by Annalee Giesbrecht
The first time I gave any serious thought to Latin America was probably during a postmodern literature course I took in the dead of winter during my undergraduate degree. Winter in my hometown is long and dark, and very cold, and by the third year of a literature degree, reading becomes a chore for even the most passionate book lover. So you can imagine my delight when I opened One Hundred Years of Solitude and discovered a brightly-coloured, Caribbean world, the polar opposite of my dark apartment in the Canadian winter. Dazzled by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s descriptions of tropical birds and fragrant fruits, in a vagueness born out of near-total ignorance, I added “somewhere in Latin America” to my list of places I might like to visit someday.
Ten years later, “somewhere in Latin America” is probably the most accurate description of where I live and work. After two years in Haiti, I now live in Mexico City, although I started writing this reflection from Cartagena, that colourful city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast that provided Garcia Marquez the inspiration for much of his work. It feels like a bit of a cliché to be writing about Garcia Marquez in Cartagena, in this bookshop where the shelf behind me holds his entire bibliography translated into English. Since that long-ago course, I’ve read many more Latin American writers, but Garcia Marquez’s work has held a special place in my heart. I’ve been revisiting it recently after reading The Scandal of the Century, a collection of his journalism recently translated into English for the first time.
For those who only know Garcia Marquez from his fiction, it might come as a surprise to learn that he thought of himself as a journalist, thought to be the most rational and objective of writers, first—and not just at the beginning of his career, but throughout his life. As I made my way through the reported pieces and columns in The Scandal of the Century, it became clear what he meant when he said, in describing his fiction, “my books are those of a journalist.” Scenes I recognized from his novels popped up in reported pieces and op-eds from Colombia, Italy, France, Mexico. Having come across event after event that I had supposed sprang fully-formed from a fertile imagination, I was no longer surprised to read, about three-quarters of the way through the collection, that “there is not a single line in any of my books that does not have its origin in a real event.”
And maybe, too, I was no longer surprised because I’m no longer a twenty-year-old undergraduate, curled up in a drafty Winnipeg apartment with One Hundred Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera. I’ve spent a lot of time in Garcia Marquez’s beloved Caribbean; I know a little more about love, and a lot more about cholera. It no longer seems so strange that rain of tiny yellow flowers might blanket a town following the death of its founder while a fine rain of purple jacaranda flowers is falling outside my apartment in Mexico City. It no longer seems like such an exaggeration that it might rain for ten years after a massacre of plantation workers, now that I’ve seen the rains of the hurricane season, and now that I know the history of the United Fruit Company in Latin America.
Garcia Marquez saw his writing as an accurate reflection of a world that is much stranger than we give it credit for, his most outlandish inventions nothing more than slight flourishes for literary effect. He describes himself as a completely literal reader and, one might assume, writer. “I’ve never thought novelists mean to say more than what they say,” he writes with an almost audible shrug. In an essay entitled “Some Further Thoughts on Literature and Reality,” he relates the frustrating experience of trying to create a truly fantastic Latin American dictator for his novel The Autumn of the Patriarch.
“Every step was a disappointment. Juan Vicente Gomez’s intuition was much more penetrating than foresight. Doctor Duvalier, in Haiti, had all the black dogs in the country exterminated because one of his enemies, trying to escape the tyrant’s persecution, had slipped out of his human condition and turned into a black dog. Dr. Francia […] closed the Republic of Paraguay as if it were a house, and only left one window open so that the mail could arrive. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna buried his own leg with splendid funeral rites. Lope de Aguirre’s severed hand sailed downriver for several days, and those who saw it pass by recoiled in horror, thinking that even in that state the murderous hand could brandish a dagger. Anastasio Somoza Garcia, in Nicaragua, had a zoo in the courtyard of his house with double cages: on one side were savage beasts, and on the other, scarcely separated by iron bars, his political enemies were locked up…”
The list goes on.
