Living to Tell the Tale was supposed to be one of three volumes and I remember when it was announced, a couple of my friends and I groaned. Memories of my Melancholy Whores had been far from satisfying and the thought of Marquez writing three volumes of an autobiography when he’d been so uncharacteristically charmless and awkward in a little novella was heartbreaking. “What we’d suspected ever since he became a Shakira fanboy is now confirmed,” I wrote in an email after finishing Memories of my Melancholy Whores. “Marquez has lost it.” We’d probably looked like puppies faced with doggie treats when we bought Memories. It was Marquez’s first bit of fiction in ten years and it was a slim volume, which meant it needed to be read right away. One of my friends couldn’t finish it. I couldn’t blame her even though I read on, powered by cigarettes whose smoke kept me awake. “Explain to me why I’m reading what feels like excerpts from early drafts of Love in the Time of Cholera and ‘Innocent Erendira’, at 2am?” I SMS-ed a friend. He wrote back, “Because you’re the idiot who picked 100 years… for your thesis.”
The problem, of course, was that we were reading The Great Marquez, ever robust in our imagination. He was the man in the author photographs, as entrenched in healthy middle age as a car in a weekend Bandra traffic jam; with a thick moustache and eyebrows that were almost as thick, eyes that seemed to see you through photographs and a mouth always ready to laugh. The creator of characters like Melquiades of One Hundred Years of Solitude. The writer who on one hand complained that it was hard work to find the right words, but on the other hand could drop gems like “literature is nothing but carpentry“, casually and effortlessly, during an interview. But the man writing Memories had been an old man with a body that was struggling to shore up the resources to fight lymphatic cancer. Last night, a piece caught my eye as I glanced past the computer laying out the international news pages: Marquez’s brother had confirmed Marquez was suffering from senile dementia. Suddenly, the descriptions of the aged body, the feverish lust for life, whether remembered or lived, in Memories feels like “acidic foam that interfered with my breathing” (I spotted that quote in one of the reviews). The article The Guardian has carried elaborates that the decline was accelerated by Marquez’s cancer treatment, which began in 1999. Memories was published in 2005. It’s a novel written by a man from plagued Macondo who knows there’s no Melquiades who can come to his rescue. It was a novel by a man who was actually losing his mind and knew it.
One Hundred Years of Solitude is an incredible, intricate, beautifully-crafted book with many unforgettable parts. You know how Mills & Boon heroines keep gasping when they’re being made love to (well, if you haven’t read any, then you don’t know this. But take it from me. They do)? The first time I read One Hundred Years, I reacted a bit like that. Every few pages, there was a little flourish, an unexpected phrase, a perfectly-drawn image, something or something else that made me catch my breath. By the time it was thesis-writing time, I must have read the novel at least 100 times and I wrote in an email to my father, “Of the thousands of things he’s managed in this one book, most of us would fall to the ground and praise the lord if we came up with one of them. Just one would make a novel. And he’s got it all, written with the kind of affectionate ease with which you sang me improbable lullabies that were actually medleys of so many songs.” (My father wrote back, “I’m glad there’s someone who’s put anything I’ve done in the same sentence as anything Marquez has written. Perhaps you want to tone down your hyperbole if this is how you’re writing your thesis.”)
Macondo afflicted by the insomnia plague is one of the most unforgettable episodes from the novel. It begins with the maid noticing little Rebeca in her rocking chair, sleepless, eyes wide and shining in the dark of the night. Soon everyone in Macondo is awake and after this relentless wakefulness comes the loss of memory. The bit that I love most is how Macondo tries to hold on to memory.
With an inked brush he marked everything with its name: table, chair, clock, door, wall, bed, pan. He went to the corral and marked the animals and plants: cow, goat, pig, hen, cassava, caladium, banana. Little by little, studying the infinite possibilities of a loss of memory, he realized that the day might come when things would be recognized by their inscriptions but that no one would remember their use. Then he was more explicit. The sign that he hung on the neck of the cow was an exemplary proof of the way in which the inhabitants of Macondo were prepared to fight against loss of memory: This is the cow. She must be milked every morning so that she will produce milk, and the milk must be boiled in order to be mixed with coffee to make coffee and milk. Thus they went on living in a reality that was slipping away, momentarily captured by words, but which would escape irremediably when they forgot the values of the written letters.
