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The Answer is Colombia

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June 3, 2013

Reading Gabriel García Márquez’s morbidity in the happiest country on earth.

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The Colombian home of Gabriel García Márquez. Photo courtesy Valerie Wozniak

Gabriel García Márquez spent his best years as a journalist in two spectacular cities on Colombia’s Caribbean coast: Barranquilla and Cartagena de Indias. In January, I visited them on a cultural reporting fellowship established by García Márquez’s New Journalism Foundation and the Ministry of Culture Colombia, which brings together twenty writers from around the world to the cities that nourished the author’s literary vision. First to Barranquilla, where García Márquez joined the literary Barranquilla Group, fell in love with the “tough old broad” Virginia Woolf, and lived in a brothel grandly called Residencias New York—the brothel being the ideal place for a writer, according to his other great hero, William Faulkner. Then to Cartagena, once an imperial market for slaves and gold, where he arrived on the roof of a truck as a homeless twenty-one-year-old with four pesos in his pocket and a suitcase of dirty clothes and books of poetry. The truck driver yelled after him, “Be careful, they give medals to assholes there.”

Today, García Márquez owns seven homes in five countries. His journey from what Colombians call a “super-poor” person to a “mega-rich” one makes him one of the few people to have experienced both the crushing poverty and fabulous wealth that divides his country so starkly. For the last two decades, he has been the absentee landlord of a modish, red-walled house in Cartagena. Literary stalker types, including this reporter, sneak up to the terrace of the adjoining Hotel Santa Clara to stare into the casa’s empty compound and swimming pool. The hotel, housed in a four-hundred-year-old Franciscan convent, is where García Márquez set his eerie little novel Of Love and Other Demons. A gentle prod to the imagination, and the long red walls of the house undulate into the 22-meter “stream of living hair the intense color of copper” growing out of the skull of the young girl buried in the convent’s crypt.

If Barranquilla is a city of migrants—a port at the confluence of the Caribbean and the River Magdalena that served as a haven for Europeans fleeing World Wars I and II—Cartagena is Tourist Central. In January, its beautiful walled Old City, with Spanish houses burdened with bougainvillea and chic little restaurants, was overrun with visitors. A sunburned American complained loudly about the price of a shrimp salad in the sunlit square outside the Palace of the Inquisition, which was itself criticized for not having enough quality torture weapons; as one tourist on TripAdvisor grumbled, the museum had nothing that Mel Gibson hasn’t already shown us in Braveheart. Meanwhile, the seaport of Barranquilla was preparing for carnival, an annual four-day eruption of masks, booze, parades, and dancing that is named by UNESCO as a world masterpiece of intangible heritage. Costumes range from the traditional elephant-trunked Marimonda to more risqué getups, such as that of the youngster who appeared topless with pre-op marks sketched neatly across her torso to critique the national obsession with breast implants.

One news item that we kept running into was that Colombia was the happiest country in the world. WIN/Gallup had recently conducted a poll of fifty-four nations, and Colombia topped 2012’s “Global Barometer of Hope and Happiness” list. “And the poll also says that Colombia’s happiest city is Barranquilla,” announced my translator Luis Carlos Davila, an aspiring screenplay writer and young blade of the city’s country club scene. Maria Fernanda, a hipster in a Che T-shirt, told me at pre-carnival celebration that in Barranquilla, “any excuse to party is valid, whether it is baptisms, marriages, funerals, or being newly single.”

“Our carnival is the ultimate expression of this happiness,” Davila went on. He added, with the ribbing scorn that costeños (persons from the coast) reserve for the country’s gray capital, that “Colombia is the happiest country, but not Bogotá. You know why they don’t have a carnival there? Because they’re already wearing masks, that’s why.”

