Sunday, April 20, 2014


In July of last year, Márquez’s brother, Jaime García Márquez reported that Gabo had dementia. “He has problems with his memory. Sometimes I cry because I feel like I’m losing him.” Márquez had stopped writing and would not publish another book. Now that Gabriel García Márquez has exchanged one solitude for another, a great voice has been stilled. It is difficult to accept this news about a writer who has been such a part of our lives for over four decades.

On the soft cover edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967),[1] two lovers embrace, heated by the ball of the tropical sun. This image seemed to be everywhere in the 1970s. Poking out of knapsacks. Intently read on buses, trains and airplanes. The book engaged deeply with the hopes of that time. Was the title a premonition of the onset of increasingly untrustworthy histories we now face? Or the start of understanding and rejecting them? In retrospect, yes. 

I started the book a number of times, and gave up repeatedly. There were just too many Aurelianos and Buendías. But eventually, as I recovered from a fever, while my mind cooled, I began to read it again, barely pausing to put it down.

I picked the book up again recently, wondering how it would unfold, after a few decades. Long forgotten scenes returned, the most disturbing and repressed of which was the massacre of the banana plantation workers who were planning to unionize. Those desaparecidos of the past had prefigured new terror in countries like Chile and Argentina. I emerged once again “from this marvellous novel as if from a dream, the mind on fire,” as John Leonard, in the New York Times Book Review, said of the book when it was first published. At that time, Márquez said that he was stunned when the publisher of the first edition printed so many copies—8,000 of them. By 2011, over 50 million copies had been sold worldwide.

Márquez’s writing continued to permeate our lives. In 1978, decades after Franco’s planes strafed women and children on the Almería road, La Mala Hora (1961) surfaced in this quiet little town in southern Spain. Franco had died three years earlier, and the country was exhaling a sigh of relief. But it was still a country where, in every city and town, the Guardia Civil carried loaded submachine guns in the streets. I was there, hitchhiking to Morocco, with Susanna, the love of my life, and had to hitchhike alone back up the coast to Cullera. While I was away, she met a Korean man who was hitchhiking through Spain, sleeping at night in abandoned castle ruins and signal towers. She invited him up to our room, so that he could bathe, do his laundry, and hang it with ours on the roof of the pension. A terrible mistake in such a conservative town. Una mala hora!

When I returned to the pension, Susanna and Kim were having lunch in the pension dining room. As I appeared in the doorway of the room, the waiters glanced at me, and fled in fear and silent trepidation to the kitchen. In the sudden descent of quiet, I heard the theme music from Fistful of Dollars, filmed in the arid sierra I had just crossed twice. A mysterious and resonant story, something like a Márquez narrative was unfolding. The regulars stared away, or looked down at their food, hoping against hope. When I reached her table, she hugged me, and then introduced Kim. I shook his hand warmly. We became friends and talked about writers we loved, such as Márquez. Before Kim left Almería to pick fruit in France, he gave us a Spanish copy of La Mala Hora. Márquez’s preferred title for this taut little book, which looks at the conspiracy of silence that haunts a small place, was This Shit-Eating Town. He had to be convinced by his publisher to change it to In Evil Hour.

In a Paris Review interview in 1981 Márquez was asked if he would be interested in the Nobel Prize for Literature. He replied, “I think that for me it would be an absolute catastrophe . . . it would be terrible.” Receiving the Nobel the next year was not a catastrophe. In his Nobel acceptance speech, he took the opportunity to present the distant and incredible nature of Latin America’s solitude. “Our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude.” He went on to argue that it was “the very scale of our solitude” that “did not put us beyond the reach of madness.” The Nobel gave him no pause. After receiving it, he published Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), The General in His Labyrinth (1989), Strange Pilgrims (1992), and Living to Tell the Tale (2002). Is there more of his work to be translated?

Some time in the early 1990s I arrived early for a flight from Toronto to western Canada. At the terminal, I purchased a copy of The General in His Labyrinth, to read while waiting for my boarding call. Sitting down next to the departure gate for my flight, I opened the book to its first sentence: “José Palacios, his oldest servant, found him floating naked with his eyes open in the purifying waters of his bath and thought he had drowned.” Much time passed after Simon Bolívar rose from his bath and took flight over the continent of madness he loved so deeply that he dreamt of uniting it. So much time, that I missed every flight boarding call broadcast by the speaker above my head. I travelled on the next available plane, accompanied by the loneliness and immense dream of General Bolívar.

Sixteen years after his report of The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor (1970), Márquez published another piece of non-fiction, Clandestine in Chile: The Adventures of Miguel Littín (1986). The timing was perfect: Pinochet in Chile, Reagan in America, Thatcher in Britain, Videla’s genocidal dictatorship in Argentina, and that little PM in Canada had all been attacking or rending the social contract in their countries, under the baleful gaze of the neoconservative economics of the Chicago school. Littín was an exiled Chilean film maker who returned surreptitiously to Chile to film the fear and psychological devastation wrought by Pinochet’s dictatorship. Initially disappointed to hear that the book contained an edited version of an interview with Littín, I soon warmed to Márquez-Littín hybrid sentences such as, “I suppressed my innermost feelings and assumed the strange condition of an exile in my own country, the most bitter experience imaginable for me.”

