The magic of Gabo: Why Gabriel Garcia Marquez matters

Awareness of history remains one of the best gifts of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s fiction, which weaves the idioms of myth and magic to show how Latin American history and reality were in fact monstrous, outsized and outrageous.

Published : Apr 30, 2014 12:30 IST

Gabriel Garcia Marquez greeting fans on his 87th birthday in Mexico City, on March 6, 2014.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez greeting fans on his 87th birthday in Mexico City, on March 6, 2014.

GABO will write no more.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez breathed his last on April 17, 2014. He had been ailing for some time and had just come back home after being treated in a hospital for a lung infection. He was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer in 1999, which went into remission after treatment. He was also suffering from dementia in the last few years.

The end had been expected for some time, but that did not make it any less sad for his readers, who probably inhabit as many countries as one can think of, and who speak as many languages as one can count without resorting to an encyclopaedia or Google. His magnum opus, One Hundred Years of Solitude ( Cien años de Soledad , 1967), alone is reputed to have sold more than 30 million copies. Intensely powerful, and at the same time phenomenally popular, Garcia Marquez leaves behind a rich and daunting literary legacy.

Garcia Marquez was born in 1928 (or 1927) in Aracataca, a small town in Colombia, but spent the last 30-odd years of his life in Mexico. In spite of his long sojourn in Mexico, his years in Colombia, particularly his childhood there, remained an important source of inspiration for him. The now-legendary town of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude is modelled on Aracataca, many say.

Garcia Marquez was commonly associated with the “Boom”, which included writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortazar, Carlos Fuentes and Guillermo Cabrera Infante and manifested itself across countries such as Peru, Argentina, Mexico, Cuba and Colombia. He was perhaps its most visible representative as well as the one who transgressed its boundaries most successfully. His popularity was phenomenal—the Bible is said to be the only book that has sold more copies in Spanish than the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Some of his contemporaries have described him as perhaps the most popular and the best writer in the Spanish language since Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote (published in two volumes in 1605 and 1615). He will be remembered for his gripping and entertaining fiction and for the ease with which he brought the “real” world and the world of fantasy to coalesce and coexist in his works.

It was in his hands that the technique of magic realism reached its acme. His fictional world is peopled by mournful ghosts, larger-than-life dictators and tyrannical memories. His is a world of magic, miracle and myth. In Garcia Marquez’s works, we encounter characters who fly off into the skies with bedsheets while drying them on a clothesline (Remedios the Beauty in One Hundred Years of Solitude ), dictators who let the American Ambassador’s men carry off the sea as payment for their “services” ( Autumn of the PatriarchEl otoño del patriarca , 1975) and a grandmother who makes her 14-year-old granddaughter prostitute herself until she repays the 8,72,315 pesos she owes her for accidentally burning her house down ( The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and her Heartless GrandmotherLa increíble y triste historia de la Cándida Eréndira y de su abuela desalmada , 1972).

The realistic way in which he narrates the improbable and the deadpan tone in which he recounts the fantastic constitute the stylistic element of magic realism, the literary technique associated with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and with many other writers from Latin America. Yet, it would be a gross injustice to Garcia Marquez and a misreading of his works if we were to remember him merely as a weaver of fantastic tales, or read magic realism as mere use of fantasy.

As Garcia Marquez asserted in “The Solitude of Latin America”, his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1982, magic realism is perhaps less magical and more real. With that short piece, he stakes his claim as powerfully as he does with any of his novels or short stories to the status of an overtly political writer incredibly sensitive to the workings of history and power. His political commitment came through not just in his fiction but in his public statements as well.

Never one to shy away from straight talk, Garcia Marquez was a trenchant critic of, among other things, the Richard Nixon-era United States’ CIA (Central Intelligence Agency)-sponsored military coup in 1973 that removed Salvador Allende, leader of the Popular Unity government in Chile, and foisted a long period of dictatorship under General Pinochet on the Chilean people. He was also a friend of Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader. His criticism of U.S. foreign policy meant that he was banned for many decades from travelling to that country; the ban was only lifted relatively recently, when Bill Clinton, who was an admirer of Garcia Marquez’s writings, came to power.

Why does he write of such incredible, magical things? Is it simply because he grew up spending a large part of his childhood listening to his grandparents’ fantastic ghost stories, as he has written? Why is his fictional world so full of exaggeration, so replete with hyperbole? Why does he write of incredible things like dictators who paint the light of the sun and the rays of the stars red to cure their subjects of scarlet fever? Of characters like Melquíades, the gypsy, who returns from the dead and writes a history many decades before it unfolds?

