News of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s death was on television channels worldwide last week. Pictures of Marquez as he received the Nobel prize for literature or conversing with Castro filled the screen. The international press talked of One Hundred Years of Solitude, of magic realism, the Nobel Prize, his friendship with Fidel Castro, his self-confessed fascination for dictators and his unwavering belief in the ‘rightness’ of Leftist ideology.
I watched the coverage and felt strangely distant. The face of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the writer I have long loved, was the face of a stranger. Whereas the author of Chronicle of a Death Foretold, The General in his Labyrinth, Love in the time of Cholera, News of a Kidnapping and One Hundred years of Solitude was an intimate friend, an important part of my life. For Marquez was the one that made me see that fiction was the truest mirror of reality and that to understand the world one had to read fiction.
I was 19 when I picked up my first Marquez book, Chronicle of a Death Foretold. The people who breathed Marquez’ name with awe, friends of my father, seemed terribly old and serious to me and therefore I wasn’t sure I would like the book. I was also quite daunted by the strangeness of the beginning — a discussion of Santiago Nasar, the murder victim’s dream: “He’d dreamed he was going through a grove of timber trees where a gentle drizzle was falling, and for an instant he was happy in his dream, but when he awoke he felt completely spattered with bird shit.”
South America as a continent was utterly unknown to me. And yet, very soon I didn’t feel strange at all and was living in Santiago Nasar’s sleepy little town, feeling the excitement around the arrival of the Bishop by boat for the marriage of Bayardo San Roman and Angela Vicario. I could picture the town perfectly — the river, the port, the narrow streets and the houses with their high walls and courtyards, the whispers and rumours, the complacency of the rich, the boredom and envy of the poor. When at the end, Cristo Bedoya comes too late to save his friend Santiago Nasar, I felt as if I had been killed. It was all so real, and so inevitable.
Marquez strongly objected to One Hundred years of Solitude being called a book of ‘magic realism’. He felt it belittled not just Latin American writers like himself but the whole reality of life in Latin America. In his Nobel speech he said: “I dare to think that it is this outsized reality, and not just its literary expression, that has deserved the attention of the Swedish Academy of Letters. A reality not of paper, but one that lives within us and determines each instant of our countless daily deaths, and that nourishes a source of insatiable creativity, full of sorrow and beauty, of which this roving and nostalgic Colombian is but one cipher more, singled out by fortune. Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude.”
For me, Gabriel Garcia Marquez cannot be captured by a photo or a few lines. He is Aureliano Buendia who cannot die till his work is done. He is the lonely El General (Simon Bolivar), he is Santiago Nasar the victim, he is Florentino Ariza the lover. He is a thousand people and none of them. For always, like the magician he was and will always be to his readers, he makes himself disappear and allows his characters to do the talking. This, I believe, is what made him so popular with readers from all nations. In Beijing for example, within 72 hours of his death, not a single copy of any of his major works could be found in the city.
Radhika Jha is an author of three books published in India and abroad. Her fourth, My Beautiful Shadow, is scheduled for release by HarperCollins India in September