comments_image Comments

How Gabriel García Márquez Brought the Novel Back to Life

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

Photo Credit: pds209 at / Wikimedia Commons


“Gabo.” That is how the Colombian novelist — a 1982 Nobel laureate and an unrepentant leftist — was simply and affectionately known across Latin America. He breathed his last in Mexico City on April 17, at the age of 87.

Days later, thousands of mourners stood waiting in line in order to attend the memorial service for Gabriel García Márquez on April 21, 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 masterpiece, “One Hundred Years of Solitude [1967]"). The presidents of Mexico and Colombia both gave solemn speeches paying tribute to the author. Meanwhile, in Gabo’s original hometown of Aracataca, a funeral procession drew 3,000 admirers of all ages. The next day, readings of his works were scheduled at schools and libraries throughout the author’s native Colombia.

Such a massive 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.

García Márquez, however, is more than a Latin American phenomenon. “Solitude” has been translated into some 40 languages and sold anywhere from 30 to 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.

“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 by United Fruit Company workers 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 take pen to paper.)