It was a sunny day in Jakarta, around the year 1975 when I discovered him. My husband had stopped at a bookstore but there didn’t appear to be any books in English. When I pointed this out he said he was looking for a particular book, a book that listed all the CIA operatives in Asia.
“Cool,” I said.
“Not cool,” he said. “It’s dangerous.”
“It doesn’t matter anyway,” I said. “Even if you find it and buy it, there are probably other copies. You can’t buy them all.” He gave me a withering look and went into the back with the bookseller.
On a table in front of me was a mishmash of books in various languages, not stacked but tumbled, and on top was one in English, a translation, by an author I didn’t know. It was One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Marquez.
Books were hard to come by then and I was hungry and eclectic in my reading habits. There was no TV, no radio, no internet and my knowledge of what was going on in the world was limited to Time Magazine overseas edition. I bought the book quickly while I had a chance.
Once I opened it, I was hooked and I read in every spare minute until I finished. Physically, I held it to myself as if it had a beating heart, as if there was blood coursing in the ink. I laughed out loud, I cried, I read passages to my husband but he didn’t get it. After I finished, I offered him an opportunity to read it but after a couple of pages he gave it back. In general, he made fun of my reading, especially my liking for Faulkner. He didn’t understand literature. It was defensive probably, some kind of weird competitive need in him to stay on top. To him, it was nonsensical and illogical, a waste of time, something akin to watching soap operas on TV and he wasn’t alone in this assessment of my interests. Almost everyone I knew seemed to have the same opinion. I existed in an intellectual vacuum and it resulted in loss of self-esteem of unfathomable depths. Everything important to me was thought to be stupid and useless.
But with this book, I experienced a rebellion of sorts. Although I could find no one to verify my opinion, I was positive I was right and that García Marquez had written a masterpiece. He thought like me and had the arrogance to put it onto paper. How brave, I thought. This book, One Hundred Years of Solitude, is an exquisite mixture of myth, magic, history, language and nature. After reading it, I knew that I wasn’t frivolous; I was simply unusual. Today I search for like-minded people and I find them sometimes but not often. I’m a rare species; I accept that now. But at that time and for many decades before and after, my creativity was crushed and anything I did excel at: cooking, sewing, crafts, or writing was in the realm of the housewife and dismissed as trivial. It seemed that my only assets were my looks and a pleasant personality so I exploited them, not knowing I had unexplored talents and abilities. I did the pretty woman thing and got on okay but I always felt isolated and alone. Even today in a jam I’ll use my looks or try to but at the age of 73 it’s kind of funny really. That’s why García Marquez’s book made such an impression on me. Here was someone who had let go of his imagination and was celebrated for it. The few Latin American acquaintances I had assured me he was famous and well respected.
With this book I felt liberated. I have two wonderful daughters. As children I saw to it that their creativity was encouraged. I didn’t realize my eldest had an “island” complex too. She seemed well adjusted and I made every effort to keep her and her sister’s minds keen and challenged. One summer she called home from a special camp for creative children and surprised me. Gushing and practically crying, she said, “Mommy, they’re just like me. I’ve never known people just like me.”
I gave the book to everyone and anyone but no one, not a blessed one of them could read it. I was disappointed. I had wanted to discuss it with someone, but never mind, it gave me the opportunity to read it again. It was a wonderful book. It had everything. I declared García Marquez a genius. Years later in Madras, India I met a Colombian couple working for Oxfam. They knew about the book. They said García Marquez was a hero in their country and were excited that I knew him.
“See,” I said to my husband.
“Stream of consciousness,” he said.
When García Marquez won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, I was ecstatic. I called my ex-husband.
“See,” I said.”Stream of consciousness,” he said.
Incompatibility, I thought.
I still want everyone to read this book. García Marquez gave me confidence at a time I sorely needed it. He was a genius. Give him a chance. I take primal pleasure in his prose and delight in his descriptions that assign abstract magical values to inanimate objects thereby personifying them and creating in them a character with a mind of its own. Rebecca’s bag of bones represents the past, a past that rattles and confines. She cannot move on. Remedios the Beauty, a woman so stunning men died when they gazed on her, is kept locked up for the safety of the village men. As most of his characters she is unselfconsciously mythical, at once a goddess and a human. In the passage below a man who tried to spy on her in her bathroom, fell and cracked his skull.
