After reading Liam Howley’s The Absurd Demise of Poulnabrone I felt the sudden (if not completely inexplicable) urge to read a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, an author I’ve been wanting to read more of for quite some time, and as I’m a sucker for chronology, I grabbed his first published novel, In Evil Hour (only to find out later that he had published two novellas before that… ah well).
It is a very short novel but has a felt two dozen protagonists, so it is not always easy to keep everyone apart, and reading it is likely to require more attention than its language or structure might otherwise warrant. With that many characters in such a small space, you wouldn’t expect them to be fleshed out much, and indeed, they aren’t: Marquez is obviously not so much interested in portraying individuals but instead wants to give the collective portrait of a village, each inhabitant part of a whole rather than something in and of themselves.
The village itself is never named, which suggests that, just like he is not describing individual persons, Marquez’ is not to write about a specific village. Using the regional to portray the general while still staying true to regional idiosyncrasies is a method William Faulkner has perfected, and his influence is very, very noticeable here, not just in the way local peculiarities and wide-ranging allegory are folded into each other, but also in the way In Evil Hour never seems to be tackle its supposed subjects directly, but has a strange, and to me at least very Faulknerian way to write around them. The ostensible subject of the novel, what its claims its plot to be about and what keeps evens moving is a deluge of slanderous notes pinned to house walls the village is being plagued by. (The translator renders the Spanish word as “lampoon” which did seem a bit off to me, as the contents of the notes appears to be gossip rather than the satire the English term would imply.)
In Evil Hour starts off with a (literal) bang as the notes claim a first death (which will not be the last), and the main part of the novel shows how the village’s authority figures – the mayor (who, like the village, is never given a name), the judge and the priest – attempt to deal with the perceived threats to the village’s peace, attempts that lead to a downwards spiral of violence and oppression until the village finally slides back into the dictatorship it originally claimed to have left behind for a more enlightened and humane regime. While all this happens, we never get to see a single one of those notes (the only one that actually shows up is immediately torn into small pieces without the reader being told anything about its specific content), they are only referred to by others, and – of course – we never get to find out who actually posted them. The latter in particular seems to have infuriated quite a few readers, but I think it actually works in the novel’s favour, lending it a slightly off, unreal atmosphere, as if we were watching a dream unfold, a dream that inexorably descends into a nightmare.
So while there is nothing blatantly magical about In Evil Hour, it’s not simply realistic either – there is a pervasive sense of unreality shrouding the characters and events in the novel; it never really manifests itself but is felt all the more keenly precisely because of its intangibility. Even the characters themselves seem to be aware of that some times, it is like one of them occasionally lifts his or her head, wondering what it is they are doing, on the cusp of waking – only to sink back into the dream again an instant later. And here lies what appears to me to be a bit of an issue with In Evil Hour: It is undoubtedly an immensely political novel, offering what I think is a valid analysis of how power structures persist even after the circumstances and reasons that give rise to them have disappeared. But the political impetus would have to be one towards change, and for that the dreamlike quality of the novel which tinges everything with an air of fatalistic necessity seems very counterproductive. In Evil Hour demonstrates that change is necessary, while at the same time suggesting that it is impossible, thus getting in its own way and lessening its impact – although, of course, one also might read it as a profoundly bleak novel about the futility of political endeavour.