Marquez and the magic of his realism

The late Colombian novelist grabbed reality by the throat – and made it behave otherwise.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez was criticised by some for his long friendship with Cuban leader Fidel Castro [EPA]

Soon after Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s death on April 17, a poignant piece for Al Jazeera America made a critical point quite succinctly: “Hours after the Nobel laureate died Thursday, the Cold War debate over his friendship with Cuba’s iconic revolutionary and former President Fidel Castro was rehashed as the singular stain on his otherwise glorious literary legacy.”

Is there a link between the late Marquezs literary legacy, his politics in general and his relationship with Castro in particular? Yes, no, maybe – and if so, in what particular terms? Marquez’s long relationship with Castro baffled many of his liberal and even some of his leftist admirers. How could he have been blinded to the Cuban revolutionarys heavy-handed leadership?

“While Castro’s revolution in its early days inspired admiration from the global left,” the Al Jazeera piece clarified, “his movement quickly became characterised by acts of repression and censorship. For the past four decades, Garcia Marquez had been criticised for maintaining his support even after Castro blessed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, with obituaries this week calling that support ‘scandalous’ and a defence of ‘the indefensible.”

In between those who support and denounce Marquez’s positions, there are also those who suggest that his politics is irrelevant to his literary legacy.

But this question needs to be turned around. Marquez was not just anybody. He was Marquez: the towering figure in a literary movement known globally as “magical realism”. His particular positions should not be assimilated backward into the realm of the political. Rather, the political should be pulled forward into the domain of his magical realism.

The magical realist style that [Marquez] essentially invented caused a sea change in how we perceive reality, anticipate change, and plot for a better world.

“Magical realism”, Marquez once famously said, “expands the categories of the real so as to encompass myth, magic and other extraordinary phenomena in nature or experience which European realism excluded”. From this very notion, we must expand the realm of his political positions on Cuba, the US and much else to accord with that expanded conception of reality.

The magical realist style that he essentially invented caused a sea change in how we perceive reality, anticipate change and plot for a better world. He crafted a genealogy of temporal and earthly morals for the here and now by exploring their magical forces. Like anyone else, he did have political positions on Cuba, the US, and other issues. But he was not just anybody: He was Marquez, the magician who enabled us to realise that something was awry about reality – every reality, including political reality.

“I’ve never been bothered by Gabo’s close friendship with Fidel Castro,” wrote Francisco Goldman in the Guardian. “Even if you consider the comandante politically reprehensible, you can’t deny that he has a historical weightiness that no novelist should need to justify being fascinated by.” That indeed may be the case, and no novelist needs to explain or justify anything to anyone. But then his very attraction to Castro helps to draw the historical into the fictive, the man into the character and the person into the persona.

I still remember vividly the sensation of reading One Hundred Years of Solitude for the first time – in its Persian translation, just as Iran was going through the tumultuous days of the 1977-79 revolution. Reading Marquez’s masterpiece was a turning point in my generation’s political reconfiguration. We did not approximate the world of Marquez in this and his subsequent work backward into the political parameters of our age. We did exactly the opposite: We followed Marquez – wounded and flawed as we were with the political impossibilities of our limited imagination – as he exponentially expanded the imaginative possibilities of the universe in which we perceived politics.

His was a Copernican revolution in the astrophysics of our imagination: Our world stopped being geocentric, for in his magical realism we found a new heliocentric universe. Because of him we began to read our own writers like Gholam-Hossein Saedi (1936-85) differently – for we found an affinity between the two of them, and as a result the geopolitics of our imagination exploded into unending possibilities.

The magic of Marquez’s realism grabs reality by the throat and makes it behave otherwise. The magic robs reality of its metaphysics, and corrodes the absolutism of everydayness. Whether we oppose or condone his politics, whether he approved of Castro or not, we keep approximating the Buendia family to ourselves and the village of Macondo to our world.

But an alternative reading of his masterpiece is to do precisely the reverse, and allow the magical realism of the novel to dismantle our vision of reality as we see it, politics as we practice it, society as we form it, and morality as we observe or disobey it – and allow the Macondo village and the Buendia family to shake up our convictions in real life.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.