There was nothing masked, though, about the excitement that the WIN/Gallup poll generated in Bogotá’s official quarters, even if its journalists reacted with dryer amusement. “I can think of five explanations,” says Daniel Samper Pizano, an eminent Colombian journalist from Bogotá—known for his investigative work with the country’s largest newspaper, El Tiempo—who currently lives in Spain. “Maybe we grew accustomed to our problems and try to get the best out of the worst; maybe we Colombians have developed a sense of humor that protects us against a permanent state of depression; maybe things are not that bad in our country; maybe the Gallup poll isn’t very accurate. Or maybe the secret is a mixture of the four facts I have mentioned.”

But for the government, the poll couldn’t be more perfectly timed: Colombia is eager to be part of the resurgent Latin-American story. As its decades-long civil war fades into the past, there is huge change on the ground. Who could have dreamed that Medellín, once strapped irrevocably to the word “cartel,” would be known for its bike lanes and sustainable transport? Or that Cali’s zoo would be tipped as one of the hottest tourist destinations of 2013?

There was no photograph of [García Márquez’s] tousled face with its big grin. Not a single one of his books was listed. Macondo was missing.

“The 1990s were absolutely terrible and frightening,” says the British writer Gerald Martin, who traveled to Colombia frequently while researching Gabriel García Márquez: A Life, his magisterial biography that took seventeen years to complete. “But by the end of that decade the country was fighting back in a civic and cultural way, and I think if I’d only just returned now after twenty years, I would probably have found it almost unrecognizable. It’s still an unequal and in many ways unjust country, but its future looks infinitely brighter than its past. I do happen to think that Colombia is, in many ways, the happiest country I know. It’s full of extraordinarily open, hospitable, and cheerful people. On the other hand, I doubt very much that Gallup polled many of the over 5 million desplazados [internally displaced civil war refugees] in the country…”

For South America’s second-most populous country, bad news has not entirely receded from view. In December, the deadly trio of drugs, plastic surgery, and violence converged gruesomely in the body of a twenty-year-old woman from Panama who flew from Bogotá to Barcelona, where an airport search revealed blood-soaked bandages around her chest. Later, in a hospital, two pasty bags of cocaine were scooped out from inside her breasts.

Pure cocaine costs up to $35,000 a pound; she was carrying three. Many Latin American women go to dangerous lengths to buy new buttocks or new breasts, like the teenage girl in the popular Colombian soap opera, Without Tits There Is No Paradise, who sells her virginity to pay for implants. But this woman did the opposite. She sold her breasts as baggage space, and almost died doing it. Her mutilated body was a reminder of the country’s struggles, both past and present.

Which is why Colombia’s brand team has its work cut out for it. Álvaro Uribe, the professorial-looking but pitiless president who left office in 2010, punched up the economy and broke the back of the drug cartels and FARC, the country’s oldest and richest guerrilla army. Ever since, armies of suits have been hired to scrub the taint of cocaine and blood that long sullied Colombia. As Uribe told the United Nations World Tourism Organization, which chose Cartagena for its General Assembly in December 2007, “This country has moved from terrorism to tourism.” Or as finance minister Juan Carlos Echeverry said last year when Cartagena hosted the Summit of the Americas, “There has been this humongous, tectonic change of stereotype of Colombia, to promised land from wasteland.”

The Washington-backed Uribe has been severely criticized for turning a blind eye to terrible human rights abuses by government-backed militias. But even critics grudgingly admit that the country is safer today. The most robust indicator for many is that tourism has gone up at a steady clip, from half a million tourists in 2002 to 1.6 million last year. The government intends to boost that to 4 million by 2014 and 7 million by 2030. Currently, the bulk of tourists are from the United States, encouraged no doubt by the travel advisory issued by the normally paranoid State Department indicating that “tens of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit Colombia each year.” Last year, a budget airline introduced thrice-a-week direct flights from New York to Cartagena, and since 2000, international flights to Colombia have risen 120 percent. Billions in foreign currency now pour into the country each year, thanks to tourism, which is behind only oil and coal in bringing in international exchange.

Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s current president, is determined to paint his country as a luxe destination. Last year, on the auspicious day that Colombia trounced Uruguay 4-0 in a selection match for the 2014 Brazil World Cup, the government agency Marca País launched a brand campaign behind the slogan “The Answer is Colombia.” This was an update on previous promotional efforts over the last decade, including “Colombia is Passion” and the charmingly edgy “Colombia: The Only Risk Is Wanting to Stay.” Developed with two of the largest publicity firms in the world, the new Brand Colombia features video ads and a theme song. Its $3 million budget for 2012 poured into commercials, merchandising, and athlete sponsorships. The Twitter hashtag #LaRespuestaesColombia caught on. Given the odds, Colombia’s brand team has done remarkably well—the marketing firm FutureBrand ranks Colombia No. 14 out of the “future fifteen” country brands with the most potential, placing it just behind “Amazing Thailand Always Amazes You” and ahead of “Incredible India.”

Brand Colombia wants to sell visions of the country’s stunning flora and fauna, while Gabo’s novels swirl with unseasonal storms, scorching heat, dusty almond trees, bloodthirsty mosquitoes, rabid dogs that bite girls, and vultures that peck at dead tyrants. Can you blame the brand team for sticking to toucans and golf?

The brand website, Colombia.co, is a typical color-saturated spread of what the country offers—golf, ancient monuments, turtles, and beaches—along with solemn nuggets of information, such as: “Colombia has the highest number of vertebrates in the world.” The website is divided into six sections—culture, tourism, environment, investment, and export. You’d think the writer generally considered to be the most famous living Colombian would be prominently featured in the culture section. But, no. When I checked in February, there was almost nothing about Gabriel García Márquez. All he got was one pallid line stating that he is a Nobel laureate and the country’s “most important writer.” That’s it. There was no photograph of his tousled face with its big grin. Not a single one of his books was listed. Macondo was missing.

I was puzzled—why didn’t Colombia’s greatest living storyteller have a more central role in the new story his country is telling? Was it a marketing blind spot? Or could it be that the laureate of melancholy, whose fiction is suffused with a sadness so exquisite that even the suicidal Swedes were moved into awarding him the Nobel Prize, just didn’t fit into this glossy new tale? Compare the brightly confident slogan “Colombia is the Answer” with the morbidity in García Márquez’s books, marked as they are with titles evoking cholera, demons, funerals, and kidnapping.

“Not at all,” says José Pablo Arango, the marketing and commercial manager of Marca País. “It would be like saying that Kerouac’s writings conflict with the image of the U.S., or Wilde’s with Britain’s image. The website for the Colombia country brand is a work in progress and we have not finished it yet. We are working on a profile of Gabo to be published soon in our website, and in fact the new tourism-specific campaign, run by Proexport [a government agency], is based on Gabo’s Magical Realism.”

“Colombia, Magical Realism” was unveiled in April and will run in thirty countries. According to its website, the slogan is built onto the campaign behind “The Answer is Colombia,” and was “conceived to pique foreign tourist’s interest in having ‘different’, ‘magic’, ‘unique’ and ‘surprising’ experiences.” Maria Claudia Lacouture, president of Proexport, said the country’s natural beauty—“such as the seven tones of the waters of San Andres [and] the five colors of the Caño Cristales river bed”—seem ordinary to Colombians, but are magical to outsiders.

