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.)

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 final 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 scholarly, 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.

García Márquez as a boy grew up hearing local stories about United Fruit, its exploitation and abuses 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 even did some work for revolutionary Cuba’s press agency. With his growing fame he also became friendly with Fidel Castro. As a result, he ended up on the American immigration blacklist; hence, beginning in the 1960s he was unable to enter the U.S. without a special visa that severely restricted his travels and 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 highly specialized medical procedures in Los Angeles (where his son Rodrigo, 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.

Gene H. Bell-Villada teaches Spanish at Williams College. Among his twelve published  books are “García Márquez: The Man and His Work;” a memoir, “Overseas American: Growing up Gringo in the Tropics;” and most recently, “On Nabokov, Ayn Rand and the Libertarian Mind: What the Russian-American Odd Pair Can Tell Us about Some Values, Myths and Manias Widely Held Most Dear.”

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