“’Books are worthless,’ Abrenuncio said with good humor.” – from Of Love and Other Demons.
It is hard to resist the pull of hagiographic adulation when writing about an author such as Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel García Márquez, who died on 17 April. He was one of the most beloved literary figures of the 20th Century and his major novels quickly became classics. He was an avatar (if not progenitor) of “La Boom,” the explosion of Latin American literature onto the world stage in the 1960s. Quotable, avuncular, and enigmatic, García Márquez is a figure of great importance in world literature, the most lauded practitioner of “magical realism” in fiction. He is, in a way, a saint of letters.
Which is why the pull of hagiography feels so proper and fruitful to resist. García Márquez is one of the writers who taught me through his fiction to distrust saints and to look for magic in the everyday, to see how glimmers of hope come not from faerie dust but the twinkle of an eye and how even that can blind us to the manifolds sorceries that we all conjure as we create and re-create ourselves and our world with every action. And those actions are themselves flawed as they gather or dilute the potential to generate change. We too often trap each other, and ourselves, in a web of reality that captures, rather than harnesses, the magic all around us.
I encountered the work of García Márquez around 1990 as I skittered along the edges of the underground poetry/folk scene in Boston. I had tried some of the Beats and found them juvenile, self-absorbed, and overly clever. I had abandoned SF and fantasy literature because I wanted to read and write things that were more “real.” I was tired of reading the Irish writers I had come to love and found myth and folklore to be empty. I was a naive, inexperienced kid trying to figure out how to make my third attempt at escaping my family succeed by diving into a marginal world of artists and malcontents all trying to “speak their truth” as a poet friend of mine put it.
He recommended García Márquez as sort of a literary palate cleanser, and I picked up a tattered copy of Leaf Storm and Other Stories and began reading. “Leaf Storm” did not impress me; it felt confusing, repetitive (I muttered several times to myself as I read “OK, OK, I get it about the doctor.”), and strange. But I pushed on and read through the rest, stopping to re-read “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” and sometimes going back to “Leaf Storm” to see if someone reading the other stories would illuminate it. They were stories of people found and missing, real and unreal, profane and divine and earthen and phantasmal. After I finished it I tried to give myself a frame of reference for it, and I turned to fantastika for that. Was it like Vance? Ellison? Le Guin? Shepard? Lindholm? I felt that I had gleaned a lot to think about from the stories but could not articulate an approach to them. It bothered me.
So I spent a summer reading lots of García Márquez, and at the end of it I felt no closer to having an easy grasp of what I had read. Sure, I understood the words, and some of the writing and the import of the writing felt profound, but I felt that I was perhaps being toyed with, that something was being withheld, that there were spirits dancing on the edge of my vision taunting me and tempting me while I delighted in the words and wrestled with what they might mean. I shivered frequently while reading, stopped to write in the margins, dog-eared pages and returned to them unable to find what I had thought was worth noting, wrote notes that disappeared, wrote poems that turned out to be imitations of scenes I had read in one of García Márquez’s stories, and even spent an hour by the swan pond in the Boston Public Garden one Sunday just staring at the cover of Leaf Storm as if the damned thing would somehow speak to me.
I wanted to be spoken to, you see. I wanted comfort and grace and understanding and my aspirations dashed and re-glued together. I wanted a teacher and mentor, some grizzled soul who would chuckle darkly at my past and hint that we all came from broken histories and could only do our best to not be shattered by them. I wanted a path, one different from the one my family had mapped, one more rooted than the dozen New Age journeys I had launched myself on when I was younger, one that felt less foolish than drowning myself in pulp fictions until I magically “escaped” from the world that I felt I had no control over. I wanted a magic that made sense to me and a reality that I could grasp.
I found hints of that in García Márquez’s writing, clues that it was possible to see the world differently and thus act differently to influence it. There was a tantalizing entanglement of mythic resonance and weariness in his stories, where sacrality was a dream and purity was a misconception that couldn’t be realized. There was an anthropology of ontological delusion being laid out before me in his stories of Macondo, in his retelling of history that strove to reveal how easily illusions take hold (and become enforced), and sometimes can only be revealed by other illusions. He was telling me, again and again, that magic is immanent but often hobbled by our notions of the real, by our acceptance of the lies that we lived our lives by, and to keep us from trying to bolt at every opportunity so that we would not run ourselves to death.
I discovered to my joy, that it is life, not death, that has no limits as he put it in one story.
What I obtained from García Márquez that summer is something that I continue to look for: a flash of insight into the magical nature of the world. Not some system or sparkly wonder, but the deep workings that we rarely access even as they swirl around us, so much potential so poorly realized. When I read Nick Mamatas’ Love is the Law I thought about this towards the end, the idea of being-in-the-world as a magician, as someone who can command forces beyond mortal ken and all that. Everyone is a sort of wizard in García Márquez’s stories, everyone is a potential wizard at least. But it is not a question of will; it is a question of love, of touching the truth with our eyes and hearts. The fantastic is everywhere, more common than dirt, but we have to get to the truth of it to benefit from its nourishment. And we get there by understanding how fantastical life is and how the stories we tell about it help us discover and enact to its worth. As Abrenuncio said, books are useless. It is what readers do after encountering them that matters.