Poet of a magical Latin American world
Poet of a magical Latin American world
AS HE later told it, Gabriel García Márquez, who has died at his home in Mexico City, made the most important decision of his life as a writer at the age of 22 when he joined his mother on a journey by steamer and rickety train to Aracataca, a small town surrounded by swamps and banana plantations in the heart of Colombia’s Caribbean coastal plain. Their purpose was to sell his grandparents’ house, where the author was born and had spent most of his first eight years, brought up by his maternal grandparents.
That trip to Aracataca revived memories that bore fruit in “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, the novel that brought García Márquez worldwide fame and a Nobel prize. From its first sentence—"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice”—it transported the reader to a magical world of tropical fantasy. Aracataca became Macondo, where rains could last five years or deliver yellow flowers. Colonel Buendía was derived from his maternal grandfather, Colonel Nicolás Márquez, who had fought in the Liberal rebellion of 1899-1902 known as the War of the Thousand Days.
In “One Hundred Years of Solitude” time moves in circles and the absurd is routine, as the modern world eddies in invention and tragedy around a forgotten tropical Eden. In its colourful exaggeration, its joyful jumbling of the comic and the tragic, and its celebration of the extraordinary lives of ordinary people, the novel came to epitomise Latin American “magical realism”, even if the roots of the genre lay with the Argentines, Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar.
García Márquez’s first steps as a writer were as a poet and a journalist, and those talents underlay his extraordinary gift for storytelling. Unlike many writers of Spanish, he preferred short, simple sentences, and they gave his writing a limpid intensity. Yet success was a struggle. Seized with the inspiration that would turn a long unfinished novel about his grandparents’ house into “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, he locked himself away in his house for nine months, exhausting his modest savings and pawning his car only for the manuscript to be rejected by several publishers. The story goes that his wife, Mercedes Barcha, pawned their liquidiser to raise the postage to send the manuscript to Buenos Aires, where it was accepted.
The rest of his oeuvre was relatively slight, the material largely drawn from the same world of the Colombian Caribbean in novels such as “Love in the Time of Cholera” and “Chronicle of a Death Foretold”. In a modulation of theme, he wrote a historical novel about Simón Bolívar’s last, defeated days (“The General in his Labyrinth”) and returned to journalism, of which he was an accomplished exponent, with “News of a Kidnapping”, a powerful account of the horror inflicted on Colombia by the drug war.
Though he installed himself in Mexico City in 1961, Gabo, as he was dubbed, was indelibly a man of the Colombian Caribbean, with its bohemian, macho culture of sex, rum and political strife. Fame brought him political prominence. His critics said that he had a weakness for power. “Gabo loves presidents. My wife likes to tease him by saying that even a vice-minister gives him a hard-on,” one of his friends told the New Yorker.
His memoir of his early life (“Living to Tell the Tale”) suggested a man more committed to friendship than ideology. He was attracted to dictators of the left. He was a close and uncritical friend of Fidel Castro, accepting the gift of a house in Havana. (He also kept a house in the walled colonial city of Cartagena, his spiritual home.) In 1999 he wrote perceptively of Hugo Chávez that he saw in him “two opposite men”, one who had an extraordinary opportunity to save his country and the other “a conjuror who might enter history as just another despot”.
Gabo remained loyal to his roots in founding a journalism foundation in Cartagena. His later years were marred by lymphatic cancer and then Alzheimer’s disease. When he turned up in a bar in Cartagena during the Hay literary festival in 2010 he had become an amiable but spectral figure.