Writing technique: Reading “The Other Side of Death” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
One of the best ideas I had this summer was to dedicate significant time to reading short stories.
There, of course, was an underlining reason for this — choosing new stories to teach to my students. But the better reason was to return to the world of writing fiction after several years of absence. I want to return to writing fiction in earnest with everything I learn from diving into essay writing and poetry. In many ways, I am a different writer, not better or worse, but different, armed with tools and techniques and approaches to the page I am itching to try.
And thus, reading short stories from Gabriel Garcia Marquez was on my agenda.
I limited myself to short stories and not novellas, which I love because I wanted to write short. I don’t want to dive into a longer project now and writing tight is something I always admired.
So, let’s talk about El Mastero Garcia Marquez, as, even after all this time, he is still teaching me about writing.
Reading “The Other Side of Death” was one of those experiences where I needed to question if I even knew how to read. What was I reading and was this piece something like a fever dream?
It is and that is the best way to explain this gem, a fever dream of death, disconnection, and of the senses.
What is important in writing technique here is how often Garcia Marquez engages the senses to overwhelm, or at least it felt that way. He begins with the sense of smell, “a sharp smell of violets and formaldehyde, robust and broad.” And this grounding is the start of this overwhelming feeling, this idea of chemical and earth, of a man-made process to slow down decomposing vs the natural process of returning to the soil. In this way, and by these senses, Garcia Marquez set up a conflict of sorts — the best way to leave this existence.
He continues sensory detail with just beautiful figurative language that is evocative. For example, “…death began to flow through his bones like a river of ashes”. My God this is beautiful and haunting and almost menacing in its dark comparison — death vs river of ashes. Another example is “…his heart was a fist that rose up into his mouth and pushed him into a leap.” Both examples are visceral. They are not nice or cotton candy sweet. They are violent, dark, and other worldly. The unnamed main character has no rest and no autonomy in his current existence — whether it’s mourning or facing his own mortality.
This existential idea is what continues throughout the story, back and forth. This is echoed in the point of view used to tell this story. The choice here to go between first person and third person is also overwhelming. Who exactly is telling this story? Why is the narrator inserting themselves in it? How does the narrator know so many intimate thoughts of feelings of the main character, a twin brother who survived? This is never answered in the narrative and there is no resolution for it, and this leaves me uneasy for a reason I can’t quite explain. However, in the context of the narrative, it makes sense. Death is uneasy. The form of the after-death (decomposing vs slow decomposing) is also uneasy. The effect is the unbalancing of these things — there are no conventional comforts to how death and the afterlife are explained. There’s no talk of heaven or hell. There is no religious iconography about death. There isn’t even a funeral for the dead twin. There is the trueness of no longer breathing. “He sank into loving geography, into an easy, ideal world, a world like one drawn by a child, with no algebraic equations, with no loving farewells, no force of gravity.”
Garcia Marquez is known for magical realism and this story drips with it. There is not a paragraph that doesn’t use this technique — “…he saw it twisting like a badly wounded dog under the sheets, howling, biting out that last shout that filled his throat with salt, using his nails to try to break that was climbing up him, along his back to the roots of the tumor.”
In all, the writing techniques are something I’ll be coming back to several times. After reading this story a couple of times, I find more things that pique my writing interest. For example his rhythm of sentences, the imagery cast like spells, and the idea of mirrors in this work.
I’m not sure if I’ll pick this story for my class to read as it may go over their heads. However, it’s one that is going into my bank of teaching stories.
Icess Fernandez Rojas is an educator, writer, podcaster, and a former journalist. She is a graduate of Goddard College’s MFA program.
Her work has been internationally published in PANK, Queen Mobs Lit Journal, Poetry 24, Rabble Lit, Minerva Rising Literary Journal, and the Feminine Collective’s anthology Notes from Humanity. Her Houston-based story, “Happy Hunting”, was published in the Houston Noir anthology.
Her nonfiction/memoir work has appeared in Dear Hope, NBCNews.com, HuffPost and the Guardian. She is a recipient of the Owl of Minerva Award, a VONA/Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation alum, a Dos Brujas Workshop alum, and a Kimbilio Fellow. She’s currently working on her first novel and finishing her memoir, Problematic.