Gabriel García Márquez Was a Literary Legend — But We Should Remember Him for More Than Just His Writing

“May it, finally, be hoped that this enthralling, exceedingly comic novel will not encounter the lazy indifference that other Latin American novels have met with in this country.” So wrote David Gallagher in his June 28, 1970 Guardian review of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Today, García Márquez, the Nobel winner who passed away yesterday at the age of 87, looks up at readers from the front page of the New York Times, confirming that he left the world of literature a very different place than he found it.

As he told Peter Stone in a 1981 interview, “I feel that I’m a native of any country in Latin America but not elsewhere.” Part of the group of writers considered to comprise the Latin American Boom of the 1960s and 1970s, García Márquez and his contemporaries profoundly changed the way English-speaking readers view contemporary international literature. Yet none of them had the same global impact as García Márquez, who was denied or limited in his ability to obtain visas by the United States for three decades when he was at the height of his creative powers, because of his support of Fidel Castro and leftist causes. His fan Bill Clinton lifted the ban during his presidency, but it now seems a terrible shame that America refused to open its doors to García Márquez as his work was changing the literary landscape. While Mexico’s Carlos Fuentes and Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa would also find fans and influence writers in America and other English-speaking places, García Márquez was undoubtedly the biggest name of the bunch. At a time when he wasn’t even allowed in this country, the Colombian-born author’s work set off a boom that we’re still experiencing today — one that goes beyond his own continent and is still getting readers to explore and embrace writers from different parts of the world other than their own.

“Europeans of good will — and sometimes those of bad, as well — have been struck, with ever greater force, by the unearthly tidings of Latin America, that boundless realm of haunted men and historic women, whose unending obstinacy blurs into legend.” Today, García Márquez’s 1982 Nobel Prize acceptance speech gives more of a glimpse into the state of Latin America than of the literature the region produced. Rooted in realism, without a hint of magic, García Márquez noted that — while European readers may have been more willing to embrace Latin American fiction — in the decade since the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda had accepted the same award, the region had fallen into a dark place. Here was this writer who had amassed an enormous readership across the globe, still four years away from publishing another of his great books, Love in the Time of Cholera, and he decided to say this to the English-speaking world: “The interpretation of our reality through patterns not our own, serves only to make us ever more unknown, ever less free, ever more solitary.” García Márquez, a writer who helped open the eyes of readers who didn’t speak his native language, was brave enough to use his moment as the most important writer in the world to say that, while he appreciated the praise, the people praising him should pay more attention to the suffering going on in his region.

Now, over 30 years later, students read García Márquez in American high schools. He is considered one of the past half-century’s great masters of fiction, and his influence will only continue to be felt. Everything from the worldwide interest in one of his Latin American literary forefathers, Jorge Luis Borges, to the canonizing of the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño (who, at least publicly, was no fan of García Márquez’s) can all be traced back to García Márquez’s massive popularity. Translated contemporary literature in general, which wasn’t in huge demand in America until books like One Hundred Years of Solitude came out, might not be as popular or beloved today if not for García Márquez.

Few writers get to be remembered at all, while the ones who aren’t lost to time tend to be remembered solely for their works, rather than for what they stood for or accomplished beyond the pages of their books. Obviously, any writer would envy the type of literary legacy García Márquez will enjoy for years to come. But here’s hoping that when they discuss his work 20, 50, and 100 years down the road, his larger contributions to the world won’t be totally overshadowed by his writing.