One day in November 1922, Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Egyptian King Tut, filled with dazzling treasures.
Carter poked a hole through a wall of rubble and thrust a flickering candle into the tomb’s chamber, sealed in darkness for nearly 3,000 years. Then he peered through the hole.
“Can you see anything?” someone asked impatiently.
His voice quaking with excitement, Carter answered: “Yes, wonderful things!”
Carter had been “struck dumb by amazement,” as he put it.
That is exactly how I felt one day in September 1980 when I opened a novel entitled One Hundred Years of Solitude. It was like opening a treasure chest filled with wonderful things. Amazing things. Utterly new and never-before-imagined things. I had read so many classic books in the decades before 1980, but nothing prepared me for the astonishing, gorgeous, dreamlike prose of that novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Marquez died in Mexico City last week at the age of 87. A giant has fallen. Marquez has now joined the pantheon of the greatest writers of all time, the best of the best.
He wrote in a style often dubbed “magic realism,” a mystical brew that combines the real with the unreal, the mundane with the extraordinary – a blend of realism, myth, magic, legend and hallucinatory phantasmagoria. Reading Marquez is like experiencing an extremely vivid, bizarre but wonderful dream-nightmare while fully awake. Marquez is haunted by the past (personal, cultural, political, historical). He reminds me of a sleight-of-hand magician who weaves the strands of his spell to evoke tales of love and death and violence, of hope and despair, of rollicking humor, of passionate obsessive characters living their lives in the strangest settings. There is an incredible tropical, exotic luxuriance in Marquez’s prose that he must have internalized while growing up among the hothouse eye-popping flora and fauna of the Latin American places where he lived, most especially his native Colombia.
His prose is so brilliant that each stunning sentence is like a jewel that you want to turn over and over until you have absorbed all of its sparkling facets. It’s for that reason I could never read his novels quickly. It’s best to take your time, to relish every sentence a dozen pages at a time. Then put the book down and come back to it the next day or week.
First published in 1967, Solitude was translated into 37 languages, with 30 million copies sold. It’s a rare example of a masterpiece finding favor with everyday readers, despite some of the book’s difficulties.
Solitude is the spellbinding saga of seven generations of the Buendia family in the mythical town of Macondo, a mirage of a rainforest city visited by ghosts, illusions, lust, revenge, pride, foolishness, cycles of history, colonial oppression and a heavy sense of impending doom. It’s not a depressing novel, however. It’s a work bursting with exuberant life and brimming with humor, like all of Marquez’s books.
Another of his sumptuous novels is Love in the Time of Cholera, also a bestseller. It’s about an interrupted love affair in all of its obsessions, disappointments, quirks and little triumphs. Love in Marquez is never a mere Valentine. It can at times be corrosive and even sinister. Blocked by 50 years of separation, the affair begins again when the couple is in doddering old age.
It’s so difficult to describe Marquez’s writing style. The best way is to dip into his fabulous books and discover the magic for yourselves. Here’s a passage about aging from Cholera:
“A few years later, however, the husbands fell without warning down the precipice of a humiliating aging in body and soul, and then it was their wives who recovered and had to lead them by the arm as if they were blind men on charity, whispering in their ear, in order not to wound their masculine pride, that they should be careful, that there were three steps, not two, that there was a puddle in the middle of the street, that the shape lying across the street was a dead beggar, and with great difficulty helped them to cross the street as if it were the only ford across the last of life’s rivers.”