IT HAS SOMETIMES seemed that the Swedish Academy has gone to extraordinary lengths in its pursuit of literary excellence, finding the lamp of literature burning, however dimly, in some remote tundra of the human spirit, sending its signals in a language little known and less understood, and causing those who are supposed to know about such things to scurry to their reference books. That cannot be said of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the celebrated Colombian writer who has just been awarded this year's Nobel Prize for Literature. We congratulate him, and the Academy on the choice.

Mr. Garcia Marquez's imagination works on the grand scale. His best known novel, "One Hundred Years of Solitude," flamboyantly recapitulates in microcosm the experience of man from Eden to oblivion through six generations of the Buendia family, a Latin American version of Faulkner's Snopeses and Sartorises whose many members enact their history in a marvelous realm lying somewhere between mystery and madness, where all the usual laws are suspended but which nonetheless seems as real as concrete. Perhaps it is: Mr. Garcia Marquez has said, "Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America." However that may be, to depict a world so fabulous, so exotic, so extravagant in its comic and tragic effects, and yet so palpably real, is a magnificent achievement. But of course that is not his sole achievement -- there are five other works available now in English, and a sixth, the novella "Chronicle of a Death Foretold," will be published here next spring -- merely his best known, and its enormous success opened the doors of publishing abroad to many other writers of the Latin American literary renaissance.

The Nobel Prize for Literature seems unable to be awarded without some controversy. There are those who object to Mr. Garcia Marquez's leftist politics. The United States government refuses to issue him a visa, although it does allow him to enter the country on a waiver. To this we can only say that politics is not literature. If it were, the political speeches we are treated to might be more interesting. Then there are supporters of other candidates for the Nobel. It is undeniable that there are other, equally qualified writers: the South African Nadine Gordimer, England's Graham Greene, Argentina's Jorge Luis Borges, to name three. That's a matter of taste and an argument that's rarely settled.

What is most important about prizes, it seems to us, is not the recognition given one person one year -- fame can be very fleeting -- but the recognition given year in and year out to the continuing value of the literary enterprise itself, an enterprise conducted by one person in sweat and secrecy and suffering for the great enrichment of us all. We want to affirm that value, and we want to thank Gabriel Garcia Marquez for embodying it. His imagination has enriched our spirit.