Like millions of people who read his wonderful books, I was sorry to hear that Gabriel García Marquez had ‘ stretched his leg and gone to the other neighborhood’, as the Spanish expression pithily puts it. I knew that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s, but I didn’t realize he was in poor physical health as well.
I haven’t read Marquez for some time now, and I didn’t really keep up with his later output, but there was a time when his books made a huge impression on me. There are some writers who you admire, but don’t love. With Marquez there was never any such contradiction. From the moment I read that marvellous opening sentence to 100 Years of Solitude: ‘ Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice’, I was hooked.
Marquez has often been described as the foremost exponent of Latin American ‘magical realism’, but this wasn’t really the most useful description of his work, to say nothing of Carpentier, Asturias, Roa Bastos, Cortazar and other Latin American writers who came out of the ‘boom’ of the 60s and 70s, who have also been somewhat lazily tarred with the same magical realist brush.
The initial popularity of these writers certainly appealed to an appetite amongst Western readers for new literary worlds to be ‘discovered’ beyond the metropolis – and this appeal often rested on the perception of Latin America as an exotic, alluring and mysterious cultural space, populated by flying peasants, colourful dictators and crazed army officers, anacondas, pumas and dusky women with gleaming eyes and lustrous dark hair.
But the great Latin American writers of the boom were more like the Russian writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They constituted a literate critical intelligentsia, in societies that were often largely illiterate, and they sought to give voices to men and women whose stories were not generally told. Their imaginations were fed by the many different tributaries of the mestizo cultures they came from: European, Indian, Creole, African and American.
Many, if not most of them, were leftists at one time or other, and their books were sometimes censored in their own countries and they often had to go into exile, usually to Europe. They wrote about societies ground down by colonialism, poverty, and neo-colonial dictatorship.
Again and again they wrote about history, drawing on the very real and very personalised abuse of power that was so much a part of Latin America’s post-colonial experience, whether it was the nineteenth century Paraguayan dictator Dr Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia in Augusto Roa Bastos’ Yo el Supremo, the presidency of Manuel Estrada Cabrera in early-twentieth century Guatemala depicted in El Señor Presidente, or the composite of Trujillo and other Caribbean dictators which formed the basis of Marquez’s own ‘dictator novel’ The Autumn of the Patriarch.
This passionate engagement with Latin American history, and the willingness to give voices to the voiceless, were essential components of Marquez’s work. Many readers have approached 100 Years of Solitude as if it were some kind of fabulous exotic fairy tale, the Latin American literary equivalent to Marc Chagall’s or Rousseau’s paintings. But this was a novel about history, and the tormented and violent history of Colombia in particular, whose key moments were magnificently rendered through Marquez’s compulsive storytelling and effortless prose.
That relaxed economical prose style was one of the things I most admired about Marquez. He was a very different writer to Asturias, for example, who was prone to long extended sentences that read like whole paragraphs, that you could really wear your brain out trying to follow. Marquez was a journalist before he became a novelist, and returned to journalism throughout his career, and he wrote with precision and clarity even at his most fantastic.
Anyone who has read Marquez’s meticulous reconstruction of the Medellin cartel’s attempt to kidnap its way out of an extradition agreement between the Colombian government and the United States, News of a Kidnapping, will know how good a journalist he was.
His writing in that book was sharp, pungent and humane, and there was nothing ‘magical’ about it at all. Something similar could be said about his novellas, like Chronicle of a Death Foretold or – probably my favourite Marquez story No one Writes to the Colonel – a profoundly moving depiction of one man’s quiet rebellion against corruption that – like Chronicle – effectively indicts a whole society.
Few writers have said so much, with such economy and grace, in such a short space, as Marquez did in that tale. And now that he is gone, I will return to him again, and read some of the books that I didn’t read. But as sad as it always is to see a good man go, his long and extraordinarily creative life is something to be celebrated, and his astonishingly fertile imagination will continue to dazzle, move, and amaze his readers for as long as people continue to read books.