Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, died at the age of 87 after suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Luke Massey celebrates his life and work
Reading Gabriel García Márquez is like being immersed in the letters of a sage and eccentric old friend: honest, inspiring, and personal.
To try to reduce the scope of his work and his imagination is a fruitless enterprise: for his horizons were those of the world – temporally and spatially – from the braying of a pack-mule in a Colombian backstreet, to the cataclysmic social upheavals of anti-colonial struggle in Latin America.
And this is where the magic of Gabriel García Márquez lies: not simply in his blurring of the sublime, the surreal and the quotidian – but in his breathtaking ability to re-focus the lens of reality. Márquez traces historical arcs not only through social movements, wars and grand ideas, but through the praxis of everyday life.
His clear-eyed and unglamorised depictions of conflict and murder reflect at once an intuitive understanding of humanity’s predilection for barbarism as well as a deep personal rejection of war.
‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aurelio Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.’ (One Hundred Years of Solitude)
Indeed Márquez’s humanity is consistently the fulcrum his work. The tumult of civil war provides the canvas on which generations of Colombian lives are relayed in One Hundred Years of Solitude, detailing the minutiae and the magnitude of existence in turbulent times.
Wars of liberation, government repression, noble ideals and ignoble means, hypocrisy, brutality, love, hatred, sex and hope all form part of the tapestry of life in the microcosmic town of Macondo, which Márquez weaves in a narrative as complex and heart-rending as life itself.
A committed socialist, Márquez explored the obscenities of multinational corporatism and exploitation through the semi-fictionalised impact of the Banana Company on Macondo. The voracious company transforms and feeds on the town – draining its labour and natural resources – and deploying the full grizzly repertoire of atrocious profiteering practices: from untenable sanitary facilities to pitiful wages.
The company’s grim legacy to the town comes in the form of a massacre of the workers, who have had the tenacity to unionise in order to fight for improved working conditions.
‘Trying to flee from the nightmare, Jose Arcadio Segundo dragged himself from one car to another in the direction in which the train was heading, and in the flashes of light that broke through the wooden slats as they went through sleeping towns he saw the man corpses, woman corpses, child corpses who would be thrown into the sea like rejected bananas.’
If the massacre is not repulsive enough, the obfuscation of the reporting is disturbingly familiar: ‘the official version, repeated a thousand times and mangled out all over the country by every means of communication the government found at hand, was finally accepted: there were no dead, the satisfied workers had gone back to their families, and the banana company was suspending all activity until the rains stopped.’ (One Hundred Years of Solitude)
His exploration of the personal and political dynamics of authoritarianism in books like The Autumn of the Patriarch pilloried dictators like Juan Vicente Gómez in Venezuela and Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic.
‘Over the weekend the vultures got into the presidential palace by pecking through the screens on the balcony windows and the flapping of their wings stirred up the stagnant time inside, and at dawn on Monday the city awoke out of its lethargy of centuries with the warm, soft breeze of a great man dead and rotting grandeur.’ (The Autumn of the Patriarch)
In doing so, Márquez built on his articulation of Latin American identity – the hopes of anti-colonial movements and self-determination, the realities of domestic power relations and the brutal repression of new masters: those who will never know that life is ‘arduous and ephemeral’ and who remain ‘alien forevermore to the music of liberation and rockets of jubilation’ which inevitably herald the death of oppression.
But Márquez spoke not just to Latin America: his words were universal.
His analyses of autocracy, brutality and corruption hold resonance for the sinister depths of human capacity. But we should learn as much from this as from his ability to see in people an ‘invincible power’ and an ‘intrepid love’: urging us to recognise that ‘it is life, more than death, that has no limits.’ (Love in the Time of Cholera)