Latin American fiction flourished in the 1960’s and became appreciated as a powerful force in contemporary literature. Along with fellow Latin American authors Julio Cortázar, Ernesto Sabato, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Carlos Fuentes, García Márquez is one of the most significant literary influences in this period, known as the Latin American Boom. His fiction presents a reality quite unlike that in the novels of previous generations. Blending history, folktales, and imagination, García Márquez creates an expanded vision of life. Literary critics have coined a term for this bold interweaving of imagination and reality: Magical Realism.
The bulk of García Márquez’s fiction, which includes social and political issues and commentary, is set between the early 1800’s and the early 1900’s in the mythical village of Macondo, which resembles his childhood village of Aracataca. García Márquez researches details of daily life in the nineteenth century for use in his fiction. He also considers himself “quite disrespectful of real time and space,” and, thus, free to build relationships between different worlds and eras. Because he has “no desire to change a detail” that he likes “just to make the chronology function properly,” García Márquez writes stories that free readers from space/time boundaries and encourage them to take a fresh look at the world. García Márquez seems to suggest through his writings that nothing is impossible.
Through rich and luxurious language, García Márquez characteristically offers detailed images of persons, places, and things. He provides his readers mathematical precision. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, for example, a breakfast consists of exactly eight quarts of coffee, thirty eggs, and juice from forty oranges. Rain falls in Macondo for precisely four years, eleven months, and two days. Such concrete specificity within myth and legend helps to create the stimulating interplay between reality and fantasy for which García Márquez is best known.
Thematically, García Márquez attends to topics and ideas that challenge the established order in people’s lives. A recurring image is a plague that comes and changes all that it touches. García Márquez once said that the only subject about which he writes is solitude, and it is certainly a recurring theme. He also said that all of his books are about love, and that also seems to be true. Frequently, he investigates the relationship among love, solitude, and power, especially with an eye toward uncovering an individual’s relationship to his or her fate or destiny. Themes of nostalgia and dignity pervade some of his more mature works.
Death is another characteristic theme, although the gloomy perspective prior to 1959 contrasts sharply with García Márquez’s more mature work. García Márquez also writes frequently about both the humor and the emotions of aging, from his first two books, Leaf Storm and No One Writes to the Colonel, to his more recent Love in the Time of Cholera and The General in His Labyrinth. He cites his grandparents as the models for most of the mature people in his fiction. Other influences from García Márquez’s childhood also abound: old houses, ancient matriarchs, a sense of nostalgia, civil wars, colonels, and banana companies, among other things.
Although García Márquez’s work shows thematic consistency, his tone and style have undergone considerable changes. His early work was generally most concerned with communicating content through a precise, controlled style. An exception was his elaborate, dense first work of fiction, Leaf Storm . In the late 1950’s, however, García Márquez’s approach became more allegorical, and he entered into a period of literary crisis, a period of severe self-criticism and dissatisfaction with previous work. Caught between his old sparse style and...
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the growing mythical approach, with its flowing language, supernatural occurrences, and hyperbole, García Márquez wrote no fiction until 1965. Then, while he was driving from Mexico City to Acapulco, García Márquez had a vision of how he could, at last, tell the story of his childhood, and he immediately returned home to write in seclusion, sometimes for fourteen hours a day. Writing constantly for one and a half years, he produced the masterpieceOne Hundred Years of Solitude, in which his Magical Realism blossomed fully.
Some critics have been disappointed that, since this novel, García Márquez has not extended Magical Realism. García Márquez explains that his work as a whole is founded on “a geographic and historical reality” that is not that of “magical realism and all those other things which people talk about.” He takes a different path in every book, he says, because “style is determined by subject, by the mood of the times.”
