He could make you feel defunct in one devastating line. One image, one bathetic glint. He’d take a simple, quotidian process and instil in it the banal devastation of life. The essential coda of our existence. By the time the end came his thoughts had become so distilled, his turn of phrase so unthinkingly epithetic, that his final contribution to this earth was both myopic and magisterial, axiomatic and astrological at the exact same time: “I couldn’t tell you because I don’t know who I am yet.”
Everyone will have their own memories of Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez. Be that as a faithful student, or having overheard something witheringly beautiful you didn’t even know came from him, his words have reached us all (something he treated with half revelry, half bemusement).
Márquez began writing as a journalist, something evidenced by his first work, The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, and his last, the autobiographic Living to Tell The Tale, via the wondrous and at times super-realist News of a Kidnapping. He never lost that essential kernel of truth in any of his work, no matter how seemingly surreal or metaphysical. We know of the pixie dust anthropomorphism of One Hundred Years of Solitude and the Shaggy Dog meanderings of Love in the Time of Cholera. What made Márquez unique was his total, unflinching willingness to confront the moment, with all the potentiality, the fear, horror, ecstasy and indescribability of living, one second at a time. I’m not going to be so churlish as to suggest that his two most famous works were also his most formulaic, because that would carry with it the association that following formulae is an uncreative pursuit. It all depends on the formula.
Yet his work changed from piece to piece. He could write you into a frenzied, somnambulant state (The General in His Labyrinth) or to Thanatotic ecstasy (his 2009 Farewell Letter). He did “Thriller” better than any crime writer (Chronicle of a Death Foretold) and beat the pants off any graphic novelist in his forlornly lascivious Memories of My Melancholy Whores.
On the subject, a friend once said of Love in the Time of Cholera that Márquez was brilliant until he talked of sex – an odd and controversial thing to say about the man who wrote extensively of hyperbolic physical encounters. I agree with this in some way. Sex as a spectator is essentially one thing, and all-too-often as a participant another: Funny, and fleeting. Márquez did both, without shame or self-consciousness.
There was a passive nostalgia in much of his writing. Characters are in their pomp for a fleeting series of encounters and then relive those through long and ever increasingly incoherent declines. His view of love followed suit: An instant of iridescence that sears the eyes and leaves that unfocused, sun-spot effect on everything you see thereafter, like a reverse Dylan Thomas. His treatment of love was that of a solar flare. A high water mark. It tempers all that comes in its wake.
For those who denounce Márquez as too corporate or too assimilated: They should have paid better attention to the one book of his they’d read. One Hundred Years of Solitude is not a mere phantasmagorical sex manual; Márquez rails against colonialism and globalisation with the ferocity of a guy who single-handedly brought down the King of the Banana Republic. Through fiction. He was a vehement advocate of Columbian independence from his earliest days writing in Cartagena. As a contemporary of Latin American autocracy, he knew what it meant to live a life confined to paroxysms of personal passion and longing. Here he prefigured Junot Diaz, Roberto Bolaño and Juan Gabriel Vásquez, among others. In his later years, he felt his age, and the designation society placed on it, keenly and with terror.
As I tweeted when I heard of his death (in classic Márquezian fashion, a death he’d confronted and foretold): Reading Márquez for the first time made it feel like everything you’d read before was in black and white. He wrote in colour. He was the embodiment of and inspiration for Tony Kushner’s epic valediction: “Don’t be afraid; people are so afraid; don’t be afraid to live in the raw wind, naked, alone…”
His work showed a mind that never forgave, never forgot and never ceased to hope; his heart was the boldest and most starkly beautiful there was. Gracias, Gabo.