Born in 1927, Gabriel García Márquez was 87 when he died last week. According to his younger brother, Jaime, he had been suffering from complications caused by chemotherapy, which saved his life but accelerated his dementia, a disease that apparently ran in his family. He’d call his brother and ask to be reminded about simple things. “He has problems with his memory,” Jaime reported a few years back.
Remembering and forgetting are García Márquez’s great themes, so it would be easy to read meaning into his senility. The writer was fading into his own solitude, suffering the same fate he assigned to the inhabitants of his fictional town of Macondo, in his most famous novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Struck by an insomnia plague, “sinking irrevocably into the quicksand of forgetfulness,” they had to make signs telling themselves what to remember. “This is a cow. She must be milked.” “God exists.”
The narrative of that book is straightforward. Macondo is founded, it grows, catastrophe strikes. Its people, though, experience time not as progressive motion but as circular repetition, engaging in ever more desperate efforts to ward off the forces of oblivion. Life and history are lineal, García Márquez seemed to want to say, but memory, which makes us human, is reiterative. Or, as he wrote at the beginning of his memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, published in English in 2003, “Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers in order to recount it.”
The climax of One Hundred Years of Solitude is famously based on a true historical event that took place shortly after García Márquez’s birth: in 1928, in the Magdalena banana zone on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, not far from where the author was born, the Colombian military opened fire on striking United Fruit Company plantation workers, killing an unknown number. In the novel, García Márquez uses this event to capture the profane fury of modern capital, so powerful it not only can dispossess land and command soldiers but control the weather. After the killing, the company’s US administrator, “Mr. Brown,” summons up an interminable whirlwind that washes away not only Macondo but any recollection of the massacre. The storm propels the reader forward toward the novel’s famous last line, where the last descendant of the Buendía family finds himself in a room reading a gypsy prophesy: everything he knew and loved would be “wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men… because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.”
It’s a powerful parable of imperialism. But the real wonder of the book is not the way it represented the past, including Colombia’s long history of violent civil war, but how it predicted the future.
One Hundred Years of Solitude first appeared in Spanish in Buenos Aires in May 1967, a moment when it was not at all clear that the forces of oblivion had the upper hand. That year, the Brazilian Paulo Freire, in exile in Chile and working with that country’s agrarian reform, published his first book, Education as the Practice of Freedom, which kicked off a revolution in pedagogy that shook Latin America’s top-down, learn-by-rote-memorization school system to its core. The armed and unarmed New Left, in Latin America and elsewhere, seemed to be in ascendance. In Chile, the Popular Unity coalition would soon elect Salvador Allende president. In Argentina, radical Peronists were on the march. Even in military-controlled Brazil, there was a thaw. Che in Bolivia still had a few months left.
In other words, the doom forecast in One Hundred Years was not at all foregone. But within just a few years of the novel’s publication, the tide, with Washington’s encouragement and Henry Kissinger’s blessing, turned. By the end of the 1970s, military regimes ruled the continent and Operation Condor was running a transnational assassination campaign. Then, in the 1980s in Central America, Washington would support genocide in Guatemala, death squads in El Salvador and homicidal “freedom fighters” in Nicaragua.
Political violence was not new to Latin America, but these counterinsurgent states executed a different kind of repression. The terror was aimed at eliminating not just opponents but also alternatives, targeting the kind of social-democratic solidarity and humanism that powered the postwar Latin American left. Hundreds of thousands of people were disappeared and an equal number tortured. Hundreds of communities were, like Macondo, wiped off the face of the earth.
It is this feverish, ideological repression, meant to instill collective amnesia, that García Márquez so uncannily anticipates in One Hundred Years. “There must have been three thousand of them,” says the novel’s lone survivor of the banana massacre, referring to the murdered strikers. “There haven’t been any dead here,” he’s told.
A year and a half after García Márquez published that dialogue, a witness to the October 2, 1968, Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City cried, “Look at the blood… there was a massacre here!” To which a soldier replied, “Oh lady, it is obvious that you don’t know what blood is.” Hundreds of student protesters were killed or wounded that day by the Mexican military, though for years the government denied the extent of the slaughter. Even the torrential downpour in One Hundred Years is replicated at Tlatelolco: as Mexican tanks rolled in to seal off the exit streets, one witness recalls that “the drizzle turned into a storm…and I thought that now we are not going to hear the shooting.”
There’ll never be another like Gabriel García Márquez, and when his friend Fidel Castro soon dies, they’ll say the same thing about him. The two have been linked together for years, and not just because every article about García Márquez published in English, including now his obituaries, are obligated to mention that he never gave in to demands to denounce Castro’s authoritarianism. García Márquez recognized such demands for what they were: credentialing rituals (the United States, he said in 1990, has an “almost pornographic obsession with Castro. The U.S. Press has made him into a devil”).
