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He Chose Wrong

Gabriel García Márquez’s ignoble decision to embrace Fidel Castro

May 12, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 33 • By LEE SMITH
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García Márquez is typically said to be an heir to Faulkner, whose Yoknapatawpha County, explained the Colombian novelist, was the model for his imaginary town of Macondo. But Salman Rushdie, citing Tolkien, Harry Potter, and other adolescent fantasies in a recent tribute to García Márquez,
may have hit a little closer to the truth. García
Márquez wrote escapist literature. As with all fantasy literature, the most significant feature is the locale, the world that fantasy, unchecked by reality, creates. The great psychological novels are studies in human character shaped by and responding to circumstance and fate. In fantasy, the characters are typically cut-out figures, allegories, embodiments of moral attributes, like virtue, courage, greed, and gluttony. It is place that breathes with the life of a unique individual, and it is the character of the place​—​​Narnia, the Shire, Hogwarts​—​​rather than the psychology of a human character, that tends to live on in the minds of readers.

García Márquez’s great fortune was that his fantasy world happened to be set in Latin America. This fact could not help but appeal to a Vietnam-era audience certain that America was doing bad things all around the world and possibly much worse things in Third World countries even closer to home. Wasn’t our adventure in Southeast Asia just the most recent iteration of what we’d been doing in Latin America for a century or more? Imperialism, colonialism, the subjugation of Third World peoples. Surely this was the grand theme of One Hundred Years of Solitude, as articulated by a genuine voice of the global South. Hidden under all the fantasy, his American readers were convinced, García Márquez must have a political message that indicts America for its criminal actions across the world.

Insofar as there are any real politics in García Márquez’s books, they simply echo what any reader of the New York Times was already predisposed to think about Latin America or anywhere else in the Third World in the 1970s​—​the bad guys of course are right-wing, and the good guys are for overthrowing the system, i.e., revolution. He claimed that his grandfather, the model for the protagonist of the novella No One Writes to the Colonel, was the source of many of his political ideas. A military man and a liberal, García Márquez explained, his grandfather “would regale me with horrifying accounts of the last civil war that free-thinkers and anti-clerics waged against the Conservative government.” García Márquez, according to one scholar of his work, held “socialist and anti-imperialist views .  .  . in principled opposition to the global status quo dominated by the United States.”

The novelist’s political commitments then were of the boilerplate left-liberal variety​—​as readily available in Parisian lecture halls as they were in Upper West Side living rooms. His political ideas were already part of the atmosphere of the moment. Accordingly, for his American readers, García Márquez’s work offered something like an invigorating, albeit perfectly comfortable, vacation in a Third World theme park. And that’s why he became so popular. An overtly political novelist who truly sought to unnerve his readership never would’ve gotten the same reception, and won the same wide readership, even in the 1970s. For instance, the struggles of the Palestinians and their war against Israel have long been of abiding interest to the international left, but a novelistic account of them, as depicted, say, by the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani, spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a terrorist group, while perhaps popular on some college campuses, was simply not bestseller material. It was not because García Márquez was deeply engaged in the revolutionary struggle that he was politically useful to Castro, but because his novels were international bestsellers, thanks to America.

 It’s worth imagining what might have happened had García Márquez come out against Castro over the Padilla Affair. In 1971, the year after the English-language translation to One Hundred Years of Solitude was published, García Márquez was probably the world’s third-most famous Latin American, after the Brazilian soccer star Pelé and Castro himself. Had he joined his less famous Latin American colleagues as well as other writers like Susan Sontag and Italo Calvino in coming out against Castro, García Márquez would have stripped the revolution of any of its remaining luster. That’s not to say that Castro would’ve fallen or that other revolutionary movements would’ve died in the womb, but the Cuban revolution would have been exposed by the continent’s most popular spokesman, its greatest living writer, for what it truly was​—​a brutal dispensation that turned husbands and wives against each other, jailed dissidents, writers, homosexuals, and anyone who deviated from the strictures of Castroism, all in order to extinguish freedom. The issue then isn’t simply that García Márquez made the wrong choice when he backed Castro in the Padilla Affair, but that he legitimized totalitarianism, in Cuba and throughout the rest of Latin America.

The fact that he continued to believe in Castro and the revolution until his death is indisputable, and it’s perhaps not hard to find the reasons why. Like many writers he was vain and susceptible to flattery, especially that of the powerful. He was from a modest background and, compared with many other Latin American literary stars schooled in Paris or London, only moderately well educated, which is not to say that a lack of intellect played a part in his choice but rather that an abundance of resentment almost surely did.

But biography can’t entirely explain his choices, and it may prove useful to turn to one of García Márquez’s precursors, the greatest of all Spanish novelists, one of Góngora’s contemporaries, Miguel de Cervantes. Don Quixote is a book whose hero is incapable of distinguishing fact from fiction, fantasy from the real world. In a sense, this theme is also that of García Márquez, a novelist who constructed an imaginary universe by combining and confusing the visible world and the supernatural. It is not always advisable to draw analogies between an artist’s style and his beliefs, but it is difficult not to conclude that in his public life García Márquez lived like Quixote, and mistook fantasy for the real and visible world. He saw in Castro and the revolution something of wondrous beauty, his Dulcinea, when in fact it was coarse and violent. But if García Márquez chose to back Castro because of his fantasy-riddled political imagination, it turns out that the windmills the novelist tilted at were real. And those he sided against suffered deeply.

Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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