While the encomia from world leaders and cultural figures continue to pour in after the death of Gabriel García Márquez at the age of 87 last month, a Charles Lane column in the Washington Post last week on the 1982 Nobel Prize-winning novelist threatened to reopen a 40-year-old wound. Lane recalled the Padilla Affair—the arrest, imprisonment, and show trial of a Cuban poet, an episode that once divided writers and intellectuals across the world, with García Márquez coming down on the wrong side.
In 1971 Cuban state security jailed the poet Heberto Padilla for a book that appeared to criticize the revolution and its father, Fidel Castro. Padilla was forced to confess his sins and denounce other transgressors, a handful of Cuban writers including his wife Belkis Cuza Malé, also a poet. Padilla apologized to Castro, to whom, as Padilla said, he had “been unfair and ungrateful [and] for which I will never tire of repenting.”
Castro’s subsequent speech underscored the purpose of the arrest and confession—a “rigorous alignment with the revolution and subordination to its political dictates,” as one scholar put it, “was a precondition for intellectual activity.” In other words, this socialist utopia would cut off the tongues of its subjects unless they sang its praises. Many literary figures, including a number of major Latin American novelists and poets like future Nobelists Mario Vargas Llosa and Octavio Paz, turned on Castro and withdrew their support for a revolution that they came to recognize as simply another color in the totalitarian spectrum. In response, Castro fumed in the clichéd rhetoric of revolution that these were “brazen Latin Americans” who “live in bourgeois salons 10,000 miles from the problems.”
Living nearly 5,000 miles from Havana in Barcelona, García Márquez refused to sign a letter criticizing Castro—which is to say, he not only came out against a fellow writer, human rights, and free speech, but also on behalf of false imprisonment, torture, false confessions, show trials, and executions. The Padilla Affair was the most notorious moment in a long career of what Lane rightly characterizes as García Márquez’s “political rottenness.” In reward for his loyalty, as Lane explains, he “gradually rose in Havana’s estimation, ultimately emerging as a de facto member of Castro’s inner circle. Fidel would shower ‘Gabo’ with perks, including a mansion, and established a film institute in Cuba under García Márquez’s personal direction.”
His friendship with Castro, the Colombian novelist flattered himself, was based largely on their shared literary tastes. He never published a book without first showing the manuscript to the man who’d imprisoned dozens of Cuban writers. For Castro’s part, it’s not hard to see why he felt indebted to García Márquez—the great man of modern Spanish letters had not only proven his loyalty but had more importantly provided the revolution, and Castro himself, with invaluable legitimacy, without which the course of modern Latin American history might have turned out differently. In soliciting his friendship and continuing to make sure García Márquez remained personally invested in the revolution, Castro was feeding the ego behind what had become the happy and most famous face of a monstrous regime.
Years after the Padilla Affair, García Márquez defended his stance, arguing that it was by staying close to the revolution, as he hinted to the New Yorker in a 1999 profile, that he was able to work on Castro directly, and behind the scenes, to win Padilla’s release in 1980. (Writing last month in National Review, another Cuban emigré poet jailed by Castro, Armando Valladares, charges that García Márquez in fact informed on dissidents to Cuban intelligence.) When asked why he continued to support Castro after so many of his friends and colleagues had seen the mask fall, García Márquez said that it was because “I have much better and more direct information, and a political maturity that allows me a more serene, patient, and humane comprehension of the reality.”
Reality is a peculiar word for a writer whose literary reputation is tied to the genre he brought to a sort of perfection—“magical realism,” a technique combining supernatural elements with the real world: blood that comes alive and slithers through the streets, for instance, old men with wings, and so forth. Some critics argued that García Márquez employed magical realism to critique the existing political culture of Latin America. However, outside his friendships with numerous world leaders (and a bizarre effort to facilitate negotiations between the Colombian government and the Cuban-backed terrorists of FARC who were trying to overthrow it), it’s hard to see how the novelist had much connection with any political reality at all.
