Issue 207 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1997 Copyright © Socialist Review

Writers reviewed: Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Mike Gonzalez

The writings of Gabriel García Márquez have been translated into every major language and have sold in their hundreds of thousands ­ particularly his great panoramic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Yet he insists that they are simply the stories his grandmother told him as a child in the provincial Colombian town of Aracataca.

It would be easy to see Márquez as a kind of folklorist trying to rediscover a lost world of rural innocence, some kind of 'dream time' long since lost. And it is true that his work is full of extraordinary events: beautiful girls with long green hair, others who levitate to their deaths amid clouds of butterflies, tattooed boys with enormous sexual longevity, doctors who eat grass. Perhaps they were all part of his grandmother's repertoire of legends, myths and magical recipes. Yet they are not simply nostalgic fantasies that belong to a distant past: they are responses to a reality which is also present in all of Márquez's work.

There is the reality of 'La Violencia', Colombia's 14 year long civil war that claimed 200,000 lives ­ a time when all forms of civic life were simply suspended, and the only form of politics was the agreed alternation of Liberals and Conservatives taking turns at the presidency. In Evil Hour records that endless 'state of siege' when the only change was the deterioration of a society symbolised by the rotting tooth of the town's mayor. The town dentist, whose son is a leader of the revolutionary forces, tries not to relieve the mayor's pain. When the truce is lifted, one character expresses relief that 'things are back to normal'.

The military dictators, from Stroessner of Paraguay to Somoza in Nicaragua, are represented in the central figure of The Autumn of the Patriarch. He tortures his opponents, murders the children who could expose his crooked lottery, sells bits of the harbour to American businessmen and employs a double to listen to the gossip in the streets. All of these things were reality. In such a world it was unwise to speak, except in metaphors; yet the people told stories, rewrote their history, and pictured a different world.

The setting for all Márquez's novels is a fictional community called Macondo. In a way it was a paradise where no one grew old or impotent. This was Latin America as the European colonists imagined it. But for the inhabitants of the place, there was no escape from utopia. Wherever they turned, there were impenetrable swamps and jungles, mountains or the sea. The world could invade ­ but no one could leave. Leaf Storm recounts the arrival of a US banana company. It enters like a whirlwind, builds a ghetto for the American personnel, prostitutes all the town's young women, exhausts the banana trees, then leaves as suddenly as it had arrived, leaving devastation in its wake. The banana workers who strike in One Hundred Years of Solitude are massacred and their bodies are 'disappeared' ­ a verb that is one of Latin America's few contributions to the universal language. Next day a plague of forgetfulness wipes their very existence away ­ like the 500 students killed in Mexico on the eve of the 1968 Olympic Games. But the popular memory is not so easily emptied ­ and their memory is preserved there and passed on from generation to generation.

Macondo's isolation is both real and metaphorical. New developments in technology and social life in the metropolitan centres arrive partially and illogically in the colonial world. At the beginning of One Hundred Years of Solitude a gypsy, Melquiades, arrives in Macondo. He brings extraordinary things on his annual visits ­ false teeth, ice, wonderful machines. Colonel Aureliano Buendia, patriarch of this curious utopia, watches his tricks with astonishment. He has spent years searching for the philosopher's stone that will turn lead to gold, and bring him the secret of life. When he sees the gypsy he knows that it has already been found ­ but has been kept from the inhabitants of Macondo.

Locked outside history, Macondo is condemned to be a kind of parody of another world which it can only imagine, but never reach. The false teeth, the ice, like the train that arrives unannounced one day, seem like miracles ­ because the logic of social and economic development that has produced them is not visible from here. Progress itself never reaches Macondo, only the consumer goods that are the product of change. In the shanty towns around every Latin American city, the kids yearn for Nike Air shoes and a glimpse of Madonna. They all have televisions but millions are without clean water!

The community of Macondo is caught between a past it can't return to and a future that it cannot shape. It is also caught between two kinds of language and imagination. On the one hand, popular culture passes on the experience of the dispossessed through the myths and stories that preserve their history; on the other, the official history denies their experience. In Chronicle of a Death Foretold, even the knowledge of a future event cannot help to avoid it. What the community sees as its fate is actually the consequence of material forces at work out of its sight. The church has no explanations to offer ­ the holy water is full of dead rats (In Evil Hour); the bureaucracy hides behind mounds of unread documents (in Chronicle); and political life is indefinitely suspended. So people wait ­ like the colonel waiting for his pension (in Nobody Writes to the Colonel).

Márquez's 'magical realism' testifies to the vitality of a popular consciousness that can see beyond an imprisoning reality and preserve a spirit of resistance in its songs, its jokes, its myths, which continually imagine a world turned upside down. That is the source of his colourful, extravagant and witty language. At the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude Macondo collapses and disappears; but its (hi)story is left behind, to inspire those who come after. Since Márquez always writes about history as it echoes in popular understanding, then it will, one day, provide the means not only to mock or parody the history of the powerful, but to place those who have been marginalised for so long back at its very heart.

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