Obituaries sing the praises of the departed, as they should, but those obituaries that matter most sing our song, too. It’s fortunate that my American first edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude is missing its jacket, or I might have been tempted to make a mortgage payment with it at some point over these difficult years, and then I would have been sorry, extremely and often, and long before Gabriel García Márquez died yesterday at the age of 87.
I was given the book by a Colombian friend at UCLA upon its domestic publication in 1970, as my adolescence was still barely keeping up with my literary pretensions. Just to show how such pretensions will invariably humiliate you, I didn’t have a clue who García Márquez was, and by the time I got around to reading the novel a year or two later—out of a sense of obligation to my friend who made such a big deal of giving it to me—I still had no idea. A chapter or two in, I knew well enough, or what I needed to know anyway. As much as any novel I’ve read, One Hundred Years of Solitude (served superbly by Gregory Rabassa’s English translation) didn’t just crystalize who García Márquez was, it crystalized who I was, at least as a writer—which is peculiar, since even then Los Angeles didn’t bear much resemblance to Macondo, the mythic town that is the novel’s setting, which in turn bears only slightly more resemblance to Yoknapatawpha, the mythic county of William Faulkner’s novels that helped fire García Márquez’s vision.
Resemblance wasn’t the point, of course. The point, as is true of virtually all creative inspirations, was the explosion of possibility, and the reminder of something somewhere in the back of my mind that I was not then, nor now, nor tomorrow, wise or mature or talented enough to write. So the story of the Buendía family had about it not just the force of revelation but of recognition: the clarity of a psyche’s map, the hidden writing disclosed by epiphany’s flame. For young writers who thought literature fell off the edge of the world east of Moscow or south of Mississippi, it was a portal to Borges and Cortázar. Like anyone—be it Emily Brontë or Pablo Picasso or Orson Welles or Miles Davis—who makes something new out of bits of the old, García Márquez didn’t think he was inventing fabulism or “magical realism” and would have resisted the suggestion of it, as genius resists any categorization so reductive. The paradox behind the power of García Márquez’s stories is how, in them, the fabulous is so everyday, and how less wondrous is the small rivulet of running blood from José Arcadio’s suicide (or murder) that threads the village in comparison to the passion and loneliness that led to the gunshot in the first place, with love and solitude tumbling among all the other emotions in García Márquez’s kaleidoscope of human endeavor.
Obituaries sing the praises of the departed, as they should, and if the song often is a bit overly exuberant at the moment of departure, nothing is wrong with that. Time will lower the volume to something more proportionate. But time will not lower the volume of García Márquez’s song, or these obituaries about him: a journalist who studied to be a lawyer, forged from his grandfather’s leftism, before stumbling into sorcery, drawing swords from stones. We may ponder whether he was the world’s greatest living novelist, but let the brave soul who would contest it outright make a fool of himself if he so wishes. García Márquez wrote other wonderful novels, including Autumn of the Patriarch; smart people will make a case for Love in the Time of Cholera as his greatest. But One Hundred Years of Solitude, like Remembrance of Things Past (or whatever the hell we call it these days), Ulysses, The Magic Mountain, The Trial, To the Lighthouse, The Sound and the Fury, Tropic of Cancer, and Gravity’s Rainbow, was a novel that changed not only literature but the culture. It not only changed the modern imagination but staked a claim on its behalf in the face of a prospective nuclear obliteration that seemed to dwarf whatever could be imagined—which Western writers in particular seized upon as an excuse to, you know, stop making stuff up anymore. That childlike impulse renders us writers to begin with, and continually washes us back on the shores of innocence, long enough to grab fistfuls of beach before the tide takes us out again.