The fiction García Márquez created after the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude continues to display his wide-ranging and considerable literary skills. Love in the Time of Cholera, written in the author’s own maturity about an octogenarian protagonist, offers an almost childlike delight in the powerful discovery that old age can be a time of love, joy, and passion. The General in His Labyrinth, in contrast, presents an almost humorless investigation of García Márquez’s ever-present themes of solitude, love, and destiny. Both reflect the author’s own vibrant energy and enthusiasm for life. Although death is a major theme in his work, García Márquez has said that he does not pay much attention to it because it distracts him from the most important thing in life: what one does. By interacting with the worlds that García Márquez creates, his readers become better able to reflect upon their own worlds—the realities that they themselves create—and embrace more of the field of all possibilities in their own daily lives.
One Hundred Years of Solitude
First published: Cien años de soledad, 1967 (English translation, 1970)
Type of work: Novel
Six generations of the founding family of Macondo are chronicled in this comic masterpiece.
One Hundred Years of Solitude traces the Buendía family dynasty through six generations of chaotic decline. Family patriarch José Arcadio Buendía founds the almost-perfect town of Macondo with three hundred inhabitants, all under age thirty. A man of “unbridled imagination” who always goes “beyond the genius of nature and even beyond miracles and magic,” José Arcadio devotes his life to the quest for knowledge, but he is finally overwhelmed by the intensity of his own pursuit and spends his last days chained to a chestnut tree, preaching in Latin against the existence of God.
José Arcadio’s son, Colonel Aureliano, shepherds Macondo into a period of political rebellion and conflict reminiscent of the civil wars that were part of the lore and culture of García Márquez’s youth. A giant American fruit company develops the town, but worker exploitation erupts in a violent strike, and thousands are killed in a secret massacre. Úrsula, matriarch of the family and José Arcadio’s wife, struggles to save the family from an evil destiny for more than 130 years. Her death, however, signals the demise of the family and of Macondo. At the end, the two surviving Buendías together conceive a child, who is born with the prophesied curly tail of a pig. Both the child and his mother die, leaving the father alone.
Until its final pages, the novel seems to be written from the perspective of an omniscient author. At the conclusion, the reader learns that the story has been the unfolding of the prophecy made by the old gypsy Melquíades, who had long ago recorded the history of the Buendías family in Sanskrit. As his final act, the father—sole survivor of the family, as well as of the town of Macondo—deciphers the parchments of Melquíades. He begins to read of the very instant that he is living, “prophesying himself in the act of deciphering the last pages of the parchments, as if he were looking into a speaking mirror.” He realizes that at the precise instant that he finishes reading, the entire story will be wiped from the memory of humankind and that it will never be repeated, because “races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.”
Thus, the novel becomes a world that both gives birth to, and consumes, itself. The main theme is solitude, humankind’s destiny in a universe that it can never completely comprehend or control, and the novel has been interpreted as a family saga, as a history in microcosm of Colombia, and even as an epic myth of the human experience moving from the paradise of Eden to the apocalypse. With majestic irony and magic, García Márquez interweaves details of everyday life with the fantastic to create such memorable images as a plague of insomnia that afflicts the whole town; Remedios the Beauty, who rises to heaven still clutching the bedsheets that she was hanging out to dry; and a cloud of yellow butterflies, which follow Mauricio Babilonia everywhere he goes. Although grounded in Latin American history, this work employs facts and figures to suit poetic purposes. For example, García Márquez expands the number of people who actually died in the United Fruit Company strike of 1928 from seventeen to more than three thousand to reflect popular Latin American legend, and as a hyperbole reflecting a vast number of bodies—enough bodies to fill a train.
This novel circles and recircles. García Márquez describes José Arcadio Buendía as one with enough lucidity to sense that time can stumble and have accidents, and therefore splinter and leave an “eternalized fragment” in a room. In this novel, darting back and forth between visions and memories of generations, García Márquez bends both time and space to create his own eternalized fragment of reality. Critics worldwide have hailed this masterpiece as Magical Realism at its best.
Love in the Time of Cholera
First published: El amor en los tiempos del cólera, 1985 (English translation, 1988)
Type of work: Novel
An octogenarian renews his courtship of a woman who spurned him more than fifty years ago, and this time love triumphs.
