Like the stars in the sky, bright things can be created by heat and dust. At the beginning of the 20th century, such a star was born in the sweltering and arid pueblo of Aracataca, Colombia. This man was Gabriel García Márquez, one of Latin America’s greatest literary figures and a well-loved writer throughout the world. He passed away on Thursday in Mexico City. He was 87 years old.
No doubt you have heard of this literary giant, responsible for bringing magical realism to the world’s attention. He held a sense of popularity rarely found in writers and a celebrity-status usually reserved for film directors today. His writing won the hearts of the masses, a feat that was probably a greater source of pride than the Nobel Prize in Literature he acquired in 1982. Sr. García Márquez—or Gabo, as he is colloquially called—was a writer for the people.
His humanitarian sentiments are everpresent in his writings. They stem from his experiences as a young journalist uncovering the political and social corruption that ravaged Colombia’s bloody epoch of the 40s and 50s, known as La Violencia. As a result, he often found himself censored and his life threatened.
He found himself at the peak of danger due to one such story revolving around a Colombian sailor who had survived a shipwreck and was recognized as a national hero. Sr. García Márquez interviewed the man and found out that the cargo ship had been loaded past its permissible weight with contraband home goods, which eventually caused it to capsize. Infuriating the dictator, Gen. Rojas Pinilla, he was forced to flee the country and settle in Europe for a few years before returning to South America.
It was around this period that Sr. García Márquez (like Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemingway) transitioned into fiction. He found it easier to tell the truth through fiction than it had been through journalism. The topics that he often tackled were those of political corruption, such as the serialized story he eventually wrote about the castaway’s ten gruesome days at sea (The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor), social hypocrisy, usually revolving around the authority of the Catholic Church in remote villages (Tuesday Siesta), and the absurdity of adhering to traditions for tradition-sake, like in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, where two brothers are silently pressured by society to mortally avenge their younger sister’s loss of virginity.
His collection of short stories, Big Mama’s Funeral, was the starting point for his use of magical realism—a literary style where the extraordinary collides with the everyday—and where he could more freely expose the aforementioned social criticisms. The collection was also the first time he used the fictional Colombian village of Macondo as a setting.
It was not until Sr. García Márquez revisited his hometown of Aracataca that he found the inspiration to write his most famous work, One Hundred Years of Solitude. The novel was an overnight international success and established the Colombian writer as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. He quickly became an inspiration for other Latin Americans, such as the Chilean author Isabel Allende, and made magical realism a highly respected literary style (although according to him, he was by no means its progenitor).
Thereafter, Sr. García Márquez produced more than a dozen novels with equal popularity among the literary elite as with the common reader. These include Love in the Time of Cholera and The General in His Labyrinth, and most depict the life of the impoverished Colombian village, a place so far removed from society that even the miraculous is possible. It is a place where icebergs can be seen floating down tropical rivers, angels fall from the sky, and once-celebrated heroes retire in solitude.
But even if his writing features the underrepresented in society, his strong-minded ideas and authoritative voice sometimes made Sr. García Márquez a polarizing figure.
My Colombian uncle, against his will, met the writer once. He was accompanying my aunt, who is Spanish and adores the author, to a book signing in Spain but refused to enter the bookstore. “The man is arrogant. He writes about the poor, about corruption…so what. He has never proposed how to fix the many problems that Colombia once faced,” he told me when recounting this story. Lo and behold, Gabriel García Márquez strolled out of bookstore linking arms with my aunt, the heads of everybody in line turning with envy, and approached my uncle. “Your wife tells me you do not want to meet me,” he said, “But I would very much like to meet you.” The two fell into a brief conversation about their country’s political history, sharing memories of the darker times and exchanging names of families they both knew. “In the end, he was very courteous and humble,” my uncle confessed, “but he looked so arrogant wearing his cream-colored suit and pants!” There was a grin of hidden pride in my uncle’s face as he remembered the encounter. He was a man that any Colombian could be proud of.
But now, the lighthouse keeper of Latin America’s literary spirit has passed away. Sr. García Márquez left behind an incredible legacy of works so that the beacon he set ablaze nearly sixty years ago will continue to burn for generations to come. Undoubtedly, his stories will always reach readers who want to escape to tropical villages filled with magic and suffering. Besides, what is it that happens when a star dies? Ah, yes. It explodes.
If you would like to dive into the magical world of Gabriel García Márquez, but do not know where to start, I would suggest you first read his collection of short stories, Big Mama’s House, and then tackle his novels. The novels I would read in the order of: The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, then One Hundred Years of Solitude and anything written thereafter.