With Gabriel Garcia Marquez's death last week, a day before Good Friday, the world lost the most well-known Spanish writer after Miguel Cervantes. Gabo to his admirers, Marquez was the star of the Boom generation of Latin American literature of the 1960s and 70s. At the age of 40, his best known work, One Hundred Years of Solitude was published. This book catapulted him to world fame, selling 50 million copies worldwide since.
Though he had written a few novels before this one, it was with One Hundred Years... that Marquez first successfully crafted the style of "magical realism," which became synonymous with his name. It had much that was clearly inspired by the first great Latin American writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), though the immediate inspiration was the manner in which Gabo's grandmother used to narrate stories, blending myth, fiction and fantasy. This then was the reason that contributed to both the critical as well as mass appeal of the work, in which Latin America found its voice. He acknowledged the influence of the "American Lost Generation," particularly that of William Faulkner in his initial writings.
In this landmark novel, the story evolves through the contradictions and struggle between two brothers that are repeated across several generations. This recurrence makes one feel that history is moving in a circle, out of which there is no exit. Yet, that isn't the case. As Marquez warns the discerning reader, no race of people is fortunate enough to experience its past again. No man is reborn. If one has to break the cyclical, aimless wandering of the spirit, it has to be done now.
Besides One Hundred Years of Solitude, Marquez's most popular and well-read works include Love in the Time of Cholera and The General in his Labyrinth. But his personal favourite was The Autumn of the Patriarch, a "dictator" novel (as this kind of writing about the long tradition of military dictators in South America came to be called). The less-than-300 page novel is a literary wonder — it has five chapters and less than 50 sentences.
Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Gabo's tightly-written and well-paced novella, set as it is in Columbia, brings to an Indian reader's mind chilling reminders of honour killings in India's villages.
In an interview, Marquez had once observed that a writer writes only one book in his lifetime. To substantiate his point, he cited the example of another writer of the Boom period, Juan Rulfo, who published only one novella in his life — Pedro Paramo. Marquez himself went on to write many more, but one could argue that it was really just one long book.
Besides Marquez, the major names of this generation included Julio Cortazar, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes while some of the lesser known writers were Juan Rulfo, Manuel Puig, Jorge Amado, Clarice Lispector and Rosario Castellanos. Though often clubbed together, each had a distinctive style — ranging from the existential to the realist and many hues in between and beyond.
In an interview with NPR in May 2002, Fuentes brushed aside a question about his not winning the Nobel Prize. "My Nobel is in the pocket of Gabriel Garcia Marquez," he said, adding, "the prize for Gabriel Garcia Marquez was for my whole generation. We celebrated. We will go on celebrating it." The Nobel Prize awarded to Mario Vargas Llosa in 2010, though exasperatingly late in coming, was a reminder of the recognition due to the Latin American literature of the Boom generation.
One Hundred Years... as well some of the other novels (particularly The Autumn of the Patriarch and The General in his Labyrinth) draw a lot from the politics of the region. Indeed, politics had much to do with the emergence of the Boom generation. According to Gabo, the world at large, and the United States in particular, became deeply curious about countries south of the US after the Cuban Revolution in 1959. One sees an echo of this sentiment in the post 9/11 world as the Western world's interest shifts to writings from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Gabo's style noticeably influenced later writers like Salman Rushdie and more recently Mo Yan, the first writer living in communist China to win the Nobel Prize in literature (2012). However, his influence goes beyond literature. In an interview given to Marquez sometime after the Zapatista peasant rebellion in Mexico in 1995, the masked Marxist leader Subcommandante Marcos explained that after Cervantes and Shakespeare, contemporary Latin American writers had moulded the minds of his generation. This was true for leftist activists across the world, for whom Marquez's writings, which exposed exploitation and gave a voice to the underdog, resonated.
So overwhelming was the influence of these writers that the later generations of writers in Latin America felt dwarfed. In The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bollano recounts the story of this "lost generation", which grew up in the shadow of giants like Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa and Octavio Paz. While the latter had protested against the existing political and social order, they also had become a part of that system, with Garcia Marquez becoming friends with political leaders like Fidel Castro, Vargas Llosa himself running for the Peruvian presidential candidacy (as a candidate of the Right) and Octavio Paz serving the PRI government in Mexico as a diplomat.
The world of the fictional Macondo, the remote village in One Hundred Years... that Gabo wrote about may be a thing of the past, but the Amazonian river of Latin American literature of which he was the most well-known face, continues to gush forth. In Gabo's homeland, Colombia, a younger generation of writers like Fernando Vallejo and Jorge Franco voice the angst of the urban life. The Argentinean writer, Cesar Aira, continues to surprise us with experimental novellas like An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter and How I Became a Nun, as does the Guatemalan Horacio Moya (Senselessness).
As one of those rare contemporary writers who appeal to both critics and mass audiences across the world, Gabriel Garcia Marquez will remain Latin American literature's tallest totem.
The author is a blogger at reader's words (http://readerswords.wordpress.com)