García Márquez: The Spell Upon Reality
By Gabriel Blanchard
Full of the fantastic and romantic, these works remain grounded in a strange realism.
One of the most recent authors in our list, Gabriel García Márquez helped to bridge the gap between English-speaking audiences and the literature of Latin America. He wrote over twenty short story collections and novels. His two most famous titles are, as it happens, titles that may feel specially apropos now: Love In the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Love In the Time of Cholera starts out as a fairly traditional love story between a young man, Florentino, and a girl named Fermina, complete with Romeo-and-Juliet style family opposition. Fermina’s sensible marriage to another man—a doctor, devoted to eradicating cholera—is at first glance no great obstacle, since Florentino swears to wait for his beloved. But the story takes a turn into a more hard-nosed realism, as the lonely Florentino fails to keep this promise (or to be frank with Fermina about the fact later on). Nor is the respectable marriage altogether respectable; the doctor confesses that he too has been unfaithful. Yet, after Fermina is widowed, she and Florentino are reunited, and find contentment in their twilight years.
The title plays on the Spanish word cólera, which indicates not only the disease, but also passion or rage (like the English choleric). The idea that lovesickness is literally an illness is symbolized in the dispassionate doctor’s work: he eliminates cholera from his town, while simultaneously separating his wife from Florentino, the love of her life—yet Florentino himself is immature, the extreme of passion versus the absence of passion. Has Florentino’s perspective deceived the reader into liking a deeply selfish character, or is that reading of his love and his errors too cynical? No simple answer is given.
One Hundred Years of Solitude has a more overtly magical atmosphere. It represents seven generations of the Buendía family in the town of Macondo: the patriarch of the family (on the run for a murder) founds it after dreaming of a city of mirrors. Macondo is isolated and supposedly utopian, but the Buendías are hedged in by their own past, and the patterns and sins of each generation begin to be repeated by the next, tearing them apart. Ghosts haunt them; bloodshed falls on them, as both perpetrators and victims; the isolation of their city is reflected in their alienation from one another. Time and eternity seem to mix in Macondo, not least in a generations-old prophecy disclosed to the last of the Buendías, detailing all the misfortunes of the clan. In Solitude, as in Cholera, it is a flawed but sincere love that endures through the conclusion of the novel.
This is all standard matter for fantasy or horror. What sets García Márquez apart is the way he weaves together the magical and the mundane, as though both were equally natural. One of the Buendías, the beautiful and innocent Remedios, is assumed into heaven—while folding laundry. Macondo itself, grounded in banal realities like Colombian party politics and the banana harvest, is, at the end, swept away in a gust of wind. Yet this seamlessly surreal depiction of the world is arguably a very truthful kind of art, for it openly embraces the role that imagination inevitably plays in how we process the world. Though we should cure cholera or build a city of glass, there will always be an element in reality that we cannot control or see through, and García Márquez prompts us to remember the fact.
Background photo by Pedro Szekely, taken from Wikimedia Commons.