A decade later, his reporting in News of a Kidnapping (1996) was difficult reading. Although he sometimes disparaged his work as a journalist, this book was journalism of the highest order. It was deeply disturbing, and true. At one point, Columbian drug barons had bombed the offices of El Espectador, the newspaper where Márquez began his writing career decades ago. Why did he risk writing this look at the heartrending atrocities of the drug trade that poisoned and ended so many lives in Colombia? His Acknowledgments provided an answer, “Their pain, their patience, and their rage gave me the courage to persist in this autumnal task, the saddest and most difficult of my life.”

Over the years Márquez personally, as well as in his writing, has been buffeted by the collisions of the now becalmed storm fronts of communism and capitalism. It is becoming more difficult to remember the tensions between conservatives and liberals, and the climate of the Cold War, now that they are being swept away by the current rise of ignorance and enraged zealotry. Some of the hope and complexity of the politics of that time are revealed in One Hundred Years of Solitude, in the dream of Colonel Aureliano Buendía, late in life: “Later it would be learned that the idea that was working on him at the time was the unification of the federalist forces of Central America in order to wipe out conservative regimes from Alaska to Patagonia.” And “the possibility of coordinating the popular elements of both parties, doing away with the influence of military men and professional politicians, and setting up a humanitarian regime that would take the best from each doctrine.” Such an inspired, retreating, necessary and impossible dream.

The first volume of Márquez’ autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale (2002), revealed that his childhood realities were often inspirations for his “magic realism”. But was it magical? Colombia before the drug cartels was a place where ghosts were seen and accepted as real presences. Where gun duels were fought in the streets. Where, for many years, his mother was able to conceal from her children the truth of their abject poverty. Where his grandfather took three year old Márquez to look at the Pacific for the first time, and in response to the child’s innocent question about what was on the other shore, he answered with certainty, “There is no shore on the other side.” Where, at the age of four, Márquez spoke “only to recount absurdities,” but no one is too concerned—in fact his grandmother regarded it as a gift of prophecy. Where the future Nobel laureate and author of dozens of books never learned to spell, and still can’t. To the end of his career, his copy editors have assumed that he could not type, and have been silently correcting his appalling manuscripts.

Living to Tell the Tale concluded at the beginning of his fiction writing career. It was also the moment in the 1950s when the love of his life replies to his letter to her. Those who awaited the second volume of this projected trilogy were saddened by the rumour that Márquez had become too ill to complete further installments. Then relieved in April 2009 when he responded to a question from El Tiempo about this rumour, “Not only is it not true, but the only thing I do is write.” In Gabriel García Márquez: A Life, his persistent biographer, Gerald Martin, describes Living to Tell the Tale as “brilliant but not always accurate.” Adapted accounts sometimes trump the impossibility of accuracy through time. Accurate or not, how many unshakeable truths are revealed about the earliest years of his past in the certitude of, “There is no shore on the other side”? The past is not a foreign country—it is a lost continent, as far away and present as that nonexistent shore.

In 2005 Márquez tossed a grenade, both loaded and disarming, into the hierarchical arenas of literary reviewing. Fragments also landed in the less modulated stadiums of political correctness. After reading the first sentence of Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004), I wanted to discard the book: “The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin.” No wonder the book appeared to widespread grim and judgmental condemnation—it was easy to miss the book’s melancholy, sly humour, and deliberate provocation, especially in that opening sentence. There was some praise by those who understood its wintry tenderness, but generally it received the worst reviews of any of his books. For praising the book in a review, I was denounced angrily at a party by a woman for my obtuse sexism. My question to her,  “Did you read the book?” ended the contretemps. A question some other reviewers may not have been able to answer affirmatively either.

I am now re-reading The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975), the book he called “my most difficult and adventurous work.” It is perhaps his greatest and most demanding work. Punctuation free sentences proliferate across many pages in twisting profusion like coiling liana vines, as each one culminates in a leaf storm of absurd, majestic, and sometimes startling finality just as the next one begins to unfurl its tendrils toward you with their inextricable and multiple unfoldings of despair and humour.

Miguel de Unamumo spoke of the choice in Spain between the approaches to life of Christ and Cervantes. Christ who wept for the world, and Cervantes who laughed at our faith in the absurdity of our repeatedly broken dreams. Now, with the passing of our patriarch, Gabriel García Márquez, what does he choose?  In the Prologue to Strange Pilgrims (1992), he provided a chronicle of his own death foretold, with the answer waiting unexpectedly for him in the last solitude:

“I dreamed I was attending my own funeral, walking with a group of friends dressed in solemn mourning but in a festive mood. We all seemed happy to be together. And I more than anyone else, because of the wonderful opportunity that death afforded me to be with my friends from Latin America, my oldest and dearest friends, the ones I had not seen for so long. At the end of the service, when they began to disperse, I attempted to leave too, but one of them made me see with decisive finality that as far as I was concerned, the party was over. “’You’re the only one who can’t go,’ he said. Only then did I understand that dying means never being with friends again.” 

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[1] Dates in parentheses indicate publication in Spanish. Other dates refer to the publication date in English. Both sets of publication dates appear at the Nobel website.

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