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Gabriel García Márquez begins his story with this description. “On the third day of rain they had killed so many crabs inside the house that Pelayo had to cross his drenched courtyard and throw them in the sea, because the newborn child had a temperature all night and they thought it was due to the stench…..The light was so weak at noon that when Pelayo was coming back to the house after throwing away the crabs, it was hard for him to see what was moving and groaning in the rear of the courtyard….A very old man, lying face down in the mud, who in spite of his tremendous efforts, could not get up, impeded by his enormous wings.”

This is part of the first paragraph of an eight-page story in Leaf Storm, a short story collection published in English in 1972, before Gabo’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The angel in the story cannot rouse himself because of his huge buzzard wings, which are dirty and half-plucked. Instead of reverence among the villagers, this angel arouses derision and is treated as a kind of circus animal. Soon Pelayo even charges money to see the captive angel. Yet despite reduction to spectacle, the degraded angel shows superhuman patience and resilience. Slowly he recovers and finally manages to set off in an ungainly flight, disappearing into the heavens.

The first time I read this story I thought of Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis, who awakens one morning as a cockroach. In the second half of the 20th century, it felt as if Gabo had created Gregor’s double. But his old man is transfigured and given a return skyward, unlike the younger Gregor who dies with a rotten apple in his back. Literature was never quite the same after I read Kafka my junior year at USC in 1964, and never quite the same after Gabo came into my life in 1985 in a class on Latin America in Montgomery, Alabama, at the Air War College.


Twenty-three years after Gabo wrote his story about a very old man, his novel Of Love and Other Demons was available in English by 1995. Yet the genesis of this story began in 1949. The short novel’s preface relates that García Márquez was a young reporter in Cartagena then, and one day was assigned to cover the story of the convent’s crypts being uncovered. (Today that same convent is a luxury hotel.) That day in the niche of the high altar, laborers found the skull of a young girl with a seventy-foot stream of living hair the color of copper. Gabo saw the hair and remembered the legend his grandmother had told him of a 12 year-old marquise with hair that trailed behind her and who was venerated for miracles she performed along the Caribbean coast.

The novel begins with a quote from Thomas Aquinas: “For the hair, it seems, is less concerned in the resurrection than other parts of the body.” How very García Márquez! To which I will add this final remark.After I taught a course in 2015 on Gabo’s Nobel Prize-winning novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, a student asked if I could recommend a shorter and easier novel for her book club.“Yes, Of Love and Other Demons. Short and memorable.”She later sent an email to let me know her book club hated the book and thought it was the worst novel they ever read.”

Next week:How Gabo helped me to love Latin America.

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I have taken what was originally in poetic form, written while living in Colombia, and changed it to prose while re-reading Gabo’s autobiography Living to Tell the Tale. Colombia’s Cartagena was important in his youth. One of his many homes was located adjacent to the Santa Clara; and his novel, Of Love and Other Demons, had its conception in the convent that became this luxury Sofitel Hotel.

Above the Sea in Cartagena

On a balcony overlooking the Caribbean Sea, I feel a familiar sadness with our endless waves of human hatred and greed. A philosophical mind is the ocean’s gift. Even as a child I sensed this… when my agitated father relaxed before the sea, as if forgotten elements were being stirred by the Pacific’s setting sun.

Here at the Santa Clara, I sit before the vast blue sea, not to mention the fading blue, powder blue, impermanent sky, and ponder questions of I-dentity. In all of us—a demon, stone-faced warrior, wastrel, hidden saint, thief, swimmer of seas, or poor paddler of pre-ordained tributaries.

Beneath the balcony, the wading pool’s uneven sculptured bottom shines in artificial light, while at a distance across the man-made plunge, TV screens waver in darkened rooms.

Yet the vast sea disputes, dispels, washes away (or segregates on the shore) man’s forgotten debris, his fragile bones. As sky and sea turn gray, they offer breadth and the ever-reaching certainty of our eternally blue and blissful reason To Be.

Next week I will write about Of Love and Other Demons and comment on Gabo’s story about a fallen angel. I thank Gabriel Garcia Marquez for helping me love the real world of his wildly imagined fiction. He did not live to write a second volume of Living to Tell the Tale. But this is one book to read in your lifetime!

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Who is a literary figure in our U.S. culture, past or present, of great national importance, someone asked to negotiate in matters of state, someone whose released or re-released novels create mile long lines outside bookstores, a writer whose name is on the tongues of taxicab or Uber drivers in large cities, whose health is of national concern, and whose funeral had, or would have, the importance of a head of state’s? Can you think of such a literary figure in our North American culture?

I can’t and I couldn’t a decade ago when I gave a speech in Warsaw (Virginia) on Gabriel García Márquez to a literate group called the Friends of the Library.

Gabo, as he was called in the Spanish-speaking world, died in April of 2014 at age 87. He was known as el maestro, or in his native Colombia as Nuestro Nobel. In 1999 the editor of Colombia’s leading newspaper wrote that in a country gone to mierda that Gabo was Colombia’s symbol of national pride. Yet ironically, García Márquez referred to himself as “the last optimist in Colombia.”

My husband and I lived in Bogotá from late 1999 until early 2002. At one point Mike was in the hospital of los ricos, recovering from a serious surgery. One late morning I was killing time in his single room on the third floor of the hospital and looking out a large window. Suddenly in the parking lot below, a swarm of cars arrived, and men jumped out carrying identical black briefcases. Or so I thought until I consulted Mike, who did Defense Intelligence Agency work for years. He told me the men must be carrying Uzis. Then two identical beige sedans came through the gate. Then a short man with curly gray hair and a white mustache emerged from one of the cars and entered the hospital through the emergency room entrance.

All around the parking lot I saw faces peering from windows. As I had nothing to do, I kept watch at the window. I did know that García Márquez was in Bogotá for several reasons: his magazine Cambio and treatment for his cancer. I also knew he required bodyguards because of kidnapping threats. Yet I wasn’t thinking I had seen Gabo until the emergency room doors opened later and medical personnel in white coats began assembling outside in two long lines on each side of the exit. Then the same short man came through the door and the long line of white coats bowed as he passed by. I turned to my husband, prone in bed, and said, “I just saw Gabriel Garcia Marquez. No one else in Colombia gets that kind of respect.”

My awe, of course, is tempered by the countless persons who have told me, “I tried to read One Hundred Years of Solitude and couldn’t do it.” If what I have just written is any compensation in a world where there is too much to read and too little time, take note of this. Each novel Gabo wrote after the one which won the Nobel prize (Solitude) was smaller and smaller: a veritable recessional one critic called it. One Hundred Years of Solitude, 417 pages, Love in the Time of Cholera, 348, The General in His Labyrinth, 274, Of Love and Demons, which came out in 1995, 147, and ten years later, Gabo’s last novel, Memories of My Melancholy Whores at 115 pages. This final novel Gabo called his love letter to the dying light.

(This list of novels is not complete, as I no longer have all the novels in my library.) I will end with this literary claim.

I believe that reading fine literature is to receive communion within an expanded circle of being. We are placed in other people’s experiences and our eyes open to vistas and views we did not know existed. And the magical realism of García Márquez is a way to grapple with social realities so hallucinatory and irrational they defy ordinary naturalistic description. Given that I’ve read as many as 80 percent of Americans believe in angels, I wonder what resemblance their imagined angels bear to Gabo’s in his short story, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.”

This story is for next week.

P.S. Microsoft 11 is telling me that the word, whore, might be offensive to some readers. Now we will ban words in book titles? Dios mio.

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