I love books about as much as I love anything. That’s why I wrote one. It’s also why I have decided to share my love of particular books and their authors with a special “bookshelf” post each month. I won’t be attempting exhaustive critiques. I will simply be sharing my personal connections, inspirations and loves. I’m kicking off with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who died last Thursday, aged 87.
The first Gabriel Garcia Marquez book I ever read was not a masterwork of magical realism, or a profound meditation on the human capacity for romantic love (these would come later) but a slim and little-known travel book called Clandestine in Chile.
This hundred-page paperback tells the true story of Miguel Littin, a Chilean film director who was exiled after the 1973 military coup and then returned in disguise, risking everything to “bring the world a truer picture of life under Pinochet.” Littin told his story to Marquez, who re-told it in the first person, using eighteen hours of taped interviews.
The blurb on the back of my well-travelled copy provides hard evidence of the truth in it:
“On 28 November 1986, in Valparaiso, the Chilean authorities impounded and burned 15 000 copies of this book.”
When I visited Valparaiso myself, twenty years after Littin’s clandestine journey and thirty years after the coup, the foreign city was delivered to me full of meaning. Thanks to Marquez, I had already been there in my imagination. Thanks to the fact of my humanity, my imagination is every bit as real as my reality.
When I later came to read Love in the Time of Cholera I found even more truth, and it was a truth that felt heightened, rather than diminished, by the quantities of magic in it.
The older I get, the more complicated the relationship between reality, imagination and truth seems to become. Reality is so subjective – having to be funnelled first through our senses and then through our various languages – that I can’t help suspecting that there is no such thing. Truth, on the other hand, is everywhere. We feel it, see it, imagine it and know it – even when we can’t talk about it. Which is where stories come in, and why great storytellers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez are mourned with nothing less than the heartfelt love of perfect strangers.
It is through stories – film, television, books – that we get to share our actual experience of truth (as opposed to reality as presented by various news media) and therefore feel less alone.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez made me feel less alone when I was sitting on the concrete floor of a South American bus station and navigating a tidal wave of sadness associated with my latest break-up. I was reassured to learn “that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.”
I felt less alone after finally meeting Jose Arcadio Buendia, the protagonist of One Hundred Years of Solitude, an inventor whose magic-inspired inventions lead him further and further from his ordinary life, into all kinds of chaos, and yet “even those convinced of his madness left work and family to follow him.”
Perhaps one of the side effects of progress in science and technology, of staking everything on the illusion of empiricism, is forgetting the value of magic. Another ancient woodland is cut down to make room for a motorway service station. We are left staring into “the abyss of disenchantment.”
But perhaps good stories can rescue us, helping us to understand that we do not understand. Putting us in our place.
“The first of the line is tied to a tree and the last is being eaten by the ants.”
I read One Hundred Years of Solitude this year, one border crossing from Colombia, where Gabriel Garcia Marquez was born. I found it difficult at first, in the same way that strange countries can be difficult at first. There were so many characters, and they were so fantastic. They said things people don’t say, they lived according to strange rules and kept the oddest of habits, they waged unwinnable wars and their thoughts were pure poetry. It was only after I had been with these people for several hundred pages that I finally began to accept the truth of them, which was accompanied by a feeling of relief, because I was also accepting the truth of me – which is that my grip on ‘reality’ is tenuous, and it is the poetry of my imagination – my existential solitude – that makes me who I am.
As Salman Rushdie said of Marquez in a recent essay in the New York Times
“He was a dreamer who believed in the truth of dreams.”
Becky and I both read One Hundred Years of Solitude, one after the other, in various Central American jungles, while young men rode past at dawn on horseback, listening to pop music on their ipods. We both struggled with it, wrestled with it, woke each other up with the most poetic bits of it, were desperate to understand the truth of it, and eventually loved it with an inexplicable, unreasonable, tearful love.
Just like life.
To quote Salman Rushdie again;
“For such magnificence, our only possible reaction is gratitude.”
I will be singing about my book ‘The Ribbons Are For Fearlessness’ on 29th April at 6.30 in the Falmouth Bookseller.