Gabriel García Márquez: Adiós a un gigante

by Derrick O’Keefe and Jahanzeb Hussain

On Thursday, April 17, the world lost Gabriel García Márquez, a giant of Latin American and world literature. On Friday’s radio programme we remembered and paid tribute to Marquez.

The Guardian’s obituary provided a good overview of his life and times.

The Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, who unleashed the worldwide boom in Spanish literature with his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, has died at the age of 87. He had been admitted to hospital in Mexico City on 3 April with pneumonia.

Matching commercial success with critical acclaim, García Márquez became a standard-bearer for Latin American letters.

He was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1982, the Swedish Academy hailing fiction “in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent’s life and conflicts”.

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos said via Twitter on Thursday: “A thousand years of solitude and sadness for the death of the greatest Colombian of all time.”

Born in a small town near the northern coast of Colombia on 6 March 1927, García Márquez was raised by his grandparents for the first nine years of his life and began working as a journalist while studying law in Bogotá.

A series of articles relating the ordeal of a Colombian sailor sparked controversy and saw him travel to Europe as a foreign correspondent in 1955, the year in which he published his first work of fiction, the short novel Leaf Storm. Short stories and novellas with the realism of Hemingway as their inspiration followed, but after the publication of The Evil Hour in 1962 García Márquez found himself at an impasse.

Speaking to the Paris Review in 1981 he explained how he decided his writings about his childhood were “more political” than the “journalistic literature” he had been engaged with. He wanted to return to his childhood and the imaginary village of Macondo he had created in Leaf Storm, but there was “always something missing”. After five years he hit upon the “right tone”, a style “based on the way my grandmother used to tell her stories”.

“She told things that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness,” García Márquez said. “When I finally discovered the tone I had to use, I sat down for 18 months and worked every day.”

Right from the elliptical opening sentence – which finds Colonel Aureliano Buendía facing a firing squad and remembering the “distant afternoon” many years before when “his father took him to discover ice” – One Hundred Years of Solitude weaves together the misfortunes of a family over seven generations. García Márquez tells the story of a doomed city of mirrors founded in the depths of the Colombian jungle with the “brick face” his grandmother used to tell ghost stories, folk tales and supernatural legends.

The novel was an instant bestseller, with the first edition of 8,000 copies selling out within a week of its publication in 1967. Hailed by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda as “perhaps the greatest revelation in the Spanish language since Don Quixote of Cervantes”, One Hundred Years of Solitude went on to win literary prizes in Italy, France, Venezuela and beyond, appearing in more than 30 languages and selling more than 30m copies around the world.

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Known affectionately worldwide as ‘Gabo,’ in 1982 Garcia Marquez was awarded the 1982 Nobel prize for literature. He acceptance speech, entitled ‘The Solitude of Latin America,’ situated his writing within the social and political upheavals of Latin America and the collective project for a better world.

Our independence from Spanish domination did not put us beyond the reach of madness. 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. General Gabriel García Moreno ruled Ecuador for sixteen years as an absolute monarch; at his wake, the corpse was seated on the presidential chair, decked out in full-dress uniform and a protective layer of medals. 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. The statue to General Francisco Moraz´n erected in the main square of Tegucigalpa is actually one of Marshal Ney, purchased at a Paris warehouse of second-hand sculptures.

Eleven years ago, the Chilean Pablo Neruda, one of the outstanding poets of our time, enlightened this audience with his word. Since then, the Europeans of good will – and sometimes those of bad, as well – have been struck, with ever greater force, by the unearthly tidings of Latin America, that boundless realm of haunted men and historic women, whose unending obstinacy blurs into legend. We have not had a moment’s rest. A promethean president, entrenched in his burning palace, died fighting an entire army, alone; and two suspicious airplane accidents, yet to be explained, cut short the life of another great-hearted president and that of a democratic soldier who had revived the dignity of his people. There have been five wars and seventeen military coups; there emerged a diabolic dictator who is carrying out, in God’s name, the first Latin American ethnocide of our time. 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. Because they tried to change this state of things, nearly two hundred thousand men and women have died throughout the continent, and over one hundred thousand have lost their lives in three small and ill-fated countries of Central America: Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. If this had happened in the United States, the corresponding figure would be that of one million six hundred thousand violent deaths in four years.

One million people have fled Chile, a country with a tradition of hospitality – that is, ten per cent of its population. Uruguay, a tiny nation of two and a half million inhabitants which considered itself the continent’s most civilized country, has lost to exile one out of every five citizens. Since 1979, the civil war in El Salvador has produced almost one refugee every twenty minutes. The country that could be formed of all the exiles and forced emigrants of Latin America would have a population larger than that of Norway.

