On the death of Gabriel García Márquez

by Corey Robin on April 23, 2014

Greg Grandin writes in The Nation:

Born in 1927, Gabriel García Márquez was 87 when he died last week. According to his younger brother, Jaime, he had been suffering from complications caused by chemotherapy, which saved his life but accelerated his dementia, a disease that apparently ran in his family. He’d call his brother and ask to be reminded about simple things. “He has problems with his memory,” Jaime reported a few years back.

Remembering and forgetting are García Márquez’s great themes, so it would be easy to read meaning into his senility. The writer was fading into his own solitude, suffering the same fate he assigned to the inhabitants of his fictional town of Macondo, in his most famous novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Struck by an insomnia plague, “sinking irrevocably into the quicksand of forgetfulness,” they had to make signs telling themselves what to remember. “This is a cow. She must be milked.” “God exists.”

The climax of One Hundred Years of Solitude is famously based on a true historical event that took place shortly after García Márquez’s birth: in 1928, in the Magdalena banana zone on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, not far from where the author was born, the Colombian military opened fire on striking United Fruit Company plantation workers, killing an unknown number. In the novel, García Márquez uses this event to capture the profane fury of modern capital, so powerful it not only can dispossess land and command soldiers but control the weather. After the killing, the company’s US administrator, “Mr. Brown,” summons up an interminable whirlwind that washes away not only Macondo but any recollection of the massacre. The storm propels the reader forward toward the novel’s famous last line, where the last descendant of the Buendía family finds himself in a room reading a gypsy prophesy: everything he knew and loved would be “wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men…because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.”

It’s a powerful parable of imperialism. But the real wonder of the book is not the way it represented the past, including Colombia’s long history of violent civil war, but how it predicted the future.

One Hundred Years of Solitude first appeared in Spanish in Buenos Aires in May 1967, a moment when it was not at all clear that the forces of oblivion had the upper hand. That year, the Brazilian Paulo Freire, in exile in Chile and working with that country’s agrarian reform, published his first book, Education as the Practice of Freedom, which kicked off a revolution in pedagogy that shook Latin America’s top-down, learn-by-rote-memorization school system to its core. The armed and unarmed New Left, in Latin America and elsewhere, seemed to be in ascendance. In Chile, the Popular Unity coalition would soon elect Salvador Allende president. In Argentina, radical Peronists were on the march. Even in military-controlled Brazil, there was a thaw. Che in Bolivia still had a few months left.

In other words, the doom forecast in One Hundred Years was not at all foregone. But within just a few years of the novel’s publication, the tide, with Washington’s encouragement and Henry Kissinger’s blessing, turned. By the end of the 1970s, military regimes ruled the continent and Operation Condor was running a transnational assassination campaign. Then, in the 1980s in Central America, Washington would support genocide in Guatemala, death squads in El Salvador and homicidal “freedom fighters” in Nicaragua.

Political violence was not new to Latin America, but these counterinsurgent states executed a different kind of repression. The terror was aimed at eliminating not just opponents but also alternatives, targeting the kind of social-democratic solidarity and humanism that powered the postwar Latin American left. Hundreds of thousands of people were disappeared and an equal number tortured. Hundreds of communities were, like Macondo, wiped off the face of the earth.

It is this feverish, ideological repression, meant to instill collective amnesia, that García Márquez so uncannily anticipates in One Hundred Years. “There must have been three thousand of them,” says the novel’s lone survivor of the banana massacre, referring to the murdered strikers. “There haven’t been any dead here,” he’s told.

A year and a half after García Márquez published that dialogue, a witness to the October 2, 1968, Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City cried, “Look at the blood… there was a massacre here!” To which a soldier replied, “Oh lady, it is obvious that you don’t know what blood is.” Hundreds of student protesters were killed or wounded that day by the Mexican military, though for years the government denied the extent of the slaughter. Even the torrential downpour in One Hundred Years is replicated at Tlatelolco: as Mexican tanks rolled in to seal off the exit streets, one witness recalls that “the drizzle turned into a storm…and I thought that now we are not going to hear the shooting.”

As a young writer, García Márquez felt constrained by the two genre options available to him: either florid, overly symbolic modernism or quaint folklorism. But Gaitán offered an alternative. Upon hearing that speech, García Márquez “understood all at once that he had gone beyond the Spanish country and was inventing a lingua franca for everyone.” García Márquez describes the style as a distinctly Latin American vernacular that, by focusing on his country’s worsening repression and rural poverty, opened a “breach” in the arid discourse of liberalism, conservatism and even Marxism.

García Márquez flung himself through that breach, developing a voice that, when fully realized in One Hundred Years, took dependency theory (a social-science argument associated with the Latin American left that held that the prosperity of the First World depended on the impoverishment of the Third) and turned it into an art form.

If Castro is autumn’s patriarch, Allende is the democratic lost in history’s labyrinth. Drawing on his by then finely tuned sense of historical existentialism, García Márquez presents Allende as a fully realized Sartrean anti-hero, alone in the presidential palace, “aged, tense and full of gloomy premonitions.” The Chilean embodied and confronted an “irreversible dialectic”: Allende’s life proved that democracy and socialism were not only compatible but that the fulfillment of the former depended on the achievement of the latter. Over the course of his political career, he was able to work though democratic institutions to lessen the misery of a majority of Chileans, bringing them into the political system, which in turn made the system more inclusive and participatory. But his life, or, rather, his death, also proved the opposite: democracy and socialism were incompatible, because those who are threatened by socialism used democratic freedoms—subverting the press, corrupting opposition parties and unions, and inflaming the military—to destroy democracy.

