MEXICO CITY – “Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to tell the tale.” With such a line, the very first in his 2002 autobiography, Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez summed up his vital trajectory as one of the past century's greatest Latin American thinkers.
When he wrote those words, García Márquez was also, unwittingly, giving his thousands of readers and admirers an impossibly perfect eulogy, the silver lining in the grief that would dampen the day he left this world: On Thursday, April 17, 2014, García Márquez passed away at the age of 87.
The author died two days after he had been discharged from the Salvador Zubiran hospital, where he was being monitored for pneumonia and a urinary tract infection. His doctors had decided to not treat him for his decade-long lymphatic cancer due to his age, and resolved to treat his suffering with painkillers. In the afternoon, García Márquez died quietly in his Mexico City home, while his adopted town was already in mourning for Holy Thursday.
Inevitably, the Internet exploded with his autobiographical one-liner. Readers posted it incessantly on Twitter. Media outlets, from the Peruvian news agency Andina to Spanish newspaper El País to online giant the Huffington Post quoted it in their obituaries.
Latin American leaders joined in with their condolences from all corners of the region. Peruvian President Ollanta Humala wrote: “Latin America and the world will feel the leaving of this dreamer. Rest in peace in Macondo [the imaginary Colombian town where most of his novels took place], García Márquez.”
“A thousand years of solitude and grief for the death of the greatest Colombian of all times,” said of his fellow national President Juan Manuel Santos, adding that “giants never die.”
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said that García Márquez “made Mexico his home for decades, and thus he enriched our daily life.”
García Márquez moved with his family to Mexico City in 1961 after having lived in Colombia for 34 years. They arrived by train “on a pink sunset,” as he would write in 1983, without any savings nor knowing anyone in the city. They lived in the neighborhood of San Ángel, not very far from Frida Kahlo’s old house, where he penned his masterpiece “A Hundred Years of Solitude,” and welcomed his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982.
His acceptance speech was a love letter to poetry and stories, but also a wake- up call to international minds about the reality of Latin America. “Europe is inundated by ghostly new from Latin America. We have not had a moment of respite,” he told the Swedish Academy of Letters in the city of Uppsala. “We have a number of disappeared equal to the population of this city. The country that could be formed with all the exiles and emigrants from Latin America would surpass the population of Norway.
“I understand that Europe has been left without a valid method to interpret us. Latin America neither needs to be a strayed child, nor has to compromise its independence and uniqueness to the western aspiration,” he added.
García Márquez lived magical realism on paper and beyond it. His novels were peppered with wildly imaginative poetry, but they were deeply enrooted in real life. As a former journalist and perpetual observer of the world, he took every opportunity to denounce the injustices of his land the best way he could: with his pen.
His 1996 novel “News of a Kidnapping,” which is based in the real kidnappings orchestrated by Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, remains arguably the most revealing and crude account of the drug terrorism crisis in his native country. Escobar, who corresponded with García Márquez for years, professed a deep respect for García Márquez, whom he called “The Master.”
His famed “A Hundred Years of Solitude,” first published in 1967, tells of the “masacre de las bananeras,” a dark event in Colombian history in which 300 employees at a United Fruit Company factory were slaughtered while protesting over their work conditions.
“There is not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality,” he said.
Besides focusing on fiction for most of his life, García Márquez always proclaimed his love for journalism, what he considered “the most beautiful profession in the world.” He started penning articles at age 19, when he failed his law degree, with no formal training or studies, and fell in love with the job.
“We take from him the responsibility of inspiring Latin American journalists, of bringing his legacy to them so they can learn his ideas, apply them, and question them,” wrote Jaime Abello Banfi, Colombian journalist and executive director of the Gabriel García Márquez Foundation in Bogotá.
“Some writers condense worlds, others condense times. García Márquez is and will always be Latin America,” said Peruvian playwright Eduardo Adrianzén when notified of García Márquez’s passing.
His dedication was sometimes honored at the expense of his finances. He came up with the idea for the first chapter of “A Hundred Years of Solitude” while driving back from Acapulco. He locked himself in his house in San Ángel, with six packs of cigarettes, and for months forgot to eat or pay the rent, as his landlord still grumpily recalls. He did not starve thanks to his wife, Mercedes Barcha, whom he married in 1958. Months later, he emerged $12,000 in debt and with a masterpiece under his arm.
His death leaves a hole in the list of the great Latin American writers-activists who still live, a list that currently has only one name left: that of fellow writer and Nobel prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa.
The Peruvian writer was in the Andean town of Ayacucho for Holy Week when he heard the news, and it took him several hours to react. “I am speechless. I am struck,” were Vargas Llosa’s first words, before sending off a message of condolences to García Márquez’s family.
García Márquez is survived by his two sons, Rodrigo and Gonzalo, and his wife Mercedes, who still lives in Mexico City. Rafael Arce, a longtime waiter at the upscale restaurant Bellinghausen in the Mexican capital that García Márquez used to go to, says that what he will remember best is how well he always treated Mercedes. That, and “Memories of My Melancholic Whores,” the only one of the writer's novels he ever read.
Mexico City will have to make do with the caricature of García Márquez that local newspaper El Universal published in early April, when the writer was admitted into the hospital. It was signed by well-known illustrator Luis Carreño, who depicted him sitting in a sofa, with a thought: “I haven’t had a single second of solitude.”