October 30, 2014 § Leave a comment
The death of Gabriel García Márquez brought Latin America to a standstill, in a seismic wave of sadness that left nothing but broken citizens in its wake. On the anniversary of his passing, six readers express their eternal gratitude for the renowned author and his work.
In an isolated camp, deep in the foothills of the Jebel Mara Mountain range, a solitary female figure huddles on the cold, desert floor. The yells and roaring laughter of her inebriated captors are barely audible, as a cacophony of bangs and bullets crack the night sky above. Desperately seeking an escape, the woman turns, as she has time and time again in captivity, to the battered and broken book which she has locked in her arms.
On the fateful day that her convoy was ambushed, Mary* was working to bring education to children in Darfur, Sudan. She was kidnapped and held hostage for 105 days. During this time, she was terrorised with threats of gang-rape, tortured and often subjected to mock executions. A lone captive, her only trusted companion was Gabriel García Márquez; her only escape a precious copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude which she was carrying, by chance, in her travel bag.
Now, nearly four years after her release, the tattered, fragile novel still sits on Mary’s nightstand. Petite and delicate, with her eyes lowered and her blonde hair hanging over her pale face, she speaks of her experience in a disconnected manner, as though it belongs to someone else and she has simply memorised the words. When the subject turns to Gabriel Garcia Márquez (affectionately known as Gabo), however, colour floods to her cheeks and a hint of confidence awakens in her voice. Like a broken toy fed replacement batteries, she comes to life.
“When my nose wasn’t in that book, it was always by my side,” she says. “Gabo and the Buendías kept me company in my loneliest hours, they lifted my spirits in times of despair, and they gave me something incredibly beautiful to delight in day after bitter day. ‘Reading. Always reading,’ the lead captor would often say to me.”
For Mary, One Hundred Years of Solitude became more than just words on a page. She would use it as a pillow to protect her head from the solid ground on which she was made to sleep, and would often awake in the cold light of the morning, clutching it to her chest like a childhood teddy bear.
“Between exhaustive use and the ungodly heat, the glue of the book’s binding disintegrated. Mere weeks into my ordeal, nearly half of the pages had unfastened from the seam,” she recalls. “I had to reorder the jumbled sheets every time I wanted to read, and if a strong wind blew, I would have to chase any loose-flying pages down.”
In her darkest days, Mary describes how Gabo would stay by her side, wrapping his arms around her and comforting her with words of encouragement, helping her to carry on. “He had a profound influence on my experience out there,” she says. “When you’re being held against your will, and when your life is in question each and every day, you reach for whatever you can in terms of inspiration and comfort.”
“The Buendías, in some way, felt like my family. And Gabo’s presence was so paternal, I felt like I was turning to a beloved grandparent each time I called on him for comfort or advice. I never had any grandfathers, so I suppose he was the closest thing I ever had.”
Mary survived her 105 days of solitude. Liberated from her captors, striding in the direction of her freedom, Gabo awaited her on the horizon, smiling with paternal pride. Following her release, she spent half a year in the Himalayas recovering from her ordeal, under the tutelage of a swami yogi and three sage Tibetan Buddhist monks. As she had in captivity, she always kept Gabo’s novel by her side.
“When I was finally ready to return home, I wanted nothing more than to thank Gabo personally. I reached out to him though his literary agent, who sadly informed me that he was too ill to meet,” Mary explains. She admits that she was heartbroken that she couldn’t meet him and hug him in person. “Here was a man who had seen me through the most intense and challenging days of my life. I wished I could be by his side in his time of need, just as he had been for me.”
“When I learned of his death, I cried off and on for days. I wasn’t just saying goodbye to a distinguished author, I was saying goodbye to a faithful friend, a beloved companion. He and his stories will live in my heart and in my imagination forever.”
In captivity, Mary earmarked many poignant passages in order to return to them when she needed hope and reassurance. One of the most thumbed pages of her irreparably worn copy describes Úrsula declaring “I’m alive!”, when her granddaughter believed her dead. Mary would wake every morning, knowing that each day could be her last, murmuring Úrsula’s words aloud, overwhelmed by the precious gift of life she had been granted. She was alive. Alive.
