Aracataca and Sucre
Now came the most desperate passage of García Márquez's career. It was one thing to starve himself, quite another to inflict starvation on his children. His career as a journalist had foundered; his fiction was at a standstill. He could neither go back to Colombia nor forward to Cuba. In despair, he went to work in advertising, resigned to the end of his life in literature.
What saved him, like other geniuses pulled back from the brink of obscurity, was the work he'd already done. The Latin American literary efflorescence that would soon become known as El Boom was gathering steam in the fiction of Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes, and through the patronage of Fuentes, García Márquez began to be viewed as a member of the team. With the courage now to return to fiction, he embarked on the road, not to Damascus but to Acapulco, where, en route to a family vacation, he was struck by divine lightning: "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad..."--the first line, or at least the first image (like the Gospels, versions differ) of One Hundred Years of Solitude, in whose tone and point of view the entire work lay coiled.
After two decades of struggle and preparation, the book poured out of him in little more than a year, cheered on by a growing cadre of friends and admirers. Like Ulysses, One Hundred Years of Solitude was the novel that everyone had been waiting for--in the former case, to set the crown on Modernism; in the latter, to ignite the powder of the Boom. That García Márquez saw his project in Joycean terms is clear from his memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, at the exact center of which he places the story of his introduction to the older work. One day, he writes, a fellow student "placed an awesome tome on the table in front of me and declared with his bishop's authority: 'This is the other Bible.'" Like God's book, and Joyce's, One Hundred Years of Solitude aims to be a universal history, beginning with a genesis, ending with an apocalypse and stuffing the whole of human experience in between. But like all great works, including those other two, it is rooted in the particulars of its own time and place--which were, its author now realized, that of Latin America as a whole. The swell of ambition that marked the Boom was incited by the emergence of a new regional consciousness; the aim was no longer just to write novels about Mexico or Argentina or Peru. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, that consciousness was now seen to have found its supreme expression. Through García Márquez, assuming the role of communal storyteller and taking his stance in the public square like the roving balladeers of his childhood, a whole continent was felt to speak.
What did it say? The question is tricky because the novel declaims with two radically different voices. Describe its subject, and you end up with adjectives like "bleak," "bitter" and "disillusioned." Think of its style, and the terms are more likely to be "delightful," "exuberant" and "life-affirming." The novel's characters are solitary, self-involved, at times even monstrous, and yet, through the frantic lovability of their creator's prose, they also become irresistible. Once we've finished with Borges and Faulkner, Kafka and Woolf, Rabelais and Cervantes and the Thousand and One Nights, realisms neo- and magic and all the other influences we can pick out of the work of this insatiable literary trencherman, we are left with that style as the great stamp of his originality: its propulsive momentum, its hyperbolic excess, the fat plenitude of its syntax, its vividness and variety, the sheer alertness of every phrase. Above all, its swashbuckling way with an adjective: "astonished breasts," "frugal estuary," "libertine pigs," "chronic journalist," "arbitrary anarchist," "livid saliva," "rocky" orgasms, "slow" lawns. Ordinary modifiers work to characterize their targets more precisely. These are designed to do the reverse: defamiliarize them, pull them away from our normal understanding, add a penumbra of imaginative color, bring out their strange, human hearts. In short, be the magic to their realism. Nouns are objects, obdurate and obvious. Adjectives, García Márquez implies, are what we make of them.
This struggle between reality and subjectivity, encoded in his very syntax as in his most characteristic technique, is García Márquez's essential subject. We can see it in his taste for paradox: "I was always famous, from the time I was born," he once told a friend. "It's just that I was the only one who knew it." Will, as long as life itself, butting its head against the world. More than one of his novels end with such a flourish of insane defiance. No One Writes to the Colonel: "And meanwhile what do we eat?" "Shit." Love in the Time of Cholera: "And how long do you think we can keep up this goddamn coming and going?" "Forever." We can also see it in the way he handles speech, of which these outbursts are characteristic. García Márquez has acknowledged his difficulties with dialogue, but he learned how to circumvent them by using it sparingly and setting it as carefully as a jeweler. Long passages of pell-mell narration are brought to a climax by one-line declarations as indelible as maxims: "You're a woman, little sister"; "Don't be simple, Crespi.... I wouldn't marry you even if I were dead." The narrative, a rushing current of event that threatens to pull the characters under; the utterance, a vaunting assertion of desire.
Will narrowed on a single object and fixed in the face of adversity, even hopelessness--this is what gives so many of his figures their magnitude and memorability. Colonel Aureliano Buendía fighting thirty-two wars and losing them all. That other colonel waiting fifty-six years for his pension. Florentino Ariza waiting even longer for his love. And, conversely, the monumental appetites: José Arcadio drinking sixteen raw eggs and laying every woman in sight; the wedding party in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which drinks the town dry. These are the pans of García Márquez's emotional balance: grim determination, bitter resignation and mordant disillusionment, on the one hand; epic explosions of revelry and revolution, on the other. And this is how his impossible fusion of subject and tone gives utterance to the Latin American soul: by fronting the continent's tragic history with the unquenchable fiesta of his style. The betrayal of fate, the madness of power, the indifference of death: realism. Imagination, laughter, music and hope: magic.