This may be true, but the safe and pretty version of magical realism—Magical Realism Lite—has little to do with the more vigorous Garcíamarquian version in which skulls sprout hair and sunflowers grow out of sores. There is a perverse misalignment between Brand Colombia and García Márquez’s Colombia. Brand Colombia paints the country as an ethnic rainbow where indigenous, African, and Spanish people are one happy family, but Gabo, as he is affectionately called here, never allows the reader to forget that the rainbow is rooted in the history of conquest, rape, and slavery. Brand Colombia wants to attract young lovers to cuddle in the niches of Cartagena’s sixteenth-century stone ramparts. Gabo’s most famous lovers, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, are from Cartagena, but they have to wait fifty-three years, seven months, and eleven days to have “sad and hurried” sex, and are forced to fly the flag of cholera as a ruse to allow their lovemaking on a boat to continue without scandal. Brand Colombia wants to sell visions of the country’s stunning flora and fauna, while Gabo’s novels swirl with unseasonal storms, scorching heat, dusty almond trees, bloodthirsty mosquitoes, rabid dogs that bite girls, and vultures that peck at dead tyrants. Can you blame the brand team for sticking to toucans and golf?

More curiously, the government does not fully promote Aracataca, Gabo’s birthplace, as a tourist destination. Aracataca, the small town on which Macondo is modeled, is in many ways the womb of magical realism; Gerald Martin points to the uncanny resonance between Aracataca and Abracadabra. But the town doesn’t even have a proper hotel, apart from The Gypsy Residence, a hostel run by a friendly, towering Dutchman in a lungi who calls himself Tim Buendía. Gabo’s old house was converted into a museum—although the house and its artifacts are a mock-up; almost nothing original remains—as has the telegraph office, through which Gabo’s telegraphist father communicated with his mother in a courtship that gave him material for Love in the Time of Cholera. But there is no official “Gabo Walk” as there is in Cartagena. There were plans to turn the town into a remembrance along the lines of Proust’s Illiers-Combray after García Márquez won the Nobel, but they never materialized, and Aracataca appears forgotten.

Vicki Kellaway, a Bogotá-based British author of a blog on Colombia, told me that she visited Aracataca in January 2012 and later went to the Proexport office in person to offer to write them an article about the town. “They told me to stick to Bogotá and Cartagena, because that is where people go,” Kellaway said. “They couldn’t… see the touristic brilliance and potential of Aracataca. Sometimes I think you can be too familiar with a topic and be unable to see it from the perspective of an outsider. Aracataca is that situation in a nutshell. It has some excellent amenities and museums, such as Gabo’s childhood home, but the lack of promotion is so marked that most tourists are unaware the town even exists. I guess that only serves to make Aracataca more magical and mysterious.”

García Márquez himself seems to have abandoned Aracataca; he’s been criticized for not doing anything to develop it. He’s lived in Mexico City since 1961, despite proclamations of “returning” to Colombia, and has had a bumpy relationship with the government because of his leftist sympathies and fast friendship with Fidel Castro. Still, he’s worshipped in his home country like a literary prophet—not just in intellectual salons, but also on the street. As Gerald Martin recounts, when news of Gabo’s Nobel broke, a reporter in Colombia asked a prostitute if she had heard about it and she said yes, a client had told her in bed. In Barranquilla, cabbies heard the news on their radios and began to toot their horns in unison. In Aracataca, I chatted with an electrician and a farmer who rattled off the names of their favorite Gabo novels as they sat in their vests drinking cold beer and smoking Santa Fe cigarettes in the town square. In Barranquilla, a young teacher who had grown up in a dirt-poor barrio called El Milagro said that through her teenage years, while she watched her mother and grandmother struggle to hold the family together, she was comforted by the thought of how Úrsula Buendía, the matriarch of Macondo, had done the same despite her “accumulated afflictions.”

“Probably there is not a single Colombian who is not proud of Gabo and his works, even it he or she hasn’t read his works,” says Samper Pizano. “Gabo is much more than a brand. There is a deep feeling that comes out from sharing language, history, culture, and nationality with him.”

