Aracataca and Sucre
Poetry, Auden said, makes nothing happen. It is not a revolution, not an election, not even a platform. García Márquez understood that the highest service literature can perform is to give people an image of their historical reality, especially the way that reality has shaped their souls. One Hundred Years of Solitude is political for the same reason neorealism is: it shows us not only the lives of ordinary people but also the political context that creates them and the historical context that creates that. For García Márquez, the most important fact of Latin American history, more important even than the malign influence of the United States, is inertia: of the oligarchies, of the church, of tradition, of corruption, of the whole eternal way of doing business. The Colonel is defeated despite his heroic efforts; his seventeen sons, a seemingly inexhaustible posterity, are exterminated; the banana workers are gunned down. That the novel depicts the futility and viciousness of public life, that its characters finally withdraw from politics in exhaustion and despair--these are arguments not against political action but in favor of it. What form such action might take to escape the nightmare of history lies beyond the novel's horizon, but eight years after the Cuban revolution, it did not lie beyond that of its author or its audience.
The proof that One Hundred Years of Solitude got the Latin American situation supremely right, artistically if not politically, is the delirious adulation with which its author has been received in the region from that moment to this. Its publication consigned García Márquez himself to the realm of legend. The career of this master of the superlative would henceforth be describable only in superlatives. Three weeks after the book came out, his appearance in the audience ignited a standing ovation in the most prestigious cultural venue in Buenos Aires, the most sophisticated of Latin American capitals. It was 1967; he had become, virtually overnight, the Beatles of Latin American fiction. Everyone wanted to meet him, and over the next few years, he spiraled ever higher through the ether of renown. Chronicle of a Death Foretold, in 1981, had an initial print run of 2 million, the largest in world history for a work of literature. His ovation at the Nobel ceremonies--he received the prize the following year, after some deft back-channel maneuvering--was the longest in the annals of the event.
Now he had something to offer the revolution, putting both his celebrity and his pen at Castro's service. He has been criticized, sometimes excoriated, for his enduring loyalty to the man, a commitment that appears compounded of friendship, stubbornness and the conviction that whatever the crimes of the regime, the alternative, given Latin American history and Cuba's proximity to the United States, is likely to have been worse. In any case, his contributions to the country, and the region, were more than rhetorical. He would go on to set up a film institute on the island and, later, an institute of journalism in Colombia. Meanwhile, he had become a kind of roving ambassador for the cause of Latin American progress among the heads of state with whom he mixed on terms of equality and friendship: Omar Torrijos of Panama, Felipe González of Spain, Olof Palme of Sweden, François Mitterrand, various presidents of Colombia and Mexico, and eventually even Bill Clinton--the convergence of two lonely provincial boys who wanted to become friends with everybody.
Whether these efforts produced much in the way of concrete diplomatic results or were only the means of indulging a love of proximity to power has been another point of controversy. Certainly they produced artistic results in The Autumn of the Patriarch and The General in His Labyrinth, both deeply informed by their author's intimacy with men of power. In any case, advancing age and the fading of his cohort from the scene have made such questions moot. García Márquez has long since become a kind of suprapolitical figure, not a living national treasure but a global one. His eightieth birthday celebrations two years ago lasted eight weeks and were attended by a roster of international dignitaries, including five presidents of Colombia and the king and queen of Spain.
And through it all, until just a few years ago, he maintained his phenomenal productivity and undaunted search for new literary possibilities. With the exception of a few minor works, he never allowed his approach to degenerate into an easily reproducible "brand." One Hundred Years of Solitude was followed, after agonies of writer's block, by The Autumn of the Patriarch, a complexly Modernist "dictator novel" regarded by critics as his second-greatest work. Chronicle of a Death Foretold, that master class in narrative construction, was succeeded by Love in the Time of Cholera, his second most popular. The General in His Labyrinth, a fictionalized biography of Bolívar, represented marathons of historical research; News of a Kidnapping--he was pushing 70 by this point--a comparable effort of journalistic investigation. With his tireless diplomacy and pitiless appetite for friendship, his zealous involvement with his institutes and continuing contributions to periodical journalism (he wrote a newspaper column that ran weekly for nearly four years, uninterrupted even by the Nobel Prize), one gets the impression of a man who took occasional breaks to write novels. Only the waning of his memory in recent years has forced him into retirement. Martin's standard-setting biography comes at the perfect moment, on the brink of its subject's passage into a long and grateful posterity.
García Márquez set out to rival the great figures of Modernism. Did he succeed? A widespread judgment within the Spanish-speaking world regards him as the greatest writer in the language since Cervantes. While a longer retrospect might overturn that enthusiasm, less debatable is his status as the most important writer of the second half of the twentieth century in any language, the premier voice of the developing world and, as the man who brought magic realism to its height of possibility, the exponent of an entirely new mode of metaphoric expression. In any case, comparisons with Joyce and Woolf and Faulkner miss the most important thing about his achievement: that in rivaling Modernism, he ended by annulling its aesthetic standards. García Márquez showed us that delight is just as valid a measure of literary value as difficulty, that psychology can be revealed as effectively through action as introspection, that transparent structures can be as sophisticated as ones that flaunt their complications. For half a century, Ulysses was the mountain that all writers worked in the shadow of. Instead of going to the mountain, García Márquez brought the mountain to himself. Now he's the one casting the shadow (as the career of Roberto Bolaño, artist of exhaustion, Beckett to his Joyce, has demonstrated). The greatest works convert us to their aesthetic faith. When I read Joyce, I think that nothing could be better and that this is the only way that fiction should be written. And when I read García Márquez, I think the same thing.