Macondo in mourning

Remembering the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez died on April 17 [AP]

I tumbled into Mexico City for the first time as a young man, badly in need of a hot meal and a bath and lacking a single personal connection. It was the early 1980s, and like many people at that time, and especially for writers from the other side of the border, my first real contact with Latin America was in my imagination – and a good portion of those internal images were influenced by the visionary works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

I believed that Garcia Marquez provided an allegorical basis for a more profound understanding to a complex culture. What I didn’t understand at first was that the magic realism he had become so celebrated for in my homeland was not an allegory at all – it was the truth.

As I walked down Avenida de la Reforma, one of the city’s most celebrated boulevards, modeled on the Champs-Elysees, I was stopped in my tracks at a traffic circle, where an exquisite rendition of the huntress Diana stands in bronze, encircled by arching streams of water, high above the avenue, aiming her arrow upward towards the north star.

He explained Latin America and the Latin American reality, with all its mysteries, cruel beauty, unbounded love, terrible violence, and deafening silences to Latin Americans themselves in a way that had not been done before.

Below, an elderly indigenous woman hunched over with a child strapped to her back calmly washed her clothes in the fountain amid the noise and traffic. In the most unlikely of places, it seemed I had found “Macondo”, or a version of it; Gabriel Garcia’s mythical village where One Hundred Years of Solitude is set. I crossed the street and observed the woman; there were soap suds in the water and several articles of clothing had been laid out to dry. No one else, beside myself, seemed to pay her any mind.

These were my first thoughts upon hearing the news of Garcia Marquez’s passing. That certain mournful beauty he so adeptly painted in words across a canvas stretching from here to Tierra del Fuego.

Undoubtedly one of the most eminent writers of the twentieth century, he garnered a Nobel in 1982 for his novels and short stories, and Carlos Fuentes called him the greatest writer in the Spanish language since Cervantes. The impact of Garcia Marquez, in fiction, journalism, screen writing, as an editor, and for his social and political commentary is unequaled in Latin America. In international literature one would be hard pressed not to put him alongside the world’s canonical figures in the literary arts, where he will most deservedly share a place with the likes of Dickens and Dostoevsky.  

Here, in Latin America, the beloved Gabo (the affectionate nickname used by friends and followers alike), did the near impossible. He explained Latin America and the Latin American reality, with all its mysteries, cruel beauty, unbounded love, terrible violence, and deafening silences to Latin Americans themselves in a way that had not been done before. A testament to Garcia Marquez’s reach is the simple fact that he is as widely celebrated among academics and intellectuals as he is among the public in general.

Although descriptors such as magical, superstitious and supernatural are attached to much of his fiction, and with good reason, the heart and blood of Garcia Marquez’s major works – One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera, Leaf Storm, No One Writes to the Colonel, Chronicle of a Death Foretold – employ for their underpinnings the rich tapestry of Latin America based upon his own memories and reality. Admirers of his work agree that the many mystical elements in his writing, seldom differentiated in colour and tone from what can be considered everyday events, describe the intangibles of internal truths recognised by readers far and wide.

Garcia Marquez, often in the company of journalists considered himself, more than anything, a chronicler. He began his career as reporter for the Cartagena daily, El Universal. The sheer force of his words and the clarity of his narrative style in works such as The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, which grew out of interviews from the aforementioned sailor, and challenged Colombia’s official version of a shipwreck, and, News of a Kidnapping, which relates the kidnapping, imprisonment and eventual release of prominent persons by Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Drug Cartel, demonstrate the breadth and width of his journalistic prowess.  

In several polls taken over the years, most notably The Guardian 2009 survey, writers have consistently named Garcia Marquez’s masterwork, One Hundred Years of Solitude as the twentieth century’s most influential novel.

Admired by the likes of Fidel Castro, Bill Clinton, and Francois Mitterrand, to name just a few, it is hard to imagine some of the works by today’s foremost names in literature such as Isabel Allende and Salman Rushdie without Garcia Marquez having first paved the way. His influence on American writers, along with his deep appreciation of Hemingway and Faulkner, has created an internal echo in American literature that seems to mimic the motifs of Garcia Marquez’s fiction, drawn on a profoundly felt reality of intangibles made visible in words.

For this author, it is an undeniable truth that writers (and readers) form their own country and defy, like Gabo did, international boundaries. This imaginary territory, or better said, territory of the imagination, transforms the crass and ordinary suppositions of everyday life and elevates us all, transcendent, in the refracted light of singular genius.  And if you had to put a name on its illuminated brilliance, you would only need to go as far as the plazas, cantinas, parks and bars of this city, where his name has been uttered, over and over, where the TV screens and newspapers kiosks have begun to fill with his image, like a passage of magic realism from one of Gabo’s books, mixed with hard and unbending truths – and realise that today we are all living in Macondo.     

Albert Sgambati is an award-winning novelist and short story writer. He has worked as a beat reporter in Mexico City, and as a features writer in the US and Latin America. Presently, he lectures in Anthropology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He makes his home in both New York, and Mexico City where this piece was written.