This talk was presented, in slightly different form, at a PEN Tribute to Gabriel García Márquez. It is often remarked that Gabriel García Márquez’s writings are read by people of all classes in Latin America, that his stories and characters have become a part of Latin American everyday mythology in a way comparable to the influence on their own cultures of such writers as Dickens, Balzac, Twain, and Tolstoy. I’ve seen that verified countless times, including here in New York, in a remote corner of the Red Hook seaport twenty years ago, when I went to meet Central American sailors who’d been living like urban Robinson Crusoes for months on an abandoned cargo freighter without anyone knowing they were there, and a seventy-three-year-old Nicaraguan, the phantom ship’s mess waiter, told me, “We’re like the Colonel nobody writes to.”

Few were surprised when in 1997, the feminist anthropologist Pilar Segura published, in the journal Métodos y Heteroglosia, her study establishing—via the most rigorous methodology—that the book, apart from the Bible, most often found in the personal possession of sex workers throughout Latin America was Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. In a San Pedro Sula brothel, when one of the study’s subjects was asked by Pilar Segura what it was she most liked about the novel, she replied: “The sentiments of his characters . . . the way he writes not just about emotional things but about life itself.” And she told the anthropologist that she had a notebook filled with her favorite phrases and passages from the book. “If I go on reading this chavo,” she told Dr. Segura, “he’s going to become my amor platónico.” 

How I would like to have known what passages that anonymous young woman had chosen for her notebook. Rereading Pilar Segura’s essay last night, I was especially struck by her declarations about what she most liked in García Márquez’s writing. I agreed with her. Even his most suffocated characters have an inner radiance, like electrically loaded rain at night. A comparison can be made with Kafka: Instead of dwelling solipsistically on the neurotic anxieties and fixations of Gregor Samsa, he transformed him into a cockroach, and readers all over the world saw themselves in that bug. García Márquez also takes private obsessions, enigmatic emotions, the most neurotic, twisted, and self-defeating behavior, and transforms it, distills it, into pure action, image, story: Amaranta burning up with love and spurning love over and over; her long life like the funeral shroud she finally weaves for herself, alternating threads of meanness and tenderness; Amaranta’s lifelong rancor, which is finally only her invincible and heartbreaking terror of love.

In a 650-page study of Gabriel García Márquez, Historia de un deicidio, published in 1971, the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa reminds us that García Márquez began his writing career in a time of “guerrilla warfare in the countryside, urban terrorism, campaigns of repression, widespread torture, and political crimes” in Colombia, in which 300,000 citizens were killed in less than a decade. So much of García Márquez’s fiction was not only written against a backdrop of political violence but is also an answer to that violence, a lesson in how the novelist uses reality to supplant reality, and perhaps helps the reader read and imagine that reality in some personally liberating way of his own.

I remember a night in Guatemala City in the 1980s, a time of violence as horrific as the one that had ravaged Colombia three decades before. I lived in my late grandmother’s house, and was trying and failing to begin a novel. Moral indignation, political hatred, strangled my every word. Other journalists sometimes lived in that house, including my friend Jean-Marie Simon, the great photojournalist and human-rights activist. One night the doorbell rang. I answered and found a young woman who said she had an appointment with Jean-Marie. She wore a woolen cap and a florid scarf wrapped loosely around her neck and lifted over her nose, as if against the blown-up grit and billowing black exhaust from the junk-can buses roaring by. Jean-Marie was out, I told her, but I invited her up to wait. She said her name was Flora. I made her a cup of tea, and sat down to make small talk. The people who came to see Jean-Marie often had the most urgent matters to discuss, and I knew not to pry. A copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I was rereading, lay on the table. Flora remarked that she was reading The Autumn of the Patriarch. “Imagine,” she said, “reading a book about a dictator, and feeling sorry for him.” Guatemala’s then dictator, General Mejias Victores, had just presided over the Holy Week massacre of leaders of Guatemala’s first Families of the Disappeared group, including a paternal baker and a young mother, along with her teenage brother and her infant daughter.

In Flora’s face, in her soft black eyes, I saw something that reminded me of a description I’d read by García Márquez that same day: “the painful look of ploughed ground.” “Ah, ese hombre,” she said, shaking her head, picking up my copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude. “He’s like an angel of compassion—compassion that explains everything about us, good and bad. Look at this.” And she read out loud from the book: “ ‘In the haze of convalescence, surrounded by Remedios’ dusty dolls, Colonel Aureliano Buendía brought back the decisive periods of his existence by reading his poetry’—the love poetry he wrote to Remedios. What does he mean? After so many years of warfare and death, why do a few months of marriage to a child bride count as the decisive moments of a great rebel leader’s life?” Flipping back through the book, she said, “She marries him, and she takes care of his senile father when no one else wants to, even washes him and picks lice from her father-in-law’s hair, and when her husband fathers a child with the town whore, she uncomplainingly welcomes the baby into the family, and she fills the house with laughter and song, and so on, the perfect little wife. The only happy Buendía marriage in the whole book, and it’s to a happily self-abnegating eleven-year-old child bride. And what does that good fortune do for Colonel Aureliano Buendía?” Flora read, “ ‘It did not increase his weight or alter the parsimony of his character, but, on the contrary, it hardened on his lips the straight line of solitary meditation and implacable decision.’ Ay, vos, you see? It’s all in here,” Flora sighed. “No wonder our countries get so screwed up.”

I’d guessed that Flora must be some kind of human-rights person, but later found out from Jean-Marie that she was really the ORPA guerrilla leader Subcomandante Ethelvina. That was her nom de guerre. Years later, scrutinizing a smudgy author’s photo in the journal Métodos y Heteroglosia, I realized that she’d survived the war, and gone on to become Dr. Pilar Segura.