiences that renew their faith.  There is no better argument for the existence of God than the beauty of women. 
In the twenty-two year journey for canonization, the real miracle is finally recognized in the witness of Margarito Duarte, not the weightless girl: “Then I had no doubt, if I ever had any at all, that the Saint was Margarito.”(53)  In the old man who sits next to a sleeping woman, a beauty is present inside the eye, and mind, of the beholder, as well in the form of the woman herself.  He calls himself ugly when he goes to the airplane bathroom, but a storybook sleeping beauty exists in him as the beholder, because he shows her magical power to everyone who reads the story.  His appreciation of the sleeping beauty transforms him, and he wakes to possibilities in the world all around him, on a plane winging across the heavens, an angel at his side.  In the example of the eternal girl and the sleeping woman, the reader too can awaken, with a sense of reverence and gratitude, to the ordinary miracle of our daily existence, where ancient wonders still abound. 

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