I once had a friend, a Cuban/American professor of governance at Georgetown. We would meet occasionally for lunch in the elegant faculty lounge to discuss the affairs of the day in Latin America; what the future of his imprisoned birth island would be; how the changes of the 21st century would sweep across the continent after the ‘pink tide’ was spent.
“The problem with Americans,” he would often tell me, as we talked about the waves of communism and dictatorship that never cease to buffet the continent’s shores, “is that they don’t understand Latin American culture is not ‘western’, at least not in the way you think.” It’s a hard concept – we have so much of Latin America running through our veins; through our history and our imagination. The Spanish Mission of San Xavier sitting like a shining pearl in the desert south of Tucson; signs in Miami declaring proudly “English Also Spoken Here” – didn’t American soldiers also fight beside Simon Bolivar? Isn’t the United States the world’s 5th largest Spanish speaking country?
North America – at least the northern part (excluding the American South, which was partially the cause of our great war) – has never been feudal. Great families controlling land and with it the destinies of their ‘peasants’. Latin America, on the contrary and up until recently, has been a feudal place. In Venezuela they were called the ‘Amos del Valle’ – the Lords of the Valley (of Caracas) – thick and rich, and white: they are still there, despite Venezuela’s own modern ‘Violencia’. In Venezuela it was the pitiless dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gomez that transformed the country from its feudal agrarianism to the makings of a modern nation. That, and the discovery of oil, kept Venezuela from descending into a confrontation between the landed aristocracy and the peasants – between the rich and the poor – between the white and the afro-indigenous – between the past, and the future. At least till Hugo Chavez.
For Colombia, this reckoning came earlier; and it was bloodier because there was nothing to smooth over the carnage. It came in the form of a 1000 days war at the center of five decades of simmering conflict – lasting even through today. It pitted Colombia’s ruling families – Restrepos and Santos and Pastranas and others – against a restive peasantry itching for opportunity.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez was part of this peasantry. And “Living to Tell the Tale”, the autobiography of the first half of his life (I think he planned a 2nd part – one that never came), is the story of a young man, journalist and writer who was straddling this tumultuous period in Colombian history. He was trying to cover it as a journalist; he was trying to understand it and write about it; and he was trying to survive it. The assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán; “La Violencia”, a decade of violence following this event. Coups and counter-coups. The beginnings of Colombian communism – which spawned the FARC when the war between the Conservatives and the Liberals was not conclusively won; a communism like that of the Soviet Union, not the proletariat against the bourgeois but a peasant uprising against the nobles.
Gabo lived all of it – and that’s what makes this story incredible. It’s the story of the coming of age of a great writer born of poverty in the course of the coming of age of his country.
Gabo had communist sympathies – because he was from peasant stock and revolution seemed the only way out. Not that he was a revolutionary himself (he was not quick to pick up a gun after witnessing the murder of Gaitan); he was, first and foremost, a writer. And anything that got in the way of that calling was discarded. He probably had bad ideas – certainly communism was not the answer to Colombia’s nasty oligarchy (as it hasn’t been the answer in Venezuela). But I can see how a poor boy would have a soft place for those who tormented his oppressors.
“Living to Tell the Tale” did give me a better understanding of Gabo’s writing. He is, above all, extremely provincial. He is a village boy from pre-modern Colombia; and even as he traveled – Paris and Mexico and farther – he could not shake his roots: they were everything he was. Which I suppose makes his success that much more astounding just as it makes his writing that much more genuine.
I’m still not a fan of “100 Years” – and Gabo isn’t my favorite novelist – but I’m immensely glad I read his auto-biography. It is the story of a writer, told by a writer, and has given me tremendous encouragement for my own writing. For that, I thank him.