When relatives visited my home city of Cali during the ’80s and ’90s, my father would take them on the Magical Tour. These were the peak years of the city’s infamous drug cartel, an organization that came to control eighty percent of the global cocaine trade, and the tour consisted in loading everyone into our old Nissan Sentra and driving around the neighborhood to see the mansions of the major drug lords — often called mágicos, or “magic ones,” due to their near-miraculous abilities to generate wealth. At the neighborhood’s entrance was Miguel Rodriguez’s house, a fortress that occupied two entire blocks and whose two parts — as we had learned from a contractor friend who had worked on the project — were joined by a secret passageway dug beneath the road. A little farther down on the street, entirely hidden behind a twenty-foot wall decorated with glimmering white stones, was the house of Joaquín Mario Valencia, another major kingpin, and next to it were the concrete ruins of a veritable castle that was never completed due to the murder of its owner. The major highlight of the tour lay little more than a block from my house. It was the home of Chepe Santacruz, number three in the cartel’s hierarchy, who had built himself a replica of the most exclusive social club in the city after its members had denied him admittance. This mansion he eventually tore down, and when some years later he was killed in a gunfight with the police, he left unfinished an even greater architectural taunt at his enemies: what was to be a twin sister of the White House. Call it magical realism.
Not surprisingly, this is a kind of magic that my compatriots and I would rather forget. It pains us to remember those days, when the only version of our country that foreigners knew was “Locombia,” a mythical hellhole infested with murderous barbarians. This skewed narrative was so dominant for a time that we have often reacted by taking the opposite extreme, denying there was any truth in it at all. But one need not accept the bizarre portrayal of Colombia that appears in movies like Mr. and Mrs. Smith — where Bogotá, a cosmopolitan metropolis of nine million people, is portrayed as a sweaty backwater at the edge of a jungle — to acknowledge that we have indeed known something of the gates of Hell. The problem, however, is that this take on the country has too often obscured all that has long made countless people, both locals and foreigners, fall deeply in love with Colombia. And I don’t mean only now, when the travel writers at the New York Times seem to have developed an infatuation with the country and Gallup has crowned it the happiest nation on earth. The truth is that the Colombia of the ’80s and ’90s contained within itself Hell and Paradise all at once, each in its full force, neither diluting the other. This point is essential to understand why so many of us have taken to calling our beloved Nobel Laureate, the late Gabriel García Márquez, the most important Colombian who ever lived. Some may consider that an excessive title for someone who made up stories for a living. Yet as the country plunged into the bloody chaos of narco-terrorism, his works not only held together our identity as a people, but in an unexpected sense brought our history to fruition, breaking the curse of our solitude, of which he so eloquently wrote.
Early in his Nobel acceptance speech, “The Solitude of Latin America,” García Márquez describes the legendary city of Eldorado as “our so avidly sought and illusory land.” In many ways, this is truly an apt metaphor not just for Latin America in general but Colombia in particular, under whose Guatavita Lake the golden city was supposed to lie. Colombians have long seen their country as a potential paradise, one that has unfortunately always remained just beyond the bend of the nearest hill. In the experience of our culture and history — from the mysterious rhythms of our cumbias and vallenatos that speak of Africa and old Europe, to the yellow butterflies that forever fluttered around the tragic figure of Mauricio Babilonia in One Hundred Years of Solitude, and which we have adopted as an unofficial national symbol — we intuited something profound and valuable in our experience that was nevertheless passed over by world history. We saw ourselves cut off, in particular, from the Western tradition to which we believed we rightfully belonged, like a juvenile delinquent in the family who is to be pitied and occasionally sent to rehab, but never consulted about family decisions.
Since the time of the country’s struggle for independence against Spain, however, Colombia has always had greater aspirations. Simón Bolivar, the Liberator, dreamed of a united Latin America, one that would advance the cause of democratic freedom in a world still dominated by monarchies — a southern counterpart to the United States with its capital in Bogotá. The dream was born in 1819 with Gran Colombia, whose territory encompassed modern-day Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, and Colombia, as well as parts of Peru, Brazil, and Guyana, but it died in its infancy with the country’s breakup barely a decade later.
It’s a dream that would have stayed dead, had it not been for our beloved Gabo and One Hundred Years of Solitude. His previous books had been praised by critics, but they sold only modest numbers of copies. In contrast, within a week of the release of One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967, the entire print run sold out. From its first paragraph, which references a firing squad, a troupe of travelling gypsies, a fifteenth-century suit of armor, the idea that inert objects have souls, and the notion of harnessing magic and wonder in service of the profit motive, the book broadcasts the broadness of its vision and historical sweep.
