Marquez and the Magic of Realism
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Many years later, as he faced the firing squad of photographers, reporters, literary critics, and political enemies, Gabriel García Márquez was to remember that distant afternoon when his grandfather took him to discover ice.

Political enemies? He’d been on the hit list of the right-wing Colombian assassination team MAS but retorted that he’d always hoped to die at the hands of a jealous husband.

And the ice? ‘I touched it and felt as if it was burning me. I needed ice in the first sentence of [One Hundred Years of Solitude] because in the hottest town in the world, ice is magical.’

Magical. Gabriel García Márquez is of course famous for writing about the magical. In 1982 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for ‘his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent’s life and conflicts’. And in the first sentence of the first comprehensive biography of the writer – Gerald Martin’s recently published Gabriel García Márquez: A Life – although it will have surprisingly little to say about magical realism, García Márquez is immediately identified as ‘the best-known writer to have emerged from the “Third World” and the best-known exponent of a literary style, “magical realism”, which has proved astonishingly productive in other developing countries and among the novelists who write about them – like Salman Rushdie, to quote just one obvious example.’

What, then, is this much-prized literary mode? And how has Gabriel García Márquez made it his own?

Not always prized, it’s true. In Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, the hero Perowne makes an effort to read novels recommended to him by his daughter Daisy, a young poetess and university student. Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary he manages, but in her final year she opts to study ‘the so-called magical realists’. Not Gabriel García Márquez, as it happens, but the preferred choices of a British university curriculum: Salman Rushdie (by virtue of his post-colonialism) and Angela Carter (by virtue of her feminism. In the 90s, I was once told by an Oxford professor, Carter was second only to Shakespeare as a subject for doctoral theses in the UK). Also on the list are Günter Grass, and, less predictably – a joke – the earlier McEwan of The Child in Time. Not that any of these authors are actually named, but which novels are meant is apparent from Perowne’s perplexed, irritated reaction to them:

What were these authors of reputation doing – grown men and women of the twentieth century – granting supernatural powers to their characters? He never made it all the way through a single one of those irksome confections. And written for adults, not children. In more than one, heroes and heroines were born with or sprouted wings – a symbol, in Daisy’s term, of their liminality; naturally, learning to fly became a metaphor for bold aspiration. Others were granted a magic sense of smell, or tumbled unharmed out of high-flying aircraft. One visionary saw through a pub window his parents as they had been some weeks after his conception, discussing the possibility of aborting him….

‘No more magic midget drummers,’ he pleaded with her by post, after setting out his tirade. ‘Please, no more ghosts, angels, satans or metamorphoses. When anything can happen, nothing much matters.’

This gives us some idea of the terrain. The objection to magic in literature is an old one and long predates the novel: Shakespeare was a magical realist. Drama, according to Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson, ought to represent people and times as they really were, not ‘make Nature afraid’, as Shakespeare had, by putting a magician and a monster into The Tempest. Perowne likewise believes that ‘the actual, not the magical, should be the challenge’ and that ‘the supernatural was the recourse of an insufficient imagination, a dereliction of duty, a childish evasion of the difficulties and wonders of the real, of the demanding re-enactment of the possible’. To his way of thinking, then, magic and reality are simply in opposition in fiction. It is the possible versus the impossible. That is why he refers to these novelists as the ‘so-called magical realists’. So-called because they have certainly not bewitched him, and so-called because ‘magical realist’ appears to be a contradiction in terms.

But Perowne has no talent for literature: he doesn’t think much of realism either and his reason is revealed to us with subtle, wry humour. ‘If, as Daisy said, the genius was in the detail, then he was unmoved. The details were apt and convincing enough, but surely not so very difficult to marshal if you were halfway observant and had the patience to write them all down.’ The fact that Perowne does not prize realism, with or without the magic, is telling. His dislike of the realist novel is in fact consistent with his dislike of the magical realist novel because both depend on an array of convincing details and other persuasive strategies of representation.

Consider a classic example – and a vital influence on García Márquez – of the realism in magical realism: Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The magical premise of the story is that a man can turn into an insect; but it is a premise upheld by a wholly convincing depiction of exactly what it would be like to find that you had, all of a sudden, become an insect.

 As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was lying on his hard, as it were armour-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed-quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.