Why this monstrous, outrageous and exaggerated depiction of reality?

Because, as Garcia Marquez avers in his Nobel Prize address, the Latin American reality itself is monstrous, outsized and outrageous. It is so partly because the West has constructed Latin America as such. We remember Octavio Paz’s comments here, that Latin America was a European invention, “a chapter in the history of European utopias”. Garcia Marquez begins the address by referring to Western explorers and travellers who had historically and predictably written of Latin America as a magical continent inhabited by mythical creatures and magical practices. Having traditionally been constructed by Europe as its Other, the only credible and feasible way Latin America has of communicating to Europe and to the rest of world its authentic reality today is to speak in the idiom of magic and myth, argues Garcia Marquez.

Yet, there is another reason why the Latin American reality is so monstrous—this reason lies in the “monstrous” scale of its sufferings. The tragedy of Latin American history and the sufferings and deprivations its people have gone through can only be written of realistically in terms of hyperbole, myth and magic. These sufferings are real even as they may seem fantastic—they are part of what Alejo Carpentier has called “lo real maravilloso”, the Latin American marvellous reality. We are talking about a land where, first, colonisers wreaked havoc, decimating local cultures, and then, the caciques and dictators who took over proved themselves just as virulent as their predecessors. The only way Latin American writers can communicate this reality is through hyperbole. In the face of a succession of military coups, external meddling, massive infant mortality and political exile on absurd scales, Latin American writers “have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable”. The magic, the absurd, the irrationality in Garcia Marquez’s narratives, then, have a definite political purpose. They are, indeed, more real than magical as Garcia Marquez has himself asserted.

It is not just that so much of Garcia Marquez’s writings are based on historical incidents—one thinks immediately of Chronicle of a Death Foretold ( Crónica de una muerte anunciada, 1981), or of The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor ( Relato de un náufrago , 1970), which emerged first in 1955 as a piece of journalistic writing when he was with El Espectador , or even of Love in the Time of Cholera ( El amor en los tiempos del cólera , 1985), which was based partly on Garcia Marquez’s parents’ relationship and partly on a story he came across when he was working as a journalist, as he has written in Living to Tell the Tale ( Vivir para contarla , 2002), the first volume of his autobiography trilogy, which will now never materialise; more than that, so many of the fantastic elements in his fiction are actually drawn from Latin American history. General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez, the dictator of El Salvador, had streetlamps draped in red to defeat an epidemic of scarlet fever in his country in much the same way as the patriarch in Autumn of the Patriarch paints the sun’s rays red to combat the disease. When we read in Garcia Marquez’s Nobel Prize address of how General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, three times dictator of Mexico, held a magnificent funeral for the right leg he had lost in a war, how the corpse of General Garcia Moreno, who ruled Ecuador for 16 years, was seated on the presidential chair at his wake, in full military uniform, medals included, and how the paranoid General Hernandez Martinez invented a pendulum to detect poison in his food, we are left wondering if the fictional accounts of the sea being sold off by a military ruler, or of the dictator executing and serving for dinner any underling who exhibits the least sign of dissent, or of Remedios the Beauty flying off with the bedsheets, are really that fantastic!

History remained one of the abiding concerns and sites of contest for Garcia Marquez all through his life. History is written by whoever is in power, and that is why it is necessary to interrogate all narratives of history. No official history can be neutral, transparent or apolitical as far as Garcia Marquez is concerned. His preoccupation with these concerns comes out most clearly in One Hundred Years of Solitude , in his fictional depiction of the Cienaga massacre, a historical incident which happened the year he was born and in which hundreds of United Fruit Company workers agitating for better working conditions, their wives and children were gunned down by the Colombian army.

In the novel, the protesting workers of the United Banana Company are gunned down mercilessly. The injured Jose Arcadio Segundo is the only survivor; he regains consciousness on a death train loaded with hundreds of bodies on their way to being dumped somewhere they will never be recovered from.

He manages to escape, but no one is willing to believe his account. Official history, sponsored and propagated by those in power, claims the crisis was resolved amicably and there was no such incident. It embraces the people in a grasp of mass hypnotism, with no one willing to believe such a massacre had or could have taken place. By giving voice to Jose Arcadio Buendia, Garcia Marquez was giving a voice to subaltern history and highlighting the necessity for and possibility of interrogating histories that are written for us from positions of power.