I was struck by the sort of bemused surprise Garcia Marquez conveys in this list of bizarre dictatorial behaviour, especially as I think about Haiti, whose former dictator Garcia Marquez mentions above, and where I started my work with MCC. Haiti suffers from a set of systemic problems so deep-rooted, so seemingly permanent, that even the most idealistic humanitarians often leave the country as jaded cynics. In his book about the flawed efforts to rebuild Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, journalist Jonathan Katz writes:
“In the years before the earthquake, foreigners often talked about two ways to ‘fix Haiti.’ In the first, the Western powers would build a new country piece by piece: roads, neighbourhoods, agriculture, industry, police, legislature, and so on. This vision was nicknamed ‘the Marshall Plan’, after the multibillion-dollar US effort to rebuild Western Europe after World War II.
The second was an even sicker joke: drop a nuclear bomb and start over.
The scenarios were two sides of the same coin—the idea that only a transformative, external force could solve Haiti. It was born of the helplessness aid workers felt as they confronted seemingly straightforward issues, only to find that dozens of interrelated problems made solving them alone impossible.”
And of course, these problems aren’t limited to Haiti, not even to the Caribbean. Just before I arrived in Cartagena for a few days of vacation, I was visiting the tiny community of Pichilín in the Montes de Maria region on the Atlantic coast that, during the worst years of the Colombian armed conflict, was the victim of a massacre in which 11 people were murdered by the military. The survivors fled, and when they returned, it was to a parched landscape devoid of life and a social fabric destroyed by trauma. It was hard to even imagine a way out of the devastation.
Today, Pichilín is still facing overwhelming problems—as the climate changes, water is becoming scarcer and scarcer, and the reparations promised by the Colombian government following the violence have been slow in coming. But now, it’s a community where trauma is being processed and, slowly but surely, the social fabric is being stitched back together. Part of rebuilding the community has been, literally, about rootedness and growing—they now have an annual garden contest, in which community members fill their houses and yards with flowers in a friendly effort to outbeautify their neighbours. Ricardo Esquivia, director of MCC partner Sembrandopaz, which accompanies the community in this work, described to me how beauty is necessary to create ethical solutions, and creativity to encourage people to adopt them.
At night, I sat outside with our hosts in the nearby community of Salcipuede, imagining faces in a full moon bright enough to cast shadows, talking about what everyone else in the world was talking about—the novel coronavirus that was sweeping the world, which at that time was just starting to reach Latin America. As infection rates and death tolls continue to rise, governments around the world are beginning to discuss and implement measures that would have seemed impossible mere months ago—unprecedented bailout packages, total border closures, mortgage freezes, curfews, military inspections, the list goes on. Suddenly, we are living in a state of emergency. It feels like anything could happen.
As COVID-19 grows in Latin America and the seemingly impossible becomes increasingly possible every day, I’m finding Garcia Marquez’s vision of the world is making more and more sense. It’s neither pessimistic, nor optimistic, but realistic, in the sense that Garcia Marquez seems to see the world stripped of our notions of what is and isn’t inevitable, with an openness to being surprised by the unexpected. If we allow ourselves to be surprised by the strangeness of the world, the cynicism of Katz’s exhausted aid workers in the face of poverty and violence becomes impossible; every massacre, every case of malnutrition, becomes a fresh heartbreak. But the opposite is true too—seemingly impossible achievements like peace in Colombia and food security in Haiti, improbable as they sound, are possible.
The simple fact that most of the seemingly fantastic elements of Garcia Marquez’s fiction are rooted firmly in reality is, to me, a source of tremendous hope. If the Latin American dictators whose bizarre and unlikely behaviour drove Garcia Marquez to literary despair really were living, breathing human beings, if human babies really are sometimes born with a tail, if it’s possible, as I learned this morning, for a woman in Scotland to smell diseases like Parkinson’s and tuberculosis before they’re diagnosed, then surely it’s possible to both imagine and bring about a different, better future for our communities and our planet. Why not? Stranger things have happened.
Annalee Giesbrecht is the Context Analyst and Advocacy and Communications Support Coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean.
This blog post was originally published by MCC LACA on June 24, 2020.
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