At the beginning of “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Macondo’s patriarch, José Arcadio Buendía, wants to move the idyllic yet isolated community he founded to another, more accessible location. And, since no one else wants to go with him, he decides that he and his wife, Úrsula, and their son should leave by themselves.
“We will not leave,” his wife says, reminding him that Macondo was their son’s birthplace.
“We have still not had a death,” he tells her. “A person does not belong to a place until there is someone dead under the ground.” To which his wife replies, “If I have to die for the rest of you to stay here, I will die.”
This was the first thing that came to mind when I heard that Gabriel García Márquez had died. I have always loved that scene. For anyone who’s been forced, or has chosen, to start a new life in a new place, these words seem to provide at least two possible markers by which one can begin to belong. By Úrsula’s definition, it is through life. By her husband’s, it is through death.
I remember thinking when my oldest daughter was born that, after nearly a quarter century of living in the United States, I finally had an unbreakable bond with the place. When my father, who had once imagined that he’d be buried in Haiti, was actually buried in Queens, New York, those ties became even stronger. After all, if pushed out, we can always take the living with us. However, unless we happen to be in a Gabriel García Márquez story, the dead can prove less mobile. Nothing seemed truer to me after my father’s death than the fact that he, and all of my other hardworking U.S.-buried immigrant relatives, had sacrificed everything so that the rest of my family could stay here.
In October, 2003, I was invited to participate in a PEN America tribute to García Márquez. The title of the evening was “Gabriel García Márquez: Everyday Magic.” The great man himself wasn’t there. He was already ill, I think. Among the other speakers that evening were the writers Francisco Goldman, Salman Rushdie, Paul Auster, William Kennedy, as well as Bill Clinton, on video.
That night, I was reminded of not just the breadth of García Márquez’s work but also of his personality. The fact that he counted both Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro among his friends astounded and outraged the woman sitting next to me.
The writers, however, focussed on his work.
Francisco Goldman mentioned a study which had found that, aside from the Bible, García Márquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera” was the book you were most likely to find in the possession of Latin-American sex workers. Salman Rushdie pointed out the many similarities between García Márquez’s world and the one that he’d grown up in.
“It was a world in which there were colossal differences between the very poor and the very rich, and not much in between; also a world bedevilled by dictators and corruption,” he said.
Rushdie, like many of the other speakers that night, rejected the idea that García Márquez’s fiction was “fantastic.”
And I agreed.
I am often surprised when people talk about the total implausibility of the events in García Márquez’s fiction. Having been born and lived in a deeply spiritual and extraordinarily resourceful part of the Caribbean, a lot of what might seem magical to others often seems quite plausible to me.
Of course a woman can live inside her cat, as the character Eva does, in García Márquez’s 1948 short story “Eva Is Inside Her Cat.” Doesn’t everyone have an aunt who’s done that? And remember that neighbor who died but kept growing in his coffin, as in the 1947 story “The Third Resignation”? What seems implausible to me is a lifetime of absolute normalcy, a world in which there are no invasions, occupations, or wars, no poverty or dictators, no earthquakes or cholera.
I had always felt that García Márquez’s short stories often took a back seat to his longer works, and that his deadpan dark humor was not discussed often enough, so that night I read an excerpt from one of my favorite of his short stories, “One of These Days.”
In the story, the town mayor, a military torturer, shows up in absolute agony at the office of Aurelio Escovar, “a dentist without a degree.” The mayor is in so much pain from an abscess in his mouth that he’s unable to shave half his beard. Yet he still announces that he will shoot the dentist if he refuses to help him. The dentist, seeing an opportunity to avenge the recent death of twenty of his neighbors, tricks the mayor into letting him pull the diseased tooth out without anesthesia. But the dentist does not quite get the revenge he seeks. When he asks the mayor whether he should send the bill to him personally or to the town, the mayor exclaims, “It’s the same damn thing.”
This story, like so many others, shows how García Márquez’s famously unbridled imagination was also used to depict somewhat common yet unbearable realities.
Still, I can’t help but to keep returning to José Arcadio Buendía and his desire to leave. José Arcadio had hoped to guide his people toward the “invisible north,” only to discover that Macondo was completely surrounded by water. But he would not despair forever. There was still more work to do. And he had not yet experienced death, and the light rain of tiny yellow flowers that would fall to mark his passing. He had not yet seen that silent storm, and the cushion of petals that had to be cleared with rakes and shovels as his funeral procession went by. And neither had Gabo. Until now.