Four Hundred and Twenty-Five Elephants in the Sky

This past Thursday, Gabriel García Márquez died of pneumonia in a Mexico City hospital at the age of 87. This weekend has seen a plethora of tributes and obituaries, in newspapers, magazines, and on websites and television programs. These sources can go into the biographical details of Márquez’s life better than I can. Many can give critical overviews of his works better than I can. I am neither a scholar of his life or his writings; I have no special qualifications or experience that would enable me to really view his death from a novel perspective. I am just a casual fan of literature and Márquez happens to be an unusually famous figure in the world of literature.

As with many of you, my first experience with Márquez would have been in a middle school or high school English class (to be honest, I can’t remember exactly when this would have been chronologically). Many people are assigned to read One Hundred Years of Solitude around this time. I vividly recall the first work of his I was given to read was the short story “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings.” It was in an English textbook along with dozens of other selections of stories and poems from names as I was too young to recognize the import of. The beginning of the story was decorated with some surreal, cartoonish artwork that I have been unable to find online. Though I did find these illustrations which are even better than the one I vaguely remember:

I loved the story, immediately. It is a gloriously strange little tale that (as I am sure was described to us in a lecture I half-listened to) perfectly encapsulates the vaguely defined genre of “magical realism”; a genre that, to many people, is defined almost entirely through the works of Gabo (the affectionate diminutive nickname García Márquez is known by in Latin America). All that “magical realism” really entails, at a very basic level that may offend more pedantic literary critics, is the inclusion of supernatural elements in an otherwise realistic setting. Or, to put it another way, the discussion OF supernatural elements in such a way that they are treated as entirely normal and expected.

“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is a perfect example of this. I highly recommend you read the entire story (available here), but at the very least look at the opening passage:

On the third day of rain they had killed so many crabs inside the house that Pelayo had to cross his drenched courtyard and throw them into the sea, because the newborn child had a temperature all night and they thought it was due to the stench. The world had been sad since Tuesday. Sea and sky were a single ash-gray thing and the sands of the beach, which on March nights glimmered like powdered light, had become a stew of mud and rotten shellfish. The light was so weak at noon that when Pelayo was coming back to the house after throwing away the crabs, it was hard for him to see what it was that was moving and groaning in the rear of the courtyard. He had to go very close to see that it was an old man, a very old man, lying face down in the mud, who, in spite of his tremendous efforts, couldn’t get up, impeded by his enormous wings.

and the conclusion:

Elisenda let out a sigh of relief, for herself and for him, when she watched him pass over the last houses, holding himself up in some way with the risky flapping of a senile vulture. She kept watching him even when she was through cutting the onions and she kept on watching until it was no longer possible for her to see him, because then he was no longer an annoyance in her life but an imaginary dot on the horizon of the sea.

As you probably guessed, the story revolves around the figure of an old man who happens to have enormous wings. The story also includes a plague of crabs, a woman who had been changed into a spider, and a flying acrobat with the wings of a bat. Yet when you read the story, these unbelievable (and frankly ludicrous) things simply make sense. They are presented in such a straightforward and detailed way that you can’t help but suspend disbelief.

As Gabo said in a 1981 interview with Peter Rose in The Paris Review, “If you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants in the sky, people will probably believe you.”

Although I had enjoyed the story, it would not be until years later that I made any attempt to read any more of his works. I simply didn’t have any nuanced appreciation of literature at the time and had no reason to follow up with school work. As is probably the case with some of you reading this, and I know is the case with people I know, sometimes you just learn not to like something simply because it was presented in the context of a class, regardless of its individual merits. I couldn’t stand Moby Dick or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when I read them in high school, but in more recent years have read both and realized almost immediately what makes them so great (and why I was forced to read them in high school in the first place).

For a lot of people, this seems to be the role Gabo and his books have played in their life. A minor academic inconvenience. Gabo himself seems to have realized this. In the same interview quoted above, he said, “I would like for my books to have been recognized posthumously, at least in capitalist countries, where they turn you into a kind of merchandise” and “A famous writer who wants to continue writing has to be constantly defending himself against fame. I don’t really like to say this because it never sounds sincere, but I would really have liked for my books to have been published after my death, so I wouldn’t have to go through all this business of fame and being a great writer.”

Of the Nobel Prize (which he would be awarded one year later), he quipped, “I was asked the other day if I would be interested in the Nobel Prize, but I think that for me it would be an absolute catastrophe. I would certainly be interested in deserving it, but to receive it would be terrible. It would just complicate even more the problems of fame.”

He was the kind of writer that you are told is one of the GOATs (greatest of all time) without you having the chance to read his work fresh and unbiased. Also, for our generation, he was ancient history. All of his famous works were published prior to 1988. He has barely published anything within our lifetimes: a couple of minor novels and a half-hearted autobiography that is mostly about the town that inspired Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude. His last novel, Memories of My Melancholy Whores, is only really notable in having been banned in Iran. And that was published over a decade ago. In a way, he’s like the Wilt Chamberlain of literature. We “know” he did things nobody else could: scored 100 points in a game, averaged 50 points and 25 rebounds every game for a season (which, incidentally, remains the single most absurd piece of basketball trivia ever), etc. But it was “before our time”, and we have seemingly no record of that brilliance. There are no highlight reels; the only way to try and recover an appreciation is active research and reading, which is something most people don’t do on a whim.