García Márquez was an opportunist; he enjoyed the proximity to power that his fame as an artist made possible. Vargas Llosa called him Castro’s courtesan, but García Márquez’s vanity made him indiscriminate in his affections; loving to be loved, he was available to any powerful suitor. The adolescent Marxist and lifelong anti-imperialist blushed to find himself befriended by Bill Clinton, a big fan who lifted the longstanding U.S. travel ban and facilitated his visa. Clinton gushed when he finally got to meet the author of what he said was his favorite novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, at a cocktail party hosted by William and Rose Styron in Martha’s Vineyard. Later, García Márquez seems to have convinced himself that he was a go-between serving both Clinton and Castro as well as, from his perspective, the greater good of restoring relations between the United States and Cuba. In both his work and his political convictions, García Márquez was a fantasist.
Employed by García Márquez and other Latin American novelists, magical realism partakes of a tradition in Spanish letters that dates back to the renaissance. Gongorismo, named after the poet Luis de Góngora (1561-1627), is typically described as a literary style characterized by obscurity, extravagance, and violation of accepted laws of language, logic, and sentiment. The purpose of this stylistic shock treatment was to lay waste to a calcified classicism. From Góngora’s perspective, the use of the same accepted themes, conceits, and language, rehearsed repeatedly by both genuine poets and their lesser imitators, had effectively drained the life out of Spanish verse.
García Márquez and other stars of what became known as “El Boom,” the great late-20th-century flourishing of Latin American literature, were reacting to the novel, a European literary form that was invented and developed in tandem with Europe’s changing political and social realities, especially the rise of the middle class. Since Latin America was the product of a different political and social reality, it called for a new interpretation of the novel. This is what gave rise to magical realism, a technique that, in the hands of García Márquez at least, also relied on a local oral storytelling tradition. The important point is that, like Gongorismo, magical realism’s subversion of literary rationalism is a style, a technique for reviving and renovating a literary genre. However, García Márquez’s international success depended in large part on the fact that his audience, especially in the United States, confused magical realism with Latin American political reality.
New York publishing legend has it that García Márquez owed his fame to a used-book dealer. The Strand has long been the first stop for the New York publishing set, book reviewers, literary critics, and underpaid editorial assistants looking to unload their unwanted review copies for a handful of fast cash. The story goes that when they came in to dump their copies of a new novel from a 33-year-old Colombian writer shortly after the 1967 Spanish-language book was translated into English in 1970, one Strand employee told them they were making a mistake-—they should keep the book and read it. When they heeded his advice, One Hundred Years of Solitude became a sensation, destined to reach every corner of the earth.
Regardless of this account’s veracity, the fact is that it was America that made García Márquez a literary colossus. He was a terrific storyteller, and as a writer of prose fiction his Gongorismo was not vulnerable to the exigencies of translation that poetry in a similar mode cannot possibly survive. Instead, it was precisely García Márquez’s magical realism that thrilled readers with the sense of the new, while adhering to standard novelistic conceits—beautiful and tragic women, serial intrigue, love, and family. One Hundred Years of Solitude was fantastic and familiar at the same time.
García Márquez is typically said to be an heir to Faulkner, whose Yoknapatawpha County, explained the Colombian novelist, was the model for his imaginary town of Macondo. But Salman Rushdie, citing Tolkien, Harry Potter, and other adolescent fantasies in a recent tribute to García Márquez, may have hit a little closer to the truth. García Márquez wrote escapist literature. As with all fantasy literature, the most significant feature is the locale, the world that fantasy, unchecked by reality, creates. The great psychological novels are studies in human character shaped by and responding to circumstance and fate. In fantasy, the characters are typically cut-out figures, allegories, embodiments of moral attributes, like virtue, courage, greed, and gluttony. It is place that breathes with the life of a unique individual, and it is the character of the place—Narnia, the Shire, Hogwarts—rather than the psychology of a human character, that tends to live on in the minds of readers.
García Márquez’s great fortune was that his fantasy world happened to be set in Latin America. This fact could not help but appeal to a Vietnam-era audience certain that America was doing bad things all around the world and possibly much worse things in Third World countries even closer to home. Wasn’t our adventure in Southeast Asia just the most recent iteration of what we’d been doing in Latin America for a century or more? Imperialism, colonialism, the subjugation of Third World peoples. Surely this was the grand theme of One Hundred Years of Solitude, as articulated by a genuine voice of the global South. Hidden under all the fantasy, his American readers were convinced, García Márquez must have a political message that indicts America for its criminal actions across the world.
