Fifty years of a classic: One Hundred Years of Solitude. The birth of a master and a liberator.
Indradeep Bhattacharyya celebrates…
The same day when Librilinia approached me for a piece on Gabriel Garcia Marquez for their March number (Since the author was born in March, and One Hundred Years of Solitude has just turned 50), I was reading a quite hard-hitting interview of Raghuram Rajan, where he speaks on the dire necessity for India to choose the right kind of political leadership for itself, one which listens to the people and leads them on to the right path. Later that night, as I sat with my laptop to see if I could shape my myriad thoughts into a crisp article that matches the high standards of this blog, I couldn’t but be drawn into a meditation on the life and career of Macondo’s revolutionary leader Colonel Aureliano Buendia and his lifelong dedication to liberal politics, perhaps because the questions of leadership and politics were still in the back of my mind.
Throughout his journalistic and literary career, Gabo (that’s how the entire South America fondly refers to García Márquez) was always obsessed about national and military leaders. Roberto Bolaño, the most prolific Latin American author of the generation that followed Marquez, said Gabo was “a man terribly pleased to have hobnobbed with so many Presidents and Archbishops.”
Tales of his lifelong camaraderie with the Cuban leader Fidel Castro are known to everybody in the Caribbean. It was a friendship that raised many eyebrows. Marquez defended himself in his inimitable style, calling it a union of the solitude of fame and the solitude of power. Cuba, in fact, had impressed Gabo deeply and according to him, led the way in ending Latin America’s economic dependence on the US. When Fidel was at the height of his political career, the only man in Latin America who wasn’t afraid of criticizing him was Gabo. He would often show his manuscripts to Fidel before sending them to the publisher. And this saga of their friendship was further mystified when a former hitman for the Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar recently made the astounding claim in an interview that Marquez delivered letters and cocaine from Escobar to Fidel and Raul Castro.
Gabo’s enduring love for the Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chavez, is no less celebrated. The book Comandante, by Rory Carroll, The Guardian’s erstwhile chief correspondent in South America, paints a picture of the two together. Commissioned by a Columbian magazine, Gabo was interviewing Chavez, then 44, on board a plane in 1999 as the latter was returning from Havana to his homeland to be sworn in as the president, having just won a landslide victory. The friendly, witty and at times acerbic chat ended as the plane landed at the Simon Bolivar International Airport. ‘Caracas glowed in the distance, a swamp of lights,’ writes Carroll, ‘Chavez embraced Marquez farewell and invited him to attend his inauguration. The old man stood on the asphalt and watched his subject disappear into the night, bound for power. Chavez had promised his followers utopia and he seemed in a hurry.’
One can go on adding to the list; for example the Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara, the Columbian liberal leader General Rafael Uribe Uribe, the leader of the National Liberation Army Victor Medina Moron, the Venezuelan ‘el libertador’ Simon Bolivar. It won’t be imprudent to say that the personages of all of these magnificent men, whom Gabo met or studied closely, went into the making of the unforgettable and almost seductive protagonist of his tour de force, Colonel Aureliano Buendia.
“Colonel Aureliano Buendia organised 32 armed uprisings and he lost them all. He had 17 male children by 17 different women and they were exterminated one after the other on a single night before the oldest one had reached the age of 35. He survived 14 attempts on his life, 73 ambushes, and a firing squad. He rose to be commander in chief of the revolutionary forces, with jurisdiction and command from one border to another. He shot himself in the chest with a pistol but the bullet came out through his back without damaging any vital organ. The only thing left of all that was a street that bore his name in Macondo …”
Aureliano was to Macondo what Mandela was to South Africa or Gandhi was to India. He might have failed to give a race condemned to one hundred years of solitude a second opportunity on earth, but Christ and Buddha too failed, as arguably did Gandhi and Mandela, but they made their life a lesson for an entire race to follow.
The life and career of Aureliano Buendia are embedded very strongly in the way in which politics unfolds in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Aureliano has certain qualities which sustain his larger than life career —- to begin with, he is brave, speaks from his heart, is a gifted craftsman, dedicated to his work and has good judgment —- qualities that add irresistible charisma to a leader’s persona. But more than all these, which are integral to Aureliano, it is a certain empathy for the suffering masses that he shows very early on in the novel, that becomes a defining quality of his career as a leader. On one occasion, he encounters an adolescent mulatto girl forced into prostitution by her grandmother to make up for the damages caused by the girl one night as she had forgotten to put out the lamp before falling asleep, and the entire house, where she lived with her grandma, was reduced to ashes. Aureliano cannot sleep that night after he meets her. He feels an irresistible need to love her and protect her. At dawn, he decides to marry her and free her of the terrible suffering.
Aureliano going back to the child with an intention of marrying her is one of the many scattered details in the novel that suggest that Aureliano is inspired in a real sense by a vision for a world without exploitation. It is here that he becomes a kindred soul to the great historical Latin American leaders, blurring the fine line between fact and fiction. ‘Aureliano was loosely based on General Uribe and on Marquez’s grandfather’, Steven Boldy puts it plainly in The Cambridge Companion to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. To his creator himself, Aureliano had a very real existence. In an interview published in 1977 in El Manifiesto—a now-defunct Colombian leftist journal, Marquez talks about the day when he finally wrote the portion of the novel where Aureliano died near a chestnut tree in Macondo. “Probably one of the toughest times I’ve had in my life was when I wrote the death of Colonel Aureliano Buendía. I remember perfectly … One day I said, “Today’s when he gets it!” … I went up. In one of the rooms upstairs Mercedes (Marquez’s wife) was taking a nap … I lay down at her side and said to her, “He’s dead!” … And I cried for two hours,” the author said.
It is this ‘real’ and at times larger-than-life existence of the leader that sustains the entire political structure of the novel’s world, which is largely riddled with individual contingencies and accidents of fate. He has a certain decisiveness that distinguishes his legendary career from others and makes him a born leader (he is the first human being born in Macondo, he wept in his mother’s womb, and was born with his eyes open). His one single gesture has the magnetic quality of hypnosis. This, coupled with his very fundamental desire to free the poverty stricken milieu of exploitation, catapults him to the status of a deliverer; he is mythified and mystified, loved and worshipped. So when he faces the firing squad, not a single soldier dares carry out the execution order. ‘No one knows how it will come, but everybody is going around saying that the officer who shoots Colonel Aureliano Buendia… will be murdered, with no escape, sooner or later, even if they hide at the ends of the earth,’ a prostitute at Catarino’s place later tells captain Roque Carnicero.
But even such a leader is only subject to, in Marquez’s own words, ‘the concatenation of the series of subtle but irrevocable accidents’. And a leader is nothing but a product of the accidental way in which history and identity unfold. Few months into the war, Aureliano asks Colonel Gerineldo Marquez,
“Tell me something, old friend: why are you fighting?”
“What other reason could there be?” Colonel Gerineldo Marquez answered. “For the great liberal party.”
“You are lucky because you know why,” Aureliano answered. “As far as I am concerned, I’ve come to realize only just now that I’m fighting because of pride.”