One Hundred Years was probably the first time I found a reference to something Indian in a completely unexpected and foreign work. Now it’s so much easier to spot: a group of Bengalis in a novel about an Afghan refugee being smuggled through Iran; Irrfan Khan in The Amazing Spiderman; a capital called Kahani (Hindi word for story) in a romance paperback, etc. etc. I don’t remember how old I was when I first read One Hundred Years, but I was a kid and I was reading something terrined with complexities that I didn’t have a hope in hell of understanding. But I wasn’t so young as to not feel a moment of sudden illogical pride when, near the end of the novel, Marquez discloses that Melquiades’s scrolls were written in Sanskrit, the language that was Melquiades’s mother tongue. With later readings, there were so many things that would resonate — the massacre that resembled the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, Melquiades’s scrolls reminded me of the palm leaf inscriptions believed to have been written by the ancient sage and astrologer Bhrigu (who is supposed to have predicted the life of every living person of Earth till date), the notion of time being fluid and cyclical as in Hindu philosophy, and so on and on.
Take half an hour and read (or re-read) a few chapters of One Hundred Years today and I guarantee nothing about it will betray it was written 45 years ago. It feels as relevant as ever, like a well-told fable or legend. This is partly because the plot is a riddle of connected themes and delightfully eccentric characters. As important is Marquez’s language and his storytelling, that shape-shifting beast called magical realism that seemed to perform at his demand and is recalcitrant when so many others tug at its leash. When One Hundred Years was reviewed by The New York Times back in 1970, one Robert Kiely wrote:
The author seems to be letting his people half-dream and half-remember their own story and what is best, he is wise enough not to offer excuses for the way they do it.
For me, and possibly for many other Indians and people who grew up in cultures burdened by the baggage of being “exotic”, Marquez was the first storyteller who neither apologised for all the things that were un-Western and nor did he make an effort to translate them. If Buendia can prophesy Rebeca’s coming, well, he can. If Ursula Iguaran is going to live an improbable 130 years, then she does. Nothing needed to be tethered to a particular system of logic or causality or novelistic structure. As far as this story was concerned, no other reality existed and no other reality needed to be referred to. More than the folkloric or surreal elements in One Hundred Years, that’s what was the magic in Marquez’s magical realism. He didn’t stridently insist that the tales and legends of his family and Colombian politics be seen as per an alternative, post-colonial, postmodern, postsomethingortheother paradigm. He simply ignored that there was any other way to tell or structure a story about seven generations and the history of a town from scratch to being, well, scratched out.
I realise in hindsight that till I read One Hundred Years, I made an unconscious but well-adhered-to distinction between the myths and legends I knew and the English fiction I read. Enid Blyton’s Amelia Jane and the story of how Krishna ate dirt belonged not just on different shelves but in different parts of the ickle library being curated in my head. Marquez made me realise they were all stories and that if I was going to be honest about my world, I needed to put them close to one another, if not on the same shelf, because the truth was that my imagination had devoured both of them, and with equal fervour. In the way Marquez used stereotypes like the hot-headed Latin man or the regal matriarch, he showed how the exotic could be used to enrich a story, rather than flatten it out. His belief in his story, his affection for everything that didn’t make sense, his familiarity with the oddities of his world, and the pride in his writing — about a family that was mostly full of eccentrics and crazies — it made me dream of being a storyteller.
And that’s why the news that he’s suffering from dementia and will, in all probability, not be able to finish writing his own tale has made one small part of me go sit in a corner as silent as little Rebeca of One Hundred Years. I imagine Marquez trapped in his own personal Macondo and I weep and I wish I’d never uttered a word about him losing his mind. Not because I believe any one of us could have prevented it from happening with our careless expressions, but still. My grandmother used to say, “Don’t put to words what you don’t want happening.” The only consolation, and fortunately it’s not a small one, is that we still have Marquez’s words, even if he doesn’t.
Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.