On the morning we visited Aracataca, El Tiempo led with a story about incest: “Every year 6000 minors under 14 become mothers, one in every five of them is pregnant with incest.” It was impossible to read that headline and not recall the dark ending of One Hundred Years of Solitude, when a Buendía baby is born with a pig’s tail as a result of an incestuous relationship. The curse of incest is a fear that long haunted Úrsula Buendía, and the baby’s birth marks the end of Macondo and the thoroughly debased Buendía clan. But that’s not all. The pig-tailed baby—a symbol of generations of familial rot—is stung to death by ants, and its horrified father watches the “bloated bag of skin” dragged away by the insects to their holes. Similarly, there is an awful episode earlier in the novel—inspired by a true story—when Colonel Aureliano Buendía walks into a room where an adolescent mulatto girl is taking in one customer after another at twenty cents apiece. She will have to sleep with seventy men a night for the next ten years to pay for her grandmother’s house that she has accidentally burned down. Her homeless grandmother is her pimp, hustling her from one town to the next. Even the self-absorbed Colonel Buendía is shaken to his soul.

There is nothing happy about these vignettes. And yet this seminal novel has been described as a song of hope, a proclamation of life and love in the face of tragedy. W.H. Auden said in his elegy on the death of William Butler Yeats: “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.” The madness of Colombia, too, hurt García Márquez into his own kind of poetry—except that the verb “hurt” doesn’t sound right here. Hurt has a dismal, famished ring to it. Gabo’s passion-filled stories leave you feeling that even a transgressive impulse can be salvific. “He concentrates on the themes of power, solitude, and death but each of these themes also implies its opposite,” says Martin. “Power suggests vulnerability, victimhood, or injustice; solitude suggests community, socialism, or love; and death suggests life, creativity, or art.” Colonel Buendía, after spending a sleepless night tormented, returns to marry the prostituted girl, but she has already left, dragged by her grandmother to the next town. His rescue attempt, motivated not just by pity, but by desire, is futile. But the spark of humanity that propelled him helps fleetingly to soften the horror we just witnessed.

Try to package that in a marketing campaign.

When it comes down to it, it’s difficult to imagine Colombia’s promoters boasting about how Iranians flocked to bookstores in 2011 to buy Gabo’s famous work of journalism, News of a Kidnapping, because the opposition leader told his countrymen that if they wanted to know what he had experienced under house arrest, all they had to do was read this book. Kidnappings! One can imagine the brand team blanching in horror. When the aim is to make the world forget about what was once a frightening daily reality, why would they want to broadcast a reminder of it—even one cast in a literary light?

If García Márquez’s work endures as empathetic and convincing, it is because his magic was polluted—and fertilized—by the untreated sewage of journalism.

And yet, the true texture of Colombia’s beauty comes not by pretending its problems are wholly over, but in seeing how darkness is interwoven with the light. García Márquez knows this. There’s no denying that for all its hyperfabulism, his fiction is stained with the ink of Colombia’s most despairing headlines. The secret to understanding the aching springs of happiness in García Márquez’s fiction—a happiness far more complicated than any ad campaign can suggest—lies in recognizing that he is a journalist who happens to be a brilliant novelist. It is a claim that he made himself, attributing half his Nobel Prize to his journalism. Right from his early years, García Márquez used the wings of fantasy not to escape from reality but to fly toward the grime and blood of the newsroom. What after all is Macondo but an idyll, a place of refuge from the decades-long civil war that uprooted over five million people, making Colombia the country with the highest number of internally displaced people in the world? Macondo was created not in One Hundred Years of Solitude, as many readers think, but in the 1955 novella Leaf Storm: and Other Stories, the first and only book García Márquez published before leaving Colombia. This was at the height of the bloody period called La Violencia, triggered by the assassination of a popular politician. In its first paragraph the “human and material dregs of other towns, the chaff of the civil war” pour into Macondo with their mules and trunks to start life again. They are called human rubbish, and it is this wretched whirlwind of human trash that gives the book its title.

The dirtiest secret about journalism is that its practitioners are closet optimists who believe in a better world. García Márquez’s lifelong engagement with journalism separates his magical realism from that of the other great living exponent, Salman Rushdie. Rushdie is an outstanding writer but his brilliance is steadily overshadowed by his weakness for the catchy but empty line. Over the last few years, the commercial breaks in his fiction have become longer, eclipsing the comedy and humanity of his early books. If García Márquez’s work endures as empathetic and convincing, it is because his magic was polluted—and fertilized—by the untreated sewage of journalism.