The magic proposition that a man metamorphoses into an insect is plausible, and sustainable, only because it is realistically described. This is the magic of realism. In many magical realist novels it is precisely the realism that works all the magic, which makes the most extraordinary things believable, or at least which suspends our disbelief. It is a case of ‘grant that the moon is made of cheese, and all else follows’ – but it follows only because we can taste, smell, feel the cheese. Quite often in magical realist novels, the reality represented to us is mundane. For instance, the astonishing and unique event that has occurred ‘one morning’ in the life of Gregor Samsa is represented through his difficulty with the duvet: a struggle which all of us, on all other mornings, experience. It is believably boring, truly tedious.

So, to return to Perowne, his simple opposition of the actual to the magical rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of the genre of magical realism. Concentrating his derision on the magic in magical realism, he is blind to the realism in magical realism.

Gabriel García Márquez, an ex-law student like Kafka, was inspired by the German writer very early in his writing life. As his biographer tells us, a story that he wrote at school, about a girl who turned into a butterfly and lived a life of adventure, reminded the school secretary of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Actually reading Kafka’s magical realist tale prompted him, the very next day, to write his first published short story, ‘The Third Resignation’, about a corpse who is somehow still alive but really going to die this time. As a young journalist, writing on ‘Problems of the Novel?’, García Márquez declared that ‘Franz Kafka and Proust are everywhere in the literature of the modern world’ and that Colombia must follow suit but, with the pompous pessimism of the young, added that there was not the slightest sign of it ever happening. Many years later, Kafka was still the benchmark: when García Márquez read Juan Rulfo, he said he’d never been so impressed by anything since his first experience of Kafka.

But García Márquez’s magical realism would not be like Kafka’s. While sharing some features common to magical realist writing, García Márquez’s fiction deconstructed the seeming opposition between magic and realism rather differently. This is what we would expect of an original writer. It also happened because, in the novels that preceded One Hundred Years of Solitude, García Márquez found that realism was not quite working the magic he wanted. The early García Márquez was firmly grounded in realism – as an avid disciple of Italian neo-realist cinema, his biographer tells us, and in his own ground-breaking reportage. Once he spent a month uncovering ‘the most minute details’ of what was alleg- edly the ‘scandal of the century’, the murder of the twenty-one-year-old daughter of a carpenter.

As a reporter he traveled the world with a care for material reality: the so-called ‘Iron Curtain’ was in fact, he noted, a red and white roadblock made of wood. The architectural realism of East Berlin, its functionalism – as sombre as the city’s economic realities – met with his approval. And later he wanted to investigate the practical details of life under the US blockade of Cuba: how did you get the shopping done?

It will be obvious from these examples that there was a political dimension to the commitment to realism. As a socialist, in fact a theoretical communist, Gabriel García Márquez would, many years later, come under fire for failing to write novels deemed by the comrades to be suitable exercises in political intervention. (So much for the current literary critical view that the political subversion of the magical realist novel is its chief recommendation.) He had by then come to realise that the cinematic realism he so admired was affecting his fiction adversely:

I always thought that the cinema, through its tremendous visual power, was the perfect means of expression. All my books before One Hundred Years of Solitude are hampered by that uncertainty. There is an immoderate desire for the visualisation of character and scene, a millimetric ac- count of the time of dialogue and action and an obsession with indicating point of view and frame.

But One Hundred Years of Solitude left this anxious realism behind – and proposed a new relationship between magic and realism.

The García Márquez of One Hundred Years of Solitude had realised that ‘reality is also the myths of the common people, it is the beliefs, their legends; they are their everyday life and they affect their triumphs and failures’. Magic was, in other words, part of reality – our reality, our experience of the world, our way of looking at it. By this argumentative stroke, the politically suspect becomes, in a single move, politically acceptable. Cinema was still an influence: ‘has no one suspected,’ he enquired, ‘that the most likely source for the Latin American novel’s “magical realism” is Miracle in Milan?’ In this 1951 film by Vittorio de Sica, co-written with and based on the novel by Cesare Zavattini, the hero is found in a cabbage patch and given a magic dove by his mother’s ghost. Magic was especially part of reality if you were Latin American. (The French were apparently always too rational to adore García Márquez.) And especially if you were Gabriel García Márquez’s maternal grandmother.

Grandmother was a deeply superstitious woman, a believer in ghosts and dreams and portents; and she ran the house, in García Márquez’s amusing description, like the Roman Empire.

The real head of the household was my grandmother, and not only her but these fantastic forces with which she was in permanent communication and which determined what could and could not be done that day because she would interpret her dreams and organise the house according to what could and could not be eaten; it was like the Roman Empire, governed by birds, and thunderclaps and other atmospheric signals which explained any change of the weather, change of humour, really we were manipulated by invisible Gods, even though they were all supposedly very Catholic people.

