When Garcia Marquez died recently, he took with him not only the whole of his life, but a major portion of my own life as well into whatever absent world he entered in death. If I had known in time that his dying was imminent, I would have given him letters to bring with him, as Amaranta Buendia brought letters with her to distribute among her friends and relatives in the underworld when she died—except my letters would have been those to Marquez himself that I never wrote when he was still among us.
Because, I mean, if people are now having sex with ghosts—the pleasures of which movie stars and pop singers are now proclaiming—then why not start something a bit more modest, like a literary correspondence? In this way nothing may ever be too late.
In particular I’m curious about the life of his characters—their unique verisimilitude—which he used to explain by saying that what he wrote in his novels and stories was not so different from other events occurring in Aracataca Columbia in his childhood. I get that. I can imagine the similarities between the Biblical rains that cascaded on both Macondo and his own home town, and how flower petals may fall from the heavens to carpet the roads, and commemorate an especially important funeral. Melquiades’ youthful appearance is restored by a good set of false teeth, I can see that, and ice is indeed a miracle in the tropics before refrigeration—which is a recent invention, just like the invention of the magnifying glass, and the miracle of the player piano.
So what did it take out of him to destroy those fabulous people, inhabiting worlds of remarkable beauty, vitality and color? That’s what I want to know. There was a time when I was dead certain it would destroy me to finish One Hundred Years of Solitude. I was an undergraduate when I discovered the book. I always parked my VW camper under the eucalyptus trees in a distant parking lot on the UC Irvine campus, and between classes I’d lie on the bed there with the door open to the Southern California light, and shriek with laughter when Jose Arcadio explained that the gold ingots fused to the bottom of Ursula’s cooking pot looked like dog shit. All of you who own a dog know exactly how apt that description is.
I’d be hooting over the disassembled player piano, taken apart to discover the ghostly pianist making all that music, and the photographs taken surreptitiously to capture the image of God. Other students would be coming out to reclaim their cars, also parked there in the lot, and a part of my mind would register the bizarre looks I’d get as they peered into my van, hoping to avoid the madman howling in there, and just get to their own car without incident. But I was transported: they weren’t as real or nearly as compelling to me as the time Remedios the Beauty was lifted body and soul away with the Percale sheets, or when all the ants in the world carried off the newborn Aureliano into their nest to feast on.
So when that Old Testament wind started, and blew off the first of Macondo’s roof tiles, I couldn’t stand it. I had the same premonition that Aureliano did, and whereas he raced ahead to finish translating the encyclicals written by Melquiades, which were the text of the novel itself, I couldn’t bear it, and closed the book. I also closed the van door because I didn’t want anyone to see me sobbing and call the police.
And, well, yes, since you asked, I know I get carried away by fictions: novels, poems, in the theater, in the movie house. I’m the kind of guy that Plato wanted to protect by banishing all artists from the Republic so they would not seduce people like me into believing in illusions. In general, he didn’t much approve of illusions, particularly persuasive ones, which he believed just led people further into material error. I was in error to be so upset.
Aristotle, on the other hand, as Plato’s student, found the fictional actions of art—and drama especially—to be much more useful. He argued that we get sucked into imaginary pains and distresses in order to purge ourselves of our own real ones—the term for which is catharsis, as I’m sure everyone already knows. So okay, that was it: I was purged of my extreme feelings.
Saint Augustine sided with Plato, and thought that the figments of imagination led a person away from God to contemplate worldly affairs, especially sex, which was bad, bad, bad, bad. Freud, let it be said, thought sex was pretty good, certainly influential, and found the phantasmagoria of art to be restorative, repairing psychic traumas.
I could go on about this, but already the topic is getting boring. All kinds of writers, philosophers, Church fathers, poets, psychologists, and movie producers have at various times weighed in on the nature of artistic agency—the take home message for which is, probably, that it is a personal matter. One’s relationship to the artistic world is intimate, unique, yours.
For my part, I think I am often beguiled by stories because they play upon my empathy. For instance, although neither of my babies was ever eaten by ants, I can readily imagine the horror if they were. I cringe along with Don Apolinar Moscote when the tall, solemn Aureliano Buendia asks to marry his 13-year-old daughter, who has in fact yet to reach puberty. O man, I have all kinds of misgivings about that one—even though, in truth, no such event ever occurred in my life, or in my daughter’s. So why am I cringing?
Good question. I am moved beyond expression by the chimeras in Marquez’s novel, but am left cold by the actual dramas unfolding everywhere around me. It’s final week, and my wife’s crazy students are turning their papers in late, each excuse more inane than the last. One of my colleagues at work goes on and on about her son’s latest piercing, this one through his eyebrow, while I try to extricate myself from the break room: I don’t want to hear about it. Unfortunately, I can’t help but hear the neighbors shouting at each other, arguing over a bounced check, it sounds like, so I discreetly close the windows that I just opened after the long, long winter. God dammit. Someone from work has called again to ask if I can give him a ride in the morning, for the second day in a row, because his car still isn’t running. It should be no big deal, but I’m irritated nonetheless because I’ll have to talk to him on the drive in, rather than listen to one of my audiobooks—this one Jacob’s Room, read by Nadia May in a truly lovely performance.
What does it mean to prefer the theoretical lives of a novel to the actual mess people create around me? To favor the idea of people having phantasmal problems, over the bulky, every-day persons around me inhabiting their tangible dismay? Well, for one thing, I have more control over the imaginary passions because I can always just close the book, or turn off the iPod. It also occurs to me that I appreciate the presence of meaning in the fictional events, which is not evident in the surprise of real life. In literature there is the idea of the story, the narrative theme, the way sense is made.
Marquez punishes those who like structure to their contemplations, because he ties up the loose ends of his plot with a brutality that runs like a bloody thread throughout the course of his family chronicle. Melquiades doesn’t just die, he is washed down river, and is found 3 days later with a vulture perched on his stomach. The 17 sons of Colonel Aureliano Buendia are all executed in one single night, the last by an ice pick driven through the cross of ashes smeared during Holy Mass on his forehead. The last in the line of the Buendia’s is eaten by ants—whose mother hemorrhages to death immediately after childbirth. No one is given a second chance.
That is such a harsh judgment on a marvelous world—an unforgiving sentence passed upon his unforgettable creation. It has weighed on my mind all these many years, and with renewed emphasis in light of Marquez’s own death after the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. I wonder if he would have approved of his death: the relentless disassembly of his mind, the tortuous collapse into indignity and oblivion. That’s hard to face. I think I’d rather drown in the river with Melquiades, even with that vulture. I think I’d prefer a clear threat, an obvious deadly chance, a fatal moment. But I wouldn’t want to be lost, so hunt for me.
Please hunt, just like I am for Garcia Marquez. That is, after all, what my letters to him would constitute: a link to a distant faint voice, a bond against bereavement, the preservation of value. We may have a chance yet.