Today is the birthday of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez from Columbia, a man regarded by many of his admirers as the greatest fiction writer of the twentieth century. That statement takes in a tremendous amount of territory previously occupied by James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Virginia Woolf, among others, and encroached upon by Toni Morrison in the relatively-recent past. Nevertheless, I would ask you to consider the claim, for it has merit. Garcia-Marquez’s two best-known novels, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, are, in my opinion, two of the finest examples of what humans are capable of doing with the language of a novel. The only other pair of novels that come close to them in both scope and inventiveness are Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina. And yet Garcia-Marquez’s tales have, in addition to their inventiveness, an endearing, melancholy sweetness which the other authors, for all their talent, cannot match.
Why should this be so? I believe it is because Garcia-Marquez knew what poverty was, in ways that Tolstoy and Woolf and Joyce did not. More than once, Garcia-Marquez’s wife put an empty plate before him at the dinner table, as the wife of William Blake did to him, and the wife of Karl Marx did to him. Yet, Garcia-Marquez persisted in his efforts to create the art of literature. In so doing, he himself came to reflect the quality we see in many of his characters: the enormous pride we take in enduring our suffering, in outlasting everything that life throws our way. There was hardness in the lives of Tolstoy and Joyce and Woolf, to be sure, but not poverty to the degree that Garcia-Marquez faced it. Such poverty either destroys us or we destroy it, in part by creating, or waiting for, the sweetness that often eludes us in our youth.
Garcia-Marquez’s greatest accomplishment is to show us how time operates on the individual human scale. Now is then for him, and then is now. He shows us the tricks of human memory–sometimes cruel, sometimes sweet–which are, of course, tricks of time itself. Although, like Joyce, he is aware of the great, wide world and the sweep of events, he is less concerned than Joyce is in Finnegans Wake to show us the scope of things than he is to show us how we–tiny, insignificant human beings that we are–fit within that very large scope. Faulkner did it in creating Yoknapatawpha County; Garcia-Marquez does him one better in creating Macondo. Such an endeavor could be a lifelong exercise in pessimism, but that is not how I would characterize Garcia-Marquez’s work. Unlike Faulkner and Joyce and Woolf, he is, in the end, one of the happiest writers I know.
To celebrate, I’m going to do something I don’t want to do: link you to a page of quotations from his books. Don’t read them. Read instead the books themselves. There and only there will you find the context in which the quotations from this wonderful author actually make sense.