Gabriel García Márquez

Against the Current, No. 171, July/August 2014

Gene H. Bell-Villada

His magic and humor mingled freely with labor strikes and cruel dictatorships, romantic love and ribald sex.

“GABO.” THAT IS how the Colombian novelist — a 1982 Nobel laureate and an unrepentant leftist — was simply and affectionately known across Latin America. The author breathed his last in Mexico City this last April 17, at the age of 87.

Days later, thousands of mourners stood waiting in line to attend the memorial service for Gabriel García Márquez, in the capital city’s Palacio de Bellas Artes. The stately building was aptly decorated with flowers and butterflies, all in yellow (the favored color in his 1967 masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude).

The presidents of Mexico and Colombia both gave solemn speeches in tribute to the literary lion. Meanwhile, in Gabo’s original hometown of Aracataca, a funeral procession drew 3,000 admirers of all ages. The following day, readings of his works were scheduled at schools and libraries throughout the author’s native Colombia.

So massive and transnational an outpouring of public grief served as a vivid reminder of the warmth and appreciation the novelist has long inspired among Latin Americans, for whom the fictive town of Macondo — the setting for One Hundred Years — has grown into a symbol of their larger world.

One Hundred Years of Solitude is a book that continues being savored, cited, and loved by readers across the continent. During my own travels in Colombia, I’ve met nurses and entrepreneurs, government functionaries, traveling salesmen and high school students, all of whom knew García Márquez’s writings and expressed pride in him. His works stand as a rare and astounding instance of a complex, Modernist literary art gaining a broadly popular, mass appeal.

Gabo’s roots are local and humble. He was born in 1927 in the impoverished small town of Aracataca, located in the tropical, Caribbean-coastal zone of Colombia (an area much resembling Faulkner’s South). His grandfather Nicolás Márquez, who lovingly raised the little boy during his first eight years, had served as a colonel within the Liberal ranks in the horrific yet fabled Thousand Days’ War (1899-1902).

From grandpa the future novelist picked up and and remembered many a battlefield anecdote. The household in turn was populated with women kin who’d share with him magical tales of their own, and whom the author would later credit for his imaginative side and narrative skills.

Gabito’s biological father, Gabriel Eligio García, was a telegraph operator who, with his surfeit of wild money-making schemes via homeopathic medicine, kept his wife and 11 children (Gabo was the eldest) ever on the move and in direst straits. The Liberal colonel and his wife Tranquilina had not been pleased when Gabriel Eligio — illegitimate, Conservative, and a drifter — successfully courted their beautiful daughter. Their differences were to cause tensions between the two older generations, pulling the boy apart and adding to his loneliness.

Due to the family split and his dad’s unsettled ways, Gabo lived in some five Colombian towns by age 19. In one of those wanderings he chanced to meet his future wife Mercedes Barcha, just a girl of 13 at the time, whom he would finally marry in 1958 and who gave him two sons, Rodrigo and Gonzalo García.

Becoming A Writer

A grown-up Gabo went on to attend law school in order to please his parents, yet he was an indifferent student, eventually dropping out. In his 20th year, however, he started writing experimental short pieces, humorous columns, and casual news items for local dailies in Bogotá, Cartagena, and Barranquilla; it was the first stages of his life as a published author.

Meanwhile he worked at fiction during night hours. An assignment as a European correspondent in 1955 led to an unexpected long stint in a garret in Paris, where he wrote some of his best short stories, now classics of their kind.

A move to Caracas in 1957 to do glossy journalism, and later to Mexico City (with his now-wife and son Rodrigo in tow) to work on film scripts, were all but prelude to the 18-month siege in 1965-66, when he holed up in the family apartment (now also with their second child, Gonzalo), spending eight hours a day crafting One Hundred Years of Solitude, even as spouse Mercedes pawned one possession after another and wangled precarious credit for groceries and rent.

Upon publication the book, to everyone’s surprise, became an instant bestseller in the Hispanic world and so remains today. García Márquez, however, is more than a Latin American phenomenon. Solitude has been translated into some 40 languages and sold anywhere from 30-40 million copies worldwide.

Over the years I’ve personally encountered Chinese, Russian, Japanese, Italian, French and Turkish fans who’d read the book in their native tongues and marveled at it. Probably no other late-20th century literary work has achieved such global recognition and celebrity on artistic grounds alone. The ultimate miracle of this action-packed book was its proof that great literature can be exciting, moving, and fun all at the same time.

The Uses of Magical Realism

“Magical Realism” is the term most often linked with Gabo’s brand of writing. The magic is certainly there: a levitating priest, a teenaged beauty who rises to heaven, rains of yellow flowers and of dead birds, an auto mechanic ever-accompanied by a swarm of yellow butterflies, and more. And yet the “realism” aspect of his art is something equally important, though too often scanted.

García Márquez’s world is not some fanciful, mystical realm but rather the ordinary, the mundane, as evoked in unnamed tropical towns and Caribbean republics where a civil war, a banana workers’ strike, a two-century-old autocracy, or an occupation by the U.S. Marines might function as backdrop or hold center stage. (It’s not for nothing that Gabo always insisted that he was essentially “a realist writer.”)

