Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Latin America’s literary icon

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Magic realism: A literary or artistic genre in which realistic narrative and naturalistic technique are combined with surreal elements of dream or fantasy.

This is the Oxford Dictionary’s definition for this literary genre that was pioneered by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a writer who has been compared with the likes of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain and Victor Hugo. He is considered the one of the greatest Spanish-language writers and a Latin American icon whose works purportedly sold second highest across the continent after the Bible. Latin America and the rest of the world mourned the death of this Colombian literary giant at the age of 87 on April 17, 2014, in his adopted home country of Mexico.

Garcia Marquez was born on March 6, 1927, in Aracataca, a river town located in the Carribean Region of Colombia, to Gabriel Eligio Garcia, a telegraph operator, and Luisa Santiaga, who hailed from Barrancas, and whose family had shifted to Aracataca after her father, Colonel Nicolás Márquez Mejfa, had killed a man named Medardo Pacheco in a duel over a point of honour. Garcia Marquez was the first of 11 children, and his parents moved to the city of Barranquilla shortly after he was born, as his father left his occupation to become a pharmacist there, hoping to become rich. However, Garcia Marquez was left in the care of his maternal grandparents for the first 10 years of his life and remained in Aracataca. His grandparents’ turbulent history and colourful tales would provide the ethos for his fictional works, and his birthplace became the model for Macondo, the imaginary village that formed the backdrop for his most famous work, ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’.

Once Garcia Marquez joined his parents, he was sent to a State-run boarding school just outside Bogota, where he was a stellar student with a love for Hemingway, Dostoevsky, Faulkner and Kafka. In fact, he would come to regard William Faulkner as his ‘master’ and would quote him at his Nobel award acceptance speech, saying, “On a day like today, my master William Faulkner said, ‘I decline to accept the end of man.’ This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude.” He wrote his first short story, ‘Eyes of a blue dog’, in 1947. He mailed it to the newspaper El Espectador in a response to its literary editor’s statement that ‘Colombia’s younger generation has nothing to offer in the name of good literature anymore.’ ‘Leaf Storm’, his first novella, was written in 1948, when he was only 21, but he had to pursue publishers for seven years before the novella was finally published in 1955.

Though his father wanted him to pursue law, Garcia Marquez felt drawn to the world of journalism. He unflinchingly reported on the civil wars and social unrest that was beleaguering Colombia during the 1950s, and his style of reporting came to be known as New Journalism. His leftist political leanings, inspired by the tragedy of the 1928 massacre near his home town, of banana workers striking against the powerful United Fruit Company, and the assassination of a people-centric leftist presidential candidate, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, in 1948, were apparent in his journalistic ventures, often resulting in adverse reactions to his work. This was most apparent in the case of his 1970 non-fiction work ‘The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor’, where he recounts government corruption as contributing to the disastrous events narrated by the real life protagonist Luis Alejandro Belasco, which caused a great scandal at the time.

In 1953, Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, an Army General, became the 19th President of Colombia and proceeded to establish a dictatorship in the country. Garcia Marquez had returned to Bogota in 1954, where he worked for El Espectador as a reporter and film reviewer. His narrative of government ineptitude and corruption, serialized in ‘The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor’ as an elaborate expose, provoked the ire of the dictator, and the newspaper, fearing a political or violent backlash, sent him to Europe as a foreign correspondent. Unfortunately, while he was in Europe, the Colombian government shut down El Espectador and Garcia Marquez was forced to live a hand-to-mouth existence, barely making ends meet during the day and writing fiction at night.

After publishing his novella ‘No One Writes to the Colonel’, based on the life of his maternal grandfather, in 1957, Garcia Marquez travelled back across the Atlantic and found a position at Momento magazine in Caracas, Venezuela. In 1958, he briefly returned to Barranquilla, Colombia, to marry his childhood neighour, Mercedes Barcha, with whom he has two sons, Rodrigo and Gonzalo.

Since the age of 18, Garcia Marquez wanted to channel the stories told by his maternal grandmother into a novel, but could not find the right tone for the story, until one day, while driving to Acapulco, inspiration hit him and he turned his car around and returned home and started writing. He sold the family car to finance his family’s needs while he devoted his full attention to writing every day for 18 months. His wife also took credit from the neighbourhood stores and their landlord to keep the family afloat. By the time ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ was published in 1967, the family was several thousand dollars in debt. Fortunately, the book went on to become Garcia Marquez’s most successful and critically acclaimed work, selling in excess of 30 million copies. It also netted Garcia Marquez the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982.

‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ tells the story of seven generations of the Buendia family in the fictitious village of Macondo and provides a metaphorical look at Colombian and Latin American history. Although the book has been praised by renowned individuals, from authors to politicians to critics across the world, as one of the most profound pieces of literature that should be a required reading for everyone, and many intellectuals have ascribed deep meanings to the symbolic elements of the story, Garcia Marquez himself disliked intellectual pretensions and preferred to experience a story intuitively.

Garcia Marquez’s fame exploded post ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ and made him an influential person in world politics. Most notably, he became close friends with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, and unsurprisingly, their friendship was criticized by many notables, including American literary icon Susan Sontag, who famously rubbished Garica Marquez’s justification of his friendship allowing him to get Castro’s dissidents off the island as ‘weak and ridiculous’. However, Garcia Marquez continued to remain the toast of kings and Presidents, forming a close friendship with, among others, former American President Bill Clinton, who professed himself to have keenly read his works even as a young man in law school. Though critics accuse him of being attracted to power and deriving a weird pleasure from it, Garcia Marquez did indeed use his influence to negotiate between the Colombian government and the 19th of April Movement (M-19) guerrillas as well as the FARC and ELN organizations.

Garcia Marquez is known for other works as well, including ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’, an atypical love story between couples in their seventies who find love, even as death is all around them. He had based the premise for this story on the history of how his parents met each other and proceeded to marry against the wishes of his maternal grandparents. Another hard-hitting work is ‘News of a Kidnapping’, a non-fiction account of the high profile kidnappings that occurred in Colombia during the early 1990s during the reign of drug czar Pablo Escobar, whose Medellin Cartel was building an empire based on narco-trafficking. ‘Chronicle of a Death Foretold’ is a mix of realism, detective story and reporting, and is based on an actual murder that took place in 1951, of Garcia Marquez’s childhood friend, Cayetano Gentile Chimento. Another controversial work was ‘Autumn of the Patriarch’, based on the life of Venezuelan dictator Juan Vicente Gomez. Garcia Marquez’s family moved from Barcelona to Mexico City soon after publishing it, and he agreed not to republish it until Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was deposed. However, he went ahead and published it while Pinochet was still in power, as he could not remain silent in the face of the oppression and injustice rampant during Pinochet’s regime.

Although Garcia Marquez will always be remembered for implanting the concept of magical realism forever in readers’ minds, he was a pragmatist and an acute observer of the reality around him. In fact, his surreal motifs only heighten the wretchedness and banality of the reality represented in his works. Ultimately, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s writing philosophy and worldview was aptly summed up by the man himself when he described Latin America in his Nobel prize acceptance speech: “Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable.” Garcia Marquez has brought the common man across the world in touch with the uncommonness of his reality, and allowed him to see a world beyond himself, in which he is a metaphorical figure. The legacy of Gabo will live long.

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