‘Literature is a contact sport’
From cover of One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez, 1967
One Hundred Years of Solitude reached its fortieth year in plenty of company not long ago. The celebrations that took place in Colombia—and with less hullabaloo in the rest of the Spanish-speaking world—had a level of redundancy that struck me as the best commentary on the health of the novel. The anniversary was not celebrated the way one celebrates the birthday of an old friend, but the way the state commemorates famous events of its history (an old dictator’s birthday, for example), and having survived the opportunistic bureaucracy of the commemorations is proof of the novel’s character, of its literary relevance. The adjective Macondian now forms part of the Latin American vocabulary, and we had no qualms about applying it to the celebrations themselves: critics, journalists, and writers made the most desperate attempts to embalm the novel and carry it in a procession, like Big Mama’s funeral. One of the gravedigging tools these literary commentators relied on, one of their most facile strategies, was to review, for the umpteenth time, García Márquez’s presence in the literature of subsequent generations and to reiterate like tired parrots the question that has hounded all Colombian writers born since the middle of the last century: How does one write in the shadow of One Hundred Years of Solitude? The question strikes me as a false problem, almost a rhetorical vacuity, and I have said so in more than one interview. But I’ll now try to give my objections a less indignant and more rational, less informal and more articulate form.
Any place is a good place to start breaking down the distorted notion of García Márquez’s influence, and I’ll start with the very idea of influence. There is, I believe, a principal misunderstanding that in some way provokes or tolerates the rest of the misunderstandings: the notion—perverted, provincial, reductionist, but most of all alien to the very spirit of literature—that influence has a national character. Bolivian or Moroccan writers are not often interrogated about the difficulties of writing beneath the pre-eminence of magical realism; Indian writers are not asked about the influence of García Márquez on their work, even if the Indian writer is Salman Rushdie and even though Midnight’s Children is inconceivable without One Hundred Years of Solitude. Borges, who faced harassment from Latin American provincialism many times over the course of his life, devoted a text to confronting these notions. He wrote: “. . . the idea that a literature must define itself in terms of its national traits is a relatively new concept; also new and arbitrary is the idea that writers must seek themes from their own countries.” Both these ideas survive in the notion of García Márquez’s influence. The distracted reader thinks there is such a thing as an abstract quality of Colombianess, that Macondo (the village and its inhabitants: its imaginary world) embodies this quality better than any other territory of Colombian fiction, and that, therefore, the individual born within the borders of Colombia who practises the writing of fiction should inevitably inherit the Macondian imaginary world. Their performance, then, will be measured by the greater or lesser degree of originality with which they give shape to that same imaginary world, to those distinguishing features of Colombian reality. So we find ourselves in a critical position that verges on the absurd, in which the rather obvious circumstance that every novel is, among other things, a verbal transposition of experience, is forgotten. And the great misunderstanding results from believing that the young writer, desperate to find the technical and rhetorical tools that will allow him to give shape to his idiosyncratic obsessions, will automatically take on the models of his own territorial milieu. In other words, the misunderstanding results from believing that literary influence is involuntary (it comes to the writer without the writer looking for it) and unavoidable (the writer cannot escape it). Influence as the flu. Influence as influenza. Nothing could be more ridiculous.
What I’m saying is not to deny One Hundred Years of Solitude’s pre-eminent position. That position, let’s just come right out and say it, is a clear and present threat; but it is for those Colombian novelists who, due to lack of talent, ignorance, or simple laziness, have been unable to go out into the world in search of new tools—that is, to create their own tradition, to create their predecessors—and have contented themselves with staying home and working with what’s lying around the house, working within the territorial tradition where the tree of One Hundred Years of Solitude still casts its shade. For the others, García Márquez’s work generates a very different feeling. You see, genuine novelists are very jealous people. As Harold Bloom says: “A poem is a poet’s melancholy at his lack of priority.” That is, every new book by a genuine novelist is an attempt to knock another book down from its privileged position. Literature is a contact sport. The novelist is aware that he must first go though a training process, an initiation or apprenticeship process, which might take two or ten books; once through this process, the novelist decides that the time has come to dispute another book’s position, whether by supplanting it (killing the father) or by competing with it (becoming a father oneself), which is, as any Freud will tell you, another form of correction. For those whose experience in the world is inexplicable by way of the Macondian method, the only option is the second. In the attempt to subvert the existing hierarchy, the new novelist creates a new hierarchy. This is what we new Colombian novelists must do: not chop down the tree of One Hundred Years of Solitude but plant a new tree that in time will prove useful to someone, even if it’s only for sitting underneath, waiting for an apple to fall and hit them on the head.