It is tempting and pleasurable to engage solely with One Hundred Years of Solitude when one sets out to write on Gabriel García Márquez’s fiction. The astonishing epic of the Buendía family, set in the fictitious town of Macondo, is an elemental force – one is sucked into it despite its age (it was first published in Spanish in 1967), multiple rereads, and the fashionable distractions of digital media and its byte-sized literature.
Macondo, that Colombian village “built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs,” is the chimerical setting of the novel. Its temperamental colonels and civil wars, its tribe of gypsies and their fabulous ware, and its incandescent heat and almond trees are timeless signposts of Márquezian magical realism. So timeless, that Netflix has now acquired the rights to the masterpiece, for a Spanish-language screen adaptation.
But One Hundred Years of Solitude wasn’t Márquez’s first foray into Macondo. He provides glimpses of the town – and a few of its inhabitants – in the short stories and novellas that precede his most famous novel. The novella Leaf Storm (La Hojarasca), first published in 1955, offers a view of Macondo in a swoon of blurred images that come into focus when the storm settles:
In the midst of that blizzard, that tempest of unknown faces, of awnings along the public way, of men changing clothes in the street, of women with open parasols sitting on trunks, and of mule after abandoned mule dying of hunger on the block by the hotel, the first of us came to be the last; we were the outsiders, the newcomers.
Leaf Storm, with its multiple narratives, is a worthy representative of the author’s early influences. In his 2002 memoir Living to Tell the Tale, Márquez recalls reading Ulysses and The Sound and the Fury at the age of 20. He describes those tentative explorations of Joyce and Faulkner as “premature audacities without a future” and decides to reread them. Leaf Storm, which anticipates the Macondo of One Hundred Years of Solitude, is the poignant result of those rereads.
The title was changed from La casa of an earlier project – it suggested itself after he had come up with more than 80 titles, which he scribbled in a school notebook: “The title sprang to my eye, as the disdainful and at the same time compassionate name with which my grandmother, in the fragments of her aristocratic self, baptized the desolation left behind by the United Fruit Company: Leaf Storm.”
Macondo, a reimagining of Aracataca, the Colombian town that Márquez was born in, is also the outcome of a revisit. Márquez, on the cusp of his 23rd birthday, at a time when he wrote daily columns for the newspaper El Heraldo and lived in Barranquilla, received an unusual request from his mother – to travel with her to to Aracataca to sell his grandparents’ old house. Living to Tell the Tale commences with this request.
His mother, 45 years old and prematurely grey, arrives from the ancestral town and finds him at the Librería Mundo. They travel back together, crossing the Magdalena River through a squall and the terrible journey brings magical Macondo to the Márquezian fictive universe. “The train stopped at a station that had no town, and a short while later it passed the only banana plantation along the route that had its name written over the gate: Macondo. This word had attracted my attention ever since the first trips I had made with my grandfather, but I discovered only as an adult that I liked its poetic resonance,” Márquez reveals in his memoir.
A searing memory
Apart from Leaf Storm, some collections of interlinked short stories are tantalising previews of his novels. The stories clubbed together as Big Mama’s Funeral, first published in 1962 as Los Funerales de la Mamá Grande, have fragmented images of a town through the third-class compartment window of a train: a town with almond trees, a pool hall with a jukebox, a plaza, a cemetery. This is a town peopled with brutal mayors, charming thieves, dentists without degrees, carpenters who are splendid with their tools, widows, whores and matriarchs.
A signpost in the story One Day After Saturday: “HOTEL MACONDO”, and a direct reference to the Kingdom of Macondo in the story Big Mama’s Funeral let slip that one is in the preternatural town. The story Tuesday Siesta (La siesta del Martes) is taut with grief, restrained in its expression and tinged with the unexpected violence of a town that loves its siesta. The story, which commences with the unhurried image of a train crossing a banana plantation, also draws from a childhood memory of Aracataca.
María Consuegra kills a thief with an ancient revolver that lies in the armoire. She aims at the lock on the door the thief is trying to force open, and with her eyes closed, kills the man on the other side of the door. A week later, on a Tuesday, when the schoolboy Márquez is playing tops with his friend Luis Carmelo Correa, he sees a woman, and a girl who is about 12 years old, dressed in mourning clothes and walking down the deserted street. They carry with them a bouquet of wilted flowers, wrapped in newspaper. The pair – the mother and younger sister of the dead thief, have brought flowers for his grave.
Tuesday Siesta is a homage to that memory. “That vision pursued me for many years, like a single dream that the entire town watched through its windows as it passed, until I managed to exorcise it in a story,” writes Márquez, in Living to Tell the Tale.
The heart of violence
Violence underpins some of the most scenic moments in Márquez’s stories; it tears through the diaphanous haze of drowsy afternoons; it curdles love.
In the story There Are No Thieves In This Town, the pool hall becomes the centre of a crime – three billiard balls have been stolen, together with two hundred pesos. A black man, presumed to be the thief, is caught while he watches a Cantinflas film at the local theatre. He is thrashed, but the violence is a mere interlude in the theatre, to be forgotten the moment he is dragged out:
“The thing happened so quickly that Damaso understood what had happened only when the Negro passed next to him, his shirt torn and his face smeared with a mixture of dust, sweat, and blood, sobbing, ‘Murderers, murderers.’ Then they turned on the projector and the film continued.”
Perhaps the closest one gets to the heart of the violence in this particular cluster of stories is through the swoon of mourners in the title story, Big Mama’s Funeral. Big Mama, Doña María del Rosario Castañeda y Montero, the “absolute sovereign of the Kingdom of Macondo” dies at the age of 92. An almost hundred-year-old priest, Father Antony Isabel, her bastardised clan of nieces and nephews, the family doctor who is resistant to science, preside over her death. Big Mama, the “cacique” or despot, owns the waters, the roadways, and even the leap years and heat waves of Macondo. Her maternal grandmother had, in the War of 1885, confronted Colonel Aureliano Buendía’s men. Yet again, Márquez anticipates the civil wars and political unrest of One Hundred Years of Solitude.
While Márquez’s newer short stories move away from Macondo – several of them spring directly from journalistic notes – his preoccupation with declining dictators and abdicated fiefdoms resurfaces, bringing in its wake an unbearable nostalgia for what is lost forever. In the story Bon Voyage, Mr President, from the collection Strange Pilgrims, originally published in Spanish in 1992, is an overthrown president living in exile in Geneva. When Homero Rey, a Caribbean ambulance driver who belongs to the same country as the president, recognises him, the president tells him, “The greatest victory of my life has been having everyone forget me.”
The Márquezian story never forgets home country – its warring factions, disenfranchised people and despots – even when it is located outside of it.