Little Gabito was scared shitless and witless: it was only, he said, his beloved grandfather who had kept him in touch with reality. Once, after Gabito saw a dead man, his grandmother said the poor child would never sleep peacefully again. Not that she was exactly helping: last thing at night, she used to tell him that if he moved, dead people would come out of the walls.

These common superstitions about ghosts and signs from above are clearly a different order of magic from metamorphosing into an insect. In fact, García Márquez’s fiction dabbles in magic much less often than his reputation – as the number one magical realist writer – would lead us to expect. The magic of One Hundred Years of Solitude is, frequently, not very magical. It is like the ice of the infamous first sentence – actually a natural phenomenon but subjectively magical to someone who has never experienced it before. Only as part of their reality is it magical. Ditto ‘seeing’ a ghost, interpreting a dream: it’s a subjective business.

Similarly, the next ‘wonder’ of the novel – the magnet brought by the gypsies – is not magic either but only magical to a particular way of looking at the world: that is, a pre-technological civilisation’s interpretation of science, and the application of science, as magic. This ‘wonder’, which is magical only to the characters in the novel and not to the reader, does not, therefore, require a realistic mode of presentation to convince us of its plausibility. The realism of magical realism is not what is needed here. In fact, García Márquez does exactly the reverse: he exaggerates unrealistically, fairy-tale-style, the magnet’s operation. ‘Everybody was amazed to see pots, pans, tongs and braziers tumble down from their places and beams creak from the desperation of nails and screws trying to emerge, and even objects that had been lost for a long time appeared from where they had been searched for most and went dragging along in turbulent confusion behind Melquíades’ magical irons.’

One can see why an attempt at ‘millimetric’ realism hampered García Márquez: it was contrary to his nature, which is to see the world through magnifying glasses, through binoculars. ‘He exaggerated everything’, said his father, who gets rather bad press in the biography. Told that his son was regarded as one of the best story writers in Colombia, he retorted, ‘He’s a story-teller, all right, he’s been a liar since he was a small boy!’ García Márquez has always exaggerated, for instance, his grandfather’s political importance, claiming that he founded the town of Aracataca when in reality he was only one of the close military subordinates of the man who did. He also described his grandparents’ house, where he spent his early childhood years, as a mansion. This was as much of an exaggeration as his later claim that his own house was located ‘in a very quiet and traditional sector full of illustrious oligarchs’. Alas, so close but yet so far from the desirable sector in question – separated as it was by a major traffic route. In 1957, on a trip to London, García Márquez exaggerated the fog to a Victorian smog and claimed he was unable even to see the English until the sun came out. And in an early love poem, he considered it a compliment to say that the beloved object was ‘as unbelievable as any story’. As tall as a tale, one might say.

We think of a tendency to exaggerate as inevitably a flaw, but in the case of One Hundred Years of Solitude García Márquez granted his natural bent to his characters, especially José Arcadio Buendía. The schemes of this founder of Macondo, would-be discoverer of the philosopher’s stone (or how about a little solar war?) are as unrealistic as any magical realist premise. His ‘unbridled imagination always went beyond the genius of nature and even beyond miracles and magic’. It is super-supernatural. In other words, the magical realism of One Hundred Years of Solitude is character-driven (just as, later, the realism of Love in the Time of Cholera will be). José Arcadio takes everything ludicrously further than it can possibly be expected to go: even tumbling pots and straining nails are not enough magnetic attraction for him and he tries to use the magnets to pull gold out of the bowels of the earth. Introduced to the daguerreotype, he is resolved to use it to capture proof of the existence of God. And when he successfully hooks up the mechanism of a clock to a toy ballerina, he thinks he is really getting somewhere and searches sleeplessly for a way to apply the principles of the pendulum ‘to oxcarts, to harrows, to everything that was useful when put into motion’. Use- ful: technology is the useful application of science but José Arcadio returns everything to its state of original uselessness. From the alchemy to the pendulums, he is searching for the one single discovery that will explain and master everything. It should all be beautifully simple but instead everything is strained, pushed, complicated, exaggerated beyond belief. After stumbling across a galleon (in the now-infamous episode) and the sea that he has sought so long in vain, José Arcadio draws a map accentuating Macondo’s isolated situation: ‘in rage, evilly, exaggerating the difficulties of communication.’ It is a uselessly exaggerated map but it makes a useful point to the reader, which will be repeated many times in the novel. The isolation of Macondo (while exaggerated) and the solitude of the people who live there (a whole 100 years of it) encourages their detachment from reality and their corresponding attraction to the magical.

