Half a lifetime ago, when I was a student, I went to Colombia in search of the historical background to the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Recently there came news that there will be no more books from its author, the great Gabriel García Márquez. I’ve been moved to write an account of my 1970 journey, and it’s published in this month’s issue of the journal Meanjin.
Looking back on that research trip, what comes to mind isn’t just the exotic location of the Caribbean banana zone or the surreal atmosphere of the ghost town of Aracataca – the basis for the fictional Macondo in which the story takes place. What strikes me most is the way the documentation I was seeking for my thesis eluded me – buried, burnt, turned to dust like the hundred-year-old Sanskrit manuscript in the novel.
The pivotal event in García Márquez’s book was the 1928 massacre of Colombian workers for the United Fruit Company. Powerful foreign interests had ensured that evidence of the crime was hard to come by. And who, in that impoverished, godforsaken corner of the world, would survive to tell the tale?
Well, at the time of the massacre there was a one-year-old baby boy who would grow up in his grandparents’ house, his imagination fed by their stories of past conflicts. The boy became a journalist in the nearby port of Barranquilla, and in its bars and cafes he imbibed ideas from the radical spirits that ports always attract, people who introduced him to the works of great writers. And in time, he became one himself.
His masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude, told the story all my research could not. But the journey was invaluable. It taught me two unforgettable lessons: first, that fiction can tell the truth far more powerfully than history. And second, that the realm of ideas knows no frontiers.
My thesis gathers dust in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, but García Márquez will be read as long as there are readers. And in the world’s most desolate places, the places that the powerful hope will be forgotten, new life is stirring, tales are handed down from one generation to the next, and the writers of the future are being formed.
You can find out more at http://meanjin.com.au/editions
KNOWING WHAT TO CHECK
Every so often I look up what our friend Ian Jack has been writing in The Guardian. In my view no columnist gives a better picture of British society or of what British people are thinking.
A recent column was an eloquent reminder of why the media need good sub-editors. Jack contrasts the way good subs pick up his own occasional errors with the failure of anyone on the BBC’s Newsnight to check the identity of the person an interviewee accused of pedophilia. This leads into a riff about the irreplaceable “old hands” of his early years in journalism who knew what to query in the copy reporters handed in. With the loss of their skills, he concludes, “Error is on the loose.” See http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/ianjack
Would the geniuses who outsourced all the subbing at Fairfax please take note?