Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Learn from Literature: South American politics

In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez wrote a foundation myth. He reconfigured reality, weaving a tale that encompassed the history of a continent, shaping the identity of the Columbian people. In a country riven by division, García’s melding of the fantastic with the mundane helped create a Latin America of shared perspectives, a new universe where despite all the chaotic violence, hope could blossom.

Márquez is the ultimate chronicler of the Latin American psyche, able to capture the brutality and strife that permeates the consciousness of the continent. It’s the overwhelming blend of savage pride, blind faith and restless passion that runs through the Latin American character which leads to the banana workers strike in Macondo, the fictional town of the novel. The workers aim for better medical care and Sundays off from the exploitative plantation, led by Jose Arcadio Segundo, a member of the family the novel revolves around. What they receive is systematic murder, as the soldiers the government send to control the situation exterminate more than 3000 men, women and children.

It’s an episode both horrifying and fantastical, yet it has its basis in a real historical event. In 1928, 2000 United Company Workers in Columbia were massacred by their nation’s own army, with the banana company they worked for acting as a sort of colonial power, using a government’s army against their own people. In the novel this is depicted as unreal, Márquez presenting a fictionalised version of a historical event as an unthinkable nightmare. Yet at the beginning of the next chapter the novelist can state without any hesitation that “it rained for four years, eleven months, and two days” after the massacre.

The idea that reality can be turned upside down to reveal a different truth

This magical rain almost destroys Macondo, sweeping it away in the deluge. It is almost as cataclysmic and terrifying as the massacre of the workers, and yet it drives the Banana company away, preventing them from working the land and freeing the inhabitants of Macondo from a colonial presence. The magic of the rain is presented in a matter of fact manner, highlighting the fact that in Columbia, what may seem fantastic and strange to outsiders is part of the fabric of real life.

Despite all this capacity for violence and destruction, there is a beauty to the magic, as exemplified by the purifying, biblical quality of the flood, destroying the wicked and yet alleviating suffering. It is also an example of Márquez creating a new mythology for Columbia, by using older myths to create a lens through which to view the beauty and brutality of his country.

It is this notion of magic and magical realism, the idea that reality can be turned upside down to reveal a different truth, which reflects the nature of life in Columbia. This magic is entwined with reality, and it illuminates that reality on a universal level. For example, in the description of the death of Jose Arcadio, where the blood from his gunshot wound trickles in straight lines, around corners and across streets until it reaches his mother. This description should seem totally fantastical, and yet it conveys an emotional truth that is universal. A mother learns of the death of her son, not through any old messenger but from his very own life blood, and the magical element serves to heighten the impact of a universal emotional reality.

As readers with a western perspective, we tend to rationalise things

This fixing of the magical to the mundane allows us to consider a world view fundamentally different to our own. As readers with a western perspective, we tend to rationalise things,  circumscribing events in our own way with our own sense of logic and order. But Márquez forces us to accept that this fusing together of seeming oppositions is an everyday reality for Colombians, and that we must change how we see things in order to appreciate the experiences and events that Márquez sets out in his novel.

Reading Márquez breeds tolerance. This magical book not only illuminates a specific time and place, but in encouraging us to read a reality that is not our own, Márquez implores us to have tolerance for other perspectives, and of the importance of lives that are fundamentally alien to the western world.

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