Thursday, April 17, 2014

Discovering Ice in the Desert: Gabriel Garcia Marquez and My Year of Solitude in Iraq

When I heard, just a few moments ago, that Gabriel Garcia Marquez had died, I immediately thought of three things: the fine grit of Iraqi sand that scratched between the page and my fingertips, the metal cot with springs that squeaked like those beneath a prostitute's well-worn bed, and the way my forearms ached as I lay in my hooch on Camp Liberty (Baghdad, 2005) and held a hardbound copy of 100 Years of Solitude above my head, absorbed in what I'd long put off reading.

That year--my personal year of solitude away from my wife and three children--was when I finally got around to reading Marquez (as well as Don Quixote, Winesburg, Ohio, The Wings of the Dove, Catch-22, Gilgamesh, and The Da Vinci Code).  I drank big gulps from my Literary Bucket List in those months spent alone in my trailer (my "hooch," in Army parlance).

If it took sending me to a war zone to get me to read Marquez, then I owe the U.S. Army a handshake of "thanks."  I'll admit I wrestled with Marquez in the first 100 pages of 100 Years (see below); but in the end, I was--like so many of his readers--pinned to the mat by his artistry.  To date, that novel is the only one of his I've read (I know, I know...), but news of his passing will hopefully send me back to the shelves in search of Cholera or Chronicle.  So, yes, I was sad when I heard he'd died, age 87, today at his home in Mexico City.  RIP, Gabo.

The news also sent me spinning back to memories of Iraq and into the journal I kept during my tour of duty, deployed as an active-duty soldier with the 3rd Infantry Division in Baghdad.  I looked up the brief mention of Marquez I set down in those pages nine years ago and thought I'd reprint them here as a sort of sideways tribute to GGM (Warning: this blog post has too much Me and too little Marquez).  But first, a quick detour to an e-mail I received from my literary agent shortly after I'd sent him a batch of journal entries mentioning 100 Years of Solitude.
I reread that novel (amazing, isn't it) after I'd read the first volume of Marquez's autobiography. So much of the novel became clearer to me. Would you like me to mail you a copy of the book? If so, give me your mailing address. I hope this won't cause further havoc with your writing.
(That last bit is funny to me now--as if being in a war zone wasn't already "havoc" enough for my writing.)
Wow, Nat, that would be great. I appreciate the offer.
I found "100 Days" a bit rocky at first--so many characters and all of them starting with the letter A--but I was able to read a huge chunk of it a couple of days ago and it started to flow better for me.
Again, thanks for the generous offer.
I hope Nat isn't reading this because, to my chagrin, I haven't gotten around to reading the autobiography, either.  Time and the tide of books, my friends, time and tide.

In 2005, however, I did have the enviable luxury of time (along with the unenviable prospect of mortars crashing down from the skies at any given moment).  Here's what I wrote shortly after I started reading Marquez' classic for the first time.

March 22, 2005: When I wake this morning at 8 a.m. (it’s another blessed day off for me), a thick haze puts the entire sky into soft focus. I can’t tell whether it’s fog, smoke or stirred-up dust.  The sun is up and hot enough to have burned off early-morning mist, so I wonder if there have been a series of car bombs downtown.  But when I check horizons, there are no tell-tale plumes of smoke.

Last week, when I was leaving Headquarters for evening chow, I saw a black tail of smoke—sharp, distinct, fresh—rising from downtown Baghdad.  Behind me, on the opposite side of the city, I could hear the plaintive wail of evening prayer from a distant mosque.  The contrast was disturbing and a bit sad.  On the one side, death; on the other, prayer.

The satellite dishes are sprouting like quick-growing flowers outside the hooches in Trailer City.  When I step onto my porch, I count eight dishes just in my row alone (there are ten rows in our section of trailers in the Life Support Area).  At any given time, two of those eight dishes will have a frustrated soldier turning and tilting the dish while craning his neck to see the TV back inside the trailer.  Soldiers spend more time tweaking their dish position than they do watching whatever shows they hope to catch off the satellite.  I cannot fathom why these soldiers would want to go to all the trouble and expense of getting a dish.  What on earth can they be watching on these satellite dishes?  American Idol, NASCAR, porn?  Whatever it is, their addiction is so all-consuming that they’re willing to spend half a night inserting and removing cardboard shims underneath the dish in order to get the right angle for a good signal.

