Few writers achieve an outstanding literary reputation and an even more overwhelming popularity. One of the greatest in the 20th century, Colombian novelist, journalist and Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez, died Thursday at the age of 87.
Gabo, as García Márquez was called even by those who did not know him, patented, even if he did not invent it, a narrative mode — magical realism — that became associated not just with Latin American fiction but with the very nature of the region, confirmed sometimes by news items that read like his stories, such as the discovery years ago that Colombian drug traffickers had built, in the Andes mountain range, a submarine.
The book that put magical realism and García Márquez on the map, far beyond the reputation that lives in critical circles, was One Hundred Years of Solitude, with its seductive blend of fantasy and grit. Yet, years later the writer, already with the Nobel under his belt, confessed that he was sick and tired of the book with which he was associated, preferring his narrative meditation on Latin dictatorship, The Autumn of the Patriarch, or the gem of a novella, Nobody Writes to the Colonel. Still, it is easy to recognize the García Márquez style in all his books, even his non-fiction and his autobiography. The latter, which tells of the Colombian writer’s young penurious years as a journalist and includes the beginning of his friendship with Fidel Castro, has real life characters pop in and out of the scene speaking in bon mots worthy of Wilde or Shaw. And in his biographical book on Simón Bolívar’s last days, a young woman brought to spend the night with the ailing general, who is far too weak to make love to her, is told in the morning by Bolívar that she is leaving as much of a virgin as she arrived, to which she responds, no woman who spends a night with you is any longer a virgin, mi general. Vintage Gabo.
Love fuels his stories. Yet even when unsuccessful, it is not the tragic love of so much fiction but is always redeemed by an untamed life force. His last work of fiction, Memories of my Melancholy Whores, tells of a 90-year-old man who has known nothing but love for sale and is treating himself to a very young virginal prostitute, and she, much to his stupefied surprise at the end, has fallen crazy in love with him. The old man lives on. Gabo, who must have fashioned his character — older than the writer at the time, but irresistible and prodigiously endowed — as a fantasy version of himself did not.
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It is probably wise to ignore the tragedy of his demise and enjoy the tragicomedy of his narratives. Gabriel García Márquez died wealthy and beloved, after spending his early years impoverished and unknown. In his prime, he was a Latin American elder statesman, walking around Cartagena de Indias, on Colombian’s Caribbean coast, in a guayabera and cream-colored slacks, and known to one and all in the city, but — and this is important — not exactly lionized as a literary giant. Instead, he entered the folkways of his native tropical Colombia with a nickname, “ el Nobel,” and stories about the local beauty he danced the night away with during carnival, who lost her shoes, only to have them returned, intact, the next morning. When One Hundred Years of Solitude was published the writer told an interviewer that he did not know what the fuss was about because these were just a bunch of stories his grandmother told. Colombians and others who know that intoxicating country of extreme poetry, violence and romance know that Gabo was not putting his interviewer on. Colombia is a country with almost too many fantastic stories. Thankfully, Gabo was there to pick them up.
There was a catch, though. Later, already famous, he told this writer, after hours of talking about everything from telenovelas to arepas: “I can sit around telling stories all day. The trouble is that they want me to write them.”
And so he did. Preferably, when he could finally afford it, in a temperature-controlled room, for he had that fondness for air-conditioning that those of us who grew up in a torrid climate share. He wrote a finished paragraph a day, he said. And he only wrote in the morning. Afternoons he would see friends.
One of the times I saw him after the interview, at a dinner with family and friends, the company included an old doctor. The physician told me of having gone to school with a young Maharajah whose invitation to India the doctor regretted never following up on. It was a year or two later, reading Love in the Time of Cholera, that I realized the doctor was the model for the protagonist of the first part of the novel. The hallucinatory feeling of having stepped into a novel overcame me.
That hallucinatory rush is precisely what Garcia Marquez made his readers feel. He peddled a benign addiction that will outlive him. All currents provoke backlashes. In recent years, it has been fashionable among young Turks in Latin letters to put down Gabo.
And for many Cuban exiles, García Márquez is abhorrent because of his friendship with Fidel Castro, a justifiable resentment. Gabo claimed to me that he was very critical of the Cuban regime, but he chose to keep that to himself because he believed he could do more good voicing his criticism in person to a close friend than taking public stands that made no dent. García Márquez did choose the role of public intellectual, a common stance in Latin letters. It was his nature. Though his prose is poetic, he was at heart a political animal, or more precisely, a journalistic animal. Still, his reportage was informed by his imagination — one could call it magical journalism.
As a narrator of fiction, his craft is unequalled. Alas, so seductive a style begat mediocre imitators and there are many second-rate Gabos out there. And though it reads like the torrent of a wild river, there is no question that his is serious craftsmanship, that one paragraph a day. No sooner one begins one of his narratives one is pulled in, as if by a riptide. It feels effortless. And that is the work of a master storyteller. The Latin American writers of his generation acquired enormous popularity, so much that their phenomenon was called by the English word “boom.” But none has the power Gabo had, and will always have, over the reader.
In recent decades it was known that Garcia Marquez had cancer. And for the past years it was also known that his mind was failing — some saw the weakness reflected in his last works, but that ad hominem critique is plain wrong. His death was foretold, but whose isn’t? Vivir para contarla, he called his autobiography. Live to tell it. He lived and he told it.
Gabriel García Márquez is survived by children, grandchildren, and his wife, Mercedes, to whom he dedicated his novel about romance that has no end, Love in the Time of Cholera.
“For Mercedes,” the dedication page reads, “of course.”