The novel’s magical realism is, then, culture-driven.

Insofar as Macondo represents the isolation of Colombia and of South America from the rest of the world, it is continent-driven. Many years later, when Macondo has been cut off from the rest of civilisation once again, the gypsies are able to return and persuade the locals that the magnet really is the latest thing ‘and there was no lack of people standing open-mouthed watching kettles fall and pots roll and who paid fifty cents to be startled as a gypsy woman put in her false teeth and took them out again’.

Literary critics (for whom García Márquez has little time) are also prone to exaggeration – ‘exaggerating the difficulties of communication’. For them, language is inadequate, referring not to reality but only to other words. For them, there is nothing magical about such a limited invention – language! – even when it is given literary application in a great novel. Professional language-sceptics would read no irony in the episode when the people of Macondo succumb to the insomnia plague and lose their memories, starting with their vocabularies: ‘they went on living in a reality that was slipping away, momentarily captured by words, but which would escape irremediably when they forgot the values of the written letters.’ Naïve theoreticians would merely find the implicit fissure between signifier and signified made manifest. No irony in the fact that it is José Arcadio who goes around marking everything with its name, and then, once again taking everything a stage further:

Little by little, studying the infinite possibilities of a loss of memory, he realised that the day might come when things would be recognised by their inscriptions but that no one would remember their use [my italics]. Then he was more explicit. The sign that he hung on the neck of the cow was an exemplary proof of the way in which the inhabitants of Macondo were prepared to fight against the loss of memory: This is the cow. She must be milked every morning so that she will produce milk, and the milk must be boiled in order to be mixed with coffee to make coffee and milk.

José Arcadio Buendía, the fantastical preserver of things’ uses! He studies the ‘infinite possibilities’ of memory loss with the same enthusiasm as those literary critics who study the benefits of madness, silence and illiteracy. The alleged inadequacy of language is an exaggeration of the difficulty of communication. Unless, of course, everyone happens to lose their memory simultaneously – an improbability, described here in suitably fairy-tale style, which has obliged Visitación and her brother ‘to exile themselves forever from an age-old kingdom where they had been prince and princess’.

José Arcadio sets about building a memory machine. He has written almost fourteen thousand entries when he is interrupted by the arrival of the gypsy Melquíades – who will later be revealed as the real writer of the family history, a surrogate García Márquez – who effectively declares: enough of this nonsense! Melquíades gives José Arcadio a restorative potion which clarifies his mind and he finds himself ‘in an absurd living-room where objects were labeled’ and ‘he was ashamed of the solemn nonsense written on the walls’. What is this magical potion? It is, as we say, ‘a dose of common sense’.

Many years later, García Márquez explained that he had used certain verbal ‘tricks’ in writing One Hundred Years of Solitude and this is one of them: he literalises metaphors, renovates clichés. We speak of ‘verbal powers’ and that is the magic García Márquez works. It is beyond José Arcadio. (He is modeled on the novelist’s father, who also claimed to be a novelist and could not see what all the ‘fuss’ was about his son.) In his alchemy phase, José Arcadio fails to seduce Úrsula ‘with the charm of his fantasy, with the promise of a prodigious world where all one had to do was sprinkle some magic liquid on the ground and the plants would bear fruit whenever a man wished, and where all manner of instruments against pain were sold at bargain prices’. The linguistic seduction here is all García Márquez’s. José Arcadio aspires to sound like The Alchemist by Ben Jonson – where all the magic is also worked by the most extraordinary language – but this is not dialogue. These are not the words of José Arcadio himself. Rather, this is García Márquez’s classic style – almost dialogue-free except for the occasional witticism or exclamation of exasperation which punctuates the magnificently extended paragraphs.

There is, then, appropriate exaggeration in One Hundred Years of Solitude. But the realism of magical realism is apparent here too, particularly when García Márquez describes something that readers of the novel, as well as the characters in it, are likely to consider magical. ‘An aunt of Úrsula’s, married to an uncle of José Arcadio Buendía, had a son who went through life wearing loose, baggy trousers and who bled to death after having lived 42 years in the purest state of virginity, for he had been born and had grown up with a cartilaginous tail in the shape of a corkscrew and with a small tuft of hair on the tip’ [my italics]. In fact, human tails are not magic either. We all start off with one in the womb. It is a vestigial structure of the human body. Alternatively, sometimes a tumour or spina bifida is mistaken for a tail. But all the same, readers’ acceptance of the human tail can be reasonably expected to be less automatic than their acceptance of magnets. So García Márquez provides us with a believably small tuft of hair to top it off.