This cocktail of anguish and optimism was never more evident than when he went to Stockholm. He attended the Nobel ceremony dressed in a white liqui-liqui—the traditional four-pocket linen shirt of the Caribbean peasant—and white trousers, and carried a yellow rose for good luck. The other winners were in black tuxedoes and bowties, and if they looked like a row of footmen, Gabo looked like a chef in his whites. King Carl Gustav presented him with what looked like a tray that had a red box on it. With the slightest of smiles, he accepted and bowed. Then, the man who defeated gonorrhea twice, smoked sixty cigarettes of “the most barbaric tobacco” each day during his youth, and almost froze to death as a freelancer in Paris, got a standing ovation that went on for several minutes. He bowed again, holding the tray as if presenting his audience with a small appetizer: it was the gizzard of a hen from Cartagena de Indias, containing tiny lumps of gold.

The hen featured in his speech as a symbol of the lust for gold that brought the Spanish to the New World. Gabo spoke not merely for Colombia, but for the whole of South America, that tapering continent he described as fantastical to the Old World—Magellan’s navigator wrote of “hogs with navels on their haunches, clawless birds whose hens laid eggs on the backs of their mates”—and, he said, continued to be viewed as an ongoing freak show in modern times. Dictators, epidemics, and slaughter had done their best to deform “that boundless realm of haunted men and historic women, whose unending obstinacy blurs into legend.” But, he added, our claims to happiness are no less fierce than yours. In spite of oppression, plundering, and abandonment, “we respond with life.”

The defiance of that pronouncement reminded me of one of his early short stories, “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings.” It can be read as an earnest parable for his continent. One night, in a storm, a bald old man with enormous wings crashes into the courtyard of a greedy couple that promptly stores him in a chicken coop and charges people to view him. As they get richer, he gets sicker. Hens peck at his wings teeming with parasites, children toss food at him, and cripples pull out his feathers to cure themselves—no one is cured, though one leper’s sores sprout sunflowers. Years pass: the old man, now no more a curiosity, lies exposed to the sun and storms, and, comically, even gets chicken pox, but he refuses to die. Then one day, when the woman is chopping onions, she looks up to see the creature trying to fly. He is no eagle, but his clownish flapping has more poetry to it than the elegance of a dying swan. Finally, in a transcendental moment, the “senile vulture” gains the air and, like a sunflower bursting out of a sore, flies towards the sun on “the logic of his wings”: the logic of life itself.

García Márquez sings of heartbreak and cruelty, but nevertheless, he sings a song that, in a twisted way, appears to corroborate the findings of the WIN/Gallup happiness poll. “I’d concentrate on the role of Aureliano Segundo, the accordion player in One Hundred Years,” says Samper Pizano. “He loves life. He loves sharing drinks and parrandas with his friends. He loves loving women. His motto (which he cheerfully conveys to his cattle), is ‘Cease, cows, life is short’ (Apártense vacas que la vida es corta). He is not a pessimistic guy, nor a person afraid of the future. He wants to enjoy life, and enjoy it now… And of course Gabo uses humor. It’s one of the main ingredients in his recipe. In one of the interviews he gave to me, he confessed that sometimes, while writing One Hundred Years, he surprised himself laughing his heart out ‘by those lunacies that the Buendías made’.”

That fastidious little gesture turns this butcher’s moment into a breathtaking one: that a grievously wounded man cradling his slippery death in his hands attempts to cling to life by dusting his guts is absurdly uplifting.

