I, unsurprisingly to anyone who knows me, didn’t have an overabundance of friends as a kid. I was fine with that though, because I had books. A shitload of books.
I would usually be in the process of reading between two to six books at a time. A lot of fantasy and science fiction, some nonfiction, some canonical literature, various other things. I didn’t have siblings and I was extremely shy, so most of my knowledge of how to speak and interact with people came from reading. As I grew up, I learned of the subtle manipulations that authors had used on me to make me believe the world was different than it actually is. Gabriel García Márquez taught me the reverse: all of the fantasies of which I had been a victim were no less real than the world around me, and probably even more so.
My first exposure to Gabriel García Márquez was as a junior in high school. One Hundred Years of Solitude was on a list of books we could choose to read for some assignment, and I knew we had a yellowed paperback copy in the house. When I started it, though, I realized I’d heard the first sentence before: My father had read it aloud to me in a bookstore when I was nine or ten, telling me that this book would blow my mind someday, but not yet. I had no memory of this until I realized that the words I was reading felt like echoes. It’s an inescapable, unavoidable sentence, a perennial candidate in stupid “best first lines” articles on literary blogs:
“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.” (tr. Gregory Rabassa)
An easy connection to draw would be the similarity in theme: fathers passing on information to the next generation. And that is a big reason I love the book so much; my father and I still bond over our love of García Márquez, and the whole novel reminds me of the rambling, tangential way he tells stories with seemingly no conclusion besides the way they link up with every other story he’s told like a spiderweb. At (one of) its heart(s), 100 Years is about how generations connect, and knowledge (or the appearance thereof) is one of the most important ways they do so. But the reason the first line is so insistent is the same reason the book is so flooringly powerful: It makes magic out of the mundane.
I wish there were a better way to say that, and it’s been said to death already. But I think what gets ignored in talking about magical realism is that what García Márquez didn’t have to resort to the fantastic. Every sentence worked towards making little quotidian facts seem as magical as they are. When supernatural things occur, they seem no more fantastic than everyday life. In fact, they seem even more real, because in García Márquez’s world they don’t simply have to happen like things bound by natural physical laws. They must happen because they’re dictated by truths that are more important than scientific rules. It’s a direct borrowing from Kafka, where the metaphorical becomes literal, and in so doing seems like it should have been that way all along. But Gabo improves upon this by not making this transformation a narrative event so much as the fabric that the novel is woven on. And then he makes you look closer and realize that all the threads are spun from the cotton of our world. I really wish I knew enough about fabrics to make that metaphor work, but I’m tragically incompetent.
This might sound like overly abstract English-major BS, but I think it’s impossible to read 100 Years without getting caught up in every sentence. Each one is dense and illustrative, and the clauses open up like the opening sentence to reveal something that’s mundane but made mystical because of the way it’s broached. Even when he deals with the evil and the grotesque, like the spread of colonialism or the inevitable moral failures of his characters or the eponymous solitude, García Márquez makes it seem so beautiful as to be undeniable. 100 Years is the closest I’ve come to being affected morally by a book because it reinforced the fact that literally everything, despite any aesthetic or ethical value judgments, is wonderful just by virtue of its existence. That’s such a rare thing for a book to do. Most other magic realists seem to be despairing at their core, scared of the inadequacies of our world and our language and our structures. Gabo had the same despairs, but he somehow managed to turn them into aesthetic triumphs, almost rejoicing in the lack of hope. I don’t know if I’m the only one who’s felt this way, but the lowest points of his works filled me with the strangest sort of happiness. It resonates so much with the Buddhist part of me, which I also inherited from my father, and so it goes.
I have to confess, though, that besides 100 Years and two of his short story collections, I haven’t read any more of García Márquez’s work. I got thirty pages into Love in the Time of Cholera and had to set it down; it was too different from what I’d read before. So crucify me now if you must, demand a refund, print this essay out and rip it apart. But the fact that I couldn’t read Love scared me a little bit, and made me hesitant to reread 100 Years. What if it was just the time in my life that made it impact me as much as it did? What if I can’t find the same kind of magic and morality and all the little dew-drops of beauty that I found the first time?
I don’t honestly know, and the thought kind of terrifies me. García Márquez has existed for me for so long as a figure of the things that I want to achieve with my personal writing. I’ve been following his health for the past year or so, since it was announced that he was suffering from dementia. It seemed cruel that the writer of the most complete tracts on the interplay of memory, both personal and historical, with reality should end his life in this state. Maybe it’s a reminder that ultimately the world he created was just a fiction, and our world only seemed miraculous because it was a flattering reflection. He didn’t get the send-off he deserved, which would be nothing short of following the path that Remedios the Beauty took one afternoon, rising into the sky, leaving behind people who didn’t mourn her absence but remained awestruck by her presence. But the one he got, which was maybe sad and maybe undignified, was earthly, and after some consideration is rather remarkable, and I think that’s fitting.
Part two of StAR’s remembrance of late author Gabriel García Márquez. Read Tulio Ospina’s obituary here.