“The foreigners who heard the noise in the dining room and hastened to remove the body noticed the suffocating odor of Remedios the Beauty on his skin. It was so deep in his body that the cracks in his skull did not give off blood but an amber-colored oil that was impregnated with that secret perfume, and they understood that the smell of Remedios the Beauty kept torturing men beyond death, right down to the dust in their bones.” p 233
I picked this passage at random, you know, flopping open the book the way some people do the bible. Did you notice the word “suffocating”? Audacious, isn’t it? The thought, the image, of a smell torturing men beyond death is delicious. No one wrote like this before. Very few have done it since. He took it so far I giggled. But I know this presumed lightness of spirit is the very reason many find him impossible to read. I despair. I want so much to share him with you. Why can’t you understand? Life is serious, life is miserable and García Marquez knew and wrote about it. Colombia was a country at war for generations. Three thousand people were murdered in the Banana Massacre. Culture after culture invaded Colombia, each with its own individual flavor, injecting into the helpless country a collage of spiritual beliefs, political opinion, and tastes in fashion and music until it was a goulash of foreign scent and savor. This is damned serious stuff. And García Marquez isn’t making fun. He isn’t being silly. He incorporates layers of culture from Colombia’s mythical, primordial inception to the dawning of present time, defining and giving fullness and meaning to what it means to be a Colombian and more broadly, what it means to be a Latin American.
Now why is it so wonderful? It dealt a long overdue death knell to the literary movements of Realism and Naturalism. These movements had existed to explain to the upper-class reading public that there was ugliness and evil in the world. By 1967, when One Hundred Years of Solitude was published, the reading public encompassed the poor; the reading public didn’t need to be taught anymore. They had experienced it first hand. And by the time I read it, in 1975, our young men were dissipated and depleted by a war without honor, were denied the medical and psychological help they needed and no one thanked them for their sacrifice. America wasn’t proud anymore. The President of the United States declared on national goddamned television, “I am not a crook,” and I, on a more personal level, was living a lie. We, my husband and I, lied about love, about mutual respect, about religious belief and just about everything else. We didn’t know what else to do. Divorce didn’t become an option until years later and even then it was a miserable choice.
Why am I belaboring this? Because the United States, the can do nation, had screwed up and was in a state of fugue. This was new to me. But Latin America was already familiar with this feeling. Jostled by a plethora of political beliefs including, but not limited to, democracy, communism, socialism and oligarchy, by the promises of untrustworthy leaders and politicians, and plagued by drugs and poverty, Latin America in the broader sense and Colombia in particular, was tired to the bone. They needed a hero who understood. Gabriel García Marquez was that hero. Souls and nations are born together from the same primeval clay and together suffer the same growing pains. The world didn’t make sense for me then. I was in a prolonged state of denial and so was Latin America. The psychological definition of denial is “An unconscious defense mechanism characterized by refusal to acknowledge painful realities, thoughts, or feelings.” To cope with an unwanted reality, I smiled. I pasted a smile on my face that didn’t come off for years. I sang and I danced and I laughed. And you know what? That’s what Colombia did. The people smiled. They laughed. They sang and they danced and they coped. They survived and they are the ultimate conquerors. The mysticism, magic and myth in García Marquez’s writing defined the psychological denial of a nation.
It’s all in how we see things. Consider this Zen Buddhist riddle from the master, Wumen Hui-k’ai.
Two monks were arguing about the temple flag waving in the wind. One said, “The flag moves.” The other said, “The wind moves.” They argued back and forth but could not agree.The Sixth Ancestor said, “Gentlemen! It is not the wind that moves; it is not the flag that moves; it is your mind that moves.” The two monks were struck with awe.
That’s what I want of you. I want to move your mind. I want you to read One Hundred Years of Solitude, to experience it in all your senses because it’s a book you can feel, taste, smell and hear in every fiber of your being. Why deny yourself?