Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who died today aged 87, did not invent the genre of magical realism — but he helped to popularize it and advance it with novels like One Hundred Years of Solitude and Autumn of the Patriarch. Speculative fiction still hasn't risen fully to the challenge of Marquez's work.
Marquez first rose to fame with the 1967 novel Solitude, which follows several generations of the Buendia family as they found the town of Macondo, through birth, death, incest and heartbreak. It established him as a master of magical realism, which he often described as a matter of telling fanciful and outlandish details with a straight face.
Later works, like Autumn and Chronicle of a Death Foretold, dealt with Latin American dictators and other political themes, and Marquez became an outspoken critic of authoritarian regimes.
When I first read Solitude, in particular, I was blown away by how vivid the imagery and the characters were, and how great an amount of time Marquez manages to cover in a single book. The "Hundred Years" in the title is like a kind of boast, letting you know that this is not your typical novel that covers a week or a year. Marquez's ability to capture the strange and monstrous in real life, and to couple that with a sharp political eye, remains unparalleled.
As his biographer Gerald Martin told NPR in 2009, "I read the book six months after it came out. And you had to be there at the time. You had to be in the 1960s. You had to be in the world of the Beatles and Third World revolution, psychedelia, lots of things, to understand now what impact the first page of that book had. It just seemed to be a kind of writing that everybody'd been waiting for. They didn't know they were waiting for it till it came."
In a 1988 review, Marquez explained that his "magical realism" was, for him, just plain realism — because reality is stranger than people realize, and because the reality in stories is not the same as plain reality:
You've said that every good novel is a poetic transposition of reality. Can you explain this concept?
Yes, I think a novel is reality represented through a secret code, a kind of conundrum about the world. The reality you are dealing with in a novel is different from real life, although it is rooted in it.The same thing is true of dreams.
The way you treat reality in your books, especially in One Hundred Years of Solitude and in The Autumn of the Patriarch, has been called 'magical realism'. I have the feeling your European readers are usually aware of the magic in your stories but fail to see the reality behind it. . .
This is surely because their rationalism prevents them seeing that reality isn't limited to the price of tomatoes and eggs. Everyday life in Latin America proves that reality is full ofthe most extraordinary things. To make this point I usually cite the case of the American explorer F. W. Up de Graff who made an incredible journey through the Amazon jungle at the end of the last century and saw, among other things, a river with boiling water, and a place where the sound of the human voice brought on torrential rain. In Comodoro Rivadavia, in the extreme south of Argentina, winds from the South Pole swept a whole circus away and the next day fishermen caught the bodies oflions and giraffes in their nets. InRig Mama's Funeral I tell the story of an unimaginable, impossible journey by the Pope to a Colombian village. I remember describing the President who welcomed him as bald. and stocky so as not to make him look like the President in powerat the time, who was tall and bony. Eleven years after this story was written, the Pope did go to Colombia and the President who welcomed him was bald and stocky just like the one in the story. After I'd written One Hundred Years of Solitude, a boy turned up in Barranquilla claiming to have a pig's tail. You only have to open the newspapers to see that extraordinary things happen to us every day. I know very ordinary people who've read One Hundred Years of Solitude carefully and with a lot of pleasure, but with no surprise at all because, when all is said and done, I'm telling them nothing that hasn't happened in their own lives.
So everything you put in your books is based on real life?
There's not a single line in my novels which is not based on reality.
Marquez had an open mind about what constitutes reality, and he told another interviewer that "My most important problem was to destroy the demarcation line which separates what looks real and what looks fantastic, because in the world that I was trying to evoke that barrier didn't exist." He also believed in UFOs, but thought they were just passing by Earth on their way to some other destination.
Marquez is gone, but he's also irreplaceable.