Úrsula’s own son grows up to have a penis so large that she fears it is ‘something as unnatural as her cousin’s tail of a pig’ and she consults a fortune-teller for advice. The clairvoyant ‘explodes with laughter’, as we say, or, as García Márquez says: ‘The woman let out an expansive laugh that resounded through the house like a spray of broken glass. “Just the opposite,” she said. “He’ll be very lucky.”’ What a ‘prediction’: it’s not unfortunate to have a big penis. There is a nice touch when the fortune-teller lays hands on the blessed adolescent herself and, for all her worldly wisdom, for all her sexual experience and ‘merry, foul-mouthed, provocative’ nature, she is ‘sincerely startled’. Her sex life is fabled, like something out of Bocaccio or Chaucer, whereas this is manifestly the real thing: the marvel of realism.

Many years later, Úrsula herself is believed to be clairvoyant, because she ‘could say without hesitation how much money had been spent in the house during the previous year’. In fact, like any good magical realist writer, Úrsula works this seeming ‘magic’ by paying attention to the details, in this case of everyday expenditure: ‘an alert old age can be more keen than the cards.’ This implied commentary on the operation of magical realism is a postmodern device, and it anticipates, as we will see, the prominent pointing up of realism many years later in Love in the Time of Cholera.

Of course, there is actual magic in One Hundred Years of Solitude too – events, that is, which cannot be attributed to the ignorance and isolation of a community which interprets even the removal of false teeth as a sign of supernatural power. The potion has been mentioned. Most famously – and most riskily in García Márquez’s own view – a beauty queen floats to the upper atmosphere along with the washing sheets. And a priest levitates, a little less celestially, six inches. These events are, like the magical potion that is really ‘a dose of common sense’, further demonstrations of García Márquez’s verbal ‘powers’ – humour, detail, originality. The levitation of Father Nicanor Reyna even begins with a self-referential gesture to the way García Márquez writes:

At the end, when the congregation began to break up, he raised his arms signaling for attention.
‘Just a moment,’ he said. ‘Now we shall witness an undeniable proof of the infinite power of God.’

The long paragraph and the congregation begin to break up at the same moment, for a moment of dialogue which will turn out, like many of these moments, to be unintentionally funny. For what we witness is not the power of God but – behold ye doubters – hot chocolate. It is another narrative pun. It is, as we say, a caffeine ‘high’:

The boy who had helped him with the mass brought him a cup of thick and steaming chocolate, which he drank without pausing to breathe. Then he wiped his lips with a handkerchief that he drew from his sleeve, extended his arms, and closed his eyes. Thereupon Father Nicanor rose six inches above the level of the ground. It was a convincing measure.

A convincing measure for hot chocolate, yes. A double espresso and he might have risen six feet or, like Remedios the Beauty, many years later, actually made it to heaven.

Instead, the levitating hot chocolate drinker tries to impress the military authorities with the miracle and gets a rude awakening to the new realities of life in Macondo: his head is split open by the butt of a soldier’s rifle. It is now war, and later big business, that appear to be magical – having the power to change everything in an instant, to make it appear or disappear or look utterly different.

If a bomb explodes, everyone immediately disappears, as we say, ‘into thin air’. For a time Macondo is ‘swamped by a miraculous prosperity’. There is now an ice factory on the edge of town (recalling the first sentence of the novel). Commerce brings the train to Macondo, wonderfully described by an alarmed observer as ‘Something frightful, like a kitchen dragging a village behind it’. Then there is the ‘magic’ or at least the trickery of cinema, which works resurrections and metamorphoses and creates indignation in Macondo, ‘for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears of affliction had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one’. Macondo has grown up enough to recognise that technology isn’t magic, but not enough to understand how art works. Black arts are brought by the banana company, ‘with decisions that seemed like acts of magic’ to those suffering under poor working conditions. Now it is legal chicanery that seems magical and goes around demonstrating its proofs (as, earlier, the bringers of the magnets and the levitating Father Nicanor had):

the sleight-of-hand lawyers proved that the demands [of the banana company workers] lacked all validity for the simple reason that the banana company did not have, never had had, and never would have any workers in its service because they were all hired on a temporary and occasional basis. So that the fable of the Virginia ham [the workers are not paid actual money but in scrip so they can only buy ham from the company] was nonsense, the same as that of the miraculous pills [routinely handed out instead of proper medical attention] and the Yuletide toilets [portable latrines instead of permanent facilities], and by a decision of the court it was established and set down in solemn decrees that the workers did not exist.