“So many of my experiences in captivity were shaped by the magical realism in Gabo’s book. Some things touch me to this day. Just like I had in captivity, I cannot see a yellow butterfly without imagining it to be an angel,” she says. “Perhaps it is my steadfast companion himself.”
Born in Aracataca, a small town close to the Caribbean coast of Colombia, Gabriel Garcia Márquez was raised in a home that was consistently bursting with visitors – uncles, nephews, cousins and a ceaseless array of vivacious women, who ran the household and looked after little Gabito. Of them all, it was his grandfather, the soldier, and his overly superstitious grandmother who secured themselves eternally in his memory.
His grandfather would tell hero stories from Colombia’s 19th century civil wars, while his grandmother would rock him on her knee, narrating fantastical and extraordinary anecdotes in a deadpan style, without caring to distinguish between the living and the dead. It was this combination of the real and the ethereal that would later resurface in his writing.
Gabo’s life was a jigsaw of vocations. From day to day, he sought the truth through journalism and, more widely, he was a passionate historian of his region and of Latin America as a whole. But it is storytelling, chronicling the fantastic and the fictional that gave him the joie de vivre for which he will be remembered, for it is this craft that he passes on to his readers across the globe.
Forever the narrator, he would often recount with glee the story of an elderly Soviet Russian woman who copied out the entire text of One Hundred Years of Solitude by hand, word after word, disbelieving that she had really read what she had read. No doubt he would have delighted in the anecdotes of other dedicated followers, for every reader, from the untutored to the intellectual the world over, has their own tale about Gabo. Just like the elderly Russian lady, every individual has that one book that rendered them awestruck.
Those who earn a living by educating others on the acclaimed works of Latin America marvel at the sheer accessibility of Gabo’s writing. For Pascale Baker, a Lecturer of Latin American History, Culture and Literature at the University of Sheffield, Gabo’s work is a joy to teach, be it in short story form or even as part of a translation class. “People of all ages seem to love his novels, and never tire of them,” he says. “They seem to have a universal appeal across class, race and age groups. So if you give a lecture on, say, One Hundred Years of Solitude, you know it will go down well, even with a room of non-specialists who may never have visited Latin America at all.
“That is the true beauty of Gabo’s work,” he says. “Somehow, the words just seem able to transport you there.”
Fiona Mackintosh, Senior Lecturer in Latin American Studies at the University of Edinburgh, also finds that Gabo’s writing is able to carry its readers to another time and place. “I read Gabo on a summer interrailing trip across Spain,” she says. “The experience of immersing myself in the world of Macondo while simultaneously travelling through and taking in the varied Spanish landscapes was intense and memorable.
“Whenever I read a passage to my students now, I still feel the heat of the Spanish sun on my face and experience the sense of complete freedom I felt that summer.” She smiles, nostalgically. “Through his words, I try to take my students there with me.”
Though once describing himself to a Playboy interviewer as “a nymphomaniac of the heart”, it was not until he was in his late 50s that Gabo was considered an esteemed author of love. Even then, his amorous tales did not fulfil the idealistic cliché of young, naïve and desperate lovers. Indeed, Love in the Time of Cholera is a tale of the trials and tribulations of aging, of false teeth, deafness and enfeeblement. It can be no easy task to turn a tale of human deterioration into the quintessential depiction of romance, but Gabo does it with an effortless grace.
Alex Griffiths, a Literature student living in Berlin, initially read Gabo while immersed in a haze of smoke. “I first discovered Gabriel García Márquez during a period of my life when I was smoking a lot of weed and reading all seven volumes of Proust,” he says. “I was 20 and pretentious; reading Love in the Time of Cholera cured me of that.”
Alex describes being immediately drawn into a world more vibrant than his own, where devotion and romanticism reigned supreme. “The novel showed me the complexities of love in all its Technicolor sadness, and let me in on a dark secret: that the big, showy protestations of romantic love are most likely bullshit; the real heart of love is in its solitude and sorrow.
