The Labyrinth of Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014)

The death of the Colombian fictional writer Gabriel García Márquez was long expected given his deteriorating health over the last few years. Márquez was suffering from dementia and while his own autobiography Living to Tell the Tale (2002) saw a return of his literary flare, his last novel, Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004) was a disappointment and rightly received mixed reviews. But by this stage of course the Colombian had already consolidated himself as a literary giant in the pantheon of Latin American literature with works such as No One Writes to the Colonel (1961), Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), The General in His Labyrinth (1989) and his magnum opus One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967).

As foreseen, both the presidents of Colombia and Mexico attended Márquez funeral although his own leftist politics were well known, as was his longstanding friendship with Cuba’s Fidel Castro. While Chile’s Isabel Allende recently commented that the Colombian had contributed enormously to giving Latin Americans back their history, novelist Mona Simpson perhaps best summarized Márquez’s fascinating life by noting that:

The story of García Márquez's life and career is as beautifully shaped and fabular as one of his own stories. Born in 1927 in the small town of Aracataca, Colombia, he was raised there by his grandparents for eight years. Aracataca was a "Wild West boom town" and his grandparents' house was full of people – "his grandparents, aunts, transient guests, servants, Indians". García Márquez based his fictional homeland on Aracataca and named it Macondo – after a dusty sign he once passed on a train in rural Colombia. The sign heralded no visible town.

His grandfather was a colonel and a liberal veteran of the thousand days war, who refused to remain silent about the banana massacres that took place the year García Márquez was born. As in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the colonel taught the young García Márquez lessons from the dictionary, took him to the circus every year and introduced him to the miracle of ice, which he first witnessed at the American Fruit Company. The fact that the US was – for García Márquez and his grandfather – the enemy added to the experience. His ideology was shaped by his grandfather, who told him, "You can't imagine how much a dead man weighs", a line that worked its way into the fiction. "Instead of telling me fairytales," García Márquez said, "he would regale me with horrifying accounts of the last civil war that free-thinkers and anti-clerics waged against the conservative government". If García Márquez (known affectionately as "Gabo" in Latin America) gleaned his politics through his grandfather, his grandmother bequeathed him his aesthetic stance. She "treated the extraordinary as something perfectly natural". The household was full of ghost stories, premonitions, omens, portents, superstitions, and magic (all of which could function as a working description of Catholicism). His grandfather ignored his wife's supernatural views, and she relayed them in a deadpan style.

Commenting further on One Hundred Years of Solitude, Simpson wrote that:

There are few modern works of genius that feel as unlaboured as One Hundred Years of Solitude. And yet, in his Paris Review interview, Gabo says, "Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry. Both are very hard work. Writing something is almost as hard as making a table. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood. Both are full of tricks and techniques. Basically very little magic and a lot of hard work are involved."

The appeal of Márquez’s major work of course will continue to have resonance with millions of Latin Americans for many decades if not centuries. Travel to Latin America and you will find thousands of Macondo’s where the human spirit endures the complexities of poverty, family, power and the battle to control ones destiny in the face of few and difficult options.

Posted on April 30, 2014 .