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Looking for the Patriarch

When Gabriel García Márquez finished writing One Hundred Years of Solitude in August 1966, he was almost forty, the father of two young boys, and so broke that he didn’t have enough money to send the manuscript from Mexico City to his prospective publisher in Buenos Aires. The anecdote is famous, one of many that have contributed to García Márquez’s carefully molded public image as a literary populist and everyman genius. In his admiring biography of the writer, Gerald Martin reports:

The package contained 490 typed pages. The counter official said: “Eighty-two pesos.” García Márquez watched as [his wife] Mercedes searched in her purse for the money. They only had fifty and could only send about half of the book: García Márquez made the man behind the counter take sheets off like slices of bacon until the fifty pesos were enough. They went home, pawned the heater, hairdryer and liquidizer, went back to the post office and sent the second tranche.

In a year’s time the novel’s success would engulf García Márquez in what he would later call “the frenzy of renown”—for a writer of comparable international celebrity one would have to go back to Hemingway. During the preceeding decades, his life is a portrait of the desperate, diasporic existence that seemed to be the lot of Latin American writers of the twentieth century. Prior to One Hundred Years of Solitude, he had published three novellas in tiny, almost clandestine editions. They were influenced more by the neorealist films of Vittorio De Sica than by any literary model, and were familiar only to a small group of Spanish-American cognoscenti. It didn’t seem reasonable to expect more. In 1943, the year García Márquez entered secondary school, on scholarship, six hundred students graduated from high school in all of Colombia.

García Márquez’s career as a journalist gave him the opportunity to slip away to Europe in 1955. This was during the most intense period of a twenty-year-long conservative crackdown in Colombia known as La Violencia.1 To escape was a personal necessity, not a political one. Always cautious, García Márquez never explicitly challenged the government in his reporting, and it is doubtful that he left the country to avoid being a target of the paramilitary squads as some of his admirers have claimed.

Shortly after he arrived in Paris, the Bogotá newspaper he was working for, El Espectador, was shut down by the government. He stayed in Paris for eighteen months, living with a Spanish actress who was as destitute as he was. Martin writes:

He collected empty bottles and old newspapers and received centimes in return at local stores…. One day he had to beg a fare in the metro…and was humiliated by the reaction of the Frenchman who gave him the money.

Later, he told Martin that he could have found work with another paper, but decided not to. Unlike most Latin American writers of his generation, he had not come to Paris to “get culture” but to learn about himself, to attend “to my emotions, my inner world.” His experience there, and elsewhere in Europe, seemed to reinforce his persistent sense of himself as a costeño—a Colombian of the Caribbean, “half Indian and half gypsy” as a friend described his looks, with the costeño‘s quality of mamagallismo, ready to deal with the world by taking a piss.

Today, he is the emblematic writer of the so-called Latin American literary boom of the 1960s, whose members regarded themselves as representatives of a borderless, Bolivarian sensibility.2 But García Márquez lacked the continental nationalism of his contemporaries. Martin tells us that as a young man he saw other Latin Americans “as distant cousins rather than as brothers.” He was content with his regional costeño culture and the material it had given him, which was more than enough to feed his fiction for the rest of his life.

It wasn’t until 1961, when he was in his mid-thirties and living in Mexico City, that he became aware of the existence of a coherent Latin American literature of which he could become a part. His deeper affinity had been with North American writers whom he read in translation: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and especially Faulkner, who gave him the idea that one could depict illiterate backcountry characters in mythic terms. Such an affinity was unthinkable, if not blasphemous, to most Latin American intellectuals, who saw the United States as an irreconcilable enemy, and looked to Europe—and especially France—for artistic direction. As a young man, García Márquez seemed unaware of this attitude. Culturally, Colombia lagged behind the rest of the continent, and it was his peculiar good luck that the country did not produce an important novelist before him. The territory was wide open, and the unique prerogative of that brief period was to be able to write with the illusion of naming things for the first time.

His own story is that the rhythm and content of One Hundred Years of Solitude came upon him “from nowhere,” that he was, in effect, anointed with the novel and, writing it, he acted as nothing more than a “poor notary” taking dictation. Certainly it was unlike anything he had written before. The novel’s fictitious town, Macondo, has become the exemplary Spanish-American backwater—an isolated, half-lawless place whose inhabitants are living in their own Middle Ages, superstitious, powerless, and with a brimming imaginative vitality that is of little practical use to them.

It is difficult to remember the astonishment the novel inspired when it first appeared forty-two years ago. Rereading it today, one is struck by the author’s daring creation of a world from scratch (it is, in part, a rewriting of the book of Genesis) and the amount of sheer inventiveness heaped onto almost every page. One admires its unassailably monolithic tone, its circus-act enchantments, and its terse aphoristic dialogue, interchangeable from one character to the next. But few writers I can think of have been more poorly served by their imitators than García Márquez. Innumerable knock-offs by lesser novelists have highlighted the weakest aspects of his technique—the flying carpets, the sudden ascents to heaven, the facile folkloric clairvoyance—threatening to obscure its complexity and turning magic realism into a mannerism rather than the urgent means of expression that it originally was.

