Last week, I bemoaned the twisted reality of our virtual age, wringing my hands and having a moan. A few hours after posting, I heard the news of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s passing. This week’s choice of topic was straightforward and a joy to write.
People have been leaving messages outside the house of this legend, shedding tears saying farewell. Such is the power of this wonderful writer – his ability to take you straight into the heart of his world and make it speak powerfully to a hitherto unknown part of you. I know this because when I first read him, it was 25 years ago. I was laid up in bed with jaundice – my eyes were bright yellow and my excreta bright white (he would approve of me mentioning this, I’m certain). I’d just become engaged to be married to a man I didn’t know very well. And there I was, reading Love in the Time of Cholera by some crazy twist of fate. Every page was a profusion of overwhelming smells, colour and emotion of a tropical heat far away from me (the Caribbean to my Chennai in India). Somehow it made the reality of life palatable despite its bitter glory – celebrating being thwarted in love and having to do the right thing. I even found the names exciting – Fermina Daza and her ageing husband, Dr Juvenal Urbino. It gripped me with its power of believing in impossible things – and I was in turn empowered. Those few days when I was deeply buried in these pages – I found myself rejoicing the fact that I’d contracted an awful liver disease and I believe I was changed in the course of the book.
Perhaps it is the Spanish language (in which he wrote) that lends itself naturally to expressing so vividly – there’ve been many books before and after that have stirred me in the course of time, but none that have shaken me up like this one did.
Last week, in honour of his memory, I took out Strange Pilgrims, a collection of short stories that he wrote over a period of 18 years. The three of us at home read a story of our choice out loud to each other. These are from his time as foreign correspondent in Europe, featuring dislocated souls from Latin America. An ex-president, now in straitened circumstances finds himself in Switzerland, awaiting death, is helped by a fellow countryman, a paramedic, who was his faithful supporter back home. The president goes to their home for supper and the wife is rather contemptuous of his elegant airs and graces but is the one who helps pawn his precious watch for him to pay for his medical expenses. In another, the woman wearing a gold ring in the shape of a serpent on her forefinger is found dead after a wave thrashed her car against the café wall. He remembers her from a long time ago, in Vienna, where she sold her dreams to the family who housed her and employed her. Pablo Neruda also makes an appearance in this story and meets Frau Frieda in Barcelona some years later. And somewhere in all the magical narrative, we understand what a smart operator she really is. In Madrid, Garcia Marquez says it was his fault for telling two young boys that light was like water – if the bulb broke, the light would pour out. The children ask their parents for a boat and (*spoiler alert*) sail furiously out of the apartment window in a flood of light. The dark thrilling nature of this collection couldn’t top the one entitled “I only came to use the phone”. I won’t say any more.
Garcia Marquez lives on.