The most beautiful trait of Gabriel García Márquez is his regular homage to the storytellers he learnt from. The writer remembers Gabo for his magic realism.
Many years ago, after I had finished reading One Hundred Years of Solitude in my small hostel room in Delhi, I thought about the story of my grandfather’s botched treasure hunt; an expedition that would traumatise our family for generations. Or that is what he thought.
A few years before her death in January 1994, when I asked my grandmother about the mission, she had refused to talk about it except that it was conducted without her approval, and it had happened before the Big Earthquake of 1950. During my childhood years, I would hear the story of my grandfather’s treasure hunt to a mysterious lake in Sonapur, several times from my father and my uncles and old, unmarried aunts — who preserved stories and sorrows like silver and gold coins from a previous generation. Few could tell me the story completely. The rest, who could, concluded the story differently, adding new twists and turns.
After completing One Hundred Years, I thought about this incident in our family because just like García Márquez’s epic novel, the centre of this often-retold event in our extended family’s history is a book and many still believe, my grandfather failed in the expedition because he didn’t follow the exact rituals before making an exact copy of the verses in the bark book, that he would chant aloud while summoning the pots of gold to emerge from the mysterious lake. With a grandmother from Mayong –— the Indian Hogwarts, where the tradition of sorcery has been maintained since the days of the puranas — magic, spells, sorcerers and curses were part of our daily conversations. In college, I tried to write these stories. I struggled with it, but couldn’t, until I read García Márquez.
Every writer needs permission from another writer to write what he or she wants to write. This is a permission that tells the struggling author that his world is worthy of literature and one of the authors I am deeply grateful for giving me this approval is García Márquez. The mysterious but little known world of Mayong and Teteliguri — where I spent my childhood in, places I like to set most of my fiction in — seemed like a worthwhile outpost to excavate. Joan Didion says, “Certain places seem to exist mainly because someone has written about them... Oxford, Mississippi, belongs to William Faulkner... A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.” Macondo, didn’t exist on official maps, but existed with more life and vigour because Márquez wrote obsessively about it, inspiring many to write obsessively about worlds that don’t exists on maps.
In fact, this is the beautiful irony of Márquez’s worlds. Remedios the Beauty ascends to heaven and a brutally stabbed Santiago Nasar walks to his mother, holding his hanging intestines to tell her, “They’ve killed me, Wene child.” These are events — Remedios’s promotion and Nasar’s ghost walk — that may not have taken place in official records, but they existed in the conversations of the society Márquez came from, in the imagination of people he knew and from there Márquez’s technique of magic realism stemmed: real events, real imaginations, real places and people.
But Márquez didn’t employ magic realism merely as a trope to surprise and shock readers. It was rather a way of resisting colonial stereotypes about Latin America that depicted it as a land of excess and abundance; to resist that, one has to replete narratives about postcolonial Latin America with more excess, with more detail and juxtapose them with real events to create a heady mix of realities existing in multiple planes. Modern Latin America too is a land of another kind of excess, which makes his fiction full of exhausting details a perfect fit. In this Latin America, dictator General Antonio López de Santa Anna held a magnificent funeral for the leg he lost in a war and General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez invented a pendulum to detect poison in his food, installed street lamps draped in red to thwart an epidemic of scarlet fever and had 30,000 peasants massacred to suit his needs. Before independence, a German mission involved in the construction of a railroad suggested the tracks be made of gold, instead of iron, across the Isthmus of Panama.
Márquez’s realism was rooted in these narratives, along with the local, intimate stories of the societies and people he knew so well just like the stories of Mayong I know so well — where a woman dies in childbirth because someone has charmed a bowl against her name leaving it upside down or where bark books of spells draw energy from the souls trapped in its pages. The political and social realities of Márquez’s immediate context were ludicrous and extravagant to the extent that they sound magical, wonderful and surprising but there is nothing in his fictional world that “doesn’t exist”. This reality is, “not of paper, but one that lives within us and determines each instant of our countless daily deaths, and that nourishes a source of insatiable creativity, full of sorrow and beauty,” he says. For authors who believe magic realism is about flying carpets, talking parrots and girls surviving on butterfly diets, here is a cautionary tale: magic realism is nothing that doesn’t exist, but it is the opposite.
Over the years, I have obsessively followed stories associated with Márquez — how he locked himself in a room to write his most famous novel and emerged from it with a large manuscript but had no money to even mail it to his publisher; about his diligent life as journalist; his relationship with Mercedes; but the most important and beautiful aspect about Márquez is his regular homage to the storytellers he learnt from. In this aspect, he is not only generous, but also humble. In the many interviews and profiles, he not only talks about Faulkner and Kafka, in whose works he found permission to write the way he wanted to, but also his grandmother who told the most extraordinary stories with a straight face. No doubt, his prose has the quality and voice of ancient storytellers — a gift, almost no other contemporary novelist has.
Faulkner said that every writer wants to beat the writer he admires in his own game. Márquez called Faulkner “my master”. I am not sure if he wanted to defeat him in his own game, but for a Faulkner and Márquez lover, a quiet visitation of their works reveals that though Márquez learnt immensely from Faulkner, if the latter were alive, he would have learnt immensely from the Colombian storyteller.
Aruni Kashyap is the author of The House with the Thousand Stories.
In Evil Hour (1962)
One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)
The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975)
Love in the Time of Cholera (1985)
The General in His Labyrinth (1989)
Of Love and Other Demons (1994)
The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor (1970)
The Solitude of Latin America (1982)
The Fragrance of Guava (1982, with Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza)
Clandestine in Chile (1986)
News of a Kidnapping (1996)
A Country for Children (1998)
Living to Tell the Tale (2002)
Apart from these, Marquez had also published four novellas and five collections of short stories.