Gabbin’ ‘Bout Gabo

Silvana Paternostro – Solitude and Company (Seven Stories Press, 2019)

I realise I’ve misunderstood magical realism. What it is. What its purpose is.

I heard about it at university. I was taught the term first and was shown the work later. A dangerous approach. Only in this way could I end up grouping the modern fairy tales of Angela Carter with the metaphysical allegories of Borges and the surrealism of Lorca.

But that term, that overused term, arrived with Gabriel García Márquez and his One Hundred Years of Solitude. A novel I only got around to reading last week, in preparation for reading Silvana Paternostro’s new oral history this week.

I can confirm the novel is a masterpiece. Its delivery, however, bears little relation to those other magical realist works. Instead, it is pure Faulkner. Its interest is in character and in journalistic levels of authenticity. There is magic, yes, but its subtlety is more subtle than I could imagine any writer simply plucking from imagination.

My suspicions were confirmed by Paternostro’s book. There is nothing magical about One Hundred Year of Solitude, according to García Márquez’s friends and family. Rather, it is an accurate depiction of life in Columbia, told in the manner of the Columbians themselves.

We all know what makes for good storytelling in conversation. Exaggeration, the strange, the unusual, the barely believable. One Hundred Years is a depiction of a world in which every rum-soaked barroom story and heated-up piece of workplace gossip is true. True in the hardest documentary mode.

We learn from Paternostro’s book that García Márquez lived a life embedded in the oral culture of his times. As an old friend put it; “where the old oral traditions are dying, Gabo comes along and writes them down and turns them into literature”.

A story is recounted, by way of example, about a fight between Doña Tranquilina’s two lovers, the Colonel and Medardo. The Colonel stopped Medardo on his way to the market and announced: “I have to kill you Medardo!” Medardo tried to run but was shot dead. As he lay dying, he made a speech about “the bullet of honour”.

The story was recounted by a young girl to Patricia Castaño. It was spoken with such drama, she said, “it was as if she were narrating Euripedes”. The girl had been told the story by her grandfather who had heard it as a boy. The murder took place in 1907, Castaño heard the story from the girl in 1993. The story was still alive.

So it was with Colonel Aureliano Buendia, whose seventeen sons and thirty-two unsuccessful revolutions were inspired by García Márquez’ real-life great uncle. The story of Remedios the Beauty, who was so beautiful that God lifted her up to heaven while she put out the laundry, is also a lift from a neighbourhood tale. A local girl ran off with her lover, and divine ascension was the preferred alibi.

So the amazing imagination of García Márquez is not that at all. It is memory, and the hard-won ability to write. With our ideas of magical realism thoroughly corrected, Paternostro moves on to the story of Gabo himself; the boy from small town Aracataca who ends up winning the Nobel Prize.

As with García Márquez’ own stories, there is charm and macquismo in the speakers Paternostro interviews, scores are settled and there are plenty of exaggerations. Many accounts contradict each other. All of it adds up to a perfect summary of a writer whose very essence was the whims of oral storytelling, its uncertainties, its heroes and villains.

His love for the dictator Fidel Castro was, after all, only a continuation of his obsession with violent men. One that began with his great-uncle, the model for Colonel Aureliano, and found its satisfaction in the criminals and dropouts he befriended in his twenties and thirties.

His meetings with Pope John Paul II and Bill Clinton (with whom he shared his love of Faulkner) are acts of adoration. Characters carefully drawn. He finds the truth in the details of their meetings; a button dropped and picked up, for example. He would have said the same, we feel, were he to meet a local market trader or one of his beloved vallenato players.

More than anything, what shines through is his commitment to the work. Every day there was writing. When he realised, in his early twenties, that he was not good enough to write his Hundred Years, he took up journalism, and he wrote and he wrote. He had more than paid his dues by the time success came.

Then, when it came, it wiped out everything else. He was no longer Gabito, but García Márquez the Genius. The man who single-handedly took Latin American literature from obscurity to the international limelight. There were many other great writers who followed after him, but Gabo was the first. The King.

And crowns are heavy on shy men’s heads.

The book wraps up with a general slating of the magical realists that came after García Márquez. Unfair, perhaps, but necessary. For a young Columbian, writing after Gabo must itself be a supernatural tale; his ghost always reading over your shoulder, claiming your words as his own.

Paternostro has managed a perfect marriage of form, content and subject matter here, and Edith Grossman’s translation loses none of the fun of the original. More than a biographical study, this book puts you in conversation with the great man’s friends and colleagues. A vital addition to any magical library.

Joe Darlington

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