Legally speaking, they disappear in a puff of smoke. Then they are spirited away a second time. There is a massacre of three thousand workers, who are machine-gunned, loaded onto a 200-car train and finally thrown into the sea. This Colombian holocaust is immediately denied, and continues to be denied in the history books. ‘Precise and convincing details’ of the event do not convince anyone except Aureliano Babilionia and Gabriel Márquez, the novelist’s namesake, who are ‘linked by a kind of complicity based on real facts that no one believed in’. Aureliano Babilonia becomes the decoder of the family history that has been written – ‘down to the most trivial details’ – a century in advance. And Gabriel Márquez became, as we learn from his biography, a fairy-tale success.

In Gerald Martin’s account, García Márquez lives a magical life during the writing, and especially the reception, of One Hundred Years of Solitude. ‘This man was magic. His book was magic – his name was magic: “Gabo”.’ García Márquez himself has a more realistic, or pessimistic, view of the ‘magic’ he has worked: even great literature will disappear into thin air. Towards the end of the novel, one of Gabriel Márquez’s friends loses some papers belonging to a classicist Catalonian bookseller: ‘When the wise old grandfather found out, instead of raising a row as had been feared, he commented, dying with laughter, that it was the natural destiny of literature.’ This is the meaning of the mise en abymeending of One Hundred Years of Solitude: the novel is vanishing out of our hands as the remaining pages diminish, and, once the last sentence is reached, it finally vanishes – hey presto! – right before our eyes.

The repeated and undemonstrated assertion in the biography that Gabo is ‘magic’ is not very interesting compared to the other life García Márquez leads here: a life of realism. The epigraph to García Márquez’s autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale, is: ‘Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.’ In the recounting, in the selection and construction of memory, real life becomes realist. Whether the details are exactly true or not is beside the point: they seem to be. They are, as we say, ‘true-to-life’. (Conversely, as Love in the Time of Cholera reminds us, real life can be unbelievable: ‘by a series of coincidences that were common in the novels of the day, but that no one believed in real life, his four sons died, one after the other.’) Many of the reported biographical moments are touching as well as convincing. Little Gabito, abandoned by his mother to the care of his grandparents, is confused and embarrassed when she comes to visit one day. For there are several women in the room and he doesn’t know which one is his mother until she gestures to him. Then his grandfather, who is so important to him, dies but he is more concerned about a personal problem:

I had lice and it used to embarrass me terribly. They used to say that lice abandoned you when you died. I remember being very worried: “Shit, if I go and die now, everyone’ll know I have lice!”

Then the twelve-year-old Gabito, in charge of organising a journey that his mother and six younger siblings take to join their father in Barranquilla, is ‘standing on the deck of the river steamer counting the children and suddenly panicking. “There’s one missing!” he said. And it was him. He hadn’t counted himself!’

This sweet boy became the eternal scruff Gabo, who would not wear evening dress even to receive the Nobel Prize, but who secured his roll of manuscript papers with a tie – as, many years later, he would fly to New York as a nervous new computer user with the diskettes containing Love in the Time of Cholera tied around his neck. Traveling through America with his own first son Rodrigo, then an infant, he reported: ‘We arrived safe and sound after a very interesting journey which proved on the one hand that Faulkner and the rest have told the truth about their environment and on the other that Rodrigo is a perfectly portable young man who can adapt to any emergency.’ When García Márquez won the Nobel Prize, he had not been able to talk to his mother, whose telephone was broken, for three weeks. A journalist managed to link them up. In response to the terrific news she said, as though punctuating one of the long magical paragraphs her son had written, with a deflationary sentence of dialogue, ‘Maybe now I’ll get my phone fixed’.

For several years, García Márquez abjured his rough magic in favour of politics. Until the Chilean dictator General Pinochet fell from power, he declared a literary strike. But then Pinochet failed to fall from power any time soon and García Márquez, fortunately, abjured abjuring. First he modified his vow to exclude the publication of any new writing, while he was secretly busy with his new novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Then he revoked his words entirely, released the book, and wrote the novel which is, to my taste, considerably the superior of the two for which he is loved throughout the world: Love in the Time of Cholera. This is a novel which knows all about the magic of realism.

