A light has gone out.
Gabriel García Márquez wielded incomparable influence over literature across the world, during his career. His development and mastery of what came to be known as magical realism helped to bring poetry into fiction in ways both blazing and subtle. And his ability to blend the hard facts of life in the human space with sometimes raucous fantasy provided a new way of illustrating the dangerous absurdity of the conventions that dictate much of what we live.
It is not often you can say that a writer’s style itself indicates a deep current of humanitarian zeal, but García Márquez infused his characters, and their adventures, with an artful confusion that leaves readers knowing more about human relationships and more willing to explore questions of their own integrity. In that respect, as in others, García Márquez had a talent of a kind that cannot be taught.
There was in his writing a way of flowing through experience that required long years of imaginative observation and a mind capable of bringing together hints and traces of widely divergent influences. By opening up the space for exploration of widely divergent influences, he made his fiction about individuals and intimate settings into allegories for the full and terrible sweep of history. In love born and lost, there was the hellfire of war, and in the politics of society-wide conquest, there was the shabby brutality of personal frustration and friction.
It is possible, indeed necessary, to say of his passing that a light has gone out. We are a little less brilliant, a little less visionary, a little less intuitive than we were just the moment before this one. In A Hundred Years of Solitude, thought of widely as his masterpiece, García Márquez gives us many memorable burst of magical realism.
In one, a contagion of insomnia leads to mass amnesia; the people of Macondo have to attach notes to everything to remember what it is called: “table”, “sugar”, “cow”. Eventually, on the way out of town, a sign is affixed to the gates that reads “God exists.” He is commenting on culture’s need to provide means of collective remembering, to create a sense of unified identity, but he is also commenting on the uncertainty of what we think we might know.
A fascinating implication of the episode is the urgency with which we use language to give shape to our world. The names we use for things provide a common ground on which we can relate to one another and cooperate. Without that, without the clarity of a way to share knowledge, it is unclear what, if anything, we could do. Could we avoid conflict, find nourishment with sufficient regularity, enjoy the comforts of culture and shared living?
The universe might be far more scary than we can imagine, if we didn’t have this way of doing, remembering, sharing. So, in a subtle way, García Márquez gave us a way to value the power of language itself. Beyond that, he showed us how the recombination of everyday elements of lived experience could add ponderous poetic weight to almost anything.
In another stunning passage, a period of mourning is accented by a rain of flowers. The image, at first, is incredibly beautiful, almost wistful. But the rain of flowers does not abate, and quickly the town is flooded with a suffocating blanket of flower petals. The mourning itself becomes a danger, and an entire people is on the verge of being swallowed by its own commitment to grief. Death begets death? Mortality forces mortality? Or is it a problem of vision? Beyond certain threshold moments, we find it hard to see the future; we choke on our own sense of loss. Life stops, and so life stops.
One of the great contributions of magical realism to the space of human culture and contemplation is in finding ways to bring action into the experience of emotion and intellect. What would otherwise transpire strictly in the heart or mind moves into the world around us, and what is felt or thought becomes somehow both an agent of history and the fabric of history, in turn determining the fate of those it touches. Incessantly, the writing of Gabriel García Márquez adds insight and allows the inner life to be the life of the world, as in so many ways, it already is.
We don’t often like to ask ourselves what role our habits or our choices play in permitting or allowing the injustices we suffer or oppose. We don’t like to think that when we diligently set about shaping and recalling our memories, we might also be forgetting about vital and indispensable influences. We don’t like to think that precisely where we feel most active, we might be indulging in comforts that ultimately imperil us.
The mystery of how and why human beings allow tyrants to rise over them, in government or in more intimate settings, is not easily explained, but García Márquez does his best to take us through the agonizing distortions that make such harm possible. He gives us play and plasticity where we think we are experiencing severity and deprivation. He shows us that our frailty can be forceful and our power can be precarious. Principle filters in, slowly, as it becomes apparent that, despite the romp and pillage of a world full of deception, one’s character is resilient.
To read One Hundred Years of Solitude, or Love in the Time of Cholera, or The Autumn of the Patriarch, is to see the vibrant crashing together of hard-boiled political life and soft-centered emotional selfhood. The result is a mythology of seemingly random interventions that somehow pull together, as if from nothing, a powerful description of what it is to be human, to struggle with meaning, and to be always facing the question of who is really worthy of trust and sacrifice.
The answer might be: anyone, or at least anyone who has never done evil. The problem is: in a world full of fantastical divergences, as it turns out our world might be said to be, it is not so clear who has and has not been a part of what happens. And what happens includes a lot of terrible things.
Some speculate that the magical realist writers sought to escape a world they preferred not to look at head-on, but García Márquez did face the world head-on. He was a serious journalist who also knew the value of putting spirit and imagination into language in order to reveal what would otherwise remain hidden. Though it is not often the way he is characterized, in this sense, his magical realism was a kind of unflinching investigation into what is. He knew what was wrong with our interactions, and he grappled valiantly with that greatest of human problems: the question of why we don’t do better than we do.
We owe a lot of what we know about discussing the subtleties of human ambition and frailty in terms at once grave and gleaming to the imagination of Gabriel García Márquez. And what we must do, now that he is not with us in person, is to find a way not to go back to sleep, and also not to forget the vastness of the terrain he opened up.