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Misunderstandings Surrounding Gabriel García Márquez

Translated from the Spanishby Anne McLean
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One Hundred Years of Solitude reached its fortieth year in plenty of company not long ago. The celebrations that took place in Colombia—and with less hullabaloo in the rest of the Spanish-speaking world—had a level of redundancy that struck me as the best commentary on the health of the novel. The anniversary was not celebrated the way one celebrates the birthday of an old friend, but the way the state commemorates famous events of its history (an old dictator’s birthday, for example), and having survived the opportunistic bureaucracy of the commemorations is proof of the novel’s character, of its literary relevance. The adjective Macondian now forms part of the Latin American vocabulary, and we had no qualms about applying it to the celebrations themselves: critics, journalists, and writers made the most desperate attempts to embalm the novel and carry it in a procession, like Big Mama’s funeral. One of the gravedigging tools these literary commentators relied on, one of their most facile strategies, was to review, for the umpteenth time, García Márquez’s presence in the literature of subsequent generations and to reiterate like tired parrots the question that has hounded all Colombian writers born since the middle of the last century: How does one write in the shadow of One Hundred Years of Solitude? The question strikes me as a false problem, almost a rhetorical vacuity, and I have said so in more than one interview. But I’ll now try to give my objections a less indignant and more rational, less informal and more articulate form.

Any place is a good place to start breaking down the distorted notion of García Márquez’s influence, and I’ll start with the very idea of influence. There is, I believe, a principal misunderstanding that in some way provokes or tolerates the rest of the misunderstandings: the notion—perverted, provincial, reductionist, but most of all alien to the very spirit of literature—that influence has a national character. Bolivian or Moroccan writers are not often interrogated about the difficulties of writing beneath the pre-eminence of magical realism; Indian writers are not asked about the influence of García Márquez on their work, even if the Indian writer is Salman Rushdie and even though Midnight’s Children is inconceivable without One Hundred Years of Solitude. Borges, who faced harassment from Latin American provincialism many times over the course of his life, devoted a text to confronting these notions. He wrote: “. . . the idea that a literature must define itself in terms of its national traits is a relatively new concept; also new and arbitrary is the idea that writers must seek themes from their own countries.” Both these ideas survive in the notion of García Márquez’s influence. The distracted reader thinks there is such a thing as an abstract quality of Colombianess, that Macondo (the village and its inhabitants: its imaginary world) embodies this quality better than any other territory of Colombian fiction, and that, therefore, the individual born within the borders of Colombia who practises the writing of fiction should inevitably inherit the Macondian imaginary world. Their performance, then, will be measured by the greater or lesser degree of originality with which they give shape to that same imaginary world, to those distinguishing features of Colombian reality. So we find ourselves in a critical position that verges on the absurd, in which the rather obvious circumstance that every novel is, among other things, a verbal transposition of experience, is forgotten. And the great misunderstanding results from believing that the young writer, desperate to find the technical and rhetorical tools that will allow him to give shape to his idiosyncratic obsessions, will automatically take on the models of his own territorial milieu. In other words, the misunderstanding results from believing that literary influence is involuntary (it comes to the writer without the writer looking for it) and unavoidable (the writer cannot escape it). Influence as the flu. Influence as influenza. Nothing could be more ridiculous.

In October 1959, the Colombian magazine La Calle published an article by García Márquez that bore this falsely casual title: “Two or three things about the novel of la violencia.” By that time, the three hundred thousand deaths as a result of political violence had engendered the opinion that it was the novelist’s obligation to confront that reality: the umpteenth incarnation of la novela comprometida, the politically engaged novel. The text included, among others, the following judgment: “Perhaps it is more valuable to honestly relate what one believes oneself capable of telling by virtue of having experienced it, than to relate with the same honesty what our political position indicates should be told, even though we would have to invent it.” The use—almost as an amulet, almost as a fetish—of the concept of honesty is a direct result of reading Hemingway, who in those days obsessed García Márquez; but that’s not what interests me, rather it’s the firm defence of a literature of experience, a literature of what one has lived through. Faced with an avalanche of terrible books about la violencia, novels trying to meet the socio-political demands and failing to meet the literary ones, García Márquez wrote:

We needed to wait for the best novelists to witness the violence. But it seems these writers realized they were in the presence of a great novel and had neither the serenity nor the patience, nor even the cleverness, to take the time they needed to learn how to write it. Not having a tradition to follow in Colombia, every novelist had to start from scratch, and one doesn’t start a literary tradition overnight.

García Márquez knew, although he didn’t admit it here, the old saying: if the tradition won’t come to Muhammad, Muhammad will go to the tradition. Realizing there were no models in Colombia that would serve him in telling his own version of events (what we call experience), García Muhammad decided to go out hunting for models somewhere else.

