The Magus of magical realism, Gabriel García Márquez — who died on Thursday at his home in Mexico City, at the age of 87 — used his fecund imagination and exuberant sleight of hand to conjure the miraculous in his fiction: plagues of insomnia and forgetfulness, a cluster of magical grapes containing the secret of death, an all-night rain of yellow blossoms, a swamp of lilies oozing blood, a Spanish galleon marooned in a Latin American jungle, cattle born bearing the brand of their owner.
Such images were not simply tokens of his endlessly inventive mind, but testaments to his all-embracing artistic vision, which recognised the extraordinary in the mundane, the familiar in the fantastic. In novels like “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” “The Autumn of the Patriarch” and “Love in the Time of Cholera,” García Márquez mythologised the history of an entire continent, while at the same time creating a Rabelaisian portrait of the human condition as a febrile dream in which love and suffering and redemption endlessly cycle back on themselves on a Möbius strip in time.
Transactions between the real and surreal, the ordinary and the fabulous, of course, are a signature device of the magical realism that flourished in the second half of the 20th century in places like Latin America, where the horrors and dislocations of history frequently exceeded the reach of logic, reason and conventional narrative techniques. What he called the “outsized reality” of Latin America’s history — including the period of civil strife in Colombia known as La Violencia, which claimed the lives of as many as 300,000 during the late 1940s and ’50s — demanded a means of expression beyond the rationalities of old-fashioned narrative realism.
As García Márquez’s memoir “Living to Tell the Tale” made clear, however, his fascination with the phantasmagorical was as rooted in his own childhood and family history as it was in the civil wars and political upheavals of his country. His grandfather painted the walls of his workshop white so that the young boy, nicknamed Gabo, would have an inviting surface on which to draw and fantasize; his grandmother spoke of the visions she experienced everyday — the rocking chair that rocked alone, “the scent of jasmines from the garden” that “was like an invisible ghost.”
His childhood home was in the remote town of Aracataca, a Wild West sort of place, subject to dry hurricanes, killing droughts, sudden floods, plagues of locusts and “a leaf storm” of fortune hunters, drawn by the so-called banana fever fomented there by the arrival of the United Fruit Company. Aracataca would provide the seeds for the imaginary town of Macondo in “Solitude,” just as García Márquez’s own sprawling family would help inspire the story of the prolific and amazing Buendía clan memorialised with such ardour in that novel.
Macondo is a place where the miraculous and the monstrous are equally part of daily life, a place where the boundaries between reality and dreams are blurred. It is, at once, a state of mind, a mythologised version of Latin America and a reimagining of the author’s boyhood town through the prism of memory and nostalgia.
For that matter, the magic in García Márquez’s work always remained grounded in a carefully observed reality — a skill honed by his early years as a reporter. From that start, García Márquez slowly developed his own distinctive voice — a voice with the sinuous rhythms of Faulkner and Joyce, the metaphorical reach of Kafka, the dreamlike imagery of Borges. In later years, the fevered flights of fantasy that distinguished “Solitude” and “Patriarch” would give way to a somewhat more muted sorcery, an appreciation — demonstrated in works like “Love in the Time of Cholera” and “Of Love and Other Demons” — of the everyday, combined with a recognition that the extremes of human love and suffering could be found in the seemingly most ordinary of lives.
“Love in the Time of Cholera” was a sort of Proustian meditation on time and an anatomy of love in all its forms — giddy adolescent love, mature love, romantic love, sexual love, spiritual love, even love so virulent it resembles cholera in its capacity to inflict pain. At the same time, it was also a kind of tribute to his own parents’ courtship and marriage.
The personal gave way to the historical in some novels that dealt on an epic level with the tortuous history of Latin America. “The Autumn of the Patriarch” created a hallucinatory portrait of a tyrant who seems like a mythic composite of every dictator to strong-arm his way to power on that continent: a once-feted hero, who sells out his country to the gringos, murders his opponents, rewards himself with medals, unimaginable wealth and the modest title “General of the Universe,” and who ends up completely isolated, discovered dead in his palace, pecked at by vultures.
As for “The General in His Labyrinth,” it performed a kind of free-form improvisation on the life of the 19th-century revolutionary Simón Bolívar, who becomes in García Márquez’s telling a close relative of many of his fictional heroes — a spoiled dreamer, torn between martyrdom and hedonism, extravagant ambitions and crashing disillusion.
In the end, it’s not politics, but time and memory and love that stand at the heart of García Márquez’s work. How the histories of continents and nations and families often loop back on themselves; how time past shapes time present; how passion can alter the trajectory of a life — these are the melodies that thread their way persistently through his fiction, reverberating in novel after novel, story after story.
In later works, like the stories in “Strange Pilgrims” and the novella “Memories of My Melancholy Whores,” García Márquez wrote about older characters, falling under the shadow of mortality, but then, death had long been a focal point in his work, going back to his early novella “Leaf Storm,” and on through novels like “The Autumn of the Patriarch.”
García Márquez once wrote that, as a young man, he believed his bad luck with women and money was “congenital and irremediable,” but he did not care, “because I believed I did not need good luck to write well,” and “I did not care about glory, or money, or old age, because I was sure I was going to die very young, and in the street.”
He learned, in reading the works of the masters like Faulkner and Joyce, he said, that “it was not necessary to demonstrate facts,” that it “was enough for the author to have written something for it to be true, with no proofs other than the power of his talent and the authority of his voice.”