Love, politics, and the fundamental humanity of Gabriel García Márquez

Gabriel García Márquez died on Thursday April 17, aged 87. EPA/Mario Guzman

Novelist, short story writer, journalist, film critic, writer of screen plays, Gabriel García Márquez was a man of many facets and extraordinary skill. He achieved that rare feat for a Latin American writer of living by his creative work, without ever losing his passion for journalism.

The success of One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967 spearheaded what was later understood as the boom of Latin American literature in the 60s and 70s. Within 15 years, the novel had been translated into multiple languages and won the Nobel Prize. The significance of his success was not that there were imitators (there were, though few were any good). It was that he inspired confidence in other writers and attracted attention to a literary world that was almost completely ignored internationally up to that point beyond the likes of Borges and Neruda.

The political atmosphere in the USA and Europe at the time favoured the emergence of radical voices from outside the literary mainstream, and the Latin Americans fitted the bill. But in the context of the Cold War García Márquez’s left-wing views led to his being refused entry to the USA, and later to his only being granted limited visas.

Symbolic funeral parade through the streets of Aracataca, his hometown in Colombia. EPA/STR

García Márquez’s work is so universally applicable because he writes about the most fundamentally human of topics – politics and love.

Politics are never presented directly, either in discussions between characters or in the framing of events – he’s far too subtle to adopt that approach. But he depicts the damaging effect of politics on individual lives in ways which imply a bigger picture.

In the early fiction, he presents situations in which characters fall victim to political corruption and the violent exercise of power. These exploitative rich pay a high price with their debilitating illnesses and failure to enjoy their success. By contrast, the honourable poor (like the colonel in No-one Writes to the Colonel) cling to what they know to be true, but are defenceless against a manipulated political system.

On the larger canvas of One Hundred Years of Solitude, a US-owned banana company “invades” the central village, Macondo. The devastating effects of its presence constitute an unanswerable critique of the commercial and political power of Latin America’s unneighbourly neighbour.

And then in Autumn of the Patriarch, we see the other side of authoritarian politics in a pathetic dictator. His power has isolated him from human contact and drained him of his humanity.

A ceremony for the writer at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. EPA/Jose Mendez

Such solitude is the dark underside of García Márquez’s romantic exploration of love. He consistently shows love as an irresistible force, something which overwhelms the rational mind and sweeps those in its grasp to the social margins. It is small wonder that love in his fiction is at times confused with virulent diseases such as cholera and rabies.

The suffering inflicted by love bears out the notion that “nothing in this world is more difficult than love”, though fundamentally in his fiction there is nothing to compare with its intoxicating, life-affirming wonder. While immersed in the novel, it seems entirely understandable that the extraordinarily persistent protagonist of Love in the Time of Cholera remains true throughout his life to his adolescent passion, even when separated for decades.

Such virtually superhuman devotion relates to two significant aspects of García Márquez’s writing: his faith in the force of the human spirit and his exploration of the interplay between reality and imagination. His major characters often display an energy and a resilience in the face of hardship which is nothing short of heroic. Such characterisation is clearly linked to his use of magic realism, a technique reliant on the fertility of his imaginative projections.

But it has become tediously automatic to invoke magic realism as soon as his fiction is mentioned. Although a significant element in some of it, the danger is that the richness of his work is reduced to mere exoticism by the ill-defined application of this label. It is as well to bear in mind his telling assertion that there wasn’t a single line in his novels which was not based on reality.

His imaginative exploration of reality highlights its unpredictable strangeness and its capacity to produce wonder. Where he blurs the border between reality and fantasy it is not escapist – instead it uncovers a poetic truth at the heart of the apparently familiar.

The real magic of his writing and the basis of its seduction lies in his consummate skill as a storyteller. His is a classical mastery allied with a deceptive simplicity, manifest in his ability to sustain complex narratives with clarity and poise.

With the exception of the experimental Autumn of the Patriarch, his style is restrained and meticulously honed. He was incapable of writing a badly turned sentence. The transparency and elegance of his Spanish is a source of immense delight and, allied with his gentle humour, underpins the fundamental humanity of his view of the world.