Read it all here, at The Nation buy

Speaking of Grandin, I’ve been meaning to blog about his latest book The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World—the true story behind Melville’s Benito Cereno—but I haven’t had time. If you don’t know the Melville novella, you should read it right away. And then buy Grandin’s book. That old cliché about truth being stranger than fiction? There’s a reason it’s a cliché…You’ll understand what I mean if you read Benito Cereno. Don’t want to give away the plot so I’m afraid I can’t say more.



JakeB 04.23.14 at 10:06 pm

Early in Garcia Marquez’s autobiography, he is travelling to the town he grew up in with his mother to sell an old family house. He passes by the town where the massacre occurred . . . one of the things he talks about thereafter is trying to find out more about what happened from the locals, all of whom have different, shockingly different memories — the body counts people remember range from nearly 0 to more than a thousand, as I recall.


JW Mason 04.23.14 at 10:36 pm

Thanks, this is fascinating. I didn’t know any of this about Marquez, who I admit is a writer I’ve never been able to get excited about. The political context makes him more interesting.


Matt 04.24.14 at 12:03 am

One of my favorite things from Marquez was his essay, “The USSR: 22,400,000 square kilometres without a single Coca-Cola advertisement”. It is surprisingly hard to find. (I read it on paper when I was living in Russia, and can’t find a copy on line, though I’ll admit I’ve only tried without extremely great effort.) You can read a bit about it here:


godoggo 04.24.14 at 3:44 am

I just read a book that talked a lot about how dependency theory supposedly lead to a lot of bad policy in Latin America. Beats me though. Anyway I’ll admit I only ever read Love In The Time Of Cholera. I thought it was not bad.


godoggo 04.24.14 at 4:34 am

I did like how the protagonist’s obsessive love kept causing bad stuff to happen to minor characters without his really noticing.


Gareth Wilson 04.24.14 at 5:05 am

If you don’t like death squads and homicidal “freedom fighters”, you probably shouldn’t have mentioned Che…


bad Jim 04.24.14 at 5:51 am

A friend, my mother’s erstwhile caregiver, grew up in El Savador during its civil war, and walked to school past the bodies of insurgents which the army did not allow to be buried. She is of course a big fan of García Márquez.

One funny thing: I gave her a 23-and-me kit as a birthday present, and we shared our genetic snapshots (my heritage is blue-on-blue while hers is a rainbow). She was puzzled by the ability to smell asparagus metabolite in urine, and didn’t remember the way it figured in the beginning of “Love in the Time of Cholera”. Perhaps I noticed it only because my mother loved asparagus as much as the elderly husband in the novel. Her Alzheimer’s also accelerated after hip surgery, possibly as the result of anesthesia.


Jesús Couto Fandiño 04.24.14 at 11:21 am

… Inflaming the military to the point of a very bloody coup d’etat is a democratic freedom?

Well, speaking bullshit may be, but at the point of actual conspiracy, it is treason.


Tim 04.24.14 at 7:30 pm

The heart of Grandin’s review, where he writes of the political change in the Americas in the 70s and 80s (and praises Gabriel Garcia Marquez for anticipating it), is fleshed out in his book The Last Colonial Massacre.


William Berry 04.25.14 at 1:13 am

Along with Borges, one of my LA literary heroes (In translation; I have been studying Spanish for a good while, and can read it fairly well, but haven’t really tackled Spanish of literary quality. One day I hope to be able to read the lovely hard-cover edition of Cien A[ny]os de Soledad I purchased in Lima some years back).

Possibly my favorite opening sentence, ever (from memory; please forgive if imperfect): “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Jose Aureliano Buendia remembered that far-off day when his father took him to discover ice.”

A favorite, very funny, dialogue bit: “Goddamn it”, he shouted, “Macondo is surrounded by water on all sides!”


William Berry 04.25.14 at 1:33 am

Kindly excuse the digression, but I can’t resist expressing something brought to mind by that dialogue bit in my last post:

There is no interlocutor, so it isn’t really dialogue, just a quote of a character’s solitary declarative utterance. And this is typical of Garcia Marquez’ (sorry, I have no convenient diacritical marks here; i-Pad) style in 100 Yrs. This technique is a crucial aspect of the whole of the novel and develops atmosphere in a way that powerfully supports the theme of the learned helplessness of those who (prefer to) live in isolation from the world.

I haven’t done a study, but I would guess that 95% of the text is straight narration. Dialogue, for the most part, is just brief punctuation of the whole by a handful of declarative statements and exchangles. This is an in-your-face violation of the teachers’ dictums “show, don’t tell”, and to use lots of dialogue. Only the great objectivist masters of the authorial omniscient can get away with this. Garcia Marquez is an extreme model for this style. You are helpless in the grip of his limpid and melancholy (but sometimes very funny) prose.


William Berry 04.25.14 at 3:38 pm

Well, dead thread and all, but, yeah: “Benito Cereno”. This is Melville at peak of form. Cited by John Gardner as an example of the grand diction that is utterly phoney when attempted by any other than a real master of tone, style, and idiom.

“The sea, though undulated into long roods of swells, seemed fixed, and was sleeked at the surface like waved lead that has cooled and set in the smelter’s mold. The sky seemed a gray surtout. Flights of troubled gray fowl, kith and kin with flights of troubled gray vapors among which they were mixed, skimmed low and fitfully over the waters, as swallows over meadows before storms. Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come.”

Can’t help but think that Conrad must have pored over such passages of Melville as this one many times.

I would suggest only Katherine Ann Porter’s “Old Mortality” as a competitor for best English-language long short story (not novella) ever.

Damn, I really love,this stuff! Literature is fun.

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