The death of Gabriel García Márquez yesterday at the age of 87 closes an era of literary history. There’s a fair chance that when somebody looks at your dates, a few centuries from now, they’ll place you as living in the age of García Márquez.
I resisted reading García Márquez for a long time, till I was about 30, even though he was a dominant figure of my lit-major undergraduate years. Though I had never read his books, he held a prominent place in my imaginary library as a mannered writer of florid, stylized tales of machismo, full of women as saints or whores, and despite his well-known leftwing politics, not much interested in using literature to advance progressive causes. As it happens, there’s considerable truth in those prejudices.
Two chance events got me to read García Márquez. I spent a few weeks in Maracaibo and traveled on the Guajira Peninsula in western Venezuela – not exactly the author’s famous Macondo, not even in Colombia for that matter, but close enough ecologically and culturally that I could picture his settings – and meet people who insisted I read his work. And then, in Texas, an old Bookstop on South Cooper offered a complete set of García Márquez’s books in a uniform edition published by Mondadori. I have given away thousands of books in the last 20 years, but not them.
Everyone reads Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude), and it is indeed the most distinctive and influential of García Márquez’s books. In Cien años, García Márquez set the parameters for what a great 20th-century novel should look like: a generational saga; an enchanted setting; bold, overdrawn, overreaching characters; a headlong, unrestrained narrative line. García Márquez didn’t invent this kind of novel – in fact, one of the great things about Cien años is that it adapts a whole genre of fiction to its own needs, transforming it via the sheer strength of its storytelling in ways that would make Harold Bloom faint.
García Márquez drew obviously from William Faulkner (Macondo and Yoknapatawpha are two of the most completely invented places anywhere in literature). But the big florid saga was around long before Faulkner: it goes back to John Galsworthy, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, Victor Hugo, Alessandro Manzoni. And any writer in Spanish must grapple with Don Quijote. García Márquez did so by doubling the great achievement of Cervantes back on itself. Macondo, unlike La Mancha, really is enchanted, though its characters sometimes wish they could wake up home in bed with the giants turned back into mere windmills. And unlike Don Quixote, who has to travel around in picaresque fashion seeking adventures, in Macondo you just have to survive, and all the adventures of the world will come to you.
At the same time, it seems odd to compare García Márquez to Trollope or Hugo, rattlingly workmanlike writers of yarns. If he got his narrative energy from such writers, he got his style from Faulkner – but also from Marcel Proust, who couldn’t be less like him in terms of themes and story arcs. Or James Joyce – one might think of García Márquez as adapting the endless sentences of the great modernists in a strongly narrative direction, less stream of consciousness than order of the universe. There’s the single eight-page sentence of “El último viaje del buque fantasma,” for instance, or the famously interminable sentences and paragraphs of El otoño del patriarca (The Autumn of the Patriarch), his most experimental (and frankly least approachable) novel.
It’s fair to say that few world writers in the past 40 years have embarked on a long novel without modeling their work on García Márquez, or alternatively finding some way to resist and repel his influence. One finds extremely close imitations in the fiction of Isabel Allende and Louise Erdrich – though both of them, while telling stories in the pure García Márquez manner, populate those stories with defiant women and feminist themes very unlike those of the master. Carlos Ruiz Zafón in Spain (La sombra del viento/The Shadow of the Wind), Edward P. Jones in the U.S. (The Known World), Carsten Jensen in Denmark (Vi, de druknede/We, the Drowned) created some of the more impressive avatars of Macondo. And in terms of style, the majestic endless sentences of Portugal’s José Saramago and Germany’s W.G. Sebald clearly owe a great deal to García Márquez.
Which is not to say that there’s nothing to critique in García Márquez’s work. In fact, as the examples of Allende and Erdrich show, one is continually tempted to rewrite the often monumentally heedless sexism that pervades his writing. In his depiction of idealized or degraded women and the testosterone-poisoned men who desire them, García Márquez perhaps most resembles Federico Fellini among his contemporaries – but without Fellini’s rueful sense of humor, and without a Giulietta Masina. Cien años de soledad manages to avoid the worst of these excesses, which are perhaps best (or worst) seen in “El avión de la bella durmiente,” a short story that consists entirely of a man gazing at a beautiful woman for the duration of a transatlantic flight. That’s a late story, and one senses that García Márquez got more immature about such themes as he grew older; his last novel was 2004’s Memoria de mis putas tristes (Memories of My Melancholy Whores), which pursues the dirty-old-man theme with great senescent energy.
These are minor works, but more troubling is the truly great novel El amor en los tiempos del colera (Love in the Time of Cholera), a fabulous love story with an emotional register located halfway between The Age of Innocence and Lolita. To be fair, the novel features García Márquez’s strongest heroine, the indomitable Fermina Daza. But she is courted throughout, and eventually won for all eternity, by the fairly loathsome Florentino Ariza, sex addict and near-pedophile. It’s a relentless exploration of desire, but it may turn you off desire once and for all.
But all that said, what should you read by García Márquez – or perhaps, what should you read next after the obligatory pilgrimage through Cien años de soledad? García Márquez had serious creds as a journalist, and I’d strongly recommend two of his nonfiction books: the early Relato de un naufrago (The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor), one of the great survival tales, and the late Noticia de un secuestro (News of a Kidnapping), written in his early 70s to prove that he still had the reporting skills that had made him a professional writer. He still had them.
Of his shorter fiction, I love García Márquez’s El coronel no tiene quien le escriba (No One Writes to the Colonel), a story of the obstinacies of age. (Every time I walk into the office mailroom and see my inevitably empty mailbox, I mutter “El coronel no tiene quien le escriba.”) Among García Márquez’s melancholy whores, the most amazing is the heroine of “La increíble y triste historia de la cándida Eréndira y de su abuela desalmada,” an utterly maddening and excessively perfect novella. One of my favorites among the short stories is “Un día después del sábado,” an atmospheric tale about a place where it’s just too hot to think.
And first and last, there’s Crónica de una muerte anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold). I’ve written elsewhere about this pendant novella to the Macondo cycle, so I’ll direct readers there and just say briefly here that it’s the essence of García Márquez, for better and for worse: a story of inexpugnable love, horrific violence, and transparent secrets that will not resolve themselves. As I say behind that link, it contains one of the greatest paragraphs in Western fiction. Ángela Vicario, the rejected bride of Bayardo San Román, has written her nominal husband a letter a week “durante media vida,” for half a lifetime (94). He’s never answered; he’s never come to see her. One day, Bayardo shows up on her doorstep.
Llevaba la maleta de la ropa para quedarse, y otra maleta igual con casi dos mil cartas que ella le había escrito. Estaban ordenadas por sus fechas, en paquetes con cintas de colores, y todas sin abrir. (96)
[He was carrying a suitcase with his clothes, and another suitcase, the same size, with almost two thousand letters that she had written him. They were arranged by date, in packets tied with colored ribbon, and none of them had been opened.]
Writing does not get any better.