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Reality loses a little magic

García Márquez was a master of the literary genre known as magical realism.

By: New York Times | Published:April 19, 2014 3:02 am
Besides his wife, Mercedes, his survivors include two sons, Rodrigo and Gonzalo. Besides Gabriel’s wife, Mercedes, his survivors include two sons, Rodrigo and Gonzalo.

Jonathan Kandell

Gabriel García Márquez, the Colombian novelist whose One Hundred Years of Solitude established him as a giant of 20th-century literature, died on Thursday at his home in Mexico City. He was 87.

Cristóbal Pera, his former editor at Random House, confirmed the death. García Márquez learned he had lymphatic cancer in 1999, and a brother said in 2012 that he had developed senile dementia.

García Márquez, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, wrote fiction rooted in a mythical Latin American landscape of his own creation, but his appeal was universal. His books were translated into dozens of languages. He was among a select roster of canonical writers — Dickens, Tolstoy and Hemingway among them — who were embraced both by critics and by a mass audience.

“Each new work of his is received by expectant critics and readers as an event of world importance,” the Swedish Academy of Letters said in awarding him the Nobel.

García Márquez was a master of the literary genre known as magical realism, in which the miraculous and the real converge. In his novels and stories, storms rage for years, flowers drift from the skies, tyrants survive for centuries, priests levitate and corpses fail to decompose. And, more plausibly, lovers rekindle their passion after a half-century apart.

Magical realism, he said, sprang from Latin America’s history of vicious dictators and romantic revolutionaries, of long years of hunger, illness and violence. In accepting his Nobel, García Márquez said: “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.”

Like many Latin American intellectuals and artists, García Márquez felt impelled to speak out on the political issues of his day. He viewed the world from a left-wing perspective, bitterly opposing Gen Augusto Pinochet, the right-wing Chilean dictator, and unswervingly supporting Fidel Castro in Cuba. Castro became such a close friend that García Márquez showed him drafts of his unpublished books.

No draft had more impact than the one for One Hundred Years of Solitude. García Márquez’s editor began reading it at home one rainy day, and as he read page after page by this unknown Colombian author, his excitement grew. Soon he called the Argentine novelist Tomás Eloy Martínez and summoned him urgently to the home.

Eloy Martinez remembered entering the foyer with wet shoes and encountering pages strewn across the floor by the editor in his eagerness to read through the work. They were the first pages of a book that in 1967 would vault García Márquez on to the world stage. He later authorized an English translation, by Gregory Rabassa. In Spanish or English, readers were tantalized from its opening sentences:

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Col Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of 20 adobe houses built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.”

One Hundred Years of Solitude would sell tens of millions of copies. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda called it “the greatest revelation in the Spanish language since Don Quixote”. The novelist William Kennedy hailed it as “the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race.”

García Márquez was rattled by the praise. He grew to hate One Hundred Years of Solitude, he said in interviews, because he feared his subsequent work would not measure up to it in readers’ eyes. He need not have worried. Almost all his 15 other novels and short-story collections were lionized by critics and devoured by readers.

Gabriel García Márquez was born in Aracataca, a small town near Colombia’s Caribbean coast, on March 6, 1927, the eldest child of Luisa Santiaga Márquez and Gabriel Elijio García. His father, a postal clerk, telegraph operator and itinerant pharmacist, could barely support his wife and 12 children; Gabriel, the eldest, spent his early childhood living in the large, ramshackle house of his maternal grandparents. The house influenced his writing; it seemed inhabited, he said, by the ghosts his grandmother conjured in the stories she told.

His maternal grandfather, Nicolás Márquez Mejía, a retired army colonel, was also an influence — “the most important figure of my life,” García Márquez said. The grandfather bore a marked resemblance to Colonel Buendía, the protagonist of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and the book’s mythical village of Macondo draws heavily on Aracataca.

García Márquez moved to Bogotá as a teenager. He studied law there but never received a degree; he turned instead to journalism. The late 1940s and early ‘50s in Colombia were a period of civil strife known as La Violencia. The ideological causes were nebulous, but the savagery was stark, as many as 300,000 deaths. La Violencia would become the background for several of his novels.

