A reading guide to legendary Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez
Start with the stories, I tell my students. After all, it’s where I started. Like them, I once was a community college student who loved to read. Back then, Gabriel García Márquez, Nobel laureate, was the writer to read. But, perhaps also like my students (and some readers), I was intimidated by the legend, the epic novels and maybe a little skeptical of the most celebrated work.
I was — and am — more curious about the minor books of Colombia’s García Márquez, especially the early work. The short stories and the novellas and his journalism are both instructive and inspiring.
Here’s where to start reading — or rereading.
Three exemplary collections
My slim Penguin paperback copy of “No One Writes to the Colonel” sports a sticker with its original price of $1.75. The collection of stories and title novella has never gone out of print. The same is true of two other collections of short stories paired with brief novellas: “Leaf Storm and Other Stories” and “Innocent Eréndira and Other Stories.”
These stories offer a primer-like introduction to the sensibility and themes that distinguish García Márquez’s acclaimed work — especially the magic realism that propelled the Latin American Boom, a dynamic literary movement that first detonated in the ‘60s. Often in fewer than a dozen pages, the writer creates the dreamy feat found in his much longer novels: a man who meets the love of his life “six months and eleven days” before his death; the small town dentist with justice on his mind who contemplates the murderous mayor as his patient; the angel who falls to earth and “rewards” his followers with paradoxical miracles; the handsome dead man who washes ashore and transforms a town with his lifeless beauty. As ever, the twinned sense of burgeoning desire, whether for love or for justice or both, combines with the weight of destiny, the inevitability of loss and death.
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These stories are gems of the magical realism genre that use the fantastic or surreal in an otherwise realistic narrative, though it is almost too benign or misleading a term. Indeed, García Márquez rejected the adjective “magical,” assigned by outsiders who perhaps could not recognize or reconcile multiple realities. He was writing, he insisted, the lived reality of Latin America, unimaginable to some.
Fervent fans of García Márquez also will find much to enjoy in the shorter work, “Leaf Storm,” especially in how the town of Macondo, famous from the novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” makes its first appearance years earlier in the novella, along with that disruptive banana company.
An oft-overlooked novel
In “The Autumn of the Patriarch,” a lesser-known but wildly ambitious García Márquez novel, a seemingly immortal illiterate tyrant rules his country by fear and deception. It is a fever dream of a novel about political power wielded by a ruler who manipulates media and uses spectacle, including a self-enriching lottery scam, to mesmerize. He sells the sea to foreign interests. He assaults women, taunts and tortures opponents and is worshipped by deranged followers. Generals conspire to have the despot institutionalized only to be fed one of their own at a banquet as a cautionary lesson.
When the novel was published in the mid-'70s, the composite model for this imperishable tyrant was Spain’s Francisco Franco and the rogues’ gallery of Caribbean and Latin American caudillos, or “strong men.” Read today, the depiction offers irresistible if perverse insight not only into the past but into our own current political situation.
Like many writers, García Márquez began in newspapers. Aficionados and newbies alike should consider “The Scandal of the Century and Other Writings,” a wide-ranging collection illuminating the real-life political concerns and characters that shape his celebrated fiction. He reveals the plight of a lone shipwrecked sailor surviving days at sea, the mystery of a dead woman washed up on an Italian beach, the race against the clock to locate the life-saving antidote for a young child — nothing is as straightforward as it seems, ever. Through sharply rendered detail and carefully paced narrative, García Márquez does what great journalists do: make readers care. Simultaneously, he makes larger points, invariably about power, corruption and injustice along with the mysteries of human nature.
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Those less-celebrated “other writings” include articles about barbers, revolutionaries, water shortages, writers (of course) and, my personal favorite, an elegiac essay on the death of John Lennon with a cameo of Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes typing with one finger, “isolated from the horrors of the universe” while blasting the Beatles. None of this is far from his fiction. It suggests a first-draft effort at reporting before transforming it into a different art form. Read today, each is the stuff of award-winning investigative journalism or a binge-worthy podcast.
Throughout the decades, Gabriel García Márquez created a multigenre body of work before his death in 2014 at 87. He endures as an every-writer for nearly every reader. Whether through his novels, short stories or journalism, his work remains relevant and urgent in both predictable and surprising ways.
Celebrated as a magical realist, Gabriel García Márquez was not a magician, though his writing surely casts a spell. Magic is obfuscation, deception, sleight of hand. His work exercises its opposite. A reliable witness, an internationally acclaimed public intellectual, he, like George Orwell, told the truth in wildly imaginative fiction, unflinching essays and brave reportage. His truth is needed more than ever now.
Lisa Alvarez is a writer, editor and professor who teaches English at Irvine Valley College and is codirector of the Community of Writers in Olympic Valley.
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