Earlier this month, when Gabriel García Márquez was admitted to hospital in Mexico City, his hometown for the past thirty odd years, he looked out the window and saw a large crowd gathered outside. “Who are all these people?” he asked, somewhat confused. “They’re journalists—he was told—they’re here to report on your health.” After a moment’s hesitation García Márquez snapped: “someone go outside and tell these journalists to hit the streets and do some proper work.”
I can’t vouchsafe for the veracity of the anecdote—I was certainly not there, and in the age of social media and digital tabloids I can’t even remember where I read it. Not that it matters: like most things ascribed to the Colombian writer since he was diagnosed with cancer in 1999 there is every likelihood this tale is untrue, inaccurate or simply fake. Unlike most of the sentimental and often corny letters, poems and deathbed confessions purportedly penned by García Márquez that have surfaced over the years, though, this little episode accurately captures much of the essence of a man who carried out his trade so exceptionally well he could not help but become—almost despite himself—a worldwide legend.
Which in turn is fitting, because if one element stands out in García Márquez’s writing, it is the epic character he confers to daily routine. Everything from a trip up the Orinoco River to raising a family, courting a woman or fighting a civil war acquires legendary proportions in his narrative—both short and long. This capacity to find the most extraordinary miracles in everyday occurrences constitutes the cornerstone, of course, of his widespread fame and gave rise to one of the most clichéd terms in the context of literature: Magic Realism, a label forged in the merchandising furnaces of the Spanish publishing business, which has often been derided by the English establishment.
And perhaps it should be so, since in Europe, in the civilized West, in the realm of developed countries normality has been systematically stripped from every ounce of mysticism until it can be safely stowed in the prosaic compartments of the expected. That, though, is not the reality of Colombia—not in the XXI century, and certainly not in the 1940s and ’50s, when García Márquez was growing up. Indeed, carefully considered it could be argued that García Márquez did nothing other than chronicle the everyday existence of his part of the world—of the parcel allotted to him by life—in the same fashion as John Updike, Phillip Roth or Alice Munro. Where Updike built a catalogue of WASP America from Vietnam to the yuppie generation, Roth erected a similar portrait of American “Jewishness” in general, and Munro crafted the most beautiful apology to Glenn Campbell’s everyday housewife. Meanwhile, García Márquez did the equivalent, but he focused instead on the nature of life in the Caribbean.
Because, political borders and economic markets aside, Gabriel García Márquez is the most perceptive and accomplished writer the Caribbean has ever produced. Regardless of the language in which he wrote and the Latin American tradition in which his literature is inscribed, he possessed the sensibility to identify the uncanny elements that dictate the ways of life in the region and the supreme ability to convey these elements not only coherently but, most remarkably, immensely beautifully. That, the beauty of it all, is the most striking feature of his writing, what stays with you years after you have forgotten the plot of his stories or the name of his protagonists, what jumps at you, fresh as ever, when you go back to his writing. That is also what I want to focus on today: some other time, once the stupor has subsided, I’ll go back to the notion of García Márquez’s Caribbeanness and offer solid examples to back these claims, but today all of that is irrelevant, because today the attribute of judgement is easily overcome by the strength of emotions, and at the core of those emotions lies the raw source of my admiration, my gratitude and, plainly put, my awe at García Márquez’s literary production: its beauty.
As is customary, the death of a public figure of his stature has prompted all sorts of obituaries, tributes and profiles such as this, mapping the highs and lows of his life. In the current climate of violence and deep anti-Cuban sentiment prevalent in Venezuela, for example, he has been reviled for siding with Castro to the bitter end, for recanting his support for the letter of reproach sent by the Latin American intellectual elite to the Cuban government following the much publicized imprisonment of the poet Heberto Padilla in 1971, for getting into a fist fight with Mario Vargas Llosa in 1976, and so on. But all of these and many other controversies in his long life serve as poignant reminder that the often revered figure of perhaps the most talented writer of his generation in any language belongs to an actual man, an imperfect man, an often erratic man, a man of flesh and blood.
As such, García Márquez carved his path in the world through a combination of hard work and seemingly inexhaustible enthusiasm. He worked as a journalist in Barranquilla in the early ’50s and in Bogotá until 1960, when he moved to La Habana, where he joined the revolution’s press room. His intense desire to spin a tale was perhaps the driving force throughout this period and during the rest of his life, although, like most writers, his main source of inspiration was actually the dire need to earn a living. What made him stand out above the rest, however, was his wholehearted—almost obstinate—ambition to witness (and perhaps even take part in) an improvement in the order of the world.
Because deep down inside García Márquez was a true revolutionary—a man who more than anything yearned for a change. This internal aspiration allowed him to recognize the peculiar pattern of life in the Caribbean and empowered him with the belief and the confidence necessary to develop an entire universe around this pattern, freeing the events and circumstances that constitute such universe from the yoke of traditional logic and causal interaction. This in itself would have been a tremendously impressive accomplishment but García Márquez exceeded himself and managed to bring about this epistemological revolution with such mesmerizing beauty that, suddenly, the entire literary establishment (certainly the Spanish-speaking one) was irreversibly affected (infected, even).
García Márquez’s narrative succeeded in prompting a transformation in the literary world that to this day shapes and informs the vast majority of Caribbean literature, from Kei Miller to Oonya Kempadoo. It was his undying expectation to see an equivalent transformation in the political world which landed him on the side of Fidel Castro’s Cuba: one thing cannot be distanced from the other, nor can it be properly understood on its own. Few would still argue that he was on the right side of the political divide, but the trade-off earned him a leading role in an aesthetic revolution that is still underway, and that is a lot more than many could claim.
I remember the first time I picked up One Hundred Years of Solitude, age 17, in the first year of my degree in Venezuela. Deeply caught up in misgivings and preconceptions, ready to interrupt my reading at the first sign of mediocrity, almost looking for a reason—any excuse, really—to dismiss García Márquez as an overrated and hyped writer, I delved into the 500-page book sometime in the middle of the night. I did not sleep again until I had finished it, maybe 20 hours later, after skipping my lectures, certain that I would learn more in the pages of the novel than in the university’s classrooms. Suddenly, I had discovered an author I had consciously avoided my entire life, in the conviction that he couldn’t be as good as everyone said. In a way, I was right: he was better.
I’ve read One Hundred Years of Solitude three or four times since, but on April 17 when I heard that García Márquez had passed, finally, after a long and cruel process, I couldn’t help but pull a copy out of my bookshelf. It was an unread copy which someone had gifted me recently. Line by line, page by page, I was sucked back into this universe of wonder and endless possibilities until I caught myself in tears. No matter how predictable, how inevitable, how alleviating death might be, bereavement is simply stronger than reason, and to the generation of readers and writers that came after Gabriel García Márquez he was more than a role model—he was like a grandfather. Gracias, Gabo.
Published in the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald on April 27, 2014.