Insofar as there are any real politics in García Márquez’s books, they simply echo what any reader of the New York Times was already predisposed to think about Latin America or anywhere else in the Third World in the 1970s—the bad guys of course are right-wing, and the good guys are for overthrowing the system, i.e., revolution. He claimed that his grandfather, the model for the protagonist of the novella No One Writes to the Colonel, was the source of many of his political ideas. A military man and a liberal, García Márquez explained, his grandfather “would regale me with horrifying accounts of the last civil war that free-thinkers and anti-clerics waged against the Conservative government.” García Márquez, according to one scholar of his work, held “socialist and anti-imperialist views . . . in principled opposition to the global status quo dominated by the United States.”
The novelist’s political commitments then were of the boilerplate left-liberal variety—as readily available in Parisian lecture halls as they were in Upper West Side living rooms. His political ideas were already part of the atmosphere of the moment. Accordingly, for his American readers, García Márquez’s work offered something like an invigorating, albeit perfectly comfortable, vacation in a Third World theme park. And that’s why he became so popular. An overtly political novelist who truly sought to unnerve his readership never would’ve gotten the same reception, and won the same wide readership, even in the 1970s. For instance, the struggles of the Palestinians and their war against Israel have long been of abiding interest to the international left, but a novelistic account of them, as depicted, say, by the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani, spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a terrorist group, while perhaps popular on some college campuses, was simply not bestseller material. It was not because García Márquez was deeply engaged in the revolutionary struggle that he was politically useful to Castro, but because his novels were international bestsellers, thanks to America.
It’s worth imagining what might have happened had García Márquez come out against Castro over the Padilla Affair. In 1971, the year after the English-language translation to One Hundred Years of Solitude was published, García Márquez was probably the world’s third-most famous Latin American, after the Brazilian soccer star Pelé and Castro himself. Had he joined his less famous Latin American colleagues as well as other writers like Susan Sontag and Italo Calvino in coming out against Castro, García Márquez would have stripped the revolution of any of its remaining luster. That’s not to say that Castro would’ve fallen or that other revolutionary movements would’ve died in the womb, but the Cuban revolution would have been exposed by the continent’s most popular spokesman, its greatest living writer, for what it truly was—a brutal dispensation that turned husbands and wives against each other, jailed dissidents, writers, homosexuals, and anyone who deviated from the strictures of Castroism, all in order to extinguish freedom. The issue then isn’t simply that García Márquez made the wrong choice when he backed Castro in the Padilla Affair, but that he legitimized totalitarianism, in Cuba and throughout the rest of Latin America.
The fact that he continued to believe in Castro and the revolution until his death is indisputable, and it’s perhaps not hard to find the reasons why. Like many writers he was vain and susceptible to flattery, especially that of the powerful. He was from a modest background and, compared with many other Latin American literary stars schooled in Paris or London, only moderately well educated, which is not to say that a lack of intellect played a part in his choice but rather that an abundance of resentment almost surely did.
But biography can’t entirely explain his choices, and it may prove useful to turn to one of García Márquez’s precursors, the greatest of all Spanish novelists, one of Góngora’s contemporaries, Miguel de Cervantes. Don Quixote is a book whose hero is incapable of distinguishing fact from fiction, fantasy from the real world. In a sense, this theme is also that of García Márquez, a novelist who constructed an imaginary universe by combining and confusing the visible world and the supernatural. It is not always advisable to draw analogies between an artist’s style and his beliefs, but it is difficult not to conclude that in his public life García Márquez lived like Quixote, and mistook fantasy for the real and visible world. He saw in Castro and the revolution something of wondrous beauty, his Dulcinea, when in fact it was coarse and violent. But if García Márquez chose to back Castro because of his fantasy-riddled political imagination, it turns out that the windmills the novelist tilted at were real. And those he sided against suffered deeply.