While they’re out positioning dishes, I’m in my hooch reading.

This just in from the About-Damn-Time Department: I started One Hundred Years of Solitude three days ago.  I’ve always been told Marquez’s novel is the be-all, end-all of literature.  Apart from that classic opening line—“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice”—I’m finding it slow-going with its chunky, pages-long paragraphs and swift-moving parade of characters.  It’s beautiful writing, yes, but I’m struggling to keep up with who’s who.  Maybe a war zone isn’t the best place to appreciate this novel.  Maybe I need solitude to concentrate on it.  One thing’s for certain, however: it’s an easier pill to swallow than Henry James' dreadful The Wings of the Dove.

I am probably the only soldier in the Iraq theater of operations to have paintings by Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran taped to the wall of his hooch.  The fake-wood paneling of my trailer needed something to liven it up.  I clandestinely downloaded some paintings off the Internet, printed them on photo paper, then brought them back and taped them to three of my walls.  So now I’ve got pastoral landscapes of dense, leafy forest glens, an English countryside with a storm approaching in the distance, a mountain stream tumbling and cascading around room-sized boulders and a majestic view of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone with Tower Falls falling into a mist in the background.  It helps remind me of the vegetative world out there beyond the borders of Iraq.

It’s another day off for me.  Apart from my weekly phone calls to Jean [my wife], this about the only thing I have to look forward to over here. It seems like every day is blending into the next.  I feel like I’m one of those poor, exhausted orphans in a Dickens workhouse factory—a whole line of dirty little boys endlessly walking on top of a round drum which turns the gears of machinery.  Every day is the same thing: get up, shower, eat breakfast, get to the cubicle by 7:30 for the shift change-over briefing with Master Sergeant K____, check my e-mail for something from Jean, dash off an all-too-hasty reply, slog through my work e-mail, respond to the ones which need responding to, file the rest, continue to archive photos, go to a meeting, go to lunch, archive photos, maybe walk over to the company area and take care of soldier business (supply, personnel, etc.), come back and check work e-mail, work on endless spreadsheets (filled with media stats, press release data, counting the hairs on a gnat’s ass, etc.), check for e-mail from Jean, archive more photos, work on another report, hibernate in the bathroom and read a few more pages of my book, go to evening chow, come back to check on e-mail from Jean, do the shift change-over briefing with Master Sergeant K____, return to my room around 8:30, do push-ups and sit-ups, get a shower, write in my journal, read a few pages in my book, fall asleep, wake up at 2 a.m. to empty my bladder, go back to sleep, then get up at 5:45 to start the whole process over again.

Some things help break up the monotony.  Like when a soldier down on Haifa Street dies after getting shot in the neck, or when we kill 24 insurgents in retaliation, or when I get a care package and I savor the thought of the unopened package all day long and put off opening it until I get back to my room at 8:30 that night, or when the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the Secretary of the Army pays a visit (as they both did last week) and suddenly the headquarters is abuzz with soldiers cleaning and mopping and polishing and desperately trying to smooth the wrinkles in their uniforms.

Apart from things like that?  Monotony.  Sheer unadulterated monotony.

Later that night: As the afternoon wore on and I read more of 100 Years of Solitude, Marquez’s prose started to flow better and I’m enjoying it more than I did eight hours ago.  It is, I think, a 400-page novel that deserves to be read in one unbroken sitting.

As I was coming back from dinner tonight, I saw a flock of dragonflies hovering around my trailer.  (Is that what you call them, “a flock”?  Maybe “a cloud”?  Or, “a cluster”?)  I had never seen a concentration of dragonflies like this before; nor did I know that they ate other insects.  I stood on my porch for nearly three minutes, watching as they swirled and looped and dove and banked through the clouds of tiny bugs which have arrived after the earlier torrential rains which created the stagnant ponds near our trailers.  The dragonflies were truly things of delicate beauty.  They actually seemed to be cavorting as they fed on the gnats.

I went inside, stripped to my shorts, fell back on my screaming-spring cot, and fed on more Marquez.

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