It is only relatively recently (after college) that I actually made an effort to expose myself to his work. I read Chronicle of a Death ForetoldThe Autumn of the PatriarchOne Hundred Years of SolitudeLove in the Time of Cholera, and No One Writes to the Colonel. I absorbed not only the essential absurdity of his world, but the hidden meanings and dark undertones.

One Hundred Years of Solitude isn’t just about some small town surrounded by the swamps and banana plantations of Columbia, it is a meditation on Western colonialism, capitalism, and the nature of a modern, global economy. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” isn’t just a strangely endearing story about some mysterious and magical creature and a family, it is a stark and vicious commentary on religion and social norms. Chronicle of a Death Foretold is not just a cleverly unfolded murder mystery, it is a novel about the act of storytelling itself (not to mention a critique on the Latin American machismo culture).

And so on. Entire books have been written analyzing Gabo’s novels in detail, from every possible critical perspective. To his chagrin, as it turns out. Although he had a keen social conscience and an inclination towards embracing leftist leaders (he was, for example, a lifetime friend of Fidel Castro), he never wished to be a celebrity. In his words: “In the end all books are written for your friends. The problem after writing One Hundred Years of Solitude was that now I no longer know whom of the millions of readers I am writing for; this upsets and inhibits me. It’s like a million eyes are looking at you and you don’t really know what they think.”

While never a recluse on the level of J.D. Salinger, he was notoriously averse to being the center of attention and celebration. In 2010, for example, he famously showed up unannounced at a bar in Cartagena during a literary festival – he was friendly with everyone there, but also distant. Although he had not published anything since 2004, and his overall output had been in decline since the 1980s, by his own admission “the only thing I do is write.”

Over the past few years, the only real news about Gabo has been that of his declining health. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and in 2012 his brother mentioned publicly that he was suffering from dementia. He had been hospitalized for infections in his lungs and urinary tract. Possibly, the lymphatic cancer that he had been treated for in 1999 had come back.  Whatever happened, it is irrelevant now: he’s dead. No more “living to tell the tale” (the title of the his autobiography).

I was tempted, just now, to make a joke about his dementia, and how that reflects on his writing. His entire literary output is full of angels, demons, monsters, ghosts, spirits, spells, curses, and all sorts of oddities both wondrous and abysmal. You could imagine his last days like those of Aureliano Babilonia, hallucinating a city of mirrors and the end of the world. You could even imagine in the near future the last of his writings being published posthumously and critics descending like vultures on the scribblings that emerged from his dementia.

But, really, the joke’s on them, and has been from the very beginning. As Gabo said, “It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.”

To Gabo, there was nothing unrealistic about magic and absurdity. The world itself is about as strange a place as you can imagine – a cocktail of joy, tragedy, sex, love, death, and history – all he did was find a way to write about it.

So I am going to conclude this by letting his works speak for themselves.

From No One Writes to the Colonel, 1961:

The majority understood that his passivity was not that of a hero taking his ease but that of a cataclysm in repose.

From One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1967:

He dug so deeply into her sentiments that in search of interest he found love, because by trying to make her love him he ended up falling in love with her. Petra Cotes, for her part, loved him more and more as she felt his love increasing, and that was how in the ripeness of autumn she began to believe once more in the youthful superstition that poverty was the servitude of love. Both looked back then on the wild revelry, the gaudy wealth, and the unbridled fornication as an annoyance and they lamented that it had cost them so much of their lives to find the paradise of shared solitude. Madly in love after so many years of sterile complicity, they enjoyed the miracle of living each other as much at the table as in bed, and they grew to be so happy that even when they were two worn-out people they kept on blooming like little children and playing together like dogs.

From The Autumn of the Patriarch, 1975:

An old man with no destiny with our never knowing who he was, or what he was like, or even if he was only a figment of the imagination, a comic tyrant who never knew where the reverse side was and where the right of this life which we loved with an insatiable passion that you never dared even to imagine out of the fear of knowing what we knew only too well that it was arduous and ephemeral but there wasn’t any other, general, because we knew who we were while he was left never knowing it forever with the soft whistle of his rupture of a dead old man cut off at the roots by the slash of death, flying through the dark sound of the last frozen leaves of his autumn toward the homeland of shadows of the truth of oblivion, clinging to his fear of the rotting cloth of death’s hooded cassock and alien to the clamor of the frantic crowds who took to the streets singing hymns of joy at the jubilant news of his death and alien forevermore to the music of liberation and the rockets of jubilation and the bells of glory that announced to the world the good news that the uncountable time of eternity had come to an end.

From Chronicle of a Death Foretold, 1981:

Pedro Vicario, the more forceful of the brothers, picked her up by the waist and sat her on the dining room table. ‘All right, girl,’ he said to her, trembling with rage, ‘tell us who it was.’ She only took the time necessary to say the name. She looked for it in the shadows, she found it at first sight among the many, many easily confused names from this world and the other, and she nailed it to the wall with her well-aimed dart, like a butterfly with no will whose sentence has always been written. ‘Santiago Nasar,’ she said.

From Love in the Time of Cholera, 1985:

To him she seemed so beautiful, so seductive, so different from ordinary people, that he could not understand why no one was as disturbed as he by the clicking of her heels on the paving stones, why no one else’s heart was wild with the breeze stirred by the sighs of her veils, why everyone did not go mad with the movements of her braid, the flight of her hands, the gold of her laughter. He had not missed a single one of her gestures, not one of the indications of her character, but he did not dare approach her for fear of destroying the spell.

RIP Gabo. You will be read for as long as there are people left to read. Whether you like it or not.

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