The novel, which goes on to tell the story of a family who founds the fictional town of Macondo, is really the history of the world, Colombian history, and the Bible all rolled into one. Colombians immediately understood that it perfectly captured — if not the details of a typical Colombian life — certainly what it feels like to be a Colombian. The Buendía family is our family, each one of our families, down to their maddeningly repeating names and their fear that marriages between relatives will lead to a child with a pig’s tail being born — an image that soon entered our popular lexicon. My family’s own pig tail is bad hips, which not just my grandfather but three of my aunts and uncles have had to get replaced (with several others likely to follow in their footsteps). As for names, the million José Arcadios and Aurelianos in the book are rivaled in my family by a plethora of Marios, Gonzalos, and Alejandros, whom my American wife has had a fun time trying to keep straight every time we visit. As for seemingly fantastical events, what Colombian family does not have a list of them? Off the top of my head, I can think of the miraculous healing of my grandfather, the ghost that haunted his farm, the eerily accurate presentiments of my great-grandmother, and the time an accidental shot from a rifle left a hole in the wall directly behind my aunt while somehow missing her entirely, all of these being widely acknowledged as simple facts of the family’s history.
This way of looking at the world, which García Márquez so gloriously explored in One Hundred Years of Solitude, indeed places family at the center of history itself, and sees things as infused with meanings — not just in literature, but also out there in the world, in themselves. García Márquez was, after all, a lapsed Catholic, and it is hard not to see the influence in his writing of the sacramental vision of reality that formed not only his early years, but his culture at large. His genius was to take this experience of the world — one that his writing revealed to be not just that of Colombia, but of Latin America more generally — and bring it to the level of epic poetry, which is what One Hundred Years of Solitude really is. Such poetry, which in his Nobel speech García Márquez described as giving wind to Greek civilization in Homer’s “overwhelming catalogue of ships,” or “bearing up, in the delicate scaffolding of Dante’s tercets, all the dense and colossal fabric of the Middle Ages,” he both brought to and formed out of the soul of Latin America. In doing so, he did for us what all the great epics have done: transformed a people from a tribe into a civilization. He thus accomplished what Simón Bolivar never could, not at a political but rather a spiritual level. As his work resonated throughout the world, culminating in his 1982 Nobel Prize, he gave us a voice in the great conversation of history, ending, in a sense, our solitude.
If this all sounds too grandiose, let that too count as evidence of the great debt of gratitude that Colombians owe to Gabo, which cannot help but express itself in an inability to remain impartial about him. His work is, in Colombia, not only high art but also popular culture, as widespread the songs of Shakira. His Nobel, our Nobel, became a vindication of our existence on the world stage, especially during the two decades that followed when we threatened to slip into the status of a pariah country. Like nothing else — not even soccer, and that’s saying something — his books united us across ideological boundaries, this despite Gabo’s own socialist stances in the midst of a country waging a war against deeply corrupt and unpopular Marxist guerrilla groups.
His death comes at a time when a new, modern Colombia is emerging, raising the question of what will happen to this identity that he helped to craft. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabo leaves us a final warning through the famous episode of the insomnia plague, a mysterious sickness that strikes the town of Macondo. “When the sick person became used to his state of vigil,” the book tells us, “the recollection of his childhood began to be erased from his memory, then the name and notion of things, and finally the identity of people and even the awareness of his own being until he sank into a kind of idiocy that had no past.” When news of the disease first reaches the town’s inhabitants, however, no one sees a reason to be alarmed. “If we don’t ever sleep again, so much the better,” one of the main characters states, “That way we can get more out of life.” Even after hearing about the consequent loss of memory, most characters laugh at the warnings. Soon, however, the foundations of their world begin to erode, and Macondians are forced to begin posting signs next to every imaginable item in order to remember its name and its use. They post bigger ones to remind themselves of their place in the universe (“Macondo”), as well as who put them there (“God exists”). This approach works for a while, but in a telling sentence the narrator explains that “the system demanded so much vigilance and moral strength that many succumbed to the spell of an imaginary reality, one invented by themselves.” It is not hard to see how all this relates to a world in which the word “reality” most often brings to mind a television show in which cameras follow a group of impossibly beautiful people trying to outwit each other within some absurd scenario.
But why exactly does insomnia lead to amnesia in Macondo? García Márquez gives no straight answers, but he mentions in a significant passage that despite their lack of fatigue, some inhabitants nevertheless desperately want to sleep, simply “because of the nostalgia for dreams.” The insomnia plague thus becomes uncomfortably familiar, the vision of a society trying to “get more out of life” by bowing down before the relentless imperatives of doing and producing. In this distorted understanding of carpe diem, people lose the capacity to dream, and soon the immediate present becomes all that exists. It is not long before characters start using tarot cards to read the past as well as the future.
García Marquéz leaves us, then, with the challenge of once again claiming a place at the table on our own terms, of creating a Colombian and Latin American modernity that is true to our vision of who we are, one that can harness globalization and material progress without sinking into an idiocy with no past, without sacrificing family and the souls of things to the god of GDP per capita. Time will tell whether the real Macondians will be “wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men,” but at least we can say without hesitation that thanks to García Marquez, we did have a second opportunity on earth.