Text Messages | How magic realism was born

The influence of a rational grandfather and spiritual grandmother during a celebrated Latin American author’s formative years led to him becoming the father of this genre of fiction.

It is quite an opening line: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

There was an afternoon when the writer of that line was introduced to what he remembered thinking of as the “miracle” of ice by his maternal grandfather, Colonel Nicolás Ricardo Márquez Mejía. For almost a decade the colonel and his wife, Doña Tranquilina Iguarán, stood in for the writer’s parents, who had left him in his hometown when they moved elsewhere in Colombia. So it was that the colonel – Papalelo to his grandson – one day showed the young boy ice at the United Fruit Company, the United States corporation that grew bananas and other tropical fruits in Latin America for sale in the US and Europe.

As a result of the stranglehold that United Fruit developed over banana production in Costa Rica, Honduras and Guatemala, those unfortunate countries were given the demeaning moniker “banana republics”. This purely extractive mode of fruit production – exploiting land, water and labour in Latin America, all at cut-price levels, and then exporting the produce for marked-up prices abroad – perhaps laid down an early blueprint for how a multinational could thrive.

The model is still very much at play and in place, simply transferred to other industries and products. See, for example, what is happening to Mexico: “Mexico is the biggest beer exporter globally, but it barely has enough water for its residents and farmers. Experiencing long-lasting droughts, the country, which is half desert, has become a cheap place for transnationals to consume its remaining water, then send the products and profits to wealthier regions.”

It was not only in agricultural globalisation that United Fruit led the way. In a classic conspiracy of capital and the state, the company persuaded the Colombian government to act against its own citizens.

Workers at United Fruit had gone on strike on 12 November 1928, protesting against their working conditions. In tandem with US representatives in Colombia, the company portrayed the strikers as communists with subversive tendencies, leading to the US threatening to send in the Marine Corps. The current potential invasion of Venezuela is no figment of a deluded imagination on the part of that country’s President Nicolás Maduro.

Panicked by Washington, the Colombian president, Miguel Abadía Méndez, dispatched units of the Colombian army to confront the strikers (think: Marikana). The result was a slaughter over two days, 5 and 6 December 1928, of up to 3 000 United Fruit Company workers; the event was dubbed in Spanish as Matanza de las bananeras or Masacre de las bananeras: The Banana Massacre.

Early influences

The colonel had not held his tongue about the massacre, which is why he was held in high esteem in Colombia. But back to the boy.

Those early idyllic years were filled with wonderful stories from the colonel, a natural and gifted teller of tales. It was the ideal preparation for the life of a journalist, essayist, short-story writer and novelist, with the grandfather using the dictionary as a way to explore meaning and the world and enriching his grandson’s experience and imagination by way of outings to the circus.

Nor was the storytelling limited to one grandparent. If the colonel was rational and concrete in his apprehension and comprehension of the world – he often told his grandson that “You can’t imagine how much a dead man weighs” – Doña Tranquilina filled the boy’s ears and head with eerie narratives of spirits, supernatural traces of past and present, signs and portents. In their tutelage lay the beginnings of magic realism.

This rich education and preparation ended when the boy was almost 10, in December 1936, when his father came to take him back. In March of the following year, the colonel died, at which point Gabriel José Garcia Márquez had just turned 10.

Garcia Márquez went on to become a journalist and a great writer, winning the Nobel Prize in 1982 and being universally admired and much loved for the novels One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera and The Autumn of the Patriarch, as well as the novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

His death on 17 April 2014 at the age of 87 was a merciful release from the dementia from which he had suffered since at least 2012, when that condition was confirmed by his brother Jaime.

One Hundred Years of Solitude was published on 30 May 1967 in Buenos Aires by Editorial Sudamericana, 52 years ago. It has an 85-word sentence about a “final line” that is an apt place to close.

“Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.”

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