One of my favorite authors died last month. Gabriel García Márquez was a Colombian-born journalist and author. My introduction to him came in my World Lit I class at Chapman University when we read “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” followed the next year (World Lit II) by “Love in the Time of Cholera.” On my own I have read many of his fiction and nonfiction works, including “No One Writes to the Colonel,” which I reread just before journeying to his native Colombia in order to write my own book “Guerrilla Hostage.”
While in Colombia I sidestepped my primary task (research for my book) occasionally to ask some of the people I met how they felt about Márquez. By American standards his writing has always been considered off-beat (such is Magic Realism as a literary tool) – marvelously so if you enjoy the genre – and I was curious how Márquez’s own people felt about his writing. I expected that Colombians would talk about Márquez the same way Americans talk about Dean Koontz, with a touch of objective knowing. Such was not the case.
Speaking to Colombians, I very quickly realized that Márquez did not write about a made-up sub-culture in their native land; he wrote about the very lifeblood that pulses through the vast majority of Colombians. It was, in fact, just as Márquez wrote in “No One Writes to the Colonel”: “To the Europeans, South America is a man with a moustache, a guitar, and a gun. … They don’t understand the problem.” …Nor I daresay do we Americans understand the Colombian culture, steeped as it is in real (symbolic if not actually believed) magic realism. I took my own stab at explaining this lack of understanding in a magazine article I wrote after returning from Colombia:
Watching TV recently, I experienced a déjà-vu moment. It was a remake of a decades-old
Yuban coffee commercial: The richest coffee in the world from the most exotic place
in the world—Colombia, backdropped by a garden paradise. How often had I seen this
commercial as a teenager in the 1970s and dreamed of getting lost in that lush jungle?
But instead of reveling in a bit of nostalgic make believe, I felt affronted. Having
just spent time in one of the most perpetually violent places on earth, it enraged me
to see Colombia distorted for commercial purposes to represent an exotic, carefree
locale. Certainly the Colombians who live in terror of the guerrillas (and in some
cases the military and paramilitary units) do not feel they are living in a Shangri-la.
Or do they? The mastery of Márquez’s writing is that while being brutally honest about Colombia and its problems, he also gave Colombians something to be very proud of. A Nobel Prize winner in literature (1982), not only did he elevate Colombians themselves as a resourceful people of mystique and beauty, he was also at least partially responsible for helping to bring the enchantment of Latin American geography and culture to the forefront of the world, allowing us to believe with all the power of imagination that they do indeed live in a Shangri-la. It’s a gift that Colombians will retain forever.
Photo courtesy of bknations.org