Sunday, April 20, 2014

Kavita Panjabi: Salaams Gabo // Gabriel García Márquez: 'The greatest Colombian who ever lived'

What matters in life is not what happens to you, but what you remember, and how you remember it : Gabriel García Márquez

Garcia Marquez was a supreme architect of bridges, for through his tales he enabled the people of the North to see the South - us - as we see ourselves Gabriel García Márque
Gabriel García Márquez with a copy of his book One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1975. 
Photograph: Isabel Steva Hernandez (Colita)/Corbis

Shakespeare is Polish!" Jan Kott, the renowned philosopher of theatre had once declared, to indicate how closely Shakespeare's works seemed to represent Poland to the Polish people. Today Indians seem to be saying something similar about Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Gabo, as he was popularly known. The news of his passing away spread like wildfire in the dead of night — the night of April 17 — and India, half way across the globe from Mexico where he breathed his last, did indeed experience the first night of his death, even before South America did. Never before, in the history of Facebook, have so many Indians grieved the passing away of a writer. Never before have they shared so many favourite passages from anyone's prose, as if they were sheer poetry — which they are. Never before, in this century of the profoundest of generational divides, have twenty and fifty year olds come together here in such collective passion over a writer. 

Even before Garcia Marquez received the Nobel Prize in 1982, Indians had begun to read his novels avidly, intellectuals had begun to discuss him in addas and little magazines. Those who had some access to Latin American cultures had already begun to insist that we not truncate his last name to "Marquez". Garcia was his father's last name, and Marquez his mother's —Latin Americans take on both, and the least we could do was accord to him the respect of his full name. Jadavpur University's Comparative Literature department — in Kolkata, as is to be expected — had even introduced One Hundred Years of Solitude in its syllabus long before the world became familiar with Garcia Marquez as a Nobel Laureate. After the Nobel Prize in 1982, the publishing industry ensured that familiarity with his works no longer remained the privilege of intellectuals and academia. 

Theatre director Amal Allana's rich colourful production of perhaps his most famous story 'The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother' was set in Rajasthan. It swept from the Thar desert to the Atacama, from banjara music, via flamenco in Spain, to the gypsy music of South America, and from the sad and forced heartlessness of impoverishment in India to Erendira's exploitation through prostitution enforced by her ruthless grandmother. Three of the thirty languages that One Hundred Years has been translated into are Indian. The Malayalam version is into the 13th edition, having sold over 25,000 copies; the Bangla and Hindi translations are also bestsellers. Translations of scores of stories proliferate, in almost every Indian language. 

What has made us love Gabo? In the heyday of anti-imperialism, when Che and Fidel had become cult figures amongst the young and the fiery, when the more literary types had begun to quote to each other the love poems and existential musings from the newly published yellow bilingual edition of Neruda, Garcia Marquez brought to us the lived struggles and resilience of ordinary people in a world as beleaguered as ours. His novels and novellas, stories, journalistic writings and memoirs opened up for us another world in which we could see ourselves, as we had never been able to in the pages of any western novel. . read more:
Not many pillars of literature who held the century past upon their shoulders lived this far into the 21st. Seamus Heaney, Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez were among the very few in their league to remain among us until recently, and now the last of that triad has departed — arguably the last epic novelist of his generation; the inspiration for the Latin American renaissance of the 1960s and "the greatest Colombian who ever lived", according to the tribute from that country's president, Juan Manuel Santos.
The critics and obituary writers will reach for the right genre to apply, probably converging on "magical realism" – that way in which the everyday, the vernacular, relates and expands through some drawn-back veil of consciousness to the extraordinary and the questions that propel, or sanction, human existence.
But among the many things that made "Gabo" great was that he defied genre. While One Hundred Years of Solitude, written during the mid-1960s, had an almost Zola-esque span and genealogical ambition to it, propelling history forward on an epic scale, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the story of a murder committed 30 years before its publication in 1981, narrows its focus into a forensic inquiry backwards in time to the point of claustrophobic intensity.
The whimsical Memories of My Melancholy Whores was a sufficiently strange account of a very old man's romantic fixation with an adolescent girl to secure García Márquez condemnation from religious circles worldwide, while News of a Kidnapping remains the single most outstanding work of documentary Latin American non-fiction, charting a spate of connected kidnappings by the Medellín cartel of Pablo Escobar (the second most famous Colombian of all time), with attention to physical and psychological detail that plunges the narrative into the nightmare that it was.
Colombia's violencia of the 1950s and 60s– and subsequent narco, paramilitary and guerilla wars – infused almost all he wrote. After all, Márquez's fame enabled him to act as a mediator between successive governments and its enemies. His productive decades spanned those in a country – a continent, indeed – of extreme political tumult.
Fidel Castro and Márquez became friends – some say he was the Cuban leader's closest confidant at times – a bond which cost the Nobel laureate a fist in the face from the political nemesis who lived and worked forever in his shadow, Mario Vargas Llosa.
But in this maelstrom of a lifetime, and its reported twilight suffering dementia, it is words across pages that speak louder than, and endure beyond, the extraordinary deportment of the man. As he wrote: "What matters in life is not what happens to you, but what you remember, and how you remember it."