The news that Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian Nobel prize-winning author, died yesterday led to an outpouring of tribute in the press, across Twitter and from a wide array of celebrities. The Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, described him as “the greatest Colombian of all time.” Obama called him one of the world’s “greatest visionary writers.” Whereas Mexico’s president Enrique Peña Nieto was forced into the uncomfortable position of expressing regret on behalf of Mexico, Marquez’s adopted home, reminding everyone that in 2011 he had himself failed to name three books that he had read.
Garcia Marquez was a rare literary figure, beloved as much by the people as by the critics. His novels outsold everything in Spanish except the Bible. His most famous work, the epic 1967 novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, sold more than 50 million copies in more than 35 languages.
Jorge Luis Borges, his Latin American predecessor, has a comparable standing among academic critics. Yet for the most part, his writing is devoid of the passion and sentiment that made Garcia Marquez, affectionately known as “Gabo”, a Latin American literary icon. Borges was a genius, Gabo was more.
In 2004, Garcia Marquez changed the last chapter of his novel Memories of My Melancholy Whores in an effort to outwit the pirates selling his bootlegged work on the streets of Colombia. You can imagine few other writers, (J.K. Rowling notwithstanding) whose novels create such anticipation that it becomes more of a burden than a blessing.
Gabo popularized the genre that has become known as magical realism, an emotionally charged literary style that blends reality, myth, the mundane and the supernatural. He was not the first proponent of this style but he became its master.
According to his account, the journey began when the struggling novelist was driving from Mexico City to the beach resort of Acapulco. The first sentence of his landmark novel sprang fully formed into his mind.
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
Marquez spun the car around, and returned home to write it. Twelve months later, and $12.000 in debt, he would be finished.
The novel tells the story of several generations of the Buendia family, who live in the tropical town of Macondo, an isolated settlement which develops into a thriving town through the introduction of a railway and banana plantation. The novel explores social, economic and political themes but contains supernatural elements that many critics label “magical” or “folkloric.”
Yet Garcia Marquez always denied that his fiction was the product of pure invention.
“The truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality,” he told the Paris Review in 1981.
In The Fragance of Guava, an extended conversation with the author, his interviewer, Plinio Mendoza is skeptical about this claim, pointing to the story of Remedios the Beauty, Macando’s most beautiful inhabitant, who ascends into heaven. It was based, Gabo claims, on a woman whose daughter had run off with a lover. The woman told her children she had been assumed like the Virgin Mary. It’s the kind of lie that is only ever told in Latin America.
Yet in the novel, Gabo gives preference to the fabricated reality. To him, the tall tales, gossip, and mythology were the true focus of the community, and in a setting where official history is often disputed anyway, it was the perfect way to capture the tone of the continent.
Yet the story of Remedios wouldn’t have worked if he had written only about the magical. The mysterious ascension needed to be grounded in the details of daily life.
“When I was writing the episode of Remedios the Beauty going to heaven, it took me a long time to make it credible. One day I went out to the garden and saw a woman who used to come to the house to do the wash and she was putting out the sheets to dry and there was a lot of wind. She was arguing with the wind not to blow the sheets away. I discovered that if I used the sheets for Remedios the Beauty, she would ascend. That’s how I did it, to make it credible. The problem for every writer is credibility. Anybody can write anything so long as it’s believed.”
Gabo did not consider 100 years of Solitude his greatest work. For him, The Autumn of the Patriarch was a greater achievement. The book follows the story of an unnamed dictator, a composite character based on everyone from Caesar to Pinochet. It explores the corrupting, isolating nature of power and fame in long, poetic sentences that can be challenging to readers.
The dictator’s love of baseball and military fatigues alluded to Gabo’s close friend, Fidel Castro. It was a relationship that marked the writer’s career, raising his profile even higher, and prompting considerable controversy.
His steadfast support of Castro led to criticism, not least from the Peruvian writer, Mario Vargas Llosa, who had previously counted himself a close friend. The rift between the two literary giants boiled over in 1976, when Vargas Llosa punched Garcia Marquez outside a cinema. After the incident, there were rumours that the root cause of the tensions was Gabo’s relationship with the Peruvian’s wife but the truth is unknown.
Yesterday, however, Vargas Llosa was among the many paying tribute.
“A great writer has died; he said, his voice trembling as he spoke, “his work gave wide publicity and prestige to the literature of our language.”
This publicity and prestige was not won without a fight. From a small town in Colombia, to the publishing houses of Barcelona and New York, Marquez broke the barriers of distance and translation, to put Latin American literature forever on the map. It was a force of will, pursued doggedly over the course of several decades. He explained his motivation in 1981:
“From the moment I wrote Leaf Storm I realized I wanted to be a writer and that nobody could stop me, and that the only thing left for me to do was to try to be the best writer in the world.”
There are few that doubt that he achieved it.