Source : The Wire – Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee
Note: This piece was originally published on March 6, 2018 and is being republished on March 6, 2019, on Márquez’s 92nd birth anniversary.
Gabriel García Márquez is a beautiful name. It resonates with such a feeling more so because the name immediately reminds us of the man’s imagination, the crushing beauty of his stories that mesmerised audiences reeling from the brilliant but dismal literature travelling from post-war Europe. The novel was Europe, and little bit America, with most readers oblivious to the couple of geniuses from Japan. Until suddenly, the name Márquez dropped from another planet and took everyone’s attention by storm. It was like discovering a Beethoven in Latin America, where a writer’s prose seemed like it was set to music.
Later Márquez made the stunning observation that One Hundred Years of Solitude read better in English than his native Spanish. Rarely do you get to hear a writer who holds the translation to be better than the original. The rich potential of translatability made that epochal novel even more enigmatic. The whole world discovered Colombia through that novel, learnt of the sufferings of the banana plantation workers, and yet another devastating story of colonisation. Within the stories of dispossession and poverty, flowered tales of mad humour and magically fatal love. However, be it through the character of Colonel Aureliano Buendia or the unnamed General in The Autumn of the Patriarch, Márquez drew for his readers the long shadow of oppressive solitude that accompanies tyrannical power.
In an interview, the author said the thirst for power comes from the impotency to love. Márquez vividly contrasts the characters trapped in power to those who risk their life for love. So you have a Mauricio Babilonia, chased by yellow butterflies, having a secret affair with Meme, until Meme’s mother Fernanda has him killed, and the yellow butterflies die with him. Both Mauricio and Meme are finally condemned to a life of solitude. Love is countless butterflies in the garden of power. Love has to bear the revenge of solitude that power can solely offer love.
In his Nobel Prize speech, Márquez drew attention to Latin America’s fated solitude. Independence from Spanish domination threw them into the clutches of local dictators. He asked Europe to correctly interpret the miseries of Latin America, where not lack but an excess of imagination lived alongside the burdens of unbelievable lives. Márquez reminded his audience that “London took 300 years to build its first city walls, and three hundred years more to acquire a bishop.”
Márquez mentions in his memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, how his grandmother helped sustain their lives of meagre resources with her sense of unreality. Telling her grandson fantastic tales was part of inventing that unreality. It later helped Márquez to gain literary approval from reading the story of Gregor Samsa waking up from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into an insect. Kafka echoed his grandmother. The German poet Rilke’s statement that if one was capable of living without writing one shouldn’t write, made Márquez impose the vow of writing upon himself. His memoir is proof that his life was fiction and his fiction, life. The reader learns Love in the Time of Cholera is his parents’ love story, that he had proposed his lifelong wife on a dance floor when she was 13, and that a Sergeant in the neighbourhood spared his adolescent life after he was caught sleeping with the Sergeant’s wife, only because Marquez’s father, who was a homeopath pharmacist, saved the Sergeant when he was suffering from gonorrhoea.
In his famous essay on Nikolai Leskov, The Storyteller, Walter Benjamin had predicted that the time of storytellers were over with modernity and the age of novelists have begun. Benjamin distinguished storytelling, an art that comes from an oral tradition and is told from experience, to the art of the novel that emerges out of isolated individualism. Márquez proved that prediction wrong, as his novels are stories that re-cover the lived experience of an entire culture and re-tells the life of their imagination.
As a journalist, Márquez tackled the question of separating truth from political fictions, but also learnt how the importance of journalistic precision can aid a fantastic story. As he said in his 1981 interview to the Paris Review: “For example, if you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants flying in the sky, people will probably believe you.“
The other aspect that confirms Márquez’s greatness as a writer is his abandonment of ideological and rational certainties in favour of contradictions. Even though he was a communist, he did not believe in using a doctrinaire lens as a writer. And though he was an atheist, Márquez said in an interview, “If you don’t believe in god, at least be superstitious.” No wonder, in Márquez’s own admission, he was closer to Rabelais than Kant.
Despite witnessing the impossible extremes of Latin American life, where people faced unequal battles in an unequal world, Marquez kept faith in both story and people. In his Nobel speech, quoting William Faulkner, whom he considered his master, Marquez declined to “accept the end of man”.
Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee teaches poetry at Ambedkar University, New Delhi. He is a frequent contributor to The Wire and has written for The Hindu, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, Outlook and other publications.
This piece was originally published in The London Magazine in 2014.