Once again the narrative mode is dictated by character. Doctor Juvenal Urbino, the husband of Fermina Daza, is the city’s ‘most fastidious man’. An ordinary bath will not do: he specifies ‘an outsize washtub made of solid lignum vitae’, the ‘waters boiled with mallow leaves and orange skins’. His wife bathes and clothes him as ritualistically as a newborn baby: water first, talc next, cocoa butter last. Doctor Urbino’s constitutional realism is closely seconded by Florentino Ariza, who, with the painfully exact memory of the unrequited lover, has not stopped thinking of Fermina Daza since she rejected him exactly 51 years, nine months and four days ago.

There are various postmodern signals to the reader that realism intentionally dominates. The Urbinos live in a house full of ‘original English pieces from the late nineteenth century’, calling out for a corresponding nineteenth-century realism of treatment. Elsewhere in town ‘an invisible dust as harsh as red-hot chalk was blown into even the best-protected corners of the imagination’. But dusty or outmoded, pastiche, Merchant-Ivory, realism this is not. García Márquez gives the reader a particularly big wink as he introduces Dr Urbino’s horny bilingual tenor parrot – ‘a colourful character’, as we say, with a yellow head and a black tongue. The bird frightens off thieves ‘with a mastiff’s barking that could not have been more realistic if it had been real’ [my italics]. The parrot, who like García Márquez can do a convincing rendition of pretty well anything, one day ‘began to do acrobatic tricks on the beams in the kitchen and fell into the pot of stew with a sailor’s shout of every man for himself’. García Márquez is flying as he writes about the parrot, a synecdoche for the good-humoured realism of the novel at large, which is full of the absurdity of life – and death. The parrot’s near-death and his farcical cry – deadly serious to him, but comic to us – anticipates the real death of Dr Urbino, who, balancing on a ladder to retrieve the bird, clatters to his death. ‘And for an instant he was suspended in air and then he realised that he had died without Communion, without time to repent of anything or to say goodbye to anyone, at seven minutes after four on Pentecost Sunday’. As ever, Dr Urbino is ‘dead on time’, as we say.

García Márquez’s own balancing trick is, by contrast, beautifully done but in case we should not agree there is a (loaded) description of reactions to the commemoration of the city worthy. ‘A group from the School of Fine Arts made a death mask that was to be used as the mould for a life-size bust, but the project was canceled because no one thought the faithful rendering of his final terror was decent.’ Realism offends. Humankind cannot bear very much reality. ‘In reality’ is perhaps the commonest phrase in this novel. It is particularly realistic about sex. It might have been called Sex in the Time of Cholera (except that García Márquez deliberately uses ‘love’ in place of ‘sex’ – prostitutes, for instance, are frequented for ‘emergency love’ – to reinforce Florentino’s thesis that ‘nothing one does in bed is immoral if it helps to perpetuate love’.) Realistically, sex ‘smelled of a salt marsh full of prawns’. Realistically, a woman must concentrate to come:

She mounted him and took control of all of him for all of her, absorbed in herself, her eyes closed, gauging the situation in her absolute inner darkness, advancing here, retreating there, correcting her invisible route, trying another, more intense path, another means of proceeding without drowning in the slimy marsh that flowed from her womb, droning like a horsefly as she asked herself questions and answered in her native jargon; where was that something in the shadows that only she knew about and that she longed for just for herself, until she succumbed without waiting for anybody, she fell alone into her abyss with a jubilant explosion of total victory that made the world tremble.

García Márquez’s prose – its sexual realism in contrast to the idealised sentimentalised romance novels Florentino Arizo reads undiscriminatingly – here captures the elusive female orgasm.

But realism offends. And realism can be difficult to get right. Back to those reactions to the depiction of Dr Urbino: ‘A renowned artist who happened to be stopping here on his way to Europe painted, with a pathos-laden realism, a gigantic canvas in which Dr Urbino was depicted on the ladder at the fatal moment when he stretched out his hand to capture the parrot.’ Dr Urbino is a punctilious Christian so this realist treatment verges on a grotesque, upside-down parody of a common painterly subject: the Descent from the Cross, in which a ladder is often employed. ‘Many years later’, it is burned by art students ‘as a symbol of an aesthetic and a time they despised’.

