Marquez, Merit and the VCE Scandal: A defence by a so-called ‘kid’

Following Christopher Bantick’s article arguing that Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera is inappropriate for students due to an incident of sex with a minor, the VCE board is reviewing whether it should remain on the Year 12 English syllabus. Year 11 student Billie Tumarkin argues in defence of the book. ‘The ideas that have led to this show a deep misunderstanding not only of teenagers, but of literature,’ she says.

The articles, blog posts, radio shows all have one thing in common when discussing whether Love in the Time of Cholera should be on the VCE syllabus – they refer to Year 12s as ‘kids’. If you actually called one of these so-called ‘kids’ that to their face, that ‘kid’ would laugh at you. I, for one, haven’t been called a kid since primary school. And even the dictionary disagrees with the sentiment that 17- or 18-year-olds are kids. The idea that Love in the Time of Cholera is being read by naive children incapable of dealing with imperfections and reality is where the problem with this debate starts.

Love in the Time of Cholera is a novel that is endless and twisted and wrong, and it is beautiful. Garcia Marquez writes in a way that is unique and timeless – and he tells stories you would entirely misconstrue if you took them literally. Reading him is like listening to a fable by a wise old man and being very happy to understand so little. It makes perfect sense for a book like this to be on the VCE list for literature: it’s a book you could never tire of overanalysing. And yes, amongst the metaphors and oxymorons that teachers write endless worksheets on, there are a few pages where our protagonist seduces and sleeps with a 14-year-old girl. That is all. And yet Christopher Bantick’s article arguing that this storyline overshadows all the credibility of this novel and makes it unsound for students to read has caused the VCE exam board to review whether this book should be studied.

The ideas that have led to this show a deep misunderstanding not only of teenagers, but of literature. Literature is not intended to be a moral compass that distinguishes wrong from right, or even up from down. Bantick writes, ‘if Love in the Time of Cholera was a cautionary tale, the book might have some merit. It isn’t.’ He goes on to tell us of a hypothetical situation where a teacher cannot justify why the book is on the curriculum: ‘Any teacher abrogating their duty of care and who is misguided enough to teach the book will face this question from a student: “What is your view on sex with a child?” If they say it is unacceptable, then a student can surely ask, “Why is the book on the course?” There is no defence.’

The issue with this is … well, where do I begin. A Year 12 student could never ask such a question, one that goes so clearly against 12 years of English classes in which we are taught to see beyond the surface and read between the lines. And if Bantick’s imaginary student somehow did ask his or her teacher that question, there is very clearly a ‘defence’. The defence is that these things aren’t supposed to be defended. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is not condoning statutory rape, he is not saying it is good or reasonable, he is telling us a story. There is no point in this novel where it says or even implies ‘repeatedly that screwing a child for art’s sake is excusable’. Believing that all books are there to show us, in a very Harry Potter-like way, the battle between good and evil, makes one as naive and misguided as those hypothetical Year 12 students. Understanding that books are refractions of a flawed world and the flawed people that populate it is not only something you study in VCE literature, but something that one has to remember before discussing the appropriateness of teaching books like Love in the Time of Cholera.

But what if you just cut out the man-sleeps-with-child passage? One neat little circumcision and this mess is over! It’s impossible. It’s barbaric: you wouldn’t want to change the colon in the opening sentence, let alone a whole storyline. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a master of his craft – but not only that, he is a writer. Everything he wrote was intended and necessary, that was his job, and our job is to preserve what he created with the same vigilance we exercise when dealing with the Mona Lisa or Oscar Wilde’s grave. But what if we lived in a time when censorship was considered morally sound? After all, it’s only three or four inconsequential pages. Would Christopher Bantick be satisfied then? As soon as you removed this section, though, another one would pop up, and another. The problem seems not to be with that specific moment, but with this form of literature – where the reader must put in to get out, where the story is not prescriptive enough to guarantee it will guard a student’s ‘safety’.

When I was in Year 9, my English class read The Lord of the Flies. At the tender age of 14, we studied a book in which a character is murdered and eaten – a book which, overall, wouldn’t be a particularly savoury guide to life, or even to sanity. And yet everyone, from the people who loved literature to the people who hadn’t read the book and based their essays on a Wikipedia article, understood the self-evident truth: this was a work of art, and whether or not they liked it, got it, or cared about it, no one was about to take it literally, lock the doors and bake our teacher.

So let us look some other texts on the VCE booklist. In Ian McEwan’s Atonement, a man who rapes a 13-year-old girl happily marries her years later. Ransom by David Malouf is a story of Achillies, a renowned great Greek hero, responding to his very human anger in very inhumane ways (a corpse, a rope, a chariot). In the Wilde play Lady Windermere’s Fan, Lady Windermere’s husband cheats on his wife with her mother. And as for Wuthering Heights, if you were to take that as a textbook for life you would be in some serious internal turmoil, and quite probably dead. Teacher, what is your view on digging up graves? …

I’ve only finished Year 10, but when I reach Year 12 literature, I don’t want a course purified of anything that might cause hypothetical distress. I speak not only for myself but for my peers when I say that in a good VCE literature course you want texts with meat and fire. You want to disagree with and debate and maybe even despise the works you are dealing with. You want them to make you think, really think, think again and then reconsider your entire position – and for that, there must be something to bite at.

What Christopher Bantick dislikes about Love in the Time of Cholera is what makes it vital that it be taught. Give me a booklist with immoral flawed characters, painful plot twists, misery, murder, despair, death and destruction, and you will have given me paradise.

Billie Tumarkin will be a Year 11 student in 2013.

Portrait of Billie Tumarkin

Billie Tumarkin is a young writer and musician. She is currently studying classical voice at the University of Melbourne. Her work has appeared in Birdee Mag, the Hoopla, the Under Age and at wheelercentre.com. In 2015, she was one of Melbourne Writers Festival’s '30 under 30'.

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