García Márquez eked out a living writing for newspapers in Cartagena and then Barranquilla, where he lived in the garret of a brothel and saw a future in literature. “It was a bohemian life: finish at the paper at 1 in the morning, then write a poem or a short story until about 3, then go out to have a beer,” he said in an interview in 1996. “When you went home at dawn, ladies who were going to Mass would cross to the other side of the street for fear that you were either drunk or intending to mug or rape them.”

He read intensely — the Americans Hemingway, Faulkner, Twain and Melville; the Europeans Dickens, Tolstoy, Proust, Kafka and Virginia Woolf.

“I cannot imagine how anyone could even think of writing a novel without having at least a vague of idea of the 10,000 years of literature that have gone before,” García Márquez said. But, he added, “I’ve never tried to imitate authors I’ve admired. On the contrary, I’ve done all I could not to imitate them.”

García Márquez was less impressed by Western Europe — where he spent two years as a foreign correspondent — than many Latin American writers, who looked to the Old World as their cultural fountainhead. His dispatches often reflected his belief that Europeans were patronizing toward Latin America even though their own societies were in decline.
He echoed these convictions in his Nobel address. Europeans, he said, “insist on measuring us with the yardstick that they use for themselves, forgetting that the ravages of life are not the same for all, and that the quest for our own identity is just as arduous and bloody for us as it was for them”.

García Márquez alternated between journalism and fiction in the late 1950s. (A multipart newspaper series on a sailor lost at sea for 10 days was later published in book form as The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor.) While working for newspapers and magazines in Venezuela, he wrote a short-story collection, Big Mama’s Funeral, which is set in Macondo and incorporates the kind of magical elements he would master in One Hundred Years of Solitude. From 1959 to 1961 he supported the Castro revolution and wrote for Prensa Latina, the official Cuban press agency.

In 1961 he moved to Mexico City, where he would live on and off for the rest of his life. It was there, in 1965, after a four-year dry spell in which he wrote no fiction, that García Márquez began One Hundred Years of Solitude. The book was published in 1967, and was sold out within days.

García Márquez made no claim to have invented magical realism; he pointed out that elements of it had appeared before in Latin American literature. But no one before him had used the style with such artistry, exuberance and power. Magical realism would soon inspire writers on both sides of the Atlantic, most notably Isabel Allende in Chile and Salman Rushdie in Britain.

“Reality is also the myths of the common people,” García Márquez told an interviewer. “I realized that reality isn’t just the police that kill people, but also everything that forms part of the life of the common people.”

In 1975 he published his next novel, The Autumn of the Patriarch, about a dictator in a phantasmagorical Latin American state who rules for so many decades that nobody can recall what life was like before him. As he had predicted, some critics faulted the work for not matching the artistry of One Hundred Years of Solitude. But others raved about it, and it became a global bestseller. He called it his best novel.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold was published in 1981, Love in the Time of Cholera in 1985, and The General in His Labyrinth in 1989. As his fame grew, García Márquez — or Gabo, as he was called by friends — enjoyed a lifestyle he would have found inconceivable in his struggling youth. He kept homes in Mexico City, Barcelona, Paris and Cartagena, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Recognizable by his bushy moustache, he dressed fastidiously, preferring a white monotone encompassing linen suits, shirts, shoes and even watchbands.

He contributed his prestige, time and money to left-wing causes. He helped finance a Venezuelan political party. He was a strong defender of the Sandinistas, the leftist revolutionaries who took power in Nicaragua.

García Márquez’s ties to Castro troubled some intellectuals and human rights advocates. Susan Sontag wrote in the 1980s, “To me it’s scandalous that a writer of such enormous talent be a spokesperson for a government which has put more people in jail (proportionately to its population) than any other government in the world.”

After receiving his cancer diagnosis in 1999, García Márquez devoted most of his subsequent writing to his memoirs. One exception was the novella Memories of My Melancholy Whores, about the love affair between a 90-year-old man and a 14-year-old prostitute, published in 2004.

In July 2012, his brother, Jaime, was quoted as saying that García Márquez had senile dementia and had stopped writing. Pera, the author’s editor at Random House Mondadori, said at the time that García Márquez had been working on a novel, We’ll See Each Other in August, but that no publication date had been scheduled. The author seemed disinclined to have it published, Pera said: “He told me, ‘This far along I don’t need to publish more.’ “

Besides his wife, Mercedes, his survivors include two sons, Rodrigo and Gonzalo.

— The New York Times

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