A report by Lakshmi Govindrajan Javeri for The Hindu.
Tim is Irish. I’m Indian. We were brought together that afternoon in Aracataca by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It is the novelist’s third death anniversary on April 17.
Tim Buendía places a chilled tamarind cooler on a table that barely has an empty spot amid the mountain of rice, cheerful plantain, disinterested broth and perky corn-on-the-cob nudging for space. A classic Colombian meal in the time of surreal tourism.
Mounted on the bare brick wall behind the table is a sepia-tinged painting of a sparse Macondo railway station, resurrecting the ghost of a literary past, now reduced to the very capitalism that patriarch José Arcadio Buendía disapproved. Walled in from the milling tourists outside, we devour the spread while sitting in the shade as the soaring mercury does little to diminish visiting populations. The town enjoys near obscurity on popular tourist maps, but for lovers of literature it is nothing short of a pilgrimage spot.
Tim is Irish. I’m Indian. Brought together that afternoon by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Gabo for locals).
Is this the real life, is this just fantasy… I wonder, as Aracataca seamlessly merges into Macondo, or is it the other way around? If Marquez modelled his One Hundred Years of Solitude town on his birthplace, did Aracataca also follow mythical Macondo’s trajectory to penury? After all, the only noteworthy part of the town is its connection to Marquez. His childhood home has been refurbished as Casa Museo, housing artefacts and literature, some of which predate the Nobel laureate. The Casa del Telegrafista (House of the Telegrapher) is a museum that chronicles Marquez as a journalist. There is Gabo grafitti everywhere. His visage graces everything from postcards to matchboxes. Besides that, there’s little else that separates it from a milieu in the hinterlands of India. But the idea of Marquez is as omnipresent in Aracataca as it has been in the concept of Latin American writing.
Most credited for his exquisite use of magical realism, Marquez wrote on social issues and mores, economic viewpoints and political opinion in a manner so charming one could hardly be faulted for expecting a utopia, knowing fully well how it could come apart. Magical realism creates a reality by drawing in the magic of superstition and religion from the real world. Marquez’s works reflect reality not as it is experienced by him as an observer, but as it is experienced by all those different characters with different backgrounds. Such multiple perspectives bring in the necessary layers while talking about Latin America-specific semantics; a region rife with political instability and social incongruity.
I toy with my newly bought Gabo-faced matchbox, listening to Buendia’s and Jaime Garcia Marquez’s suggestions for places to visit in Cartagena. Tim, whose obsession for Colombia’s literary godfather brought him to Latin America, adopted the fictional surname Buendia after he moved bag and baggage from Ireland. Jaime, on the other hand, is the writer’s brother and the most famous Marquez after Gabo in Aracataca.
Earlier in the day, he had patiently taken me around their family home where Gabo grew up, where his father and grandfather too spent a good deal of time. Sitting in this esteemed company of mutual interest, we obviously discuss Marquez. Jaime coyly clarifies that a lot of the episodes Marquez has written about actually happened to Jaime, quickly justifying that siblings who steal shoes from one another would clearly nick a story or two.
On the bus ride back home to Barranquilla, we stop by the now defunct railway station that set the track of modernity to Macondo. A loan coal carrier huffs past what is essentially a deserted space. We drive past the river where young Colombians frolic away a Saturday afternoon. “Make sure to check out Fermina’s house when you get to Cartagena,” Jaime and Tim had suggested. Fermina Daza is the love of Florentino Ariza’s life in Love in the Time of Cholera, Marquez’s epic work on love, longing and the disease it can be. Marquez’s own life ran parallel to Florentino, not with as much infamy though. Marquez had to wait 14 years to marry Mercedes, his childhood love, and had to withstand parental objections.
The house that inspired Fermina’s residence is predictably attracting crowds. Not in throngs, but in conspicuous clusters. Eager Marquez fans stand below the balcony, happily taking pictures and reading passages from the book. There’s always someone in Colombia who has a story to tell about Marquez. It’s no surprise when an unfamiliar local walks up to you and talks about their time with Gabo before he shifted to Mexico. They hardly talk about his love-hate relationship with Cartagena, the city that was often portrayed by Marquez as a hedonistic town full of class and racism issues. Perhaps it doesn’t fit their narrative.
The next day, Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, who is part of the Hay Festival in Cartagena, ponders on what narrative means in the age of the Internet. Llosa, a contemporary of Marquez, whose writings range from political thrillers and criticism to wit and mysteries, is also infamous for the punch he famously landed on the Colombian demigod.
At the festival though, he is fawning over Flaubert’s works with Man Booker winner Julian Barnes. He also has a ready smile for visiting journalists, offering his bits on journalism and writing as a sort of off-the-record ‘pay it forward’. Even before alternative facts tragically became an accepted phrase, Llosa rues that while the Internet has democratised information—sometimes highly unreliably—it cannot democratise culture. “That’s why you have writers. Literature as entertainment cannot and should not replace the true role of literature, which is to open windows to political, cultural, philosophical issues. They will co-exist, perhaps they need to… You are what you write, but you also write what you are. Writing is the most natural way to chronicle culture and measure a paradigm shift,” he says.
And the paradigm has shifted over and over. The Latin American boom that saw the works of Marquez and Llosa, both typifying different styles of writing, has made way for more varied voices from the continent. From Roberto Bolano to Mario Bellatin and Cesar Aira, Latin American writing no longer lives in the wondrous bubble of the magical and mystical, nor is it only a bleeding reportage of its political infighting.
Leonardo Padura, celebrated Cuban writer most famous for his The Havana Quartet featuring lieutenant Mario Conde, is also at the luxurious Santa Clara hotel hosting the Hay Festival. Standing at the terrace, he smokes by himself looking deep into the sunset. He is a little away from the vantage point of the hotel where eager tourists can get a good view of Marquez’s mansion next door.
Unsurprisingly replete with the almond trees Marquez immortalised in Love in the Time of Cholera and an abstract-shaped swimming pool, the triangular compound is another tourist magnet. Are you also going on the walking tour of Love in the Time of Cholera, a security guard asks me. I decline, much to his surprise.
Padura watches this melee, wryly lets out a smile before blowing out more smoke. “You can’t escape it…” he says in Spanish, before adding, “Sometimes you don’t want to either.”
The writer is a fellow of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez New Journalism Foundation (FNPI), Colombia.