The Death Of The Patriarch: Remembering Gabriel García Márquez
"He was the patron saint of sinners, and he walked among us in the flesh."
There he was: short and rather large, sitting on an antique chair in the middle of the living room, looking incongruously like a tortoise in a tweed jacket. I was 16 and had just finished his greatest novel, and was having a hard time believing that such a world-containing book had emerged from this man.
I was starstruck. The host — an elderly politician who it is best not to name — must have seen me gawking at his illustrious guest, because he took me by the arm and dragged me toward him. He made polite introductions and then vanished into thin air, leaving me alone with the master. There was an excruciatingly long silence, in which I ransacked my brain for something to say.
"I really like your books," I finally managed.
"You must have terrible taste," he replied with a mock frown.
We were called to dinner before I could say anything else. By some secret machination of my father, I was seated to his right. The soup gave way to the salad and the salad to the fish. The master made off-color jokes that made the young lady to his left blush and laugh at the same time. And all the while, I found myself wordless, watching my chance to talk with the greatest living writer in the Spanish language dwindle away in slow motion.
After dessert, one of the politicians stood up and asked whether women, children, and artists could please leave the room, because the men had important and private business to discuss. The master laughed loudly and shook his head.
"One of them is going to be president," he whispered in my ear as we walked out of the dining room. "But no matter. Let the dogs bark and the conspirators conspire. You and me, let's talk about literature."
We sat down and talked about Faulkner and the Quijote, and about our mutual and unfashionable adoration for Poe. I expressed my opinions brashly, with the arrogance of bookish adolescents. He listened generously, and suggested that I should read Juan Rulfo.
Then, as the evening came to an end, my mother approached us. With irrational pride, she announced loudly that I wrote fiction, took out three of my short stories from her handbag, and gave them to the master. I tried to stop her, silently wishing to be killed on the spot. But the master just chuckled and took the pages.
"Listen, I will read your stories," he said. "But I will never tell you whether I liked them or not. Because if I tell you I liked them, you're going to think you are the shit and then proceed to actually become shit. And if I tell you I didn't like them, you are going to think you are shit, and then give up writing and become an engineer, which would be a tragedy, seeing that this country has a surplus of engineers and a shortage of writers."
With that, he shook my hand, kissed my mother on the cheek, and walked away. I did not sleep that night. Instead, I started reading The Autumn of the Patriarch.
In retrospect, it seems apt that I first met Gabriel García Márquez at the house of a Mexican politician. He was fascinated by conspirators, both communist guerillas in camouflage fatigues and neoliberal economists in beautiful suits. Together with love, power was his central obsession. The ultimate theme of his work is the intersection between those two forces: the erotic attraction that power exerts over dictators, and the dictatorial power that Eros exercises over lovers.
And so it is very important that, as we celebrate him as a writer of love stories, we remember the other half of his obsessions. He taught us how to love, sure, but he was also an anti-colonial provocateur. The event at the center of One Hundred Years of Solitude is not a kiss, but an act of class warfare: Pressured by American commercial interests, the army of the unnamed country where the novel takes place shoots at the inhabitants of Macondo with gatling guns. Countless men, women, and children die in the town's main square — all so that a banana company can save a few cents on wages.
It would all be fiction, except that it is actually history. The Banana Massacre took place in 1928, when the Colombian army broke a strike at a United Fruit plantation, killing scores of unarmed workers. And yet this reality is all too often overlooked, the second word in "magical realism" conveniently forgotten, along with "power" in "the power of love."
Now that he has left us, it bears remembering that García Márquez was first and foremost a newspaper reporter. His method of writing involved going out into the world, listening to people, and taking notes. His books are not works of fantasy conceived in a comfortable library, but fictionalized documentaries about a part of the world where reality is so strange that it often appears surreal.
If he chose to write in hyperbole, raising history to the plane of myth, it was not because he wanted to shy away from the violence of the real world. Rather, I think, he wanted to invite us to see the world differently. He wanted us to be attuned to the miraculous and weird aspects of everyday life, so that we never forget that our world is contingent, and that another world is possible.