Martin helpfully defines magic realism as a story in which

the world is as the characters believe it to be…without any indication from the author that this world-view is quaint, folkloric or superstitious.

García Márquez popularized the style, but he was not its inventor, and One Hundred Years of Solitude would not have been possible without his hav- ing studied, at Carlos Fuentes’s urging, the works of an older generation of Spanish-American writers who were magic realism’s pioneers, among them Alejo Carpentier and Miguel Asturias.3 It is remarkable that so little influence on his writing is credited to his Latin American precursors. This is partly because García Márquez himself has been reluctant to give them their due. At times he seems to enjoy casting himself as the magician who created a new Spanish-American literature out of thin air.

An intriguing aspect of Martin’s biography is the extent to which he demonstrates how closely the events of One Hundred Years of Solitude mirror those of García Márquez’s childhood, though in the novel they are refracted through a trick lens of deadpan exaggeration. Intent on following her itinerant husband, García Márquez’s mother left him to be brought up by his grandparents in the sweltering boom-and-bust town of Aracataca—the model for Macondo. It was during the 1930s, just as a fifteen-year-long economic expansion brought on by the United Fruit Company’s banana-growing enterprise in the region was beginning to fizzle as a result of the Great Depression and the massacre by the Colombian army of more than a thousand striking banana workers in 1928. It was a town, Martin writes, where

Almost every man carried a machete and there were plenty of guns. One of [García Márquez’s] earliest memories was of playing in the outer patio when a woman walked past the house with her husband’s head in a cloth and the decapitated body carried behind. He remembers being disappointed that the body was covered in rags.

The towering figure in his life was his grandfather, Nicolás Márquez, a colonel on the losing side of the civil war that ended, in 1902, with the Liberals’ surrender. He was imbued with the glamour of a noble defeat on behalf of a party that was spared the chance to govern and fail. To his grandson he was a kind of totem of bravery, virility, and power—an upstanding costeño family man whose brood of mistresses and illegitimate children was integral to his social prestige. He slept with a gun under his pillow, though he stopped wearing one on the street after murdering the son of one of his lovers. Someone had boasted publicly about his relationship with her, and the son was duty-bound to defend the family name.

Although the victim was unarmed, García Márquez has idealized the killing as a duel of honor. In 1967, he tried to explain the murder to Mario Vargas Llosa:

[My grandfather] had to kill a man when he was very young. He lived in a town and it seems there was someone who was always bothering him and challenging him, but he took no notice until the situation became so difficult that he simply put a bullet in him. It seems that the town was so much in agreement with what he did that one of the dead man’s brothers slept that night in front of the door to the house, in front of my grandfather’s room, so that the dead man’s family would not come to avenge him. So my grandfather, who could no longer bear the threat that existed against him in that town, went elsewhere; that is to say, he didn’t just go to another town; he went far away with his family and founded a new town.

Tentative, overblown, the account is clothed in a protective, apocryphal armor similar to the one García Márquez would use to clothe his own life. The claim that his grandfather was “very young” is untrue—the victim was very young; Nicolás Márquez was in his forties. The picture of the dead man’s brother watching over the murderer’s door also seems to be an invention, as does the sympathy of the town (Nicolás was in danger of being lynched) and the founding of a new town.

When he was ten, shortly before his grandfather died, García Márquez went to live with his parents. In Martin’s account, the shift has the quality of a folk tale where the biological father becomes the evil stepfather presiding over a horde of children, both legitimate and illegitimate, whom the protagonist—García Márquez—barely knows. The mother, an aging kidnapped princess, has been ground down by her burdens. During certain periods the family’s poverty was severe. The father regarded García Márquez’s verbal inventiveness as the character trait of an incorrigible liar. The antagonism between them was so intense that at one point the father—a self-styled homeopathic healer—declared García Márquez to be schizophrenic and wanted to perform a kind of lobotomy on his skull “at the place where his consciousness and memory were situated.” His mother’s protests prevented her husband from carrying out the threat.

  1. 1

    La Violencia lasted from the late 1940s to the 1960s and resulted in the deaths of 250,000 Colombians.

  2. 2

    Other boom novelists were the Argentine Julio Cortázar, the Mexican Carlos Fuentes, and the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa. Martin marks the start of the boom as 1963, the year Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch was published. It ended four years later with the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

  3. 3

    The Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier coined the term— lo real maravilloso—in 1949 to describe what he thought of as his variation on French Surrealism. Miguel Angel Asturias’s phantasmagoric novel about a dictator, El Señor Presidente (1946), was the prototype for García Márquez’s TheAutumn of the Patriarch. In 1967, Asturias, a Guatemalan, became the first Latin American novelist to be awarded the Nobel Prize. García Márquez was awarded the prize in 1982.

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