20th April 2014
On Thursday, April 17th, President Juan Manuel Santos declared three days of national mourning in observance of the death of Gabriel García Márquez, or “Gabo,” as he is affectionately known. The entire world mourns with Colombia as we also celebrate his life and legacy.
García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude was the first full-length novel I ever read in Spanish. Years before my first trip to Latin America or Colombia, and before Gabriel García Márquez was recognized with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, I was introduced to Latin America through his writings and those of his contemporaries. I loved the magnificent richness of the unfamiliar words that rolled off my tongue with trills that did not exist in my native English. I adored the energy, pragmatism, and resilience of Úrsula Iguarán, the matriarch of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and the sanity she represented while all around her became enmeshed in the craziness of war. I was delighted to encounter her later in other stories such as “Balthazar’s Marvelous Afternoon” (“La prodigiosa trade de Baltazar”), one of my favorite short stories from García Márquez’s collection, Big Mama’s Funeral (Los funerales de la Mamá Grande).
Like so many readers, I was drawn into the tropical world of Macondo, the fictionalized setting for many of García Márquez’s writings. Based on his home town of Aracataca on Colombia’s northern Caribbean coast, Macondo was a place where life was characterized by poverty and solitude, but also by deep and sometimes complicated webs of social relations and family ties across time and space.
In Macondo, the borders between history and memory, like those of life and death, are obscured. Synecdoche for Colombia and other places that have suffered the ravages of war and repression, Macondo is a place where collective amnesia is a survival strategy and the living and the dead must negotiate a strategy of co-existence.
Writers like García Márquez have been in the vanguard in navigating these difficult waters where history and memory collide. Their words and stories forge dams against the tides of oblivion. Remembering, in a context of war, takes imagination and courage.
Contradictions of a Country at War
In his life and writings, García Márquez gave voice to the contradictions of a country at war. I recall a conversation in One Hundred Years of Solitude between Colonel Aureliano Buendía (the commander who led 32 armed uprisings and lost them all) and Colonel Gerineldo Márquez that drives home the absurdity of war:
–“Tell me something, old friend: why are you fighting?”
–“What other reason could there be?” Colonel Gerineldo Márquez answered. “For the great Liberal party.”
–“You’re lucky because you know why,” he answered. “As far as I’m concerned, I’ve come to realize only just now that I’m fighting because of pride.”
–“That’s bad,” Colonel Gerineldo Márquez said.
Colonel Aureliano Buendía was amused at his alarm. “Naturally,” he said. “But in any case, it’s better than not knowing why you’re fighting.” He looked him in the eyes and added with a smile: “Or fighting, like you, for something that doesn’t have any meaning for anyone.”
The realism of war is the backdrop of the story, and it tempers the magic of modernity–represented by ice, daguerrotypes, magnets, and flying carpets–being introduced into Macondo. As President Santos noted, Gabo’s magical realism expresses the essence of a country that “combines happiness and pain, poetry and conflicts, in which the yellow butterflies cross the paths and beautiful girls named Remedios ascend to heaven amidst the sheets. A country where everything, above all life, is possible.”
Gabriel García Márquez, noted Santos, “worked with words and ideas. He gave them wings and made them soar to the heights of the imagination, and he made us believe… that which he dreamed was possible.”
It is ultimately our capacity for imagination and faith that allows hope to triumph over despair, life to conquer death, love to conquer hate, and forgiveness to win out over vengeance. In the end, it is our exercise of imagination that allows peace to claim victory over war.
In Stockholm, García Márquez spoke to the role of writers and storytellers in this mission when he accepted the Nobel Prize in 1982. He said, “We, the inventors of tales, who will believe anything, feel entitled to believe that it is not yet too late to engage in the creation of … a new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth.”
Peace and the Debt to Gabriel García Márquez
For the past three decades, García Márquez has offered his services to finding solutions to Colombia’s internal armed conflict, to giving Colombia a second chance. Gabo was a known democrat and leftist with many friends in high places. He defined himself as a “conspirator for peace” and mediated discreetly between the Colombian government and various guerrilla groups. “A culture of peace is the only thing that can save us from barbarity,” Gabo once said.
Gabo’s contacts with armed groups sometimes put him at risk. In 1981, he fled Colombia after being warned by friends and government officials that the army wanted to question him for alleged ties to the 19th of April Movement (M-19). He never returned to live in his homeland, but traveled there frequently and remained committed to peace. In 1985, García Márquez helped ex-President Belisario Betancur (1982-1986) to launch a peace process with the FARC, the ELN, the Army of Popular Liberation (EPL) and the M-19; talks with the M-19 were successful. In January 1999, García Márquez was an invited guest at the inauguration of the peace talks with the FARC in Caguán under the administration of Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002). Under the government of Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010) as well, Gabo offered his good offices in the search for a rapprochement with the National Liberation Army (ELN), which has yet to be consolidated. “Peace has a debt to pay to Gabriel García Márquez,” said ex-President Betancur this week.
Perhaps the best tribute to the life and memory of Gabriel García Márquez is to let our imaginations soar, seize fast to hope, and to redouble our efforts for peace. In this way, Gabo may truly Rest in Peace.