I dare to think that it is this outsized reality, and not just its literary expression, that has deserved the attention of the Swedish Academy of Letters. A reality not of paper, but one that lives within us and determines each instant of our countless daily deaths, and that nourishes a source of insatiable creativity, full of sorrow and beauty, of which this roving and nostalgic Colombian is but one cipher more, singled out by fortune. 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. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude.

In spite of this, to oppression, plundering and abandonment, we respond with life. Neither floods nor plagues, famines nor cataclysms, nor even the eternal wars of century upon century, have been able to subdue the persistent advantage of life over death. An advantage that grows and quickens: every year, there are seventy-four million more births than deaths, a sufficient number of new lives to multiply, each year, the population of New York sevenfold. Most of these births occur in the countries of least resources – including, of course, those of Latin America. Conversely, the most prosperous countries have succeeded in accumulating powers of destruction such as to annihilate, a hundred times over, not only all the human beings that have existed to this day, but also the totality of all living beings that have ever drawn breath on this planet of misfortune.

On a day like today, my master William Faulkner said, “I decline to accept the end of man”. I would fall unworthy of standing in this place that was his, if I were not fully aware that the colossal tragedy he refused to recognize thirty-two years ago is now, for the first time since the beginning of humanity, nothing more than a simple scientific possibility. Faced with this awesome reality that must have seemed a mere utopia through all of human time, we, the inventors of tales, who will believe anything, feel entitled to believe that it is not yet too late to engage in the creation of the opposite utopia. A new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth.”

Gabriel Marquez considered himself, first and foremost, a journalist. In 1999, he told the Associated Press, I’m a journalist. I’ve always been a journalist. My books couldn’t have been written if I weren’t a journalist because all the material was taken from reality.”

In 1974, Marquez wrote a journalistic piece for UK’s New Statesman, describing the lead up and the reasons behind the coup in Chile against Salvador Allende. Here is an excerpt from the article, “Why Allende had to die.”

“On 4 September 1970, as had been foreseen, the socialist and Freemason physician Allende was elected president of the republic.

During the first year, 47 industrial firms were nationalised, along with most of the banking system. Agrarian reform saw the expropriation and incorporation into communal property of six million acres of land formerly held by the large landowners. The inflationary process was slowed, full employment was attained and wages received a cash rise of 30 per cent.

The previous government, headed by the Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei, had begun steps towards nationalising copper, though he called it “Chileanisation”. All the plan did was to buy up 51 per cent of US-held mining properties and for the mine of El Teniente alone it paid a sum greater than the total book value of that facility.

Popular Unity, with a single legal act supported in Congress by all of the nation’s popular parties, recovered for the nation all copper deposits worked by the subsidiaries of the American companies Anaconda and Kennecott. Without indemnification: the government having calculated that the two companies had made a profit in excess of $800m over 15 years.

For the United States, the election was a much more serious warning and went beyond the simple interests of expropriated firms. It was an inadmissible precedent for peaceful progress and social change for the peoples of the world, particularly those in France and Italy, where present conditions make an attempt at an experiment along the lines of Chile possible. All forces of internal and external reaction came together to form a compact bloc.”

But Gabriel Marquez is best known to most people through his fictional works. Writing in 1982, the Indian author Salman Rushdie paid tribute to Marquez:

“The damage to reality was – is – at least as much political as cultural. In Marquez’s experience, truth has been controlled to the point at which it has ceased to be possible to find out what it is. The only truth is that you are being lied to all the time. Garcia Marquez has always been an intensely political creature: but his books are only obliquely to do with politics, dealing with public affairs only in terms of grand metaphors like Colonel Aureliano Buendia’s military career, or the colossally overblown figure of the Patriarch, who has one of his rivals served up as the main course at a banquet, and who, having overslept one day, decides that the afternoon is really the morning, so that people have to stand outside his windows at night holding up cardboard cut-outs of the sun.

El realismo magical, ‘magic realism’, at least as practised by Garcia Marquez, is a development of Surrealism that expresses a genuinely ‘Third World’ consciousness. It deals with what Naipaul has called ‘half-made’ societies, in which the impossibly old struggles against the appallingly new, in which public corruptions and private anguishes are more garish and extreme than they ever get in the so-called ‘North’, where centuries of wealth and power have formed thick layers over the surface of what’s really going on. In the work of Garcia Marquez, as in the world he describes, impossible things happen constantly, and quite plausibly, out in the open under the midday sun. It would be a mistake to think of Marquez’s literary universe as an invented, self-referential, closed system. He is not writing about Middle Earth, but about the one we all inhabit. Macondo exists. That is its magic.”

Gabriel García Márquez: adiós a un gigante.

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Some other links to obits, tributes and videos:

– The New York Times obituary.

– Crawford Kilian’s tribute in TheTyee.ca.

– Isabel Allende on Democracy Now.

Telesur has many videos, including this 1971 interview with Garcia Marquez and Pablo Neruda.

The Guardian reports on tributes from writers and world leaders.

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