How do you mourn someone you’ve never met?
When I heard of Gabriel García Márquez’s passing I was struck by sudden, unexpected grief. My voice broke as I told my daughter, who knew García Márquez’s name before that of any middle grade author.
I was born in the Dominican Republic to Dominican parents from whom I inherited my love of reading. Culturally, One Hundred Years of Solitude was practically a requirement. But for me reading had never been in Spanish. We had moved to the United States when I was very young and English became my preferred language of expression. I rejected Spanish language texts—even in translation. My parents urged me to read García Márquez. Thirteen years old, standing in my parents bedroom, I asked my mother for one thing or another while she read the recently published Love in the Time of Cholera. Her reply was an emphatic non sequitur—You must read this book. You will love this book. Her pleas went ignored for years.
Reading in Spanish had never been an altogether comfortable undertaking for me. Even after returning to Santo Domingo, school had been American and learning was done in English. I don’t think I could’ve put it into words when I was thirteen, but reading in Spanish represented a shortcoming for me. Reading Spanish language literature in English represented an outright failure as a Latin American.
What’s more, later when I attended my first writing class and had my first critique, the names García Márquez and Allende fell too easily from my peers’ lips. Before we’d gone around the table, I’d been branded a Magical Realist. I would soon grow worried and resentful that people would automatically find Magical Realism in any story set in Latin America. I was dismayed at the prospect of strangers believing I had copied someone else’s style—a style I’d never read, something no one believed. It was the sort of comment that would await me in every workshop, like the ghost of Melquíades.
At some point, I grew up and grew curious. I don’t remember what exactly led to the detente other than I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to go to grad school and I had a baby, so instead I began to read what I hadn’t yet read. I read One Hundred Years of Solitude twice in English. The recognition was instant. In those 417 pages I found people I knew and situations I had lived through.
Upon second reading, I started noticing necessary quirks in Gregory Rabassa’s truly masterful translation that, for me, created an urgency to decode the changes like Aureliano Babilonia deciphering the ancient parchments. Before long, I was reading it in Spanish and marveling at words so beautifully strung together that I found it hard to believe I could’ve existed without them.
This week, as I try not to feel silly for feeling bereft, García Márquez’s characters come back to me: Úrsula dying (as she does in the original Spanish text) on Holy Thursday, which just happened to be the legendary author’s last day; the Colonel dying not by firing squad, but unceremoniously relieving himself against a tree. I remember reading how García Márquez had emerged from his study in tears after killing off his hero. I realize that though I mourn a man I’d never met, he gave me a reality so vivid, a host of characters so real, that many could have been lifted from my own family history. In fact, it seemed that some were. Like the gypsies bringing ice to Macondo, my great grandfather had brought ice to La Vega, the town where my mother is from. The cloud of yellow butterflies that had signaled doom for Mauricio Babilonia, had also enveloped my husband and me as we rode out to the country house where my father had died. It’s maybe these and other loved ones I also mourn.
I’ve always been terrified of death. Approximating a character out of any of author’s works, I have often asked invisibility, if not absence, of my dead. But should the ghost of Gabo follow me around, I will sit down to have a chat and count myself forever blessed. One should be so lucky.