Nobel laureate who gave voice to Latin America
García Márquez emulated his grandmother’s storytelling ways
Among writers in Spanish only Cervantes has sold more books than Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez. Photograph: Reuters
With the death of Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, the world of literature has lost one of those rare writers who was revered by critics and a mass global readership alike and whose work was ushered into the canon during his lifetime.
Among writers in Spanish only Cervantes has sold more books and he had a 400-year head start.
Though expected after reports of declining health “Gabo’s” death is being mourned across Latin America as the passing of perhaps its most important cultural figure of the 20th century. His breakthrough novel One Hundred Years of Solitude , published in 1967, was hailed quickly as a classic for providing an authentic native voice with which to tell the troubled history of a continent struggling to emerge from under the cultural weight of European colonialism over a century after independence.
The saga of the Buendía clan and their town of Macondo made an immediate mark on the region’s elite minds and popular culture. Central to its success was García Márquez’s use of magic realism to “tell the story as my grandmother told me hers . . . a linear history where with every innocence the extraordinary enters into the daily”.
Through the story of the Buendía family emerges a mythologised history of a continent told in a language and inhabiting a metaphysical universe that resonated deeply with the personal experiences of millions of readers across Latin America.
In translation the book became a global publishing phenomenon. Salman Rushdie, a great admirer, wrote its magic realism allowed for the expression of “a genuinely Third World consciousness” that has shown writers from the global periphery how to slip the cultural shackles of colonial powers.
García Márquez never claimed to have invented magic realism, whose first Latin American practitioner was arguably Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier and his “marvellous real”.
Writing later about his influences, García Márquez highlighted the impact of first reading Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis : “I never again slept with my former serenity . . . [it] determined a new direction for my life from its first line, which today is one of the great devices in world literature.”
One Hundred Years of Solitude came to define Latin American literature and created a publishing craze among editors for magic realist texts from the region. For many younger Latin American writers, however, magic realism became a straitjacket.
In the 1990s the “McOndo” movement saw young urban novelists from the continent reject the magic realism of Macondo. Roberto Bolaño, the most influential Latin American writer to emerge since the Latin literary boom of the 1960s, famously said magic realism “stinks”.
Though it may define the Latin American novel, the magic realism of Solitude is an outlier, not just among the great works of the boom, but even among García Márquez’s own work.
Having employed the device to write his masterpiece he then had the confidence to abandon it, thus avoiding the fate of his many imitators whose continuous mining of the seam has debased the style down to a trite mannerism.
Instead for his next novel, The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975), García Márquez wrote his own volume in the region’s series of dictator novels, in which he recounts the history of an unnamed Caribbean island ruled for so long by a dictator that no one can remember life before he came to power.
An epic prose poem, the book is full of magic and mythical imagery but here it is uncoupled from the realism of its predecessor. Even so it provided García Márquez with another bestseller and what he always claimed was his favourite novel.
Subsequent works turned increasingly towards realism, which was heavily informed by his career as a journalist. His tightly-wound novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1982) is a fictional investigation of an actual murder in Colombia in 1951. With 1989’s The General in His Labyrinth he expertly turned his hand to historical fiction, recreating the last journey of Simón Bolívar after an intense study of the Liberator’s correspondence.
Interspersing these were volumes of non-fiction book-length reports, most notably 1996’s News of a Kidnapping , in which he produced a forensic examination of a series of kidnappings by drug trafficker Pablo Escobar that had traumatised Colombian society. Even after the success of Solitude , García Márquez continued to work as a journalist, which he described as “the greatest profession in the world”.
Perhaps his best-loved – and most romantic book – was Love in the Time of Cholera (1985). With the sweep of a 19th century novel it recounts one man’s half-century wait for his childhood sweetheart.
By turns comic, romantic and erotic, the book was based on his parents’ own courtship, Márquez said.
A meditation on time, also disguised within this love story is one of the most touching portrayals in fiction of a long marriage, with all its happiness, frustrations and compromises.