In a 1981 interview with the Paris Review, novelist Gabriel García Márquez, who died on April 17 at age 87, told Peter H. Stone that “I’ve always been convinced that my true profession is that of a journalist.”
In particular, he recalled his experiences on April 9, 1948, when Jorge Eliécer Gaitán Ayala was assassinated during his run for president. When García Márquez got the news, he left his home for the site of the shooting, only to find that Gaitán was already headed to a hospital. “On my way back to the pension, the people had already taken to the streets and they were demonstrating, looting stores and burning buildings. I joined them,” García Márquez recalled to Stone. “That afternoon and evening, I became aware of the kind of country I was living in, and how little my short stories had to do with any of that. When I was later forced to go back to Barranquilla on the Caribbean, where I had spent my childhood, I realized that that was the type of life I had lived, knew, and wanted to write about.”
And he did. What was so powerful and enduring about his work was not simply his ability to conjure up fantastical images and scenarios, though he did that with precision and verve, telling the Paris Review “if you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants flying in the sky, people will probably believe you.” Instead, it was his sense — and García Márquez said this himself any number of times — that the fantastical was an absolutely necessary tool in conjuring up the very real strangeness of Latin American societies, the only way to express the confluence of folkloric traditions, life under dictatorships, confounding physical landscapes and successive waves of colonialism.
Setting and context, both political and cultural, were the point in García Márquez’s novels, whether he was infiltrating the minds of mighty men who wrested control of countries’ destinies, or looking up at the vastness of the world from the confines of Macondo. This was not Shakespeare, where the travails of Romeo and Juliet render irrelevant the politics and family histories that define Verona.
“I don’t mind as long as it’s a Latin American movie,” García Márquez told Marlise Simons in a 1988 conversation with the New York Times, after she asked him whether he would be comfortable with a movie adaptation of “Love in the Time of Cholera.” “By that I mean one that is directed by a Latin American, that exudes the atmosphere of Latin America, that shows our character, our way of being, our society, because those are the things that define this drama.”
But just because he saw himself as journalistic, and concerned with the ways that individuals lived, thrived and failed in broader social and political contexts, did not mean that his work was objective. García Márquez recognized that subjectivity was itself highly revealing. “The author seems to be letting his people half-dream and half-remember their own story and what is best, he is wise enough not to offer excuses for the way they do it,” Harvard English professor Robert Kiely wrote in a rave review of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” in 1970. “No excuse is really necessary.”
Of course, novelists have perspectives and priorities, too, and in the Washington Post obituary, Marcela Valdes has a balanced account of García Márquez’s relationship with Fidel Castro. To cultivate the relationship, Valdes notes that García Márquez once let Castro edit a long piece about Angola, and sided with Castro in 1968 when the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists awarded the Julian de Casal National Prize to poet Heberto Padilla, who had initially supported Castro but became increasingly critical of the regime. Padilla was arrested in 1971, and released, but not allowed to leave Cuba until 1980. García Márquez sometimes used his relationship with Castro to advocate for prisoner releases. But his greater gain from the relationship may have been psychological insights for his novels.
In discussing García Márquez’s literary legacy since the news of his death broke, a number of outlets have singled out the opening sentence of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” as one of the best first lines ever written for a novel. But paging through the novel again, I found myself struck by a passage at the end of it, in which the hold that the town of Macondo exerts on its residents begins to slip.
“Álvaro was the first to take the advice to abandon Macondo,” García Márquez wrote. “He sold everything, even the tame jaguar that teased passersby from the courtyard of his house, and he bought an eternal ticket on a train that never stopped traveling. In the postcards that he sent from the way stations he would describe with shouts the instantaneous images that he had seen from the window of his coach, and it was as if he were tearing up and throwing into oblivion some long, evanescent poem: the chimerical Negroes in the cotton fields of Louisiana, the winged horses in the bluegrass of Kentucky, the Greek lovers in the infernal sunsets of Arizona, the girl in the red sweater painting watercolors by a lake in Michigan who waved at him with her brushes, not to say farewell but out of hope, because she did not know that she was watching a train with no return passing by.”
Like Álvaro, García Márquez left his home town of Aracataca, Colombia. In his writing, he recognized both that you could tell a hundred years worth of stories in a single village and never be bored, but that to truly know that village, you could not ignore the world outside its borders. And like the girl in the red sweater, we now know that García Márquez may have boarded a train with no return, but that does not mean we have to say farewell to the words that mean so much to us.