The good-humoured realist aesthetic of Love in the Time of Cholera expresses the lovely ridiculousness of human life. Florentino Ariza declares, ‘This is the greatest moment of my life’, as he places a love letter on Fermina Daza’s embroidery frame, which she raises to avoid ac- knowledging the trembling of his fingers. ‘Then it happened.’ Then what happened? Th’exchange of thy love’s faithful vow for mine? No, ‘a bird shook himself among the leaves of the almond trees, and his droppings fell right on the embroidery’. ‘Shit happens’, as we say. Many years later, shit happens again: just when Florentino is about to get somewhere with Fermina for the first time in half a century, ‘he did not have time to think about the miracle he was experiencing because his intestines suddenly filled in an explosion of painful foam’. Romantic love is full of superlatives – but there is no question what is of the greatest urgency when a bowel movement strikes.

Florentino does have time to recollect the earlier shitty episode, another briefly magical moment interrupted by abdominal reality. But the novel is not only a retrospective on the love affair – and, indeed, a good number of Florentino’s 622 long-term sexual liaisons – as well as the Twentieth Century in general (‘typing, a new kind of work with a wonderful future’). Published many years later (eighteen, to be precise) than García Márquez’s first enormous success with One Hundred Years of Solitude, it also revisits the magical realism of the earlier novel. As a young lover, Florentino Ariza is duped by the boy swimmer Euclides about what lies some metres (eighteen, to be precise) below the surface of the sea. Euclides claims to know ‘magic tricks’ to frighten sharks away and is able to ‘recount in the most unexpected detail the history of each rusting hulk of a boat’ for miles around. Florentino is entirely persuaded (it’s those details again) and hires Euclides in a bid to find an ancient sunken galleon full of lost treasure. Readers will recall the well-known galleon episode near the beginning of One Hundred Years of Solitude. A similar phrase, about the galleon existing in its own time and space, is employed. And Euclides’s reported speech parrots exactly (the parrot lives on!) the narrative style of the earlier novel – accurately hyperbolic, precisely profuse:

 He said that in that spot, only eighteen metres down, there were so many old sailing ships lying among the coral reefs that it was impossible to even calculate the number, and they were spread over so extensive an area that you could not see to the end of them. He said that the most surprising thing was that none of the old wrecks afloat in the bay was in such good condition as the sunken vessels. He said that there were several caravelles with their sails still intact, and that the sunken ships were visible even on the bottom, for it seemed as if they had sunk along with their own time and space, so that they were still illumined by the same eleven o’clock sun that was shining on Saturday, June 9, when they went down. Choking on the driving force of his imagination, he said that the easiest one to distinguish was the galleon San José, for its name could be seen on the poop in gold letters, but it was also the ship most damaged by English artillery. He said he had seen an octopus inside, more than three centuries old, whose tentacles emerged through the openings in the cannon and who had grown to such a size in the dining room that one would have to destroy the ship to free him. He said he had seen the body of the commander, dressed for battle and floating sideways inside the aquarium of the forecastle, and that if he had not dived down to the hold with all its treasure, it was because he did not have enough air in his lungs. There were the proofs: an emerald earring and a medal of the Virgin, the chain corroded by salt. [my italics]

The details work a different kind of ‘magic’ in this novel. They are not here to convince us of a magical realist premise. They are, instead, narrative premonitions – García Márquez predicting the future of the story. For Fermina Daza will also, just a few pages later, be illumined by the eleven o’clock sun, walking about the market ‘in her own time and space’, and what sparkles (synaesthetically, as so often in García Márquez) is ‘the gold of her laughter’. But she is about to tell Florentino that their love is an illusion. Their love is like the galleon, which she doesn’t mention but which any reader who has paid loving attention to the details cannot fail to notice. They convince us that we are reading a writer who knows exactly what he is doing.

Many years later, García Márquez’s novel will finish with Fermina Daza, recoiling from real life, returning to Florentino Ariza, the old pair of slippers together at last – he with a comb-over, she with flabby skin and an earache more pressing than any romantic feelings. They are on a lovers’ journey that will never end – until the next set of omens catches up with them. But I would prefer to leave her shopping, in the marketplace of García Márquez’s life-affirming realism, ‘where everywhere she found something that increased her desire to live’, in a sort of Fortnum and Mason of the fictional experience: ‘She sampled an Alicante sausage that tasted of licorice, and she bought two for Saturday’s breakfast, as well as some slices of cod and a jar of red currants in aguardiente.’

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