Rather, the bond between the two men was deep and organic; one explains the other. They were born a year apart, both in Caribbean provinces dominated by US plantations. Coming of age steeped in the heady social-democratic populism of mid-century Latin America, both were rebels against form. Castro revolted against Latin America’s highly stylized tradition of political declamation, made even more rigid when performed by urban Cuban Stalinists, developing an oratorical style that García Márquez once described as capable of inducing “an irresistible, blinding state of grace.”
That of course would be a good description of García Márquez’s writing. Art was not only inseparable from his leftist politics; those politics were the source of his artistry. His memoir’s most fascinating passages describe the influence that Colombian populism, as represented by the fiery and enormously popular Jorge Eliécer Gaitán (think Hugo Chávez in a fedora), had on his narrative style. As a university student living in Bogotá in the 1940s, García Márquez at first tried to resist Gaitán. But the aspiring writer accidentally came upon the politician giving a speech. His voice, García Márquez thought, was like the “lashes of a whip over the astonished city”:
Not so much because of what his words said as for the passion and shrewdness in his voice… The subject of that night’s speech was an unadorned recounting of the devastation caused by official violence… After a terrifying enumeration of murders and assaults, Gaitán began to raise his voice, to take delight word by word, sentence by sentence, in a marvel of sensationalist, well-aimed rhetoric. The tension in the audience increased to the rhythm of his voice, until a final outburst exploded within the confines of the city and reverberated on the radio into the most remote corners of the country.
As a young writer, García Márquez felt constrained by the two genre options available to him: either florid, overly symbolic modernism or quaint folklorism. But Gaitán offered an alternative. Upon hearing that speech, García Márquez “understood all at once that he had gone beyond the Spanish country and was inventing a lingua franca for everyone.” García Márquez describes the style as a distinctly Latin American vernacular that, by focusing on his country’s worsening repression and rural poverty, opened a “breach” in the arid discourse of liberalism, conservatism and even Marxism.
García Márquez flung himself through that breach, developing a voice that, when fully realized in One Hundred Years, took dependency theory (a social-science argument associated with the Latin American left that held that the prosperity of the First World depended on the impoverishment of the Third) and turned it into an art form.
The melancholy that saturates some of García Márquez’s later novels also has its roots in politics. Having practically prophesied the defeat of the New Left with One Hundred Years, he mourned its loss, metaphorically at least, in a series of elegiac books, including The General in his Labyrinth, Chronicle of a Death Foretold and The Autumn of the Patriarch.
So many deaths, so many political hopes shattered, betrayed, exhausted. One can trace the pivot from prediction to lament to one essay in particular, a remarkable meditation on the significance of Salvador Allende, “Crónica de una tragedia organizada” (“Chronicle of an Organized Tragedy”), written six years after the publication of One Hundred Years and almost immediately after the Chilean president’s overthrow and death on September 11, 1973. (It was published in English in the New Statesman as “Why Allende Had to Die.”)
If Castro is autumn’s patriarch, Allende is the democratic lost in history’s labyrinth. Drawing on his by then finely tuned sense of historical existentialism, García Márquez presents Allende as a fully realized Sartrean anti-hero, alone in the presidential palace, “aged, tense and full of gloomy premonitions.” The Chilean embodied and confronted an “irreversible dialectic”: Allende’s life proved that democracy and socialism were not only compatible but that the fulfillment of the former depended on the achievement of the latter. Over the course of his political career, he was able to work though democratic institutions to lessen the misery of a majority of Chileans, bringing them into the political system, which in turn made the system more inclusive and participatory. But his life, or, rather, his death, also proved the opposite: democracy and socialism were incompatible, because those who are threatened by socialism used democratic freedoms—subverting the press, corrupting opposition parties and unions, and inflaming the military—to destroy democracy.
Here was Macondo writ large across the world: “All the force of internal and external reaction came together in a single, compact bloc” and were brought to bear on the isolated Allende, leading to a “social cataclysm without precedent in the history of Latin America… The drama took place in Chile, to the greater woe of the Chileans, but it will pass into history as something that has happened to us all, children of this age, and it will remain in our lives forever.”
García Márquez, though, taught us by example how to live with the loss. Unlike so many of the other famous “boom” writers of his generation, both from Latin America and elsewhere, he never grew bitter, self-important or smugly disapproving. He remained joyous, generous with his laughter, faithful to his friends and ideals, clear in his perspective. “We are all alone,” he said, a truth meant not to depress but to accept and thus transcend.
He told us, over and over again, that other utopias were possible. Today, Salvador Allende’s daughter, Isabel Allende Bussi, is the head of the Chilean Senate; his granddaughter, Maya Fernández Allende, is in the House of Deputies; and Michelle Bachelet, tortured by Pinochet’s security forces, is president of the country (all three women are members of Allende’s Socialist Party). Maybe, as García Márquez said upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, rethinking that famous last line, “races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth.”
Greg Grandin teaches history at New York University and is the author of Fordlandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history. His new book, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, will be published in January.