Associate Professor of Romance Languages Nadia Celis writes a tribute to Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez after his death at age 87 on April 17, 2014.
Born and raised in Colombia, Celis is a scholar of 20th- and 21st-century Latin American literature whose courses at Bowdoin include “A Journey around Macondo: García Márquez and His Contemporaries.” Last year Celis took her students on a spring break trip to Colombia to gain a deeper understanding of the author and his work.
On the Universality of a Village Boy: Farewell to Gabriel García Márquez
by Nadia V. Celis
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Col. Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of 20 adobe houses built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.”
This is the beginning of one of the world’s most widely read novels of the last half century, One Hundred Years of Solitude, written by the most memorable of Colombian sons, and the last of the 20th century’s universal voices, Gabriel García Márquez.
Macondo has been regarded as both a metaphor of Latin America history, and as “a village of the world.” In that small community, a fictionalization of his remote Caribbean hometown, García Márquez recreated the clash of worlds forced by several waves of colonialism. The rise and fall of the Macondinos became emblematic of the uneven development of entire nations, marked by the violent imposition of political and economic power, and the ever-present threat of imperialism. By addressing those realities in light of the mythical visions of Latin Americans, “Gabo” not only fascinated readers around the world, but also inspired writers – like Salman Rushdie and Tony Morrison— attempting to make sense of their own history out of the uneasy overlapping of Western rationality with other perceptions of people, nature and reality.
Such overlapping is crucial to “magical realism”, the greatest of García Márquez’ contributions to world literature. A meticulous blend of legends, fantasy and history, this style was at first an attempt to craft a language that would allow him to convey for global readers the stories about love, wars and ghosts that had entranced him as a boy. Magical realism also became Gabo’s lens to understand a reality that obsessed the writer all throughout his work: the lust for power that shaped Latin American history from the times of slavery and Inquisition, through the dictatorship fever of the 1970’s. By collapsing the limits between mythical and rational thinking, García Márquez was also honouring the persistence of non-scientific beliefs coexisting with the hasty spread of technology and industrial advancement in the region. Moreover, by relating his characters’ perplexity about those aspects of modernity we take for granted — such as ice — the author fostered his readers’ disbelief in absolute truths. Just as there is no reality that has not been touched by his “magical” words, García Márquez demonstrated that there is no human reality unmediated by imagination.
When I was invited to write this piece, I was asked to address Gabo’s contributions both to world literature and to my own work. I owe García Márquez nothing less than an approach to life: an understanding of society through the lenses of fiction, the very basis of both my teaching and research. The fascination I experienced when I first read his work, as a girl immersed in the culture he was giving voice to, has only grown while I have studied and taught his novels and the history fueling his endless imagination. As a Colombian, I owe him for having transformed our challenges as a nation into masterpieces, both eliciting admiration and conveying lessons of universal appeal. As a Latin American, I commend his pursuit of continental solidarity, and his assertion of our sovereignty as people and countries with the right to define our own destinies in spite of the pressures of global powers. As a Latin American immigrant in the United States, I have been and will continue to be guided by his mistrust of monological views. I learned from this intellectual father that our larger mistakes as humanity have resulted not as much from the clash of different perspectives but from the compulsiveness of those guided by a single ideal of progress.
I mourn the loss of Gabo, but I am convinced his “magic” will continue to captivate readers and scholars. Like the souls returning from the afterlife in his novels, the questions that he raised will accompany humans long after his death.