An Unbelievable Mythmaker

Gabriel García Márquez had the strange fortune of living the life of five people. That’s what my father said while he gathered us around the radio in order to listen to the Caribbean writer give his Nobel speech from Stockholm. The year was 1982. I must have been thirteen years-old, already a voracious reader trying to imitate with the help of a fountain pen the short stories that so fascinated me, and mostly failing.

I remember thinking that “Stockholm” was a peculiar name. It sounded unreal, fitter for one of the imaginary places one read about in Julio Cortázar’s fantastic stories, Edgar Allan Poe’s macabre inventions, Alberto Manguel’s borgesian encyclopedias, or Alejo Carpentier’s tales of the marvelous real. For the child I was back then, immured in the culture of the greater Caribbean that informed the habits of my father’s family, Stockholm sounded magical and fantastic. García Márquez was, on the other hand, the very definition of realism.

The first time I heard his name was in the context of a family story. Every time the compadres, close friends and relatives of my father, would gather to drink and dine the tale was told of the young woman sent to the Casa Grande, the big house located in the Guajira province that belonged to my Great-grandfather, a rebel General named Sabas Socarrás. The young girl was hiding, not of her own accord but because her father disapproved of the advances of a young and handsome Romeo.

The girls’ name was Luisa. That of the young Romeo was Eligio. The best part of the tale came when my father told his other compadres what happened next. “Do you remember?”, he would ask rhetorically. “After young Eligio was caught kissing the girl, her father the Colonel ran after him, pistol in hand and ready to shoot him, without stopping to even take a breath, from Aracataca all the way to La Guajira”. They invariably burst in laughter. “Of course we remember”, they would say matter-of-factly.

Matter-of-factly. You see, no one could run non-stop from the small town of Aracataca, in the state of Magdalena, to La Guajira, which is another state. Let alone a man of the Colonel’s age. And yet, my father and his compadres would tell each other stories like this one as if they were facts, gossip. I grew up listening to them, and thought them true even though I knew they were impossible. It took me a while to realize this was exactly how García Márquez’s literary persona had been formed.

A propos, Luisa, the girl of the story, was the daughter of Colonel Nicolás Márquez, who had fought in the War of a Thousand Days with my Great-grandfather. Her full name was Luisa Santiaga Márquez Iguarán. As for the young Romeo – a poor man, better known as a handsome seducer of young and pretty girls who were beyond his station, according to my father’s sister – was Gabriel Eligio García. Gabriel Eligio was indeed a humble telegraphist in the town of Aracataca. Luisa Santiaga was one the most marriageable girls in town.

The rest is history, as they say, although it sounds like a theatrical play or a Latin American soap-opera. Suffice to say that the Elizabethan ploy to hide Luisa from Gabriel Eligio in the big house of my great-grandparents failed. A failure of epic proportions. For it actually stoked the fire of their passion, raising their love to epic or tragic levels depending on whose side of the story you take. I prefer epic, since the fruit of their unending love was a little boy named Gabriel García Márquez. He would grow up to become our very own Homer of the Caribbean. No exaggeration, thus, in my use of the term.

That’s how I learned of the existence of our most famous, now sadly departed myth-maker. You can now understand why for me the name García Márquez didn’t chime with fantastic literature, for he was but a character in the family history. Yet, as you know, it only takes turning family stories inside out to reveal in them the utter unfamiliarity of the world, which functions as their very core precisely because of their apparent familiarity.

That’s what Gabriel García Márquez realized many years later as he traveled on a long melting road in the fierce heat of the Mexican peninsula, when the structure of what would become One Hundred years of Solitude came to him almost fully formed. Reminiscing that day, García Márquez observed he could have stopped the car and dictated the whole saga of the Buendía family to a typist on the side of the road.

To show the world we would otherwise see as fully domesticated and familiar for what it is, fractal, incomplete, and utterly other, is the most realist gesture. Yet, in its infinite diversity and radical multiplicity the world we foolishly believe to revolve around us can only be revealed and described as truly other and therefore marvelous.

As García Márquez himself said, he was not responsible for this invention. For such was the insight hidden in the heart of hearts of the stories he heard, just as we did, from our grandparents and parents, men and women of the Greater Caribbean, and they in turn from their parents and grandparents, and so on and so forth all the way back to the African and Amerindian slaves trafficked into and throughout these shores after the sixteenth century to be eaten alive by the bloody maw of the sugar plantation economy. The plantations, coastal cities, and sea routes that sowed the seeds of the world as we know it: this world of global consumption eating us all alive.

Some of our African and Iberian ancestors were Yoruba, others Muslim (“New Christians”, forcibly converted East, West and North-African Muslims and Jews expelled from Iberia, whose traditions had travelled back and forth through the Indian Ocean). Others became Catholics with a twist. Yet others were Amerindian or mixed.

The twist was given a name, the term for the unworldly experience of Christian conquerors and missionaries when they encountered the “cannibal” inhabitants of the carib islands, which they had the good fortune , born of a misunderstanding, of calling “Indians”: they spoke of the “inconstancy” of their soul. The term designated what was for them (and for many today, still) truly unthinkable: that the “savages” believed in nothing because they worshipped nothing. And they worshipped nothing because they obeyed no one.

García Márquez did not invent anything in the sense that he was a rightful successor of that “cannibal” perspective. He declared as much in a little known but crucial piece of his, a short essay published in the 1950s by a newspaper in the city of Barranquilla, titled “Possibilities of Anthropophagy”. It was the first writing of his that I laid eyes upon as a young man. It changed me. In that sense, García Márquez invented everything anew.

I believe that part of his legacy remains untapped, but that’s another story. Let me go back to the day we all gathered around the radio to listen to his Nobel speech. He spoke of a fantastic hero, “a Promethean president who had died in his burning palace fighting an entire army, alone”. That too wasn’t fantasy. He was talking about president Salvador Allende of Chile. That became the origin of my current book, which is why I titled it Story of a Death Foretold. Let that be my personal homage to a character in a family story, now Universal History.

Oscar Guardiola-Rivera is the author of the award-winning What If Latin America Ruled the World? and more recently Story of a Death Foretold (Bloomsbury). Both were included on the Books of the Year list in 2010 and 2013 published by the Financial Times and The Observer, respectively. He's a columnist for The Guardian and El Espectador, and teaches Law and Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London.

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