In preparation for reading Chronicle of a Death Foretold I’ve been reading a guide to the life and works of Gabriel García Márquez. I know there are those who would say that we should read books cold, without introduction, in order to experience the writing in a raw, naked way. That might convince me if it weren’t for the fact that the people making those comments already have a huge head start due to their many years of education in history, literature, and the arts. Even when us mere mortals read a work from our own culture, we are most definitely fully clothed with all that we know about our cultural context. I see educating myself about García Márquez’ as just levelling the playing field.
If I had any doubts about the importance of cultural context in properly understanding literature, Shakespeare in the Bush (via) may have eliminated them. Perhaps you’ve read this story of an anthropologist trying to explain Hamlet to some West African tribal elders:
The old man handed me some more beer to help me on with my storytelling. Men filled their long wooden pipes and knocked coals from the fire to place in the pipe bowls; then, puffing contentedly, they sat back to listen. I began in the proper style, “Not yesterday, not yesterday, but long ago, a thing occurred. One night three men were keeping watch outside the homestead of the great chief, when suddenly they saw the former chief approach them.”
“Why was he no longer their chief?”
“He was dead,” I explained. “That is why they were troubled and afraid when the saw him.”
“Impossible,” began one of the elders, handing his pipe on to his neighbor, who interrupted, “Of course it wasn’t the dead chief. It was an omen sent by a witch. Go on.”
She does go on, and the elders correct all her “mistakes.” Afterwards they offer to interpret her people’s other stories so that she can learn their true meaning and go back and teach her people.
It makes me wonder about my own “interpretation gap.” Is the gap between West Africa and Shakespeare that much greater than the gap between 21st century Canada and, let’s say, Homer? I wonder if it isn’t better to learn the greatest possible amount of context before reading anything outside one’s own time and culture? Am I just especially nerdy or do other people read up before reading?