Gabriel García Márquez, McOndo, and the Straitjacket of Cultural Identity

Over one year has passed since Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez passed away, leaving behind one of the richest and most beloved literary legacies of the 20th century. Already, different cultural institutions across Latin America and the world have begun to pay homage to the literary figure. In March, a roundtable discussion aired on Spanish television. The program focused on García Márquez’s most celebrated work, One Hundred Years of Solitude, the mythical chronicle of the Buendía dynasty in the fictitious land of Macondo. Watching it, I felt uneasy, if not completely surprised, when one of the commentators boldly declared that “One Hundred Years of Solitude is not about Latin America, it is Latin America.”

The quotation is telling, if not for its particular originality. (For example, similar things have been said of Günter Grass’ masterpiece The Tin Drum: “Grass’ book is not about the 20th century, it is the 20th century.”) What is so fascinating about the panelist’s statement is that it reflects the common, global perception that magical realism, with its normalization of mythology and its mythification of normality, reveals a particularly Latin American way of looking at the world. Moreover, the quotation’s implication that the “essence” of Latin America is to be found in magical realism is not only flawed but also ultimately dangerous.

Two anecdotes make my point clearer. The first one is describe by Alberto Funguet in his prologue to his 1996 anthology “McOndo.” A Latin-American writer (whose name is omitted to respect privacy) is pursuing a master’s degree at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Soon after the writer begins his studies, an editor approaches him and expresses interest in publishing some of his work in the next edition of a journal focused on contemporary Latin American literature. The writer, amazed at his luck, starts to work on a short story. When the writer is happy with the result, he presents his work to his patron of the arts, who rejects it immediately. “Why?” the Latin American writer asks. “Lack of magical realism” replies the editor. The writer, thinking that he has not heard correctly, is about to ask again when the editor settles the debate: “Your texts, my friend, could have been written by a First World writer.”

If globalization requires all of us as around the world to converge and make decisions in accordance with a shared humanity, how might that be possible when we cannot overcome shortsighted portraits of the Other.

The Modern Language Association, or MLA, has recently launched its “Approaches to Teaching World Literature” series, consisting of annotated guides for some of the world’s greatest historical literary masterpieces. Somewhat surprisingly for a “world literature” series, only three out of 133 titles originated in the non-Western world. These three works are Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and (surprise) Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. As Mariano Siskind at Harvard has noted, the books that were chosen are considered to be “expressive of the soul and historical experience of their respective cultures:” colonial conflict from Africa, courtly romance from Japan, and the genealogies of magical realism from Latin America. In this way, each culture is “reduced to a essentialized meaning: a traditional Japan that lives on in the West’s imaginary, a tribal Africa that falls victim to the social restructuring of colonialism, and a Latin America forever doomed to political unrest and the premodern identity of private and public domains.” The three works chosen, in the eyes of the West, assemble the heterogeneous experiences of entire cultures into consumable units that fit ordered, superficial perceptions.

Such an argument is not a criticism of the wonderful work of García Márquez, nor that of Murasaki or Achebe. A writer cannot possibly reflect the totality of the heterogeneous experiences lived by one single individual, let alone by entire cultures. I rather point to our obligation, particularly as readers and more generally as citizens of the world, to recognize the limitations of such depictions and remain wary of generalizations. Last week, El País published an editorial captioned “Macondo is very real,” using Garcia Marquez’ work to criticize the overt display of wealth of an Argentinian politician. I wonder if El Pais would consider publishing an editorial entitled “The nation of Don Quixote” in order to discuss the lasting power of the Catholic Church in Spain.

This is not a trivial problem. How many aspiring, talented writers are shut down before they can begin because their work does not coincide with foreign, reductionist assumptions? If globalization requires all of us as around the world to converge and make decisions in accordance with a shared humanity, how might that be possible when we cannot overcome shortsighted portraits of the Other?

We should celebrate García Márquez’s work, but we should not ascribe the quality of his writing to privileged proximity to a supposedly true Latin American essence. As Alberto Funget has declared, Latin America might be emblematic of lofty magical realism but it is also “the urban, the hybrid, street pollution, and boleros.” Latin America might be the rural sagas of García Máqruez, but it is also the urban neurosis of Bolaño and the literary labyrinths of Borges. Finally, if we move beyond our understanding of Latin America and other cultures as timeless and monolithic myths, we might gain a better sense not only of their nature, but also of our own selves and of the ways in which we fit into a globalized world.