Few writers have produced novels that are acknowledged as masterpieces not only in their own countries but all round the world. Fewer still can be said to have written books that have changed the whole course of literature in their language. But the Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, who has died at the age of 87 after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, achieved just that, especially thanks to his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Since its publication in 1967, more than 25m copies of the book have been sold in Spanish and other languages. For at least a generation the book firmly stamped Latin American literature as the domain of “magical realism”.
Born in the small town of Aracataca, close to the Caribbean coast of Colombia, García Márquez (or “Gabo” as he was often affectionately nicknamed) always identified himself with the cultural mix of Spanish, black and indigenous traditions that continue to flourish there. Although later in life he lived in Paris, Mexico and elsewhere, his books returned constantly to this torrid coastal region, where the power of nature and myth still predominate over the restraints of cold reason.
This sense of identification with the Caribbean coast was strengthened by the fact that the young García Márquez was forced to leave it when he was eight, so marking out the period of his early childhood as the source of not only his most heartfelt memories, but as the wellspring for his literature. García Márquez has often recalled how, with his father absent as a telegraph operator, he was brought up by a grandfather who told him tales of his heroic deeds in Colombia’s civil wars of the 19th century, and a grandmother whose every move was ruled by superstition. This combination of the ordinary and the extraordinary was the world that later resurfaced to such telling effect in One Hundred Years of Solitude and many other novels.
García Márquez’s subsequent education took place in the capital, Bogotá, in the other, Andean part of Colombia. He always spoke of these years as of a cold, lonely exile. Forced to study law, he sought consolation in literature. At first, like many Colombians, he imagined himself a poet, until one day he discovered Franz Kafka and suddenly saw that everything was possible for the modern imaginative writer. Spurred on in this way, at the age of 20 he abandoned his law studies and from then on devoted himself to writing.
In the early 1950s he worked during the daytime as a newspaper reporter, first back on the coast and later in Bogotá on the newspaper El Espectador. His account of what had happened during the shipwreck of a Colombian naval vessel brought him renown as a journalist, but also got him into trouble with the authorities. This led to the start of a peripatetic and often wretchedly poor existence that lasted almost a decade. All the while, though, he was using the nights and any spare time to write fiction as well, and his first short novel, Leafstorm, was published in 1955.
Journalism was to remain a passion throughout his life: time and again his fictional stories have their basis in tales he heard as a young journalist, as he explains for example in the introduction to the 1994 novel Of Love and Other Demons. At the same time, whatever fantastic elements are to be found in his novels and short stories, García Márquez learned from journalism the craft of story-telling, showing himself to be an astounding judge of pace, surprise, and structure. He was also immensely interested in the cinema. In Rome in the 1950s he studied at the Experimental Film School, and while living in Mexico in the 1960s wrote several film scripts. He also dabbled in television soap operas, arguing that this was the way to reach the broadest possible audience and satisfy their need for narrative. In the early 1980s he helped found an International Film School near the Cuban capital of Havana. In 1994, he used some of the huge royalties his works had brought him to set up a school of journalism back on the Colombian Caribbean coast, at Cartagena de Indias.
But it is as a writer of fiction, enjoyed by everyone from untutored readers to academics in universities around the world, that García Márquez will be remembered. By the mid-1960s, he had published three novels that enjoyed reasonable critical acclaim in Latin America, but neither huge commercial nor international success. His fourth novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, first published not in Colombia but in Argentina, was to change all that. It tells the story of succeeding generations of the archetypal Buendía family and the amazing events that befall the isolated town of Macondo, in which fantasy and fact constantly intertwine to produce their own brand of magical logic. The novel has not only proved immediately accessible to readers everywhere, but has influenced writers of many nationalities, from Isabel Allende to Salman Rushdie. Although the novel was not the first example of “magical realism” produced in Latin America, it helped launch what became known as the boom in Latin American literature, which helped many young and talented writers find a new international audience for their often startlingly original work.
As with many other descriptions of literary schools, magical realism eventually came to seem almost as much a curse as a blessing. García Márquez professed himself amazed at the success One Hundred Years of Solitude enjoyed, and declared that he considered his masterly study of Latin American tyranny in Autumn of the Patriarch (1975) to be a more complete work of art. Almost as powerful were the classical simplicity of Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981), the tender exploration of the impossibilities of love in Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), or the study of the collapse of utopian dreams in The General in His Labyrinth (1994).
