by Peter Byrne
"Our independence from Spanish domination did not put us beyond the reach of madness."
—From his 1982 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
(Swans - May 5, 2014) Nipped in the bud or bending low like an overgrown weed, most of us don't like dying. Wanting to live forever is our dirty little secret. Life is uncertain, but afterlife can be downright annoying. Consider the fate of poor Gabriel García Márquez, perhaps the greatest novelist of our time. Loud mouths are already calling him "Gabo" as if he were their pet dachshund. The Peruvian literary drudge, Mario Vargas Llosa, is back in the news because he took a swing at the deceased forty years ago. Worst of all Bill Clinton, the spokesman for, well, Bill Clinton, intoned a eulogy: "He captured the pain and joy of our common humanity in settings both real and magical. I was honored to be his friend and to know his great heart and brilliant mind for more than 20 years."
Clinton the glad-hander, America's immortal self-publicist, remains, like any cheap politician, everybody's friend, especially when they are dead and can't answer back. Or senile. What did Clinton think of García Márquez's "great heart" in 1976 when the Columbian wrote, "It was towards the end of 1969 that three generals from the Pentagon dined with five Chilean military officers in a house in the suburbs of Washington.[...] That dinner proved to be a historic meeting between the Pentagon and high-ranking officers of the Chilean military services. On other successive meetings, in Washington and Santiago, a contingency plan was agreed upon, according to which those Chilean military men who were bound most closely, heart and soul, to US interests would seize power in the event of Allende's Popular Unity coalition victory in the elections." The coalition did win and the outcome of the Washington plan was the death by gunshot of Salvador Allende. After a clique of officers were finished with him, a non-commissioned officer was ordered to smash his face in with a rifle butt.
Did Clinton think this scene was "real" or "magical"? "Magical realism" was of course the cliché that hurried readers of the novelist chirped about at cocktail parties. They didn't understand that the imagination of a novelist is always idiosyncratically his own and never photographic. What were the coincidental meetings of Charles Dickens's characters if not miraculous, i.e., magic? When Fyodor Dostoyevsky said that "the formula two plus two equals five is not without its attractions," he showed his disrespect for mere reporting. Moreover, if they read García Márquez's "Why Allende had to die," of 1976 in London's New Statesman, they would see that the hallucinatory was routine in South America.
The bloodlust of the Chilean army is part of its birthright, coming from that terrible school of hand-to-hand combat against the Araucanian Indians, a struggle that lasted 300 years. One of its forerunners boasted in 1620 of having killed more than 2,000 people with his own hands in a single action. Joaquín Edwards Bello relates in his chronicles that during an epidemic of exanthematic typhus the army dragged sick people out of their houses and killed them in a poison bath in order to put an end to the plague. During a seven-month civil war in 1891, 10,000 died in a series of gory encounters.
García Márquez himself fuzzily lumped fiction with journalism. In half a century of interviews he often allayed boredom by contradicting himself. He was a writer, not a professor paid to make distinctions. On occasion he even claimed that his true profession was that of a journalist. He did use journalistic method astutely. However, he knew the difference and got it right when he pointed out that in journalism just one false fact prejudices an entire article while in fiction one true fact gives legitimacy to a whole story.
The author, who in 1967 opened the Southern Hemisphere to our minds was no teacher. He was as far from agitprop as his hometown Aracataca was from Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires. Nor did he write progressive novels about right-thinking, one-dimensional people in the vein of Upton Sinclair or John Steinbeck. One Hundred Years of Solitude wasn't reporting either. García Márquez's politics, loud and clear, were kept to his journalism. They were what barred him from entry to the United States until the 1990s. He had asked for a visa thirty-three years before but always been refused as a subversive. The Nobel Prize for Literature and world celebrity status finally made him acceptable in the land of the free.
If his great breakthrough novel of 1967 was neither propaganda, muckraking, or idealism, what was it? Quite simply, storytelling. Its manner took shape in his mind during his long trek from childhood. The seed had been the tales his grandmother told him. It had taken him thirty years to find Doña Tranquilina Iguarán's tone again. Pages 376-7, Penguin Books, One Hundred Years of Solitude:
One morning two children pushed open the door and were startled at the sight of a filthy and hairy man who was still deciphering the parchments on the worktable. They did not dare go in, but they kept on watching the room. They would peep in through the cracks, whispering, they threw live animals in through the transom, and on one occasion they nailed up the door and the window and it took Aureliano half a day to force them open. Amused at their unpunished mischief, four of the children went into the room one morning while Aureliano was in the kitchen, preparing to destroy the parchments. But as soon as they laid hands on the yellowed sheets an angelic force lifted them off the ground and held them suspended in the air until Aureliano returned and took the parchments away from them. From then on they did not bother him.
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