His first prey, several years before he wrote that article, had been William Faulkner. Clinging to Yoknapatawpha County, García Márquez wrote Leaf Storm following Faulkner’s verbosity, disordered structures, and crazy time schemes to the letter. But when that rhetoric ran out or no longer produced suitable results, García Márquez fired him and changed masters. The next one he hired was Ernest Hemingway, under whose tutelage he wrote that Caribbean photocopy of The Old Man and the Sea called No One Writes to the Colonel. And months later he wrote his notes about the novel of la violencia that I’ve already quoted in part; but I haven’t quoted the part where he recommends, as a model for the novel of la violencia that should be written in Colombia, an unpredictable title, The Plague. A few years later In Evil Hour was published. It is perhaps García Márquez’s worst novel; it is also the most interesting from a critical point of view, for with its atmosphere of contained paranoia, of underlying and almost metaphoric violence, In Evil Hour is frankly indebted to Albert Camus’s novel, and generously illustrates the system of searching that would lead, by the (not so) mysterious processes of literary alchemy, to One Hundred Years of Solitude.

What I mean to say is that this emblematic—or mythic, or indispensable: you can choose the cliché you like best, but you’ll never escape from cliché—novel is the result of a deliberate pursuit of models. The young novelist was replacing one influence with another, always choosing them with an enviable knack and always wringing them out programmatically in line with his expressive needs or his technical lacks, in line with an intuition (which in great novelists is always solid) for the form that can best give poetic shape to his experience. And that process was always extraterritorial or, to put it another way, imported. García Márquez did not rely on the great novels of the negligible Colombian tradition, from La vorágine (The Vortex) by José Rivera to Cuatro años a bordo de mí mismo (Four Years On Board With Myself) by Eduardo Zalamea Borda. He knew (intuited) that those models were useless or incomplete. Shortly after the publication of Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude), in September 1967, García Márquez arrived in Lima and spoke with Mario Vargas Llosa at the National University of Engineering. After a revealing declaration (that One Hundred Years of Solitude’s true antecedent is Leaf Storm, and therefore the language in both novels has intense similarities), he says, “I think that the major debt that we, the new Latin American novelists have, is with Faulkner.” And then:

The “Faulknerian” method is very efficient for relating Latin-American reality. That’s what we unconsciously discover in Faulkner. That is, we were seeing that reality and wanting to relate it and we knew the method of the Europeans was no use, nor was the traditional Spanish method; and suddenly we find the Faulknerian method perfectly suited to telling this reality. Actually this is not very strange because we mustn’t forget that Yoknapatawpha County has shorelines on the Caribbean Sea; so in a way Faulkner is a Caribbean writer, in a way he’s a Latin-American writer.

Taking by storm a novelist whose method is useful for the telling of one’s own reality, that’s what influence is. Another way of saying the same thing: influences are only involuntary for bad writers. A novelist with a minimum degree of control over his material searches them out and chooses them fully aware of what those choices will allow him to do, aware of the risks he’s running and how to manage them. An analysis of the process of influences adopted by García Márquez sheds important light on the theme of the authentic tradition: for the successor novelist, tradition (from the Latin tradere, to hand over or transmit) is the receipt of a set of tools he chooses to inherit not by virtue of national ties but of literary ones: the tools he chooses to inherit because they will be useful to him in transforming his experience into literature. The writer, said Borges, creates his precursors. That’s how it is. The novelist, loyal to his parasitic vocation, takes from life the events that he can use to make novels, and takes from novels the instruments he can use to narrate those events, aware that the achievements of one’s predecessors belong to the successor. And in doing so he establishes a special relationship, a sort of search for identity that can sometimes pass for a confrontation with one’s literary fathers, and sometimes for their premeditated cold-blooded murder, but always passes for what Harold Bloom, in that marvellous and excessive little book, The Anxiety of Influence, calls the “act of misreading,” which can be translated as “misinterpretation” and also as “reading wrong.” The successor novelist, the novelist who receives the influence of an important book like One Hundred Years of Solitude, carries out a misinterpretation of the novel, a revisionist reading that departs from a necessary lie or, at least, necessary to the successor novelist: the father’s book is insufficient, defective, incomplete. The successor novelist says, My obligation is to fix it. This is the main difference between the mediocre writer and the genuine writer. “Weaker talents idealize,” says Bloom. Those with capable imaginations “appropriate” from other people’s books. Cheap imitators of García Márquez are incapable of this misinterpretation. They read in such an aseptic and respectful way that their products are mere pastiches, for they don’t have the slightest problem in repeating in their books the procedures they’ve read—repeating them, I insist, not correcting them. They thus become mere imitators when they should be critics.

