Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.


Gabriel García Marquez: much more than magical realism

Matt Carr pays tribute to the author Gabriel García Márquez

April 18, 2014
5 min read

Like millions of people who read his wonderful books, I was sorry to hear that Gabriel García Márquez had ‘stretched his leg and gone to the other neighborhood’, as the Spanish expression pithily puts it. I knew that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s, but I didn’t realize he was in poor physical health as well.

I haven’t read Márquez for some time now, and I didn’t really keep up with his later output, but there was a time when his books made a huge impression on me. There are some writers who you admire, but don’t love. With Márquez there was never any such contradiction. From the moment I read that marvellous opening sentence to 100 Years of Solitude: ‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice’, I was hooked.

Márquez has often been described as the foremost exponent of Latin American ‘magical realism’, but this wasn’t really the most useful description of his work, to say nothing of Carpentier, Asturias, Roa Bastos, Cortazar and other Latin American writers who came out of the ‘boom’ of the 60s and 70s, who have also been somewhat lazily tarred with the magical realist brush.

The initial popularity of these writers certainly appealed to an appetite amongst Western readers for new literary worlds to be ‘discovered’ beyond the metropolis – and this appeal often rested on the perception of Latin America as an exotic, alluring and mysterious cultural space, populated by flying peasants, colourful dictators and crazed army officers, anacondas, pumas and dusky women with gleaming eyes and lustrous dark hair.

But the great Latin American writers of the boom were more like the Russian writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They constituted a literate critical intelligentsia, in societies that were often largely illiterate, and they sought to give voices to men and women whose stories were not generally told. Their imaginations were fed by the many different tributaries of the mestizo cultures they came from: European, Indian, Creole, African and American.

Many, if not most of them, were leftists at one time or other, and their books were sometimes censored in their own countries and they often had to go into exile, usually to Europe. They wrote about societies ground down by colonialism, poverty, and neo-colonial dictatorship.

Again and again they wrote about history, drawing on the very real and very personalised abuse of power that was so much a part of Latin America’s post-colonial experience, whether it was the nineteenth century Paraguayan dictator Dr Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia in Augusto Roa Bastos’ Yo el Supremo, the presidency of Manuel Estrada Cabrera in early-twentieth century Guatemala depicted in El Señor Presidente, or the composite of Trujillo and other Caribbean dictators which formed the basis of Márquez’s own ‘dictator novel’ The Autumn of the Patriarch.

This concern with Latin American history, and the willingness to give voices to the voiceless, were essential components of Márquez’s work. Many readers have approached 100 Years of Solitude as if it were some kind of fabulously exotic fairy tale, the Latin American literary equivalent to Marc Chagall’s or Rousseau’s paintings. But this was a novel about history, and the tormented and violent history of Colombia in particular, whose key moments were magnificently rendered through Márquez’s compulsive storytelling and effortless prose.

That relaxed, economical prose style was one of the things I most admired about Márquez. He was a very different writer to Asturias, for example, who was prone to long extended sentences that read like whole paragraphs, which you could really wear your brain out trying to follow. Márquez was a journalist before he became a novelist, and returned to journalism throughout his career, and he wrote with precision and clarity even at his most fantastic. Anyone who has read Márquez’s meticulous reconstruction of the Medellin cartel’s attempt to kidnap its way out of an extradition agreement between the Colombian government and the United States, News of a Kidnapping, will know how good a journalist he was.

His writing in that book was sharp, pungent and humane, and there was nothing ‘magical’ about it all. Something similar could be said about his novellas, like Chronicle of a Death Foretold or – probably my favourite Márquez story – No One Writes to the Colonel, a profoundly moving depiction of one man’s quiet rebellion against corruption that, like Chronicle, effectively indicts a whole society.

Few writers have said so much, with such economy and grace, in such a short space, as Márquez did in that tale. And now that he is gone, I will return to him again, and read some of the books that I didn’t read. But as sad as it always is to see a good man go, his long and extraordinarily creative life is something to be celebrated, and his astonishingly fertile imagination will continue to dazzle, move, and amaze his readers for as long as people continue to read books.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes

Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going