He Chose Wrong
Gabriel García Márquez’s ignoble decision to embrace Fidel Castro
May 12, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 33 • By LEE SMITH
García Márquez was an opportunist; he enjoyed the proximity to power that his fame as an artist made possible. Vargas Llosa called him Castro’s courtesan, but García Márquez’s vanity made him indiscriminate in his affections; loving to be loved, he was available to any powerful suitor. The adolescent Marxist and lifelong anti-imperialist blushed to find himself befriended by Bill Clinton, a big fan who lifted the longstanding U.S. travel ban and facilitated his visa. Clinton gushed when he finally got to meet the author of what he said was his favorite novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, at a cocktail party hosted by William and Rose Styron in Martha’s Vineyard. Later, García Márquez seems to have convinced himself that he was a go-between serving both Clinton and Castro as well as, from his perspective, the greater good of restoring relations between the United States and Cuba. In both his work and his political convictions, García Márquez was a fantasist.
Employed by García Márquez and other Latin American novelists, magical realism partakes of a tradition in Spanish letters that dates back to the renaissance. Gongorismo, named after the poet Luis de Góngora (1561-1627), is typically described as a literary style characterized by obscurity, extravagance, and violation of accepted laws of language, logic, and sentiment. The purpose of this stylistic shock treatment was to lay waste to a calcified classicism. From Góngora’s perspective, the use of the same accepted themes, conceits, and language, rehearsed repeatedly by both genuine poets and their lesser imitators, had effectively drained the life out of Spanish verse.
García Márquez and other stars of what became known as “El Boom,” the great late-20th-century flourishing of Latin American literature, were reacting to the novel, a European literary form that was invented and developed in tandem with Europe’s changing political and social realities, especially the rise of the middle class. Since Latin America was the product of a different political and social reality, it called for a new interpretation of the novel. This is what gave rise to magical realism, a technique that, in the hands of García Márquez at least, also relied on a local oral storytelling tradition. The important point is that, like Gongorismo, magical realism’s subversion of literary rationalism is a style, a technique for reviving and renovating a literary genre. However, García Márquez’s international success depended in large part on the fact that his audience, especially in the United States, confused magical realism with Latin American political reality.
New York publishing legend has it that García Márquez owed his fame to a used-book dealer. The Strand has long been the first stop for the New York publishing set, book reviewers, literary critics, and underpaid editorial assistants looking to unload their unwanted review copies for a handful of fast cash. The story goes that when they came in to dump their copies of a new novel from a 33-year-old Colombian writer shortly after the 1967 Spanish-language book was translated into English in 1970, one Strand employee told them they were making a mistake—they should keep the book and read it. When they heeded his advice, One Hundred Years of Solitude became a sensation, destined to reach every corner of the earth.
Regardless of this account’s veracity, the fact is that it was America that made García Márquez a literary colossus. He was a terrific storyteller, and as a writer of prose fiction his Gongorismo was not vulnerable to the exigencies of translation that poetry in a similar mode cannot possibly survive. Instead, it was precisely García Márquez’s magical realism that thrilled readers with the sense of the new, while adhering to standard novelistic conceits—beautiful and tragic women, serial intrigue, love, and family. One Hundred Years of Solitude was fantastic and familiar at the same time.
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