He came, he wrote, from a land where the sun burned so brightly that the sunflowers didn’t know where to turn, a place where ice was a mystery and history had a Faulknerian habit of finding no beginning and no end, but a whole lot of middle. From these things, Gabriel García Márquez conjured a body of literature that altered the course of the novel, allowing for whimsy and accident—and, if there are few neatly defined beginnings and ends in his books, there is a whole lot of captivating middle.
Gabriel García Márquez died on April 17 at the age of 87. His legacy is a body of work—for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982—that extends over the course of six decades. If the first half of the 20th century belong to the modernist revolutionaries, to Joyce and Woolf and Hemingway, a good part of the second surely belonged to him, thanks mostly to the publication, in 1967, of his hallucinatory, sun-drenched epic Cien años de soledad, that is, One Hundred Years of Solitude.
García Márquez’s biographer Gerald Martin hazards the opinion that Solitude was the “first truly global novel.” By that he means, we suppose, that it was the first novel to transcend national borders—for who except specialists remembers that it takes place in a rather broadly sketched version of his native Colombia?—and to be taken up as universal wherever it was published. When it arrived in the United States, critics were quick to point out its antecedents in Melville, Twain, and especially Faulkner, but also quick to note that García Márquez had created a fictional world that was completely and utterly his own: There have been dozens of novels set in some version of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but García Márquez’s Macondo is the province of him alone.
It’s entirely fitting that García Márquez, who got his start covering murder, kidnapping, and a memorable shipwreck as a newspaper reporter, should have liked few things better than driving fast along Latin America’s already scary highways, and the more mountainous and switchbacky the better. His novels climb to their heights in just the same way as the beat-up Opel that took him vaulting over the Mexican cordillera toward Acapulco one day when a line came into his consciousness: “and of a sudden a phrase popped into his head: 'Many years later, as he faced the firing squad...' ”
Thus was one of the greatest novels of world literature born—not his first, but the one for which García Márquez will forever be remembered. He wrote others, beautifully flowing ones such as Love in a Time of Cholera, and, as important, he opened the door for a wave of Latin American writers who entered the world scene in the 1970s, each very different from the other: Vargas Llosa, Donoso, Allende, Cortázar. He had his contradictions, the socialist who loved fine wines and glamorous surroundings, who counted as his friends both Fidel Castro and Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, but he never wavered in the service of art, and he was not often seen without a pencil in his hand.
The world is poorer without Gabriel García Márquez—but richer, so much richer, for having had that magical place called Macondo described and mapped by its spellbinding maker. Que en paz descanse.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.