The soul of Gabriel

Published in The Express Tribune

‘The lepers in rose beds waved to him with a white handkerchief when he passed, hello general sir, hello, but he didn’t hear, he had heard nothing since the sunset mourning rites for Leticia Nazareno when he thought the birds in the cages were losing their voices from so much singing and he fed them his own honey so that they would sing louder.’

Yes, Gabriel García Márquez found magic in common clay. Scores of the uninitiated imitated Gabo; their works were thankfully pulped back to paper. The real writers were smarter, and wept instead — García Márquez made them realise what the real thing was. He made them understand, page after eye-watering page, that fiction could sear the spirit. And that they couldn’t dare try the same.

News of his passing was greeted with the obvious: the opening lines. It’s perfect prose posing as obituary, printed and reprinted all over the world with the same euphoria it caused in ‘67: ‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember the distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice’. Perfection.

A pity, then, that the press only resort to this bit of insta-gratification; the man was so much more than One Hundred Years of Solitude. But there was a method to the media’s madness: they explained his literary genius by reproducing it without comment. They knew, whatever the Márquez mystique, that people would Get It.

Because García Márquez touched your soul whatever your story was. It helped, of course, that our part of the world was as unreal as the worlds he wrote about. “You can’t imagine how much a dead man weighs,” the Colonel once told his grandson Gabriel, and made the young Márquez conscious of the mayhem that littered Latin America. But it was his grandmother that gave him his voice, who spoke of angels and demons, of miracles and magic.

But what made his words so gorgeous, his style so visual that his books breathed, swelled from something inside. In one sense, García Márquez too was a cliche: a journalist haunted by his own stories. And he sweated his fiction out, drafts that ripened for years and years before publication. This was a man that required a yellow rose on his writing desk each day.

‘García Márquez was a journalist before he was a novelist,’ wrote Cathal Kelly in The Globe and Mail. ‘He could produce column inches on demand, but he bled his fiction.’ For all those journos slaving away at the next Great Novel, there’s still hope (though all García Márquez ever bled was pure gold). What he bled is hard to say. The late Updike thought his work ‘a love letter to the dying light,’ — whatever that meant, it sounds about right.

To sample some, García Márquez wrote about disease and devotion in Love in the Time of Cholera. There was a lot of love in what he wrote (and not a little depravity): ‘The Antillean refugee Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, disabled war veteran, photographer of children, and his most sympathetic opponent in chess, had escaped the torments of memory with the aromatic fumes of gold cyanide.’

And then there’s Autumn of the Patriarch, a novel not of this world — a bad dream with few periods and fewer paragraphs. It’s tyranny at its most timeless: a Latin despot that reigns for over 200 years, worships his mother, sells the sea, fights the cows that attack his palace, and ‘can no longer remember anything’ much like the populace. It’s black in tone and simmering with panic – and there’s nothing quite like it.

On Thursday, he shared the sweet milk candy with the guards and put on his clean clothes, which were tight for him, and the patent leather boots. By Friday they had still not shot him.

The rest of his work, too, is songs of rage and joy, of brides and coups and old age. A rabid dog bites the Marquis’s daughter at a slavers’ port in Of Love and Other Demons, and the priest brought to exorcise her falls in love instead. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, the Colonel awaits execution in vain, ‘On Thursday, he shared the sweet milk candy with the guards and put on his clean clothes, which were tight for him, and the patent leather boots. By Friday they had still not shot him.’

His sense of mirth was probably his own. First World critics thought it a trick, ‘magical realism’: a bunch of half-truths that made readers delirious with pleasure. Man’s a snake charmer, they said. They were wrong. Says a dinner guest in his first novella, ‘Look, miss, just start boiling a little grass and bring that to me as if it were soup.’ When asked what kind, he replies, ‘Grass, ma’am. The kind that donkeys eat.’

When an interviewer asked García Márquez, over 40 years ago, whether this was pushing it, he was unmoved. ‘A man said that in my house,’ he answered. ‘In Mexico, surrealism runs through the streets. Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America.’

And the Latin America he dreamed was so much tangier, crueller, and crazier than rival goods on offer. To be well-read, they said, read Twain or Hemingway. Or try the Europeans, Dickens and Tolstoy. García Márquez read them all and, personal opinion though it may be, wrote themes more resonant, humanity more heart-squeezing, and sentences more beautiful than any of the above. Inarguably great, these gentlemen knew how to capture the human condition — García Márquez knew how to elevate the soul.

Put it down to the hot climate, the generals in moustaches, the sentimental peoples, the obsessive, compromised love, the lack of logic or reason that guides either ethos: Garcia Marquez has tugged heartstrings in this country more powerfully than any Western author could try for.

As the eulogies float in, ‘the greatest Colombian that ever lived,’ may have been passable coming from a tired old poet in Bogota. That it came from the president made us wonder whether he was right.

Alberto Fuguet once said, ‘To read García Márquez at a certain age can be very harmful, and I would forbid it. It can spoil you forever.’

It did, and we are grateful.