Such subjects, of course, are the familiar fare of social and left-wing protest literature. Through his use of magic as well as humor, though, García Márquez, steers clear of any hint of heavy-handed, preachy didacticism.

In a famous instance, the climax in One Hundred Years of Solitude is a banana workers’ strike and military massacre, an episode based on a real strike and repression in Colombia at United Fruit Company in 1928.

The novelist, however, distracts from the blood and gore by bringing in magic, with a fugitive labor leader who is rendered invisible, an overnight erasure of all shared memory of the conflict by official propaganda, and a rainstorm that lasts five years.

In addition the author leavens the horrific happenings with humor via the sophistry of the company lawyers, the comic inefficiencies of the company store, and the pranks played by little kids with company pills. (García Márquez, it should be said, is one of literature’s virtuoso humorists, among the funniest authors ever to put pen to paper.)

Similarly, in The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975), Gabo takes on the topic of Latin American barracks dictatorship — the subject of hundreds of Latin American novels, some good, some less so. While modeling his dictator after real-life tyrants such as the Dominican Trujillo and the Nicaraguan Somoza, García Márquez outdoes these despots by making everything about them comically outsized, giving his martinet a 200-year reign and uncanny ESP powers, and assigning to him the concluding sale of the Caribbean Sea to the U.S. occupiers, who transfer the entire body of water into numbered crates and ship it off to Arizona.

There’s yet another, seldom-noted side to García Márquez’s work: he is one of the great novelists of romantic love. One Hundred Years is chock-a-block filled with all manner of love stories. Two of his later novels, moreover, have the word “love” in their titles. Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) tells of a romance between two adolescents that is broken up by parental pressure, only to blossom once again when the twosome are well into their seventies.

Of Love and Other Demons (1994), slightly neglected yet among Gabo’s more beautiful works, traces the chaste but intense amour that develops between a bookish, thirtyish priest and an ethereal yet vital 12-year-old girl in Cartagena during Nueva Granada’s colonial times. The book has an unusual focus in that it deals directly if subtly with such highly charged, oft-neglected issues as black slavery, Afro-Hispanic religion, and the intellectual ravages of the Spanish Inquisition.

A Life on the Left

The boy García Márquez grew up hearing local accounts of United Fruit, its labor exploitation, its abuse of power. From his late teens onwards he was thus a man of the left, an anti-imperialist who made no secret of his political beliefs and in the 1960s even did some fulltime work for Prensa Latina, revolutionary Cuba’s news agency.

Later, Gabo’s literary reputation gave him the opportunity to range freely as an independent, advocacy journalist and columnist. This side of the master is scarcely known outside the Hispanic orbit, where at one time he was probably the best-known press man, his name a household word.

In this role he would write eloquently on, for example, the final months of Salvador Allende’s presidency in Chile, the freeing of Angola from Portuguese colonialism, life in post-war Vietnam, the Sandinista struggles in Nicaragua, and French socialist François Mitterrand’s literary intellect.

He also penned an entire book, News of a Kidnapping (1996), about a set of victims of the drug trade.

In addition he would help found (and fund) left-wing magazines and journalism schools in Colombia. These real-life reportorial and other activities neatly complemented Gabo’s high-art fiction that deals with imagined strikes, uprisings and dictators. They also compensated somewhat for his own personal shyness, his reticence about public speaking, his discomfort with the nuts-and-bolts work of political organizing.

As a result of his growing fame García Márquez also became friendly with Fidel Castro. Given his political beliefs and associations, it’s no surprise that in the 1960s he was on the U.S.  immigration blacklist and for years unable to enter the United States without a special visa that severely restricted his travels and the duration of his stays.

By chance, Bill Clinton’s favorite novel was One Hundred Years of Solitude. Early on in his administration the jovial American president met with the Colombian literary wizard on Martha’s Vineyard, and the travel ban on a dangerously subversive Gabo was subsequently lifted. The change proved helpful later in the decade, when the novelist contracted lymphoma and needed to undergo some highly specialized medical procedures in Los Angeles (where son Rodrigo, now a film maker, also lived).

He survived the brutal treatments for another decade and a half, though eventually declining physically and mentally. Along the way, he published one more love novel, Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004), about a crabby, nonagenarian journalist’s crush on a 14-year-old sleeping beauty.

Gabo the man is now gone, but the power of his words and the beauty of his vision remain with the millions who treasure them. For a fiction writer of his stature, we would have to look back to the nineteenth century, when Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo could spin out novels that thundered artfully and passionately at social injustice and brimmed with humane compassion, winning the hearts of millions in the process.

A kind of latter-day avatar, García Márquez likewise has earned a lasting place with a vast army of readers, in Latin America as well as overseas. So long as people turn to novels to experience stories of families and lovers, dictators and rebels, snobs and syndicalists, and all sorts of ordinary human beings, the work of García Márquez will be there to share with them his high magic, exuberant humor, and simple wisdom.

July/August 2014, ATC 171