The Key to Understanding Gabriel García Márquez



 “What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.”

              -Gabriel García Márquez


Despite having never met Gabriel García Márquez, I have a vivid memory of the Nobel Prize winning author. After spending four years in Gabo’s culture, reading many of his novels, and hearing other people’s interpretations of his work, I have developed my own mental picture of the literary genius.

I see Márquez pounding away at the keys of his typewriter, louder and louder, until nothing in the world is audible except the words on the page. He burns his tenth cigarette of the day, inhaling the fumes of the “real” world, and with each exhale, changing life from ordinary to literary.

I can’t climb into his mind, to see the process of transformation. I can only read the work he has produced – to see him there at his desk, focused for hours creating worlds to reflect our own, communicating what we never thought could be put into words.

When I first started reading Márquez, I spent too much time trying to understand him. I became frustrated with Love in the Time of Cholera, and One Hundred Years of Solitude because I was racking my brain to try and relate to a reflection of a life I had never known. His books are sometimes long, and they are distinctive, written about a culture with which I was unfamiliar and in a style to which I had not previously been exposed.

I think the magical realism he uses turns a lot of people away. We like stories, and we like stories to which we can relate. We move along nicely, happily hopping from one chronological event to another. It’s not the most entertaining, but it’s life, and we accept it because it is “reality.” Then we see a bunch of yellow flowers raining from the sky, out of nowhere (One Hundred Years of Solitude), and we think, “WHAT?!” – or our muscles tense up when love is confused with demon possession (Of Love and Other Demons). “That doesn’t help me,” we say. “There’s no such thing as demon possession, and flowers don’t fall from the sky; they fall from trees!”


Despite my initial incredulity, I have begun to appreciate Marquez more and more throughout my time here in Colombia. I realize now that it wasn’t necessarily Gabo’s writing that I failed to understand; it was the context of his writing. I knew little of the Colombian liberal and conservative parties, the geographically isolated regions, and the stories that one generation told to the next. I couldn’t get much from his writing until I lived here myself.

I was also trying so hard to contemplate the meaning of each specific image that Márquez created, trying to see things from his point of view. But I should have been analyzing the human condition, and, like Márquez was doing with his own culture and life, creating stories that mirror the real truths of my own humanity. The paradoxical nature of magic and imagination is that it can portray an emotion that is much more real than anything that can be evoked by nonfiction.

Magical realism is not about trying to decode the symbolic meaning that each image represents. (We have SparkNotes for that.) On the contrary, it’s about viewing someone’s stories and the human experience from the perspective of another – to see truth in the individual’s heart and soul. Gabriel García Márquez demonstrates that there are more ways to convey reality on the page. Surely, flowers do not literally fall from the heavens, but it is a truth from one man’s mind and heart. The stories and images created by Márquez resonate with a lot of people. That’s what made him great. When we open our minds to the emotional reality that magical realism can create, we can form our own therapeutic stories. We, ourselves, transform the ordinary into the literary.

The reason I love literature is because, unlike news stories or history textbooks, the truth comes from a work of art, showing the emotions and the humanity often absent in a more “objective” piece. It’s the reality of what someone might have been feeling at a certain time, or what one has believed in his or her heart. The real world is different for everyone. Why should we pretend there is only one universal reality?

Márquez has created a picture of Colombia that has shown the human condition, the humanity of a culture that much of the world had never seen before his novels. While the BBC and CNN report on the facts and figures, feeding our minds with shock value stories and supposed truths, Marquez is feeding our hearts with things we really care about.

In Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez was able to juxtapose cholera, a bacterium infection that causes watery diarrhea and vomiting, with love, the most beautiful and sought-after human emotion. He doesn’t sugarcoat anything, portraying Florentino’s love for Fermina Daza as an affliction from which many of his flaws originated. Márquez takes the mundane life of Florentino and makes it literary and noble – doing it in a way that allows us to see the whole picture. It allows us to ponder love.

Is it worth a life of heartache? Is it noble or just plain stupid to pursue a lost cause? Florentino is such a complicated character because, we, as humans, are complicated characters. I hate him and I love him, much like I hate and love myself.


Try this: Imagine Florentino’s life written as an objective news story. It’s hard to believe it would even be published let alone worth the read. Sadness strikes when we feel like our life novel is not worthy enough to be published. “I am not newsworthy,” we wallow in self-pity. Then Marquez shows up, creates a masterpiece out of Florentino’s life, and hope is restored.


In One Hundred Years of Solitude Márquez creates the fictional town of Macondo. It’s a place isolated from the rest of the country, but according to Marquez, Macondo is an idea that allows one to see what one wants to see. During the story Márquez recounts many magical occurrences that take place in the village of Macondo. He writes as if they are reality, the literal events from his own perspective and the perspectives of his characters.

We often beat ourselves up trying to figure out the meaning of Gabo’s metaphors and images, but maybe we should relax and simply observe. It is not mere fiction; it is a reality not our own. He writes of a higher truth, a truth coming from first hand experience in the Colombian culture, often isolated from other parts of the world. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, a traveler passes through Macondo with ice (an invention never seen before in Macondo). Everyone is in awe of the ice because it’s something no one has experienced. There is no explanation for it yet, so by default it is magical.

I think our expanded knowledge and access to facts has weakened our ability to see the practical use of magical realism. Since we have progressed into an age in which we think most things have been explained by science, we think that everything should come with an instruction manual. However, creating our own explanations, no matter how outlandish, has value. Like for life, there is no instruction manual for reading Gabriel García Márquez.

Globalization and Google has exposed us to a world in which it is hard to imagine solitude. If everything and everyone is connected, we don’t have to create our own explanations. We can use what is already given to us, assuming we know everything. Márquez reminds us that not everything is given to us. Despite globalization and scientific explanations, not everything can be explained with facts. That’s where literature comes in.

The key to reading Gabriel García Márquez is not to figure out what he meant by everything he wrote, but to see it as one man’s truth in a context not our own – then to use his storytelling strategies to create our own realities. We relate to what we can and then create our own “Macondo.”

We don’t need to be literary scholars to get something out of Márquez’s books, nor do we need to systematically pick apart his writing to arrive at the deeper meaning. Instead, we can feel what the characters feel. We can criticize them for their mistakes, pity them for their misfortunes, and admire them for their dignity. We can find comfort in knowing that we can take the ugliness in the world or the emotions that tear us apart, and we can transform them into something beautiful and poetic.

Márquez reminds us that every day of our lives is a piece of a grand novel, and every invention or event is a novelty. It’s quite magical actually. Even when we figure out scientific explanations for what was once explained by magic, we can’t lose our imaginations. We mustn’t let the literary become ordinary. That’s the most important lesson I learned from Gabriel García Márquez.

 In memoriam:

Gabriel García Márquez  1927-2014



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