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Poet of Self-Pity

by David Pryce-Jones

The baleful influence of Gabriel García Márquez

Gabriel García Márquez lived and died in Mexico City, and there he has received a sendoff that could have served for a head of state. A funeral cortège brought the urn with his ashes to a plinth in the Bellas Artes Palace. Eulogies were then given by Enrique Peña Nieto and Juan Manuel Santos, presidents respectively of Mexico and Colombia, the country where García Márquez was born. Juan Manuel Santos had special thanks to offer: “Eternal glory to the man who has given us glory.” Thousands of people filed past the urn to pay their respects. Three days of national mourning have been decreed in both countries, with flags at half staff. In living memory no writer anywhere in the wide world has been so honored.

National presidents are prone to claim glory, and Colombia is certainly in need of it. Assorted Marxist guerrillas and terrorists have been struggling with paramilitary groups and drug cartels for the best part of half a century. Cocaine is the country’s chief product and source of income. Fear for his personal safety impelled García Márquez to move to Mexico. His contribution to glory is the literary gimmick of “magic realism.” Familiarly nicknamed “Gabo,” he was awarded the 1982 Nobel Prize and praised as the pioneer of a cultural renaissance in Latin America.

Literature serves the purpose of showing that actions have consequences, and causes have effects. Great writers one and all have something to say about this inescapable fact of the human condition. Magic realism is the reverse, resting on the supposition that there are consequences without any need for action, and effects that have no causes. In one of García Márquez’s novels, a woman goes out of doors to hang her laundry out to dry, only to ascend physically to heaven. In another novel, the fully dressed corpse of a general is brought in on a silver tray, cooked with “a garnish of cauliflower and laurel leaves,” and ready to be served to the guests at a banquet by a host who says, “Eat hearty gentlemen.”

Suspension of the normal operation of cause and effect leaves reality at the mercy of whimsy. Here are some random illustrations of the sort of prose that follows from this approach. “Children and adults sucked with delight on the delicious little green roosters of insomnia, the exquisite pink fish of insomnia, and the tender yellow ponies of insomnia, so that dawn on Monday found the whole town awake.” “Octopuses swam among the trees,” and “In December, when the Caribbean turned to glass . . .” A man has “an indefinite age somewhere between 107 and 232 years.” (Why not 233?) A woman has been changed into a scorpion for having disobeyed her parents. The absence of specifics renders such sentences not merely unlikely but so abstruse that they could be interchangeable anywhere in any text. The most extreme of his novels consists of competing interior monologues in this vein: “I accept for this short time your noble hospitality while the justice of the people brings the usurper to account, the eternal formula of puerile solemnity which a while later he would hear from the usurper, and then from the usurper’s usurper as if the God-damned fools didn’t know that in this business of men if you fall you fall, and he put all of them up for a few months in the presidential palace, made them play dominoes until he had fleeced them down to their last cent . . .” and so on for another two pages without a period. Writing comes down to word-spattering. García Márquez stands in the same relation to literature as Jackson Pollock to painting.

There is something more harmful still. Magic realism posits that powerful irrational forces are at work and people can do nothing about them. Events cannot be foreseen, behavior is unpredictable, and definitions of good and bad, right and wrong, are variable. That woman hanging out her laundry could not save herself, and those guests were obliged to be cannibals. When there is a plague of insomnia, or the Caribbean turns to glass, people can only feel sorry for themselves. García Márquez’s magic realism caught on because it plays into the self-pity brought on by political failure. Dictatorship has been the historic experience of Latin Americans. The unseating of every dictator has been a bloody episode of violence ending usually in the triumph of another dictator who leaves helpless people to make what they can of him.

García Márquez wrote a dramatized account of the last days of Simón Bolívar, the prototype dictator, and generals and colonels and patriarchs figure throughout his fiction. Members of his family belonged to conventional political parties, but like many Latin-American intellectuals he turned to Communism. This was to meet violence with violence, and, had Communism succeeded, it would have been only another version of dictatorship. In the years of the Cold War, García Márquez was a classic fellow traveler, approving the Soviet Union loudly or disapproving quietly. He was a frequent visitor to the Soviet Union and the People’s Democracies in Eastern Europe. Evolving into an ornament of the international Left, he hobnobbed with the like-minded Mikhail Gorbachev, General Torrijos of Panama, Graham Greene (who envied him his Nobel Prize), and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. His Russian translator maintains that García Márquez and Fidel Castro were friends long before the Cuban revolution, and that Castro gave him financial support. García Márquez used to argue that Cuba was not a Soviet satellite but achieving its own brand of socialism in the face of a hostile and aggressive United States. A regular visitor to Castro, he claimed that the two of them talked about literature as one intellectual to another. If you can believe that, as the Duke of Wellington said in another context, you can believe anything. Castro killed, imprisoned, and drove into exile a far greater number of victims than did Augusto Pinochet in Chile, but at one point García Márquez was proclaiming that he would not publish another book until Pinochet was overthrown. Here was magic realism in action: Dictatorship is good for some, bad for others.

Magic realism has a clear political purpose in García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch. The United States is depicted in that novel as a huge impersonal and irrational force. American ambassadors do nothing but assert, “Either the marines land or we take the sea.” They mean it literally: “They took away the Caribbean in April, Ambassador Ewing’s nautical engineers carried it off in numbered pieces to plant it far from the hurricanes in the blood-red dawns of Arizona, they took it away with everything it had inside.” America is simply brute power, and for those helpless before it the only conceivable response is self-pity. Even American presidents internalize the naked anti-Americanism. Bill Clinton finds García Márquez “the most important writer of fiction in any language.” For President Obama, “the world has lost one of its greatest visionary writers — and one of my favorites from the time I was young.” The eulogies in Mexico, the crowds attending the funeral cortège, and the tens of millions who buy his books testify heartfelt satisfaction that one of their own, a man with talents recognized everywhere, is telling them that self-pity is natural and justified. That’s the source of glory.

It doesn’t have to be like that. A mysterious incident occurred back in 1976, when Mario Vargas Llosa punched García Márquez in the street and gave him a black eye. Nobody knows what the two Latin-American future Nobel Prize winners were quarrelling about; it may well have been some private issue, but they are genuine opposites. Vargas Llosa ran for president in Peru; he didn’t win the election, but made it plain that actions have consequences and that there are peaceful political ways to be rid of dictators and be free from self-pity. Magic realism is never going to get the job done.

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