I remember when I published my first, very unsuccessful novel, a science-fiction novel, which, to the despair of my publishers, I keep telling people not to read. A friend of mine who had read it said that it reminded him of Gabriel García Márquez who, at that point, I hadn’t yet read. He said in that case to immediately to go and read One Hundred Years of Solitude, to which I said, “Really? One Hundred Years? Of Solitude?” “Yes,” said my friend.
And of course when I did read it, I had the experience that many people had described of being forever lost in that great novel. Unforgettable. I think all of us can remember the day when we first read Gabriel García Márquez; it was a colossal event. One thing that struck me, which was one of the things that first struck me when I went to Latin America, was the incredible similarity between the world he was describing and the world that I knew from South Asia, from India and Pakistan. It was a world in which religion and superstition dominated people’s lives; also a world in which there was a powerful and complicated history of colonialism; also a world in which there were colossal differences between the very poor and the very rich, and not much in between; also a world bedeviled by dictators and corruption. And so to me, what was called “fantastic” seemed completely naturalistic. It’s the great achievement of Gabriel García Márquez to recognize something that literature needs to recognize all the time: Reality is not realistic. This is something we’re all beginning to recognize. Have you noticed how weird things are lately? We look out at what is supposed to be the humdrum surface of what we are led to believe to be the real, and out of it bursts these curious growths. What can one call them? Bushes. And now we have to deal with them. Compared with that, the world of these books is a ridiculous understatement.
I remember reading about a project of an almost certainly insane academic to enumerate the total number of gods in India—not just the famous above-the-title deities but all the little gods of place, of grove and stream and so on. After a lifetime of labor, he came up with the spectacular figure of 300 million. The population of India is about one billion human beings, and so that provides one god for every 3.3 human beings. It’s a very personal service, godhead, kind of like going to private school: very small classes. The population of India has more or less doubled since the 1950s; the divine population has presumably been stable, gods having better contraceptive devices, no doubt. So if you project the population curve backward, you realize that there must have been a time in the late ’30s when the human population overtook the divine population. That is realism.
And that is what Gabriel García Márquez reintroduced to us all and taught us to see. It was always there to see but he taught us to see it. One of the great achievements of One Hundred Years, which is the book I keep coming back to despite the greatness of all the other books, is the inversion of reality that takes place between the village and the city. What Gabriel García Márquez does is always to privilege the worldview of the village over the worldview of the city. When Remedios the Beauty, a girl far too good for this world, rises into heaven surrounded by sheets, by bed sheets, which also float up, everybody immediately accepts this as being perfectly understandable and the only thing they hope is that they get the sheets back. Things like this are completely naturalistic. However, one of the strangest, the most fantastic, fabulous magic-realist moments is reserved for the arrival in Macondo of technology:
The woman who was washing clothes in the river during the hottest time of the day, ran screaming down the main street in an alarming state of commotion. “It’s coming,” she finally explained, “something frightful, like a kitchen, dragging a village behind it.”
Something genuinely terrifying and bizarre. This is a strategy we can all recognize from the famous opening sentence of the novel: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Ice, that amazing technology, the freezing of water, is a fabulous thing.