GABO (1927-2014)Saturday, April 19, 2014
García Márquez: look back and forward
For the Herald
How will we remember people whose death rapidly makes them forgettable? How will the figure fare in history? Or will they remain “great” in our rather remote place in the world. Memory is selective, individually decided, consciously or accidentally.
So how will we remember Gabriel García Márquez? Probably as the author who turned inside out the concept of reality and made it “realism”? The man may fade. Unlike statesmen and generals whose monuments are reminders of the person, authors are what they created. That was the leading characteristic of this man. He admired his friends in power, Fidel Castro in Cuba, Carlos Andrés Pérez in Venezuela, Omar Torrijos in Panama. President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia described him as a family friend. But García Márquez never sought power, knowing full well that his strength, his unlimited might, was in his writing.
The matter of memory, of remembering, and how, becomes pertinent this week, in fact in the first three and a half months of this year 2014, which have seen a generation and more shaken by important losses.
Our year of big-name deaths might be started with that of poet Juan Gelman, aged 84, in Mexico, on January 14. How will he be remembered? Just for his poetry? This has a moving effect, a punch which reflected the sweetness of his grin and his soft gravelly voice. Or will he be remembered by his former Communist Party comrades as the man who, disenchanted, left the Moscow line and changed that for a career in top-quality commercial journalism? Will the recall rest with the friends of his first wife who feel he was bitterly cruel to her and abandoned their surviving daughter? Others might feel better with his dogged search for the daughter of his disappeared son and his girl-friend, who gave birth in captivity, until Gelman found the girl, adopted under another name in Montevideo.
Losses of big names pile up. There is that of a great Mexican literary stylist, José Emilio Pacheco, aged 74, on January 26. Some will mourn the passing of protest singer Pete Seeger, aged 94, on January 27. And some of those in the ill-named Argentine left and former Montoneros will want to remember former mayor and later governor of Santa Fe, Jorge Obeid, who died aged 66, on January 28.
In the last week, the grim reaper came back with a vengeance. On Friday, April 11, one of Argentina’s really great actors on stage and in film, Alfredo Alcón, died aged 84.
The mourning masses had hardly caught their breath and there came the news last Sunday of the passing of political scientist and consultant in populism to the Kirchner couple, Ernesto Laclau, died in Seville, Spain, last Sunday, aged 78. And three days later, on April 15, the respected and much-liked semiologist, philosopher and writer Eliseo Verón, aged 78, was defeated by cancer. Their political theories will survive them among students. The sybaritic Laclau and the severe Verón were apparently together in the late fifties and early sixties in a literary-political venture.
As one London colleague, an obituaries page editor, remarked, you don’t want to drop when that kind of competition is moving out because you won’t get a half-inch notice in the papers.
And on Maundy Thursday we lost Gabriel García Márquez, who had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for some time. He had found the power to change a form of seeing literature first through his ground-breaking novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), and then he followed that with The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975) which, he admitted, his readers of One Hundred Years turned away from, and yet it became the subject of the most widespread and lasting academic study. These two novels, each in their own way, marked the before and the after in his life. The Nobel Prize in 1982 was a cherry on the cake that was his ability to tell a good story, but it did not bring change in his life and career.
We can expect the memory of García Márquez writings to last well into the future, either by way of new, and old, readers who come upon his great story-telling or by the alternative and deadening route of academe, which sustains public awareness in spite of itself.
We can also think of a time when the intelligentsia of South America, as much in Argentina (where One Hundred Years was first published by the Sudamericana imprint) as in his native Colombia, will remember stories of “Gabo” and tell them by imaginary firesides or at writers’ conferences. Just as with the prevailing feeling for decades that everybody in my generation had a Che Guevara story, and before that, in my father’s age, each seemed to have an Eva Perón story.
There is a chance even that this continent-shaking death, albeit natural, will prompt the classic query about time and place, among the most notable samples of which are: “Where were you on that Friday, November 22, 1963, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated?” Or where were you when former Beatle John Lennon was murdered on December 8, 1980? There are people everywhere who remember exactly what they were doing and where those days.
My story of García Márquez is kitchen sink stuff. I happened to be in Bogotá in October 1983, when the Nobel Committee announced that the English writer William Golding (1911-1993) had won that year’s award for literature. Influential connections, including a future president of Colombia, had secured for me a meeting, and a possible interview, with García Márquez, then living in the country’s capital.
No sooner had I been welcomed through the front door, and presented the great man’s wife, Mercedes Barcha, with a packet of tea from Fortnum & Mason, in London, than García Márquez asked if I had read Golding. Luckily I could admit to reading Lord of the Flies (1954) and The Spire (1964), his two best-known books. My host complained that nobody he knew had read Golding and he wanted to write a story about “handing over” his year as Nobel to the Englishman. GGM needed to know whatever I could tell him. I confessed that I knew next to nothing, but claimed that my Aunt Betty lived in the village next to Golding’s near Salisbury, and they often met and talked about their gardens. Hardly had I finished speaking than García Márquez presented me with a heavy black telephone on a long extension cable and ordered, in the form of a gentle announcement: “Please call your aunt this minute and ask for all she knows about him.”
Aunt Betty answered the phone in Broadchalke village. She was informed whose sitting-room I was calling from but she was not impressed and her response was to ask if I was sure I was well. This query, in Auntie-speak, has always been a polite way in the family of asking if I was sober. When assured that I was, she informed me that she was in her bath and would get a towel around herself to be able to answer my questions. She said she often discussed the roses with the award-winning author. However, cousin Liz knew him much better because they went out horse-riding together, and so on. García Márquez was delighted. It was all in the Bogotá paper, El Espectador, the next morning. From there it went round the world.
By contrast, my own article about the meeting on the front page of the London Guardian the following day looked quite limp. Gabriel García Márquez could make the most innocuous item into a good story. That will be remembered.