“This preoccupation with genuine love is not fashionable anymore. Post-modernism has devoured itself to the point where sincerity of thought or feeling is seen only as naivety and we allow ourselves only a hollow experience of love. Gabo is my antidote to this.
“This is the greatest gift I get from him,” he says, compassionately, “a reminder of how to love.”
To Latino audiences, Gabo’s novels have a direct appeal because they evoke stereotypical Latin American folk; for citizens of the region, his characters are real people. From the young, unrelenting philanderer to the conscientious matriarch who keeps the men in check, they recognise their own friends, neighbours and family members.
Gabo brings respect and honour to these individuals and enshrines them in Latin American history, for the characters and conditions depicted in his novels have not been invented to fit the magical realism archetype. Instead, they are part of a reality which just so happens to be magical.
In his home of Colombia, and the rest of Latin America as a whole, Gabo enjoys the status of an unofficial hero, celebrated in a fashion akin to that of athletes or movie stars. “There isn’t a single Colombian who hasn’t heard of him,” says Liliana Gaitan-Wilson, a Teaching Assistant from Bogotá. “When he won the Nobel Prize it was a matter of great pride for us. His death is a huge, huge loss for the country.”
Liliana clearly remembers the collective mania that hit Colombia with the release of Chronicle of a Death Foretold in 1981. “I was just 19 at the time, and it was complete madness,” she says. “People were reading it crossing the street, stopped at traffic lights, over someone else’s shoulder on the bus, everywhere!” Although she describes beginning to read One Hundred Years of Solitude and being unable to put it back down again, it is Gabo’s journalistic works which had the biggest impact upon Liliana. News of a Kidnapping, which describes the abduction of 10 people by drugs boss Pablo Escobar in Colombia, holds particular relevance for her. “I remember those kidnappings,” she says, “I remember the deaths.
“The book is particularly important for us Colombians because, in the 80s and 90s, kidnappings were just a part of everyday life. A relative of mine was kidnapped and, luckily, the family managed to get the money to pay for his release. The father of a friend of mine wasn’t so fortunate. He was captured and killed. It destroyed their family.
“News of a Kidnapping was very close to our reality,” she says. “We were the victims.”
I, too, am a page in the limitless book of stories of Gabriel García Márquez. He found me when I was 19 years old; I regret that he did not find me sooner. I was living in France, in a petite ville named Mayenne which was buried deep in the countryside, lost somewhere between two much more appealing, lively towns. I was working as an English Language Assistant in a boarding school on the edge of a long road that led to nowhere.
I had left the Spanish city of Salamanca just one month earlier. It was a bustling, energetic place where life poured from the windows of the antique buildings and flooded the golden-bricked streets; where old Spanish Señors would stop in the middle of the road to divulge anecdotes about their long-forgotten childhoods; where contagious conversation – in the clearest, most beautiful Spanish ever to reach my ears – followed me from sunrise to sunset. It was a place where loneliness had never existed.
One drizzly, grey day, with no idea quite what I was searching for, I found myself in the Spanish section of the school library, which ultimately consisted of a dusty shelf of eight or nine tattered books. I borrowed every one.
In reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabo’s words transported me back to a place with life, conversation and stories. They simultaneously eased my loneliness, and made my heart ache for a language which was slowly trickling out of my everyday existence.
His world was ours, but we are only six stories. Gabo influenced lecturers, literary scholars and aspiring writers in more ways than it is possible to recount, but his words went deeper than simply influencing ambitious and hopeful artists. He aided his faithful readers in times of sadness, desperation and despair and he taught the ordinary that they were nothing of the sort.
His words had the power to seize the Latin American consciousness, as well as to gain recognition and glory for its people. He gave his home country accessibility that it had never before been granted and shared the wonder and the beauty of its reality with us all.
For me, however, Gabo was simply there to hold the hand of a scared and lost teenager, who had forgotten the true magic of the world.
Gracias Gabo, por todo.
*Name changed to protect identity