Anyone who teaches Latin American literature, as I do, has been profoundly affected by Gabriel García Márquez, who has died at 87. For some he may have been their entry into the field. And he certainly is for very many of our students. His short stories and novellas are accessible and (sometimes deceptively) easy to read, so they are often taught at high school or in introductory university classes. More to the point, García Márquez, or what was said about García Márquez, helped shape an image of Latin American literature, and what it meant to study it.
“Magical realism,” the literary style with which he was indelibly associated, seemed to combine exotic sensuality with a vague sense of political commitment. It promised a happy coincidence between aesthetics and politics, such that even the act of reading might make you a better person if not help change the world. No wonder that reading the Colombian Nobel laureate, and especially his classic One Hundred Years of Solitude, was so often experienced as a life-changing event. The spokesperson of the Swedish Academy, at García Márquez’s Nobel Prize ceremony, described his writing as a “spiced and life-giving brew.” This suggestion of vitality crossed with intoxication characterized much of the reception of the Latin American “Boom,” which also included writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes. Moreover, it set the tone for our expectations of the region’s literature as a whole.
But “magical realism” is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is an excellent advertisement: it draws readers in, providing them with rationale and explanation for narratives that might otherwise feel bizarre or even off-putting. On the other hand, it is a reductive and restricting framework that denies the sheer variety of Latin American cultural expressions. It is not really a style characteristic of very many authors. Indeed, it is hardly that characteristic of García Márquez himself, supposedly its prime exponent. I have seen many students search for (and claim to find) magical realism throughout texts such as Chronicle of a Death Foretold or “Nobody Writes to the Colonel,” an exercise that sadly ends up massively missing the point. Victim of the appealing and tremendously successful image of Latin American letters that it had helped to create, García Márquez’s work too often fell prey to its own success.
For these reasons, and perhaps also because of a certain satedness, García Márquez’s work is today sometimes treated as a kind of “gateway drug” for students, rather than as a serious object of scholarship. It is as though we give novices a sniff of a levitating maiden or a child with the tail of a pig, holding out the promise of more of the same, only then to turn around and forcefeed them testimonial literature or avant-garde experimentation, colonial chronicle or postmodern play. No sooner are they hooked on the Boom than we try to wean them off it. Meanwhile, there is less in the way of sustained study and attention to García Márquez than ever. Which is surely a pity.
For there is no doubt that Gabo, as he was (over-)familiarly called, was indeed a great writer, if not always a consistent one. One Hundred Years of Solitude will surely remain the book with which he is most associated, if only for its daring ambition to encapsulate the region’s history in a quasi-Biblical arc from Genesis to the Apocalypse, all via the story of one (admittedly sprawling) family in a small town in an out-of-the-way corner of the Colombian littoral. This is Macondo as allegory for the Americas, a transposition that jumps straight from the local to the continental, and even the universal. But perhaps his true masterpiece is The Autumn of the Patriarch, a sustained investigation of authoritarianism by means of ventriloquy and formal inventiveness. The General in His Labyrinth will also have its supporters, as an examination of the paradoxical powerlessness of power, and of the political quagmires that were written in to the region’s constitutions from the outset.
But it is surely worth returning even to the lighter and more sentimental work–and here I include the wildly successful Love in the Time of Cholera–perhaps to rip it, similarly, from the somewhat sickly embrace in which it is cherished and held. For there is and was a harder underside to García Márquez, belied by the almost kitsch picture that he painted both (too) often in his fiction, and for the camera and the press. Maybe it would be best to regard “magical realism” as a rather cynical joke at the expense of its many fans. Maybe it is only a sense of irreverence, in the face of this most revered of writers, that can allow us truly to read García Márquez as he has seldom been read before.
Finally, let me point out with some pride the ways in which our students can give back and produce public knowledge. I taught texts by García Márquez back in 2008, and again in 2010, in courses that had a Wikipedia component with the projects “Murder, Madness, and Mayhem” and “Magical Realism Reconsidered”. Both times, students were asked to write or edit articles on the online encyclopedia, and both times among those articles was the one on García Márquez. And although this entry never became a “featured article” (one of the 0.01% very best), it was adjudged a “good article” (in the top 0.1%) as frankly they quite transformed it: providing sources and references and fleshing it out into a true public resource. So when, unsurprisingly, on the author’s death the numbers visiting his Wikipedia page rocket–from an average of about 1,500 a day in March, to almost 100,000 on Thursday and then almost 210,000 yesterday–it’s a strange but rather satisfying feeling to realize that all those people are reading my students’ words.