Love in the Time of Cholera is a celebration of life over death, love over despair, and health over sickness. It is the story of Florentino Ariza, who was rejected by Fermina Daza in his youth. He maintains a silent vigil of unrequited love for fifty-one years, nine months, and four days, until he meets Fermina again at her husband’s wake and renews his suit. The novel spans a period from the late 1870’s to the early 1930’s, and it is set in a South American community modeled after Cartagena, Colombia, and besieged by civil wars and plagues.
Florentino, an eighteen-year-old apprentice telegraph operator, sees thirteen-year old Fermina and falls madly in love. Fermina’s father finds out and sends his daughter on an extended trip to remove her from temptation. She returns years later, rejects Florentino, and accepts the proposal of a cultured physician and cholera specialist, Dr. Juvenal Urbino. Although Florentino continues to love Fermina throughout the years, he also continues his own social relationships—engaging in 622 long-term liaisons, which he records in a series of notebooks—and becomes president of a riverboat company. Then Florentino learns that eighty-one-year-old Juvenal has died, falling off a ladder trying to capture a condescending, bilingual parrot. Although Love in the Time of Cholera does not have the extended fantasy of One Hundred Years of Solitude, touches of unexpected, delightful humor—like the parrot—abound. In the midst of careful detailing, it is almost as if García Márquez winks and turns his head to tell the reader a private joke.
When Florentino attends Juvenal’s wake at the Urbino home, Fermina orders him to leave. Undaunted, he launches a fervent, youthful courtship and eventually triumphs, consummating his passion on a riverboat during a trip on the Magdalena River. The ship is unable to dock because of an outbreak of cholera on board, and the crew and passengers are running low on supplies. Florentino is focused on life, not death. At the end of the novel, the captain asks Florentino how long he thinks they can keep going up and down the river, and Florentino responds, “Forever.”
This novel differs considerably from much of García Márquez’s previous fiction. It is a more precise and simple story, in contrast to his often complicated multiple narratives. Except for a brief section in the beginning, the plot proceeds chronologically. Although reality and fantasy intermingle, the fantastic in this novel is not as fantastic as in other works, and the line between the two is less blurred. Critics have suggested that Love in the Time of Cholera reads like a nineteenth century novel in the majestic narrative tradition.
García Márquez continues to address his enduring themes of love and destiny; this novel is an optimistic celebration of life. Evil and negativity are present, and this time his characteristic plague is cholera. In this novel, however, such situations make people want to live more, not less. García Márquez has explained that Fermina and Florentino’s romance—which is based on the relationship of his father and mother—was sparked by an image that he once saw: an elderly couple, very much in love, dancing on the deck of a ship. García Márquez told an interviewer that he could not have written Love in the Time of Cholera when he was younger because it includes points of view that he did not have in his youth. He continued, “I think that aging has made me realize that feelings and sentiments, what happens in the heart, are ultimately the most important.”
The General in His Labyrinth
First published: El general en su laberinto, 1989 (English translation, 1990)
Type of work: Novel
General Simón Bolívar reflects on his life and career as he proceeds on his final journey through the Colombian landscape.
In keeping with the narrative structure of some of his other works of fiction—One Hundred Years of Solitude in particular—the text of The General in His Labyrinth begins with the story’s ending, when General Simón Bolívar is facing the end of his career and life. The reader is introduced to an aging, frail Bolívar, who is a mere shadow of the legendary figure he once was. Against the backdrop of his own native land, García Márquez weaves the fantastic and grotesque into a fictionalized tale of the hero’s last days, bringing to life a very human portrait of this legendary figure and the culture he helped create.
The story takes place as Bolívar travels along the Magdalena River, his journey along which acts as a metaphor for the hero’s psychological and emotional journey. As he follows the river’s winding path, he reflects—sometimes lucidly, sometimes not—on the events of his life and the achievements and failures he has met. Following his resignation as president, the real-life Bolívar had set out along the Magdalena River to travel to the coast and eventually make his way to Europe. García Márquez’s fictionalized version of the hero follows the same path and with the same results: He never makes it to the end of this journey, dying before he reaches the coast and relieving himself of the impossible decision to leave the land of which he is so much a part.
