Magic in Service of Truth

Gabriel García Márquez’s Work Was Rooted in the Real

 

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Gabo lives. The extraordinary worldwide attention paid to the death of Gabriel García Márquez, and the genuine sorrow felt by readers everywhere at his passing, tells us that the books are still very much alive. Somewhere a dictatorial “patriarch” is still having his rival cooked and served up to his dinner guests on a great dish; an old colonel is waiting for a letter that never comes; a beautiful young girl is being prostituted by her heartless grandmother; and a kindlier patriarch, José Arcadio Buendía, one of the founders of the new settlement of Macondo, a man interested in science and alchemy, is declaring to his horrified wife that “the earth is round, like an orange.”

We live in an age of invented, alternate worlds. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Rowling’s Hogwarts, the dystopic universe of “The Hunger Games,” the places where vampires and zombies prowl: These places are having their day. Yet in spite of the vogue for fantasy fiction, in the finest of literature’s fictional microcosms there is more truth than fantasy. In William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, R. K. Narayan’s Malgudi and, yes, the Macondo of Gabriel García Márquez, imagination is used to enrich reality, not to escape from it.

“One Hundred Years of Solitude” is 47 years old now, and despite its colossal and enduring popularity, its style — magic realism — has largely given way, in Latin America, to other forms of narration, in part as a reaction against the sheer size of García Márquez’s achievement. The most highly regarded writer of the next generation, Roberto Bolaño, notoriously declared that magic realism “stinks,” and jeered at García Márquez’s fame, calling him “a man terribly pleased to have hobnobbed with so many presidents and archbishops.” It was a childish outburst, but it showed that for many Latin American writers the presence of the great colossus in their midst was more than a little burdensome. (“I have the feeling,” Carlos Fuentes once said to me, “that writers in Latin America can’t use the word ‘solitude’ any more, because they worry that people will think it’s a reference to Gabo. And I’m afraid,” he added, mischievously, “that soon we will not be able to use the phrase ‘100 years’ either.”) No writer in the world has had a comparable impact in the last half-century. Ian McEwan has accurately compared his pre-eminence to that of Charles Dickens. No writer since Dickens was so widely read, and so deeply loved, as Gabriel García Márquez.

The great man’s passing may put an end to Latin American writers’ anxiety at his influence, and allow his work to be noncompetitively appreciated. Fuentes, acknowledging García Márquez’s debt to Faulkner, called Macondo his Yoknapatawpha County, and that may be a better point of entry into the oeuvre. These are stories about real people, not fairy tales. Macondo exists; that is its magic.

The trouble with the term “magic realism,” el realismo mágico, is that when people say or hear it they are really hearing or saying only half of it, “magic,” without paying attention to the other half, “realism.” But if magic realism were just magic, it wouldn’t matter. It would be mere whimsy — writing in which, because anything can happen, nothing has effect. It’s because the magic in magic realism has deep roots in the real, because it grows out of the real and illuminates it in beautiful and unexpected ways, that it works. Consider this famous passage from “One Hundred Years of Solitude”:

“As soon as José Arcadio closed the bedroom door the sound of a pistol shot echoed through the house. A trickle of blood came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces, went down steps and climbed over curbs, passed along the Street of the Turks, turned a corner to the right and another to the left, made a right angle at the Buendía house, went in under the closed door, crossed through the parlor, hugging the walls so as not to stain the rugs . . . and came out in the kitchen, where Úrsula was getting ready to crack 36 eggs to make bread.

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