Column: Making magic realism

Updated: Apr 19 2014, 08:28am hrs
Many years ago, the time span assuming proportions greater than the few decades it has actually been since his 1982 Nobel, Gabriel Garcia Marquez passed into greatness, the like of which is denied to most every mortal in his or her lifetime. And it was to be his burden, an onus peculiar to the greatest living writer, to explain how it was that his writing, and by extension literary fiction itself, came to be categorised as before and after One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The ripples set off with the publication of the novel in 1967 continue to be felt, and the opening line is embedded in collective memory: Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. Its first print run sold out in days, and the multi-generation, cyclical saga of the Buendia family went on to sell more than fifty million copies. He wrote many other exceptional books (Love in the Time of Cholera, News of a Kidnapping, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, The General in His Labyrinth), and his legendary status in the popular consciousness was affirmed by the countless clichd newspaper and magazine headlines that would play on the novels titles. But there was no getting around having to account for how One Hundred Years happened, how his life story had brought him to that point, how a new narrative technique opened to him, how he pulled along thereafter, how his magical realism elicited a spark of recognition in the reader. Incidentally, Marquez was very appreciative of the English translation. In conversations collected in the Faber & Faber volume, The Fragrance of Guava, he said, The language becomes more powerful when its condensed into English.

Born in 1927, Marquez was brought up by his grandparents for the first decade of his life in a small town on the Caribbean coast, and the depth of their influence would be not be evident till much later. Growing up, he evaded his fathers ambitions for him to be a lawyer, and had a formative stint in Bogotas El Espectador, submitting copious copy to the newspaper and then when the days work was done, hanging around the office working on his own writing. Later, in a landmark interview in 1981 to Paris Review, hed recall the stirring sound of Linotype machines. He wrote a lot, he published, but as he told it in that interview, something was missing, until he discovered the right tone, the tone I eventually used in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

About the tone he recalled: It was based on the way my grandmother used to tell stories. She told things that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness. When I finally discovered the tone I had to use, I sat down for eighteen months and worked every day. The key to magical realism as a way of conveying a complex reality, of being authentic while using the fantastic, was maintaining a brick face: What was most important as the expression she had on her face. She did not change her expression at all while telling her stories, and everyone was surprised. In previous attempts to write One Hundred Years of Solitude, I tried to tell the story without believing in it. I discovered that what I had to do was believe in them myself and write them with the same expression with which my grandmother told them: with a brick face.

He knew he had given his readers and an entire generation of writers the key to narrating complex political realities, of adequately placing life stories against the backdrop of history, of conveying oppression in its everyday effects on ordinary folks and in its issuance from the tyrant, in 1981 he was certain the Nobel was coming. Itd be an absolute catastrophe, he said. The catastrophe came a year later, and in his address to the gathering at Stockholm, he explained the extremely political context for the Latin American imagination: Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of our imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable.

His journalism, too, was vital. For Paris Review, he explained a journalistic trick which you can also apply to literature: For example, 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 flying in the sky, people will probably believe you. One Hundred Years of Solitude is full of that sort of thing. Thats exactly the technique my grandmother used.

It was a matter of understanding the vital, yet connecting difference between journalism and fiction: in journalism a single mistake could leave the entire work discredited, while in fiction one single fact that is true gives legitimacy to the entire work.

It is a vital standard to keep in mind as we revisit Marquezs life work and life story, and ascertain how nothing was extraneous, from his personal detail and wider politics to his friendships and feuds.

Mini kapoor

The writer is contributing editor for The Indian Express