Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Colombia’s most renowned writer in recent history, has died in Mexico after a long fight against cancer, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced Thursday.
The president announced the death of Colombia’s only-ever Nobel laureate on Twitter.
Garcia Marquez unleashed a worldwide boom in Spanish literature with his novel 100 Years of Solitude in the late 1960s.
Matching commercial success with critical acclaim, Garcia Marquez became a standard-bearer for Latin American letters, establishing a route for negotiations between guerrillas and the Colombian government, building a friendship with Fidel Castro, and maintaining a feud with fellow literature laureate Mario Vargas Llosa that lasted more than 30 years.
He was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1982, the Swedish Academy hailing fiction “in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent’s life and conflicts”.
Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos said via Twitter on Thursday: “One Hundred Years of Solitude and sadness for the death of the greatest Colombian of all time.”
Mil años de soledad y tristeza por la muerte del más grande colombiano de todos los tiempos! Solidaridad y condolencias a la Gaba y familia
— Juan Manuel Santos (@JuanManSantos) April 17, 2014
Born in a small town near the northern coast of Colombia on 6 March 1927, Garcia Marquez was raised by his grandparents for the first nine years of his life and began working as a journalist while studying law in Bogota. A series of articles relating the ordeal of a Colombian sailor sparked controversy and saw him travel to Europe as a foreign correspondent in 1955, the year in which he published his first work of fiction, the short novel Leaf Storm. Short stories and novellas with the realism of Hemingway as their inspiration followed, but after the publication of The Evil Hour in 1962 García Márquez found himself at an impasse.
Speaking to the Paris Review in 1981 he explained how he decided his writings about his childhood were “more political” than the “journalistic literature” he had been engaged with. He wanted to return to his childhood and the imaginary village of Macondo he had created in Leaf Storm, but there was “always something missing”. After five years he hit upon the “right tone”, a style “based on the way my grandmother used to tell her stories”.
“She told things that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness,” Garcia Marquez said. “When I finally discovered the tone I had to use, I sat down for eighteen months and worked every day.”
Right from the elliptical opening sentence – which finds Colonel Aureliano Buendia facing a firing squad and remembering the “distant afternoon” many years before when “his father took him to discover ice” – 100 Years of Solitude weaves together the misfortunes of a family over seven generations. Garcia Marquez tells the story of a doomed city of mirrors founded in the depths of the Colombian jungle with the “brick face” his grandmother used to tell ghost stories, folk tales and supernatural legends.
The novel was an instant bestseller, with the first edition of 8,000 copies selling out within a week of its publication in 1967. Hailed by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda as “perhaps the greatest revelation in the Spanish language since Don Quixote of Cervantes”, 100 Years of Solitude went on to win literary prizes in Italy, France, Venezuela and beyond, appearing in more than 30 languages and selling more than 30m copies around the world. Garcia Marquez forged friendships with writers such as Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortazar and Vargas Llosa – a friendship that ended in the 1970s after Vargas Llosa floored the Colombian with a punch outside a Mexico City cinema.
The Autumn of the Patriarch, which the author called a “poem on the solitude of power”, followed in 1975. Garcia Marquez assembled this story of the tyrannical leader of an unnamed Caribbean nation from a collage of dictators such as Franco, Peron, and Pinilla, and continued to draw inspiration from Latin America’s history of conflict with a novella inspired by the murder of a wealthy Colombian, The Chronicle of a Death Foretold, published in 1981.
A year later he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature, the Swedish Academy hailing fiction “in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent’s life and conflicts”. Speaking at the ceremony in Stockholm, he painted a picture of a continent filled with “immeasurable violence and pain” that “nourishes a source of insatiable creativity, full of sorrow and beauty”.
“Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination,” he said, “for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable.”
The lives Garcia Marquez next made “believable” were those of his parents, whose extended courtship was rendered into Love in the Time of Cholera, first published in 1985. The novel tells how a secret relationship between Florentino Arizo and Fermina Daza is thwarted by Fermina’s marriage to a doctor trying to eradicate cholera, only to be rekindled more than 60 years later.
A 1989 account of Simon Bolivar‘s final months, The General in his Labyrinth, blended fact and fiction, but Garcia Marquez never left journalism behind, arguing that it kept him “in contact with the real world”. Clandestine in Chile, published in 1986, was an account of the Chilean filmmaker Miguel Littin, who returned to his homeland in secret to make a documentary about life under General Augusto Pinochet. News of a Kidnapping explored how prominent figures in Colombian society were snatched and imprisoned by Pablo Escobar‘s Medellín drug cartel.
He continued to write, publishing a memoir of his early life in 2002 and a novella that chronicles an old man’s passion for an adolescent girl in 2004, but never regained the heights of his earlier masterpieces. His brother Jaime Garcia Marquez revealed in 2012 that the writer was suffering from dementia after undergoing chemotherapy for lymphatic cancer first diagnosed in 1999.
Asked in 1981 about his ambitions as a writer he suggested that it would be a “catastrophe” to be awarded the Nobel prize, arguing that writers struggle with fame, which “invades your private life” and “tends to isolate you from the real world”.
“I don’t really like to say this because it never sounds sincere,” he continued, “but I would really have liked for my books to have been published after my death, so I wouldn’t have to go through all this business of fame and being a great writer.”
As people all over the world mourn the writer affectionately known as “Gabo”, the novels that brought him so much acclaim are sure to delight new readers for generations to come.