Those dreams were prominent in García Márquez’s speech when he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1982. In it, he made a passionate appeal for European understanding of the tribulations of his own continent, concluding that “tellers of tales who, like me, are capable of believing anything, feel entitled to believe that it is not yet too late to undertake the creation of a minor utopia: a new and limitless utopia wherein no one can decide for others how they are to die, where love can really be true and happiness possible, where the lineal generations of one hundred years of solitude will have at last and forever a second chance on earth”.
García Márquez was also adamant that the writer had a public duty to speak out on political issues. His own views were strongly leftwing, opposed to what he saw as imperialism, particularly with regard to the domination of Latin America by the US. This distrust was reciprocated, and for many years, despite being one of the best-known writers among the reading public, he was denied access to the United States.
His socialist views led him to consistently back the Castro regime in Cuba, and he was a close personal friend of Fidel Castro. His faithfulness to the Cuban revolution led to him falling out with many of his own generation of Latin American writers, who became increasingly critical of the lack of intellectual freedom on the island. In response, García Márquez argued that he used his influence on the Cuban leader to secure the release of a large number of writers and other political prisoners from the island.
García Márquez was also passionately interested in the often tragic political situation of his own country. One of his early books In Evil Hour (1962) looks at the period of political violence in the 1950s, which caused over 100,000 deaths, and both in his fiction and his other writing he constantly looked for an end to the senseless killing.
After his period in exile during the 1950s, the violence of the 1970s also led him to spend most of his time outside the country. He helped founded a leftwing magazine, Alternativa, which promoted broadly socialist ideas, but never became directly involved in the political struggle. In the 1990s, as one of the few personalities his fellow Colombians actually trusted, he was several times mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, but always refused to lend himself to any campaign. Perhaps his most remarkable book about the political situation in Colombia was Noticia de un Secuestro (News of a Kidnapping, 1996) in which he describes in meticulous but passionate detail the kidnapping of 10 people by the drugs boss Pablo Escobar, and the complicated and only partly successful negotiations for their release. Few books reveal so chillingly the ability of the drugs mafia to penetrate to the very heart of society and pervert all its values.
His leftwing beliefs also led García Márquez to oppose military rule in the rest of Latin America. In 1975 he even claimed he would not write again until the Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet was removed from power (though he could not keep his word, and returned to publishing in 1981, with Chronicle of a Death Foretold). He also took a strongly anti-British line over the struggle for sovereignty in the Falkland islands in 1982.
Always outspoken in his public comments and in his journalism, García Márquez could also be immensely generous and warm in his private life. He was married to Mercedes, his childhood sweetheart, for over 40 years, and had two sons, Rodrigo and Gonzalo. He was famously loyal to his friends, but disdainful of all those whom he thought of as only being attracted to him because of his fame. Indeed, he often spoke of the difficulties and loneliness that international success had brought him, and sought whenever possible to keep his private world apart from it.
In 1999 the writer was diagnosed with lymphoma, or cancer of the immune system. The illness was to cloud his final years, requiring constant treatment. At times he was so ill that the international rumour mill not only proclaimed him to be at death’s door several times, but apocryphal tales of his death-bed conversion to Catholicism circulated widely. Despite these rumours, he embarked on an ambitious autobiography.
Originally intended to be in three volumes, only the first, Vivir para Contarla (Living To Tell the Tale, 2002) came out, telling the story of his life up to his marriage with Mercedes. He also published Memorias de Mis Putas Tristes (Memories of My Melancholy Whores, 2004), but the very mixed reaction to his tale of a 90-year old and his liaison with a teenage prostitute convinced him that his writing days were over.
García Márquez’s intense enjoyment of life shines through all his work, sometimes even seeming to be at variance with what is apparently its underlying message. As the title of his greatest novel tells us, its theme is the solitude and abandonment of Macondo, and yet the sheer appetite for life revealed in the characters and the storytelling itself speak instead of a huge wonder and enjoyment of existence. The millions of readers of García Márquez’s books throughout the world appreciated above all that he wrote about immediately accessible themes such as love, friendship and death in a way that was new and yet plainly part of the great novel tradition. To many Latin Americans, García Márquez’s work had the added importance of showing them that even if an author is born far from the centres of political and cultural power the sheer force of imagination can succeed in creating a world that will be magically recognised everywhere.
Big picture: Fragment of a painting by Spanish painter María Bautista.