If you’ve put off reading the work of Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who died Wednesday in Mexico City, please don’t.
For years I resisted reading his great classic, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Novelist William Kennedy famously called it “the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race,” and that was precisely what scared me off. That and the fact that the title consists of the words “one hundred years” and “solitude.”
“Of” I was fine with. But Solitude is a landmark work of fiction that also happens to be exhilarating, liberating and beautiful. It’s one of three essential Garcia Marquez books I would recommend.
One Hundred Years of Solitude
(1967) The book that put Marquez on the map and stamped world literature with the visionary sense of wonderment, both rapturous and tragic, that we call “magical realism.” (The term is now universal enough that it’s applied to Woody Allen movies.) A multi-generational epic about the Buendia family, which rises and falls with the prosperity of their town, Macondo, it’s a reading experience that’s absolutely unique.
It’s like standing on a pavement of dusty, broken, overlapping stones and finding that it moves of its own accord, like a modern escalator at the mall. Along the way there are ghosts, concerns about being born with a pig’s tail, and a beautiful woman assumed into the sky. Then this world, and the novel itself, dissolve away in a dazzling moment that circles back to the opening.
News of a Kidnapping
(1997) Garcia Marquez was a newspaper journalist before becoming a literary giant, and this return to nonfiction reads like a thriller. It is a thriller, about a series of high-profile kidnappings carried out by Pablo Escobar’s Medillin drug cartel in the 1990s.
But, unlike most thrillers, Kidnapping is charged with a potent sense that the nuts-and-bolts suspense narrative exists in a universe guided by its own, inscrutable rules or, perhaps, the hand of God – or, to add another perhaps, a belief (both suspicious and sincere) in the hand of God. Truth is stranger than fiction, and never moreso than in News of a Kidnapping. You could say that this is Garcia Marquez’s In Cold Blood. You could also say it’s better.
Love in the Time of Cholera
(1985) I’ve met many readers who prefer this later masterpiece to the groundbreaking One Hundred Years. In form, pace and tone, it conforms to what you might expect of a treasured classic of late-19th century European literature: It’s an elegant, measured book. Two lovers are separated more than a half-century before being reunited. Now elderly, they take a belated honeymoon on a steamship, and here the novel – like a river heading to sea – opens up into a miraculous allegory of the passage of time and life on the way to everyone’s ultimate destination.
This is my favorite passage, as the old lovers pass a deserted port town:
“The only creature they saw from the boat was a woman dressed in white, signaling to them with a handkerchief The captain explained that she was the ghost of a drowned woman whose deceptive signals were intended to lure ships into the whirlpools along the other bank. They passed so close that Fermina Daza saw her in sharp detail in the sunlight, and she had no doubt that she did not exist, but her face seemed familiar.”
Note: Garcia Marquez’s works in translation are not available yet as ebooks. Technology doesn’t always outrun magical realism.