The Grand Illusionist: A Tribute to Gabriel García Márquez
Author: Victoria Brownworth
April 18, 2014
“In reality the duty of the writer–the revolutionary duty if you will–is that of writing well.” So said Colombian novelist, screenwriter and journalist Gabriel “Gabo” García Márquez, who died April 17 at his home in Mexico City. He was 87. Considered to be the father of magical realism, García Márquez’s work was as readable as it was critically acclaimed. He was roundly considered to be the most important Spanish-speaking writer since Cervantes. News of his death brought immediate Twitter responses from heads of state, other writers and celebrities, as well as his millions of readers.
Upon awarding him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, the Swedish Academy of Letters declared, “Each new work of his is received by expectant critics and readers as an event of world importance.”
It was a most accurate assessment. García Márquez’s work resonated literarily as well as popularly. García Márquez’s melding of reality, Latin American history and the ineffable longing of dreams made his novels and stories compulsively readable and engaging.
There are books that are classics and there are books that must be read. García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is both and not surprisingly, also sold more than 50 million copies worldwide.
The eldest of 12 children, García Márquez grew up in Aracataca, a small town near Colombia’s Carribean coast, raised by his grandparents. It was, he would later write, a childhood filled with ghosts, which would influence his work. His tone, his sense of storytelling, he asserted, came from his grandmother. Like Truman Capote, who also was raised by female storytellers, García Márquez’s texts are emotional, passionate, open. His wasn’t the rough macho world of a Hemingway. The subtextual undercurrents are all riven by feeling, not avoidance of feeling. In an interview with the Guardian, García Márquez said of growing up with his grandparents, “It was an enormous house, full of ghosts. They were very superstitious and impressionable people. In every corner there were skeletons and memories. After six in the evening you didn’t dare leave your room. It was a world of fantastic terrors.”
He left that ghost world of Aracataca as a teenager, moving to Bogota where he would later study law before becoming a journalist. The post-war period–the late 1940s and early 1950s–were fraught in Colombia. A new civil-war situation like The Troubles in the 1960s and 70s in Northern Ireland pervaded the country. La Violencia as it was called was brutal, killing several hundred thousand people. The revisiting of that period is resonant in many of García Márquez’s works.
An ardent leftist, García Márquez’s politics infused his fiction and was the subject of his journalism. He railed against August Pinochet and after the death of Salvador Allende, pledged not to write again until Pinochet was toppled from power. He broke that vow early on, however, when he realized it was “self-censorship” in service to a dictator.
García Márquez’s anti-authoritarian politics infused all his fiction. But a singular flaw as both writer and leftist was his near-adoration of Fidel Castro. In the early years of the Castro revolution, 1959 to 1961, he worked for Castro’s official news service, Prensa Latina.
García Márquez was a staunch supporter of the dictator as well as a friend and reportedly showed all his work to Castro pre-publication. Lesbian writer Susan Sontag, herself a staunch leftist, was one of many who decried this support for Castro, noting with her characteristic bluntness, “To me it’s scandalous that a writer of such enormous talent be a spokesperson for a government which has put more people in jail (proportionately to its population) than any other government in the world.”
Salman Rushdie, whose work owes much to García Márquez, wrote in the London Review of Books in 1982 that García Márquez’s “support of the Castro government may prevent him from getting his Nobel.”
García Márquez was denied a visa to travel in the U.S. for more than 30 years by the U.S. State Department. In 1995 President Bill Clinton invited him to Martha’s Vineyard, effectively ending the ban. In response to García Márquez’s death, Clinton said, “I was always amazed by his unique gifts of imagination, clarity of thought, and emotional honesty. I was honored to be his friend and to know his great heart and brilliant mind for more than 20 years.”
There are few writers like García Márquez where one can point to a single book and say it not only changed the author’s life, but also changed literature. There are, of course, Joyce’s Ulysses and Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. But Joyce went largely unremarked in his lifetime. And other classic writers whose work has since influenced myriad other writers–Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens all come to mind–chased recognition. But García Márquez achieved an astonishing level of fame upon the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967.
Descriptions of the novel fail to do it justice.The arc between the real and the surreal, the hard reality of history and the fluidity of memory are charged like literary and linguistic ions in the hands of García Márquez as he builds the fictional setting of Macondo, as in this extraordinary passage:
The men on the expedition felt overwhelmed by their most ancient memories in that paradise of dampness and silence, going back to before original sin, as their boots sank into pools of steaming oil and their machetes destroyed bloody lilies and golden salamanders. For a week, almost without speaking, they went ahead like sleepwalkers through a universe of grief, lighted only by the tenuous reflection of luminous insects, and their lungs were overwhelmed by a suffocating smell of blood.
