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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

This Second Sunday of September I Begin with a Question…

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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