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Remembering Gabriel Garcia Marquez' magic realism

Susanne Spröer ad
March 6, 2017

Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of Latin America's most widely acclaimed authors, died in 2014. He would have turned 90 on March 6 this year.

Autor Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Image: AP

Already a legend in his lifetime, Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez was seen as not only one of the most significant writers of the 20th century, but also the most outstanding Spanish-language author since Miguel de Cervantes in the 17th century.

He won countless awards for his novels, short stories, screenplays, journalistic contributions and essays, the most important being the Nobel Prize for Literature which he received in 1982: He was the first Colombian author to do so. His works, translated into dozens of languages, have achieved enormous commercial success and have outsold everything ever published in Spanish except the Bible.

Childhood in Aracataca

The oldest of 11 siblings, Garcia Marquez was born on March 6, 1927 in the village of Aracataca, on Colombia's Caribbean coast. In his novel "Love in the Time of Cholera," he recounted how his parents met and came together. He grew up with his grandparents and often felt lonely as a child, even more so as he was almost exclusively surrounded by women - various older aunts and household maids.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his wife Mercedes Barcha
Garcia Marquez married Mercedes Barcha, a childhood neighbor, in 1958Image: AP

He later wrote in one of his memoirs, "It is women who maintain the world, whereas we men tend to plunge it into disarray with all our historic brutality." His grandmother in particular played a decisive role in his childhood, telling him fantastic stories about ghosts and dead relatives haunting the cellar and attic.

Little Gabo, as he was affectionately known, was a bookworm. He devoured the works of Spanish authors, as well as Hemingway, Faulkner and Kafka. And from early childhood onwards, he vowed to become a writer.

Pioneer of New Journalism

After his initial studies in law, Garcia Marquez decided instead to embark on a career as a journalist. He never shied away from criticizing Colombian and foreign politics - many of his essays reflected the harsh reality of his impoverished home country, which suffered from civil war and social unrest.

The assassination of the leftist presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitan in 1948 triggered yet another civil conflict and left its mark on the young journalist. His style of reporting in those times became known as New Journalism.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Raul Castro
His works were influenced by his leftist political viewsImage: AP

In 1958, Garcia Marquez married his childhood sweetheart Mercedes Barcha, with whom he had two sons. Times were tough for the young family, and they had to struggle to make ends meet.

Garcia Marquez had been a supporter of various leftist political movements in South America since the 1960s, and his friendship with Cuban strongman Fidel Castro often came under fire.

'One Hundred Years of Solitude'

His sensational breakthrough occurred in 1967, with the publication of his masterpiece "One Hundred Years of Solitude," which the influential "New York Times Book Review" described as "the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race."

The novel can almost be considered to be a form of therapy for the author. Garcia Marquez once revealed that until he wrote the novel, he had been haunted by terrible nightmares stemming from his childhood spent with his grandparents.

The work tells the story of seven generations of a family in the fictional town of Macondo, inspired by Garcia Marquez' birthplace, and represents a metaphoric and critical interpretation of Colombian history - or even Latin America as a whole.

Macondo, a city of mirrors reflecting the world in and around it, is believed to be surrounded by water. It becomes frequented by very strange events involving the entire family. The characters, controlled by the past and often visited by ghosts, cannot escape their doomed fate, and the predetermined history of Macondo repeats itself over and over again until it is finally destroyed by a hurricane.

At the end, one of the characters deciphers a secret code that all his ancestors had failed to grasp and which had foretold all the fortunes and misfortunes they were to go through.

Mural showing Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Garcia Marquez was one of Latin America's most widely acclaimed authorsImage: AP

Icon of magic realism

The deep sense of fatalism expressed in Garcia Marquez' works has been interpreted by critics as "a metaphor for the particular part that ideology has played in maintaining historical dependence in Latin America." Not only are the characters victims of underdevelopment and social injustice, they themselves continue to perpetrate these conditions, as well as the ideology that reinforces them. As one observer put it: "One Hundred Years of Solitude is a text which Latin America had to write in order to understand itself."

Equally typical of Latin America is the work's literary style, which came to be labeled as magic realism - magical elements used in otherwise realistic situations. That style, popularized by Garcia Marquez, was influenced by European and North American modernism as well as the Cuban vanguardia.

Equally exemplary of the style are Garcia Marquez' other acclaimed works, among them "Autumn of the Patriarch," "Chronicle of a Death Foretold," "Love in the Time of Cholera" and "The General in his Labyrinth."

Garcia Marquez clearly saw himself as a representative of Latin American magic realism. When he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, he said, "I have the impression that in giving me the prize, they have taken into account the literature of the sub-continent and have awarded me as a way of awarding all of this literature."

DW has released a documentary called "The Creation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez" that can be watched online.