This morning, on the front page of the Tampa Bay Times, I read the news that Gabriel García Márquez has died at the age of 87. He was a towering literary figure of the last century, journalist, novelist, essayist, public intellectual, and Nobel laureate. His fiction became a pillar in a literary movement known as “magical realism,” an oxymoron that elevated the work of a school of South American authors and gained it global attention.
A journalist at heart who wrote for newspapers in Colombia during the 1950s, Márquez expressed dissatisfaction with the “magical” part of the literary equation, arguing that every word he had ever written was grounded in experience.
Colette Bancroft, book editor of the Tampa Bay Times, included in her tribute to Márquez, the author’s most famous passage, the first sentences of his novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude”:
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.
The original, of course, was written in Spanish, translated by Gregory Rabassa.
Those three celebrated sentences sit atop 14 others to constitute the first paragraph of Márquez’s most famous book. In journalistic terms, 17 sentences would add up to an impossible lead, an impenetrable block of text, bulkier than some complete stories that appear in a newspaper or on a website. For a 400-page novel that covers the history of several generations of Colombian myth and magic, a sprawling first paragraph is an invitation to dive into a swift river or to jump on board a moving train, a form of transportation from wherever we sit into a richly imagined fictional world.
But let’s return to those first three sentences. Let’s don our X-ray reading glasses and look beneath the surface of the text and see what’s bubbling down below. If we can figure out what makes this famous passage so famous, perhaps we can add some sophisticated tools to our own writing workbench.
Many years later… An odd way to begin a novel, but it generates a question: Later than what? It reminds us that the most powerful form of transportation in a narrative is the river of time. Time flows. Stories flow. But authors have the ability to violate natural expressions of time, to make the past present and to invent the future.
…as he faced the firing squad… It is not unusual for a journalist to plant a detail in a lead that will bear fruit later in the work. This adverbial reference to a dramatic event in the future of the narrative reveals much about the kind of story we are about to experience, one in which there is danger, intrigue, and military styles of capital punishment.
…Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon… The subject of the sentence is the name of a character with a military title. The name Aureliano will be particularly important as it will survive across generations as the name of children and grandchildren who will inherit or reject the legacy of their ancestors. The verb “was to remember” has a conditional quality to it. Memory is persistent, as Dali reminds us with his surrealistic images of melting watches, but it comes and goes. And it generates its own flawed narrative of the past at the most surprising moments, even facing the firing squad.
…when his father took him to discover ice… The memory leads him back to his father as time seems to move in all directions. This first sentence ends – as most great sentences do – with an emphatic element, the discovery of ice. That detail suggests something in the distant past and also suggests a subtropical setting in which ice is not ubiquitous but something odd and mysterious. In a move journalists will recognize, this mention of ice in the lead sentence is something that is fully realized at the end of the first chapter, when father and son pay money at a gypsy carnival to see and put their hands on this alchemical element.
…At that time, Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses… Writers of narrative build little worlds that are inhabited by characters. They are worlds readers can visit, and the more we can “see” these microcosms, the richer will be our vicarious experience. The author transports readers back in time and to another place.
…built on the bank of a river of clear water… The river is a powerful archetype of time but also of change. But it exists only within the controlling boundaries of the banks. Without banks, the river becomes a flood, a destructive sea. Historian Will Durant used that metaphor to describe the distinction between history and civilization: “Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks. Historians are pessimists because they ignore the banks for the river.” Márquez understands the power of both the banks and the river.
…that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs… The author gives us more to see as we gaze down through the clear water, but it is the simile that seals the deal. The stones are like prehistoric eggs, once organic, life-containing objects now petrified by time and the forces of nature. Yet, in this magical place, one imagines they could crack open in an instant, generating an army of dinosaurs or flying fish.
…The world was so recent that many things lacked names… More manipulation of time here, but also an allusion that seems biblical. This feels like Genesis, in the beginning, when God gave to man dominion over the world, by investing human beings with the power of naming. No human being has greater power to name than does the poet.
…and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point… This is not where the Poynter Institute got its name, but it does remind us that language, however inherent in the human experience, is learned. The act of pointing has many purposes: to recognize, share, warn, call attention to, desire. I want that. Over there. Even babies do it.
There is a slightly awkward literary term that we should visit. It’s called “defamiliarization.” It sounds better in a phrase: “to make the familiar strange.” Journalists are more likely to want to make the strange familiar. But there will be those times when we ask readers to see something they think they know in a completely new way.
Let’s return to the discovery of ice.
Imagine that you are experiencing ice for the first time. (There are many Floridians, it occurs to me, who have never experienced snow. But ice is as close as the nearest margarita.) This is where the genius of Márquez becomes palpable:
When it was opened by the giant, the chest gave off a glacial exhalation. Inside there was only an enormous, transparent block with infinite internal needles in which the light of the sunset was broken up into colored stars….
“It’s the largest diamond in the world.”
“No,” the gypsy countered. “It’s ice.”
…Little José Arcadio refused to touch it. Aureliano, on the other hand, took a step forward and put his hand on it, withdrawing it immediately. “It’s boiling,” he exclaimed, startled.
[The father] paid another five reales and with his hand on the cake, as if giving testimony on the holy scriptures, he exclaimed: “This is the great invention of our time.”
I might argue that the great invention of all time is the human brain. Its evolution gave us language, which gave birth to our ability to tell stories. Those stories can describe things that really happened, as in Márquez’s 1955 book “The Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor.” More miraculously, they can contain things that never happened, that are imagined, a gift of God or nature that enriches our experience a thousand fold.