The Garcíamarquian brand of happiness is rooted in his thoroughly unorthodox idea of love and sexuality. After their old and sour bodies finally make love, Fermina Daza cleans Florentino Ariza’s dentures, an act at once unpleasant and romantic. In Memories of My Melancholy Whores, García Márquez’s last and most sentimental novel, a ninety-year-old journalist decides to treat himself on his birthday by sleeping with a virgin, but is so entranced by the sight of the exhausted girl, naked and fast asleep in her brothel bed, that he never touches her. And, as Gerald Martin points out, how many writers would dare write a love story as brutal as Chronicle of a Death Foretold? Although the young Arab Santiago Nasar is hunted down and killed by the brothers of his lover, and although the reader knows he is doomed, the story is backlit by a fatalistic radiance. At the end of the tale—based on a true story that haunted him for years—García Márquez delivers a tour de force of human dignity, when the pale Nasar, stabbed fatally in the stomach, “carefully brushes the dirt from his guts.” That fastidious little gesture turns this butcher’s moment into a breathtaking one: that a grievously wounded man cradling his slippery death in his hands attempts to cling to life by dusting his guts is absurdly uplifting. It is a moment comparable to George Orwell’s anguished description of a Burmese prisoner who, on his walk to the gallows, takes the trouble to step aside to avoid a puddle.

Dignity as the teeth of squalor—and love—is a quality that García Marquez saw in his mother, Luisa Santiaga, who spent eleven years pregnant and another eleven nursing offspring. Despite the “exhausting poverty” of their circumstances, she accepted her husband’s illegitimate children into the family and once boiled an ox knee day after day to feed her children a watery broth to keep them from starving. Reading this detail in Gabo’s memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, made me recall the strong-spined asthmatic wife in No One Writes to the Colonel: and Other Stories. She and the old colonel are bags of bone, freshly bereaved by the death of their son: “We are the orphans of our son,” says the wife. For over fifty years, the colonel has waited for the postman to bring his war pension. He and his wife are starving, “rotting alive,” but he refuses to sell his dead son’s rooster, even though it is a prizefighter that will fetch a good price. At the end of the novel, his wife grabs him by his flannel collar, shakes him hard, and asks how they are going to manage, what they are going to eat. Then something happens to the proud old man. Writes García Márquez: “It had taken the colonel seventy-five years—the seventy-five years of his life, minute by minute—to reach this moment. He felt pure, explicit and invincible at the moment when he replied, ‘Shit.’”

The same climatic question-and-answer construction is also used to conclude Love in the Time of Cholera. The boat captain asks Florentino Ariza how long they should fly the flag of cholera and keep up this “goddamned coming and going” up and down the river. Literature’s most absurd lover—an illegitimate, constipated, seventy-six-year-old fornicator in a rusty black suit and pomaded hair—“had kept his answer ready for fifty-three years, seven months, and eleven days and nights. ‘Forever,’ he said.”

The colonel is modeled on Gabo’s beloved grandfather in Aracataca, Colonel Nicolas Márquez, and Florentino Ariza on his wayward and promiscuous father, Gabriel Eligio García. The two men who taught him that life might be shit but you can love forever.

In such a winding way, it’s true: Colombia has the answer.

G

Nina Martyris is the culture editor for The Times of India Crest. She has written for several publications including The Times of India, The Guardian, The New Republic, Slate, Salon and The Millions.

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4 comments for The Answer is Colombia

  1. Comment by DB on June 6, 2013 at 2:16 pm

    What a brilliant piece! Nina’s insightful observations of Columbia today are so telling. She gives us a wonderful perspective on Marquez and contemporary Columbia. A very gifted writer. Thank you for this delightful article.

  2. Comment by anonimo on June 16, 2013 at 5:22 pm

    Very interesting article.
    @ DB, please pay more attention to the spelling of ColOmbia. Let’s not perpetuate that annoying error.

  3. Comment by Ambrose Santiago on February 17, 2014 at 10:29 am

    Thanks. That was a very lengthy article.

  4. Comment by Gerardo on September 12, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    I wasn’t able to put the article down after I started reading it. Loved it.

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