Every genuine novel, every novel that aspires to importance—even if that importance might be more or less transitory—carries within it the implicit criticism of the important novel that preceded it. Every genuine novel commits the incredible arrogance of pointing out, or trying to point out, the gaps in the mother novel, the places where it fell short or where it could have gone and did not. And in the end it turns out that every genuine novel is at once essential—product of an unrepeatable gaze—and convincingly incidental: it sets itself up as a commentary on another novel. Leaf Storm is a commentary on Faulkner’s entire oeuvre, with a wink to Mrs. Dalloway; No One Writes to the Colonel is a commentary on The Old Man and the Sea, in which the fish has been turned into a rooster and the fisherman a retired military officer. In García Márquez: Historia de un deicidio, Vargas Llosa writes that every novel is an “attempt to correct, change or abolish real reality.” I would argue that it’s also an attempt to correct, change, or annul the fictitious realities that have preceded it. Literary influences are, then, the novels the writer voluntarily decides to take as models in order to correct, change, or abolish them, whether because they give a vision of a certain real reality that seems incomplete to the new novelist or because they are the only existing vision of a particular real reality, and every genuine novelist’s instinct is to confront monolithic truths, introduce discord, sew disorder, and break with the black and white.

The real reality that formed García Márquez’s imaginary world, and therefore the fictitious reality of One Hundred Years of Solitude—those marvellous Caribbean realities, filtered through the idiosyncrasy of one family and the virtuosity of one style—are as distant from my own urban contemporary reality that an obsession to misinterpret them (to misread them) never sprouted in me, never even germinated. Why would it interest me to comment in fiction on a real reality that I don’t know and have never known? In my personal search for models—for methods, as García Márquez says—One Hundred Years of Solitude was never an option because there is nothing further from late-twentieth-century Bogotá, or the European experience of a young emigrant, than the Macondian method; just as García Márquez found an extraordinary tool in Faulkner’s method for narrating what according to him was Latin American reality, I have discovered in certain North American novelists (particularly Jewish ones: who knows if that means anything), and in certain expatriate writers such as Joseph Conrad and V. S. Naipaul, a way of narrating the human experience, individual as well as collective, that better meets my needs. What Newark is to Philip Roth or Chicago to Saul Bellow—think American Pastoral or The Dean’s December—comes very close to what Bogotá is to me; Naipaul’s experience as a citizen of a Third World country who arrives in England with the absurd idea of becoming a writer has been, I confess, a yardstick against which to measure my own experience since I left my country twelve years ago. The educational process of a novelist is a sum of uncertainties, of insecurities; to survive, one must cling to some model, but one must take a lot of care in choosing a model. The choice of an inadequate model, as happened to so many imitators of magic realism, can drown their perception and invalidate them as creative artists. In other words, the genuine novelist is incapable of creating from nothing, for at every step he must carry the baggage of his tradition, which includes the entire history of fiction in prose but also what his contemporaries are doing; at the same time, he is capable of finding in his predecessor everything he needs, even if what he needs is not really in his predecessor’s work. This is what’s called misinterpretation. This is pure literary revisionism.

What I’m saying is not to deny One Hundred Years of Solitude’s pre-eminent position. That position, let’s just come right out and say it, is a clear and present threat; but it is for those Colombian novelists who, due to lack of talent, ignorance, or simple laziness, have been unable to go out into the world in search of new tools—that is, to create their own tradition, to create their predecessors—and have contented themselves with staying home and working with what’s lying around the house, working within the territorial tradition where the tree of One Hundred Years of Solitude still casts its shade. For the others, García Márquez’s work generates a very different feeling. You see, genuine novelists are very jealous people. As Harold Bloom says: “A poem is a poet’s melancholy at his lack of priority.” That is, every new book by a genuine novelist is an attempt to knock another book down from its privileged position. Literature is a contact sport. The novelist is aware that he must first go though a training process, an initiation or apprenticeship process, which might take two or ten books; once through this process, the novelist decides that the time has come to dispute another book’s position, whether by supplanting it (killing the father) or by competing with it (becoming a father oneself), which is, as any Freud will tell you, another form of correction. For those whose experience in the world is inexplicable by way of the Macondian method, the only option is the second. In the attempt to subvert the existing hierarchy, the new novelist creates a new hierarchy. This is what we new Colombian novelists must do: not chop down the tree of One Hundred Years of Solitude but plant a new tree that in time will prove useful to someone, even if it’s only for sitting underneath, waiting for an apple to fall and hit them on the head.

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Juan Gabriel Vásquez was born in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1973. He is the author of the novels The InformersThe Secret History of Costaguana, and The Sound of Things Falling, and has translated works by Victor Hugo and E. M. Forster, among others, into Spanish. His work is published in fifteen languages.

Anne McLean translates Latin American and Spanish novels, short stories, memoirs, and other writings by authors including Julio Cortázar, Héctor Abad, Javier Cercas, and Ignacio Martínez de Pisón. Recent publications include The All Saints’ Day Lovers, a collection of short fiction by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, and two novels by Enrique Vila-Matas.