With history, themes of remembrance and amnesia assume particular importance in Garcia Marquez’s works. If Jose Arcadio’s memory of the massacre makes him a threat to the official discourse of history, the amnesia plague that strikes Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude has overarching political undertones and can be read in many different ways. First, the inhabitants of Macondo suffer from insomnia. Then they begin to forget. Amnesia here represents the ultimate depths of solitude to which Macondo is condemned. It cuts off the already isolated Macondo from the rest of the known world and threatens to rob it of its sense of history.

Finally, it is Melquiades, the gypsy, who comes back and cures Macondo of its collective amnesia. Significantly, he is also the one who writes the history of the Buendia family a hundred years before it unfolds—a history that is coded and written in a foreign language and that can only be decoded when the hundred years are up. It is also a historical narrative in which all the events recorded coexist rather than succeed each other chronologically. One is reminded here of Borges’ story, “Aleph”, where Borges seems to do a similar thing, not with time but with space. Memory and amnesia in this novel, then, act as metaphors and are related to the consciousness of history and the awareness of the fact that if things have been made, they can be unmade as well.

The themes of amnesia and remembrance are, of course, of particular significance not just to Latin America but to any postcolonial society trying to consolidate its national identity. India shared a particularly warm relationship with Garcia Marquez and we were quick to recognise his relevance to us. That is why Garcia Marquez’s writings entered the syllabi of Indian universities quite quickly and are prescribed reading in many universities across India. In fact, One Hundred Years of Solitude was compulsory reading for students of comparative literature at Jadavpur University well before the award of the Nobel Prize to Garcia Marquez and the mass adulation that followed. This was thanks largely to the efforts of Manabendra Bandyopadhyay, who introduced an entire generation to Latin American literature through his translations of Latin American literature into Bangla.

Latin America’s unfortunate entanglement with never-ending dictatorships means the figure of the dictator enjoys considerable visibility in Garcia Marquez’s works. The patriarch seems to rule from behind an opaque curtain and few get to interact with him. He is shrouded in mystery and rules through terror. He has dissenters served for dinner, stuffed with pine nuts and aromatic herbs.

There is a complex myth-making that is at work in the construction of the figure of the dictator in popular imagination and this is something Garcia Marquez’s oeuvre sets out to right. Thus, it is common knowledge that the dictator never leaves his house as he is too large to pass through the door; yet when he is discovered dead, he comes across as a very ordinary looking man with little that is intimidating about him. The myth of invincibility woven around his figure is thus dismantled.

Autumn of the Patriarch is particularly interesting for its style. Garcia Marquez builds this novel with seemingly interminable sentences that meander on from one page to another. This is used almost as a metaphor for the never-ending rule of the dictator—nobody in the novel seems to remember just how many autumns (or indeed, generations) the patriarch has ruled over them.

Yet, the ruler, too, is in some ways a victim. Both the patriarch in Autumn of the Patriarch and the general in The General in his Labyrinth ( El general en su laberinto , 1989), based loosely on the life of Simon Bolivar, are shown to be cut off from reality and enslaved by the mechanisms of power in their own ways. The general is denied access to newspapers lest he should learn of the criticism to his rule. He finds out that he has been fed on a diet of lies by people he had trusted. Most importantly, the general is led to ask himself what political independence had brought. Indeed, he has no answer when the martyrs’ widows tell him, “We have Independence, General, so now tell us what to do with it.” In conclusion, it would be fair to say Garcia Marquez’s works provide a nuanced and rich analysis of the dynamics of power in general, and in the context of Latin American history in particular.

Thank you, Gabo, for the gift of history. For reiterating how literature and politics cannot be dissociated from each other. For those wonderful, lazy afternoon reads. And for those stimulating classes. Thank you, from me, and from all the students I have enjoyed your works with over the years.

UPDATE: According to a report by The Guardian on April 29, 2023, after years of conjecture, publishers have finally confirmed the existence of an unpublished book by the acclaimed author and Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez. It is speculated that the book could potentially hit bookstores as early as next year. Penguin Random House has verified that the book, entitled En Agosto Nos Vemos (We’ll See Each Other in August), will be published in Spanish and made available on bookshelves across Latin America in 2024. The rumours of an unpublished book have been swirling for some time, particularly after Márquez published a short story in 1999, which narrated the tale of a woman named Anna Magdalena Bach, who has a romantic fling while visiting her mother’s grave on a tropical island. This story had been featured in the Latin American magazine Cambio.

Sayantan Dasgupta is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University.

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