The story speaks to the cultural lore and legends passed down to García Márquez by his grandfather and others around whom he grew up. Though by the time of García Márquez’s youth Bolívar was no longer the predominant contemporary heroic figure, the legendary status of El Libertador (The Liberator) lives on to this day and helps to shape Colombian and Latin American culture. It is therefore with a certain degree of risk that García Márquez takes on this subject, especially given the novel’s sometimes unflattering portrayals of Bolívar and his decline at the end of his life, as well as the highly fictionalized and fantastic accounts of this poorly recorded and little-known final journey.
The historical setting in which the story takes place is a very real part of the Colombian cultural landscape, and García Márquez largely consigns his narrative to historical accuracy in that respect. Nevertheless, his imaginative flair is as alive in this novel as in his others, and it helps to color the historical elements of the story with the same fantastical flair apparent in his other works. The General in the novel is a largely beloved historical figure who, even in his aging, decrepit body, retains the grandeur of the larger-than-life hero of previous times. His mental journey allows the story to transcend the bounds of time and place and to venture even into the imagined or fantasized. The historical setting of the novel places far more rigid bounds on García Márquez’s narrative than those found in his works of Magical Realism. However, the work as a whole is representative of the evolving nature of García Márquez’s body of literature, which increasingly finds itself situated in the very real culture and history of the author’s homeland.
Living to Tell the Tale
First published: Vivir para contarla, 2002 (English translation, 2003)
Type of work: Nonfiction
This is the first volume in a projected three-volume memoir, outlining García Márquez’s life from his birth to the day he proposed to his wife.
The central story of Living to Tell the Tale is Gabriel García Márquez’s journey with his mother to sell the home in which he had grown up. This journey sparks an outpouring of memories and initiates a theme of change—temporal, personal, and cultural—that pervades the book. Other significant themes include personal dignity and nostalgia. As with his other works, this text plays with chronology and weaves autobiographical episodes in and out of memory, popular culture, and historical context. As noted in the book’s opening epigraph, “Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.”
García Márquez’s memoir takes its shape against the backdrop of cultural, political, and literary events in Colombia, spanning three decades and describing the landscape of the region between the 1920’s and the 1950’s. The memoir’s narrative is stunning in its ability to bring to life the sociocultural setting that gave birth to one of Colombia’s most beloved literary figures. Nevertheless, the book received strong criticism for its excessively lengthy and at times seemingly unnecessary expository passages.
Readers familiar with the author’s works of fiction will find in this memoir numerous clues to his inspirations for settings, characters, plots, and many of the fantastic elements apparent in his fictions. Many elements of the story serve to highlight the Colombian landscape in which García Márquez’s personal narrative, as well as so many of his other stories, take place. Along the way, the reader meets many of the true-to-life individuals that are the basis for many of García Márquez’s more colorful characters. He also recounts some of the lore handed down to him by the elders of his family—stories, folklore, and superstitions that provide the context for some of his stories’ plot lines.
García Márquez frequently pauses to mention the incidents and moments in which he realized his path to becoming a writer. The first chapter outlines an argument with his mother regarding his career that takes place when he is in his early twenties. He makes clear to her his choice to become a writer, and throughout the rest of the book he justifies that decision through numerous anecdotes and tidbits of personal history. He describes the literary circles in which he made his first forays into authorship, and he mentions many established writers who were the inspiration for his own writing career—William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Joseph Conrad among them. His dedication to his personal journey toward becoming an author, journalist, and poet is an inspiration to budding writers of a later generation.
The memoir recounts many largely factual events and experiences that helped to shape García Márquez’s life and career. As a memoir and not a strict autobiography, the story at times veers toward the fantastic and unbelievable, with hyperbolized characters, odd coincidences, and some anecdotes that the author admits to having fabricated in his own memory. Though the tone of this work is inconsistent, drifting at times between the dryly accurate and the fantastically unbelievable, the work offers overall a literary window to the life of a literary man.