I was sitting in a computer science lecture when I got the call. On the other side of the line was a voice with a heavy Colombian accent, but I did not recognize it at first.
"How's it hanging, Nicolás?" the master said. "This is Gabriel García Márquez. I'm calling because I changed my mind about telling you what I thought of your stories. I think they are very good, and was wondering if you would like to come over to my house this afternoon to talk about them."
At first I thought it was a prank, which very much confused the master. When it became clear that a Nobel Prize winner had actually just called me on my cell phone, my heart nearly pounded out of my chest. I did not go back to the lecture, rushing instead to the library to print out copies of the stories.
He received me in his studio later that day — a beautiful white room with large windows and immense bookshelves. He had Schonberg or some other atonal composer on the vintage stereo. Since his physician had forbidden whiskey, he drank apple juice on the rocks out of a tumbler. He told me he was revising the proofs for the 50th anniversary edition of One Hundred Years.
"Believe it or not," he said, "I had forgotten most of it. I'm surprised to see it's actually good."
We sat down and he asked me about my stories, all of which were bad imitations of Borges. Then he asked me about my life. I told him I felt trapped in the rancid atmosphere of wealthy Mexico City. I told him I felt misunderstood by my soccer-playing peers, and that I was afraid that the cartels were going to kill me because of my father's position as the country's attorney general. I told him I was madly in love with a French-Mexican girl who sometimes seemed to really like me, and other times seemed to find me absolutely unbearable. All along, García Márquez laughed and shook his head.
"Stop writing about Persian astrologers," he told me, "and start writing about your girlfriend and your family. That's almost certainly better material."
As we said good-bye, he handed me an advance copy of Memoirs of My Melancholy Whores. The inscription on the title page read, in terrible handwriting, "For Nicolás, with affection, from his competitor."
I did not sleep that night. Instead, I began writing a novel.
Many years later, in a subway station in New York, I saw an ad featuring a picture of a quaint Latin American town. The bright colors of the houses had been made brighter by an aggressive Photoshop filter. The image suggested a quiet place where not much happened, where you could go on vacation and maybe fall in love. On the top right corner of the photograph, written in white lettering against the blue sky, were three words: Colombia, Magical Realism.
I remember I thought that inspiring a tourist slogan is perhaps the ultimate test of literary greatness. Unlike some of his immediate predecessors in Latin American literature — the neobaroque writers — García Márquez produced serious, complicated novels that nonetheless appealed to large audiences. He sold so many books that it was almost inevitable he would end up becoming a brand.
Each time I begin to feel depressed by the commercialization of Gabo's work, though, I remember the extent to which he was a man of the people. He wrote in a style that was both beautiful and easy to understand, such that nearly everyone with a basic education could read and enjoy his work. Crowds would gather to greet him whenever he left his beautiful house in Mexico City. He was the patron saint of sinners, and he walked among us in the flesh.
What always struck me the most is that people loved him not with the screaming adoration lavished on celebrities, but with the intimate affection reserved for family members. The people of Latin America — myself included — felt he understood us like a grandfather. We read about the Buendía house and saw our grandmother's house. We read about Florentino Ariza's pursuit of Fermina Daza and saw our own desperate love affairs. We read about the general in his labyrinth and saw our own broken democracies. And so, when I moved to the United States and fell in love with an American girl, I gave her a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Gabriel García Márquez died on Thursday at age 87, leaving behind a wife, two children, and thousands of pages. His death saddens me, as it does millions, but my sadness is not overwhelming. He had a long, full life, and wrote so well about our coming to terms with loss that I'm sure he left us in peace.
Our task, then, is not so much to mourn him, but rather figure out how to best remember him. I wouldn't presume to have an answer, but I do have a suggestion. We should read, write, love, and fight with an attitude that seeks out the marvelous in everything — with eyes that are willing to see the magic of reality.