The news of the death of Gabriel José García Márquez is not tragic, but it is immeasurably sad. Somewhere in the world, a rainstorm has lasted four years, eleven months, and two days, and is only now giving way to heat and dust, now that this reporter of solitude has left the building.
Reportage and solitude are never far from García Márquez. His entire art is mired in the surreal meditation of the solitude of life, and especially, as he put it in his Nobel lecture of 1982, of the solitude of Latin America. From his writings emerge the violent, magical, buffoonish and romantic identities to an entire continent. In his pages you will find the ghosts of everyday life doing the dishes with mad generalisimos and 130-year-old matriarchs, countries and babies weeping and laughing, and women so beautiful they ascend into the sky one afternoon in the 4 pm sun while folding white sheets.
In García Márquez, decaying worlds of dictators and doomed lovers burst like pomegranate seeds from realities where the bizarre and the sublime exist together with the cosmic and the commonplace. But, as the writer himself admitted, his fictional worlds are merely the literary expression of the “outsized reality” of Latin America. “There have been five wars and seventeen military coups,” he said in 1982, in that Nobel lecture. “In the meantime, twenty million Latin American children died before the age of one — more than have been born in Europe since 1970. Those missing because of repression number nearly one hundred and twenty thousand, which is as if no one could account for all the inhabitants of Uppsala. Numerous women arrested while pregnant have given birth in Argentine prisons, yet nobody knows the whereabouts and identity of their children who were furtively adopted or sent to an orphanage by order of the military authorities.”
Clearly, this is a continent whose cobblestones are wet with blood and history, and this exorbitant history mingles with the sense of wonder in the everyday — what the Cuban writer and musicologist Alejo Carpentier called “lo real maravilloso (the marvellous reality)”, which Latin America inhabits because of the fantastic nature of its culture and history. It is this easy access to the marvellous, along with his prior, and perhaps eternal, vocation as journalist, that García Márquez credited for his ability to hammer into place his cornucopian narratives. “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.”
And so this continent of fateful coincidences and incidental absurdities bleeds its mysteries, willing to be scooped into any imagination. This is the land of the puzzle of “the eleven thousand mules, each loaded with one hundred pounds of gold, that left Cuzco one day to pay the ransom of Atahualpa and never reached their destination. Subsequently, in colonial times, hens were sold in Cartagena de Indias, that had been raised on alluvial land and whose gizzards contained tiny lumps of gold.”
Or, “General Antonio López de Santana, three times dictator of Mexico, held a magnificent funeral for the right leg he had lost in the so-called Pastry War.”
Or, “General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, the theosophical despot of El Salvador who had thirty thousand peasants slaughtered in a savage massacre, invented a pendulum to detect poison in his food, and had streetlamps draped in red paper to defeat an epidemic of scarlet fever.”
And so on.
These would be fertile grounds for any imagination, but for García Márquez, trained as a reportero in the newsrooms of Cartagena and Bogota, they were especially fruitful. His fiction is, after all, perhaps simply a more subversive extension of his journalistic pursuit of justice and truth. And he himself insisted he was a reporter first; even his fiction was an attempt at an internal report, a sort of despatches from the imagination. Indeed, according to his biographer Ilan Stavans, as a cub reporter, García Márquez would sometimes simply invent a story if he didn’t have one close to the deadline. In many ways, even as a journalist, he was always a novelist. And as a novelist, he remained ever the reporter.
He wrote as much in Clandestine in Chile, a kind of report on Chilean filmmaker Miguel Littín’s visit to his country after 12 years in exile: “In its nature and its method of disclosure, this is a piece of reporting. Yet it is something more: the emotional reconstruction of an adventure.”
In a 1997 piece written for Index on Censorship, García Márquez called journalism “the best job in the world,” and lamented the dehumanisation of the newsroom and the demise of “those passionate daily 5 pm informal coffee-break seminars of the old newspaper office.” So here’s to Gabo, in his solitude in the great newsroom in the sky where it’s always 5 pm.
Sanyal is a Kolkata-based writer firstname.lastname@example.org