Garcia Marquez: The Man and his Works by Gene H. Bell-Villada, pp. 247, 1990, The University of North Carolina Press.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez (6 March 1927 – 17 April 2014) is an open-to-all literary festival that has sadly just come to a final end. For years now i.e. after the appearance of his magnum opus One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) the name has been reverberating in both Hispanic and non-Hispanic world alike.
The book under review provides a summary but terse account of historical circumstances that shaped the great master of art of the novel. The decades that followed the withdrawal of the Imperial Spanish rule in 1820s saw a protracted war for conquest between the liberals and conservatives.
Garcia Marquez’s grandfather himself was a colonel in the ranks of the liberals. The only difference between the two as the book notes is that, “the liberals drink in public and pray in private, while the conservatives pray in public and drink in private”(pp.25). Garcia Marquez grew up witnessing these megalomaniac civil wars in which the causalities reached five or even six figures.
Garcia Marquez unlike his European counterparts inherited this bloody history which is the crux of his solitude about which he talks in his Nobel lecture in 1982. Unlike them his societies had paid with blood to the ever hungry tribe of shylocks who had arrived from Europe armed with gun-powders and Bible. This could be the reason why political violence, dictatorships and peasants suffering form the terra firma of much of his writing. Young Gabo had heard the tales of rebellious peasants’ genocide of 1928 from his grandmother.
Gabito or Gabo as he is affectionately called began his life under the care of his grandparents. It was from his own grandmother that he’d learn the art of prose telling. Later the young boy enrolled as a law student at the Universidad Nacional (1947) in Bogota. But much like the young Marx and Tolstoy he was destined never to complete it.
The young Garcia Marquez became disillusioned with thick legal digests and sought for the “greener pastures” in the novels that he read like a typical hungry and frustrated University student. It was after he had read Frank Kafka’s awe striking novella Metamorphosis that he decided to become a real writer; a writer who writes because everything else on earth like eating, shitting, making money, thinking about making money when one is not making money, all seems futile in the deepest sense of the term.
“Literature is a science one has to learn, and there are 10,000 years standing behind every short story” (pp.70). It is absolutely true that the most difficult thing about writing is writing itself. One is not as one quite likes to believe “born as a writer”. One is born as Sartre has demonstrated as nothing – as a blank papier mache.
The young Gabito not just read his great Hispanic writers like Pedro Juan or Octavio Paz but he read the best from European cultures as well: his major influences include novelist such as Woolf, Faulkner, Hemmingway, Camus, De Beauvoir, Defoe and a brilliant constellation of writers emerging from Soviet Union and Post-war France. The book interestingly also cites Greek Tragedian Sophocles and Bible as major sources of influence on Gabo (pp.78).
One knows quite well that politically Garcia Marquez stood with the left. “When in 1972 he received the Romulo Gallegos Prize in Venezuela, at the ceremony he publicly donated the entire sum to the parliamentary Movimientio al Socialismo (MAS), and his $ 10,000 Neustadt Prize (1972) he gave away to the committee in solidarity with political prisoners”(pp.58).
Garcia Marquez not only defended Socialism but in some of his earlier fictions tried to write according to the rules and regulations framed by the Stalinist Russia. Thankfully, he gave up his insistence on “socialist realism” and sought to capture the complex, fluid and sometimes magical reality of the world through a newer literary device now popularly associated with his name: magical realism.
One aspect of his writing that needs to be mentioned is the pictorial quality of the sentences composed by Garcia Marquez i.e. the relationship between words and the images they form. By the time Gabo was writing in 1950s cinema had already reached such distant places as his Columbia. This without doubt affected the visual aspect of his craft. Anyone familiar with his works cannot but agree that he like great writers is able to in Pamuk’s words “paint with words”.
In fact being a film buff (he was also a film reviewer for a while who was often cursed by the owners and managers of cinema hall) meant that he was in touch with masters such as Chaplin and neo-realists like Fellini. Garcia Marquez’s interest in films would take him to script writing. And the author along with Carlos Fuentes would write over a dozen of them. (pp.55)
The book under review is filled with meticulous research, and should come handy for those who are interested in learning about the nitty-gritty concerning his life and his fictions. It correctly shows that Garcia Marquez the man was a simple journalist who wrote sometimes provocative essays such as “Columbian Literature: A Fraud to the nation”.
It shows that when the writer was doing nothing, he liked drinking and chatting with his friends or spending time with his childhood beloved who would later be his wife Mercedes (Like Marx again he never had time for any other woman in his life).
Garcia Marquez unlike most writers would get supremely bored with highfalutin theoretical discussions. In fact, he had often complained that he hardly read these books. Garcia Marquez himself likes to recall an anecdote related to a Buenos Aries student who said to him, “Now we are going to show the world that you don’t have to be either proper or a big shot or an academic to make literature” (pp.204).
The best part of the book is the un-academic tone in which the prose of this highly readable has been constructed. Scholars quite often kill even the most imaginative subjects like Kafka. The legacy of the gargantuan writer continues to be felt in contemporary fiction and even music. Panamanian salsa singer Ruben Blades has an entire album of recorded songs with lyrics based on eight of Garcia Marquez short stories (pp.204).
The description of colonialism in Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple is roughly analogous to the description of colonialism in Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Even Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon could not have been possible with One Hundred years.
History has not been kind to all writers. There have been writers like Oscar Wilde, Nazim Hikmet and Faiz Ahmed Faiz who had to endure both poverty and imprisonment for decades. But there also have been writers who have been loved and revered by their contemporaries and worshipped by their progenies. Garcia Marquez is one of those writers who after an average start and close brush with poverty would receive fame that only gods and prophets have so far been given.
In the early 1970s when Garcia Marquez was on a visit to Cuba he spoke with a group of peasants. The peasants asked him as to what does he do for making a living. The young Gabo replied with pride, “I am a writer”, to which they asked, “What did you write?” and he replied, “I wrote a book called Cien anos de soledad” (One Hundred Years of Solitude), on hearing this the peasants cried out as in unison, “Macondo, Macondo.” (The imaginative town on which the novel is based). I suppose few writers have been honored in such a way.
It was early in morning when an Engineer–Playboy–Marxist friend called me up. I was down with fever. “You know bhai Garcia Marquez has just died. And they are scattering his ashes”, he said. And then there was a long and uneasy silence on my part. My mind was picturing a helicopter and a hazy green land that one sees from above.
I so desperately wanted to tell him: today I have lost a father-figure. I did not say any such thing. I also kept thinking that his death not only means loss of a great writer but also that we have lost the greatest People’s Historian of our time. I kept asking myself, who will now write about us.