Gabriel García Márquez, who died Thursday at age 87, provided one of the eerier moments of my journalism career.
In 1996, a colleague and I had been conducting a series of interviews with the Colombian Nobel laureate about his newest book, called “News of a Kidnapping.” It was a nonfiction work on his country’s violent drug-crime culture. Shortly after García Márquez sent the final proofs to his publisher, I called him at his Mexico City home and he sounded shaken.
“News of a Kidnapping” was inspired by the abduction of a friend’s wife. That same friend had now just informed García Márquez that yet another friend, the brother of a former president, had been kidnapped – and that one of the kidnappers’ bizarre demands was that “Gabo,” as García Márquez was known, be declared president of Colombia.
“I’m living my own book,” Gabo told me.
But I’m certain it didn’t seem as fantastic to him as it did to me. After all, in García Márquez’s universe, the fantastic was the expected. In fact, in an earlier conversation I’d had with him, he seemed annoyed with the label of the literary genre he’d done so much to exalt – magical realism.
“That’s the name you Americans use,” he said. “For us,” he added, referring to Latin Americans, “it’s simply realism.”
There was a lot about Americans that irked García Márquez, who was Latin America’s most revered author and arguably the most venerated Spanish-language writer since Miguel de Cervantes. There were also things about Gabo that irked Americans, like his admiration for Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
But I think one of the things that frustrated him most about the gringo worldview was what he considered our unwillingness, or inability, to glean more of the magical from reality – as his novels, like the 1967 Latin American epic “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” so famously did.
In many respects it was a justifiable frustration, one Americans should take to heart. And yet, I think it also points up one of the flaws of García Márquez’s own worldview – if not that of the Latin American continent he spoke for.
In his novel “Of Love and Other Demons,” García Márquez makes two symmetrical observations about his young heroine: “She saw something of the supernatural in her everyday life,” he writes. Then, when she’s asked about a solar eclipse, she says, “What I saw was simply what we see every night.”
No writer has ever captured that sense of being amazed by the everyday, and yet seeing the everyday in the amazing, more powerfully than García Márquez did. In his hands, magical realism was more than flying carpets and ghost stories. It became a soaring spiritual and social statement, whether conveyed through the splendor of a rain of yellow flowers or the horror of an endless train of massacre victims.
And it was fundamentally a statement about the New World – about the imaginative drama of human re-creation that the Americas symbolize. To feel that, you need only read the opening pages of “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” where he describes his mythical town of Macondo as a place of genesis, right down to the river bank’s “bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs.”
For García Márquez, magical realism was a way of celebrating that hopeful innocence. From his typewriter it morphed into a long overdue celebration of, and newfound global respect for, Latin America.
But it was also a means of decrying the more brutal, imperialist impulses he saw in the American psyche – which I think bothered him all the more because the United States is the New World too. His stories, essays and interviews often seem to suggest that the history of the western hemisphere might have been different if only North Americans had embraced more of that humane, magical realist outlook considered so innate in Latin Americans.
Yet even Gabo knew how simplistic that judgment was – and that Latin America’s homegrown brutality could rival if not surpass any yanqui intrusions. In “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” pondering the supernaturally gorgeous Remedios the Beauty, he warns of the “diabolical trap at the center of her innocence.” He could have been alluding to the supernatural doses of tragedy, from dictators to destitution, that so frequently tarnish his region’s own sublime beauty and so frequently inform his own work.
Now that Gabo has died it will be easier to separate his prose from his politics. And that’s a good thing in terms of building our woefully incomplete hemispheric bridges. Of all the writers who led the 20th-Century Latin American “boom,” none opened a more profound and engaging window into Latin America than García Márquez did.
For North American readers in the 21st Century, that presents a magically real opportunity.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.