What searing, mellifluous language is that? García Márquez made the dystopian exquisite. And while he is often proclaimed as a visionary utopian, it was in fact the dystopian world he wrote about most frequently.
Likewise his work is often perceived as wholly heterosexual, the dynamics of love between men and women at the core of his novels. Surface readings of García Márquez have always focused on stories of unrequited heterosexual love. But deeper readings of the Nobel laureate reveal a far more complex panoply of eroticism. And it is the enduring relationships between and among men that propel most of the action of his novels. Men are together all the time while women are on the periphery, just out of reach, just out of context, doing the basic chores of life. Men and women, even as they often appear to be on equal footing in García Márquez’s stories, in fact live in different worlds. Men engage with each other in a homoerotic closeness that belies their sexual attraction to women.
Love in the Time of Cholera is as much a treatise on male bonding as it is on the fleeting nature of male-female romance. It is also very much a product of its time. It was the beginning of the AIDS era when García Márquez wrote this novel of a love affair and an epidemic. How metaphoric of an era.
In the novel, death is everywhere as the epidemic rages. But it isn’t just the disease, the cholera, el cholera taking lives with startling efficiency, it is also what the disease reduces people to–anger, rage, a plague that rends society. The protagonist, Florentino Ariza, is a poet and a profligate, as promiscuous as everyone was in the 1980s, although the novel begins a century earlier and ends in the 1930s. Yet García Márquez captures that exquisite sense of fear combined with urgency that sets love and life into bold relief in the midst of an epidemic, compared with the death all around. The action could just as easily have taken place in the club scene of 1980s New York City as this far different setting; the conceptualizing of how men react to disease and threat to the body, as well as rejection of the heart, is both universal and as achingly specific to our own AIDS epidemic as to be breathtaking in its acuity. As García Márquez writes, “Each man is master of his own death, and all that we can do when the time comes is to help him die without fear of pain.”
The celebration of the male body is as pandemic throughout Love in the Time of Cholera as the disease itself. As we watch Florentino’s exploits with his vast number of partners, his promiscuity is both literal and metaphoric. As the author writes midway through the novel, “Sex is the consolation you have when you can’t have love.” Conversely, García Márquez decries the machismo of the culture. It is, he declares, a “usurpation of the rights of others.” It crushes the lover.
In One Hundred Years of Solitude again we have the pivotal relationships between and among men, but the very pivot of the action that propels the multi-generational epic forward is the homosexual panic wrought by the incest that begets the story. Chronicle of a Death Foretold is perhaps García Márquez’s most startling book–a detective novel of sorts, the focus of which is the seduction/rape of a young woman, Angela Vicario, and the avenging of that by her family with an honor killing of the man who deflowered her. Nowhere does García Márquez define the chasm between men and women as he does here. The men are a cadre, a band, a world apart. Men understand each other, women understand men, but there is no real cognitive comprehension of women by men. And yet as García Márquez reveals again and again, the most fundamental relationships there are remain wholly between men and between women. Those relationships are where true understanding lies.
Themes of marginalization, repression, non-reproductive sexuality, unrequited love, men filled with an abundance of physical need–these are García Márquez’s stock-in-trade and they resonate within the context and shape of the author’s gorgeous, luminous, provocative language. One reads García Márquez as much for the way the words lilt together as for the content they create. One also reads for the worlds he devised in which the real and the surreal are the warp and weft of every relationship, be it to the world itself or individuals. Not surprisingly then, García Márquez said of writing that “What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.”
García Márquez influenced many writers over the years, among them Salman Rushdie, fellow Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, Isabelle Allende and Manuel Puig, best known for his magical realist transgender tale, Kiss of the Spider Woman that is very much in the mode of García Márquez tales of unrequited love.
Of his Colombian roots he said Latin America was”a source of insatiable creativity, full of sorrow and beauty, of which this roving and nostalgic Colombian is but one cipher more, singled out by fortune. Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable.”
García Márquez had recently battled pneumonia and had been suffering from dementia since 2012.
Peter Englung, permanent secretary of the Nobel committee said, “A great artist is gone, but his grand art remains with us. Most authors are only shadows, but Gabriel García Márquez belonged to those who cast a shadow, and he will continue to do so long after his death.”
It’s time to read One Hundred Years of Solitude again. It is a novel as resonant today as it was nearly 50 years ago when it was first published, by a writer who, more than anyone in recent memory changed the face of fiction and made us so much richer for his lush and vibrant literary legacy.
Photo via Knopf