The Great and Magical Gabo

Fame, acclaim, and a notorious friendship with Fidel Castro: The life of writer Gabriel Garcia Márquez was as fantastical and politically charged as his reality-bending novels.

Few contemporary writers and none from Latin America could match the scope of his influence or the radical inventiveness of his imagination. Affectionately called "Gabo," Gabriel Garcia Márquez, the Colombian Nobel laureate, journalist and author, was the most celebrated Latin American cultural export of his era. He died, at 87, on April 17, in his home in Mexico City. His glamorous mystique -- the houses and apartments strewn across Europe and the Americas, the glossy magazine profiles, the voluptuousness of his words -- was offset by the author's self-deprecating charm and humble back-story. The chasm between his socialist beliefs and the opulent lifestyle to which he ultimately grew accustomed attracted criticism, to be sure, yet his literary reputation never sagged under the weight of that paradox.

It was the 1967 publication and 1970 translation into English of his most famous novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, that vaulted the author to stardom. In that novel, the head of the allegorical Buendía family interprets the world according to his own perceptions. In a warped chronology of events, Macondo's founding family is regenerated ceaselessly, through revolution, natural disaster, and incestuous coupling. Translated into English by the peerless Gregory Rabassa, One Hundred Years of Solitude has sold tens of millions of copies worldwide. It gave exuberant voice to a region of the world that had previously been viewed as lush but inscrutable, best known by many Americans and Europeans for its political instability and violence.  

As in most of his fiction, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the author said he sought to destroy "the lines that separate what seems real from what seems fantastic." He did so with rapturous virtuosity, emotional insight, and humor.  

When the New York Times reviewed the book in 1970, the reviewer, John Leonard, described the work not so much as a piece of literature, but as an experience: "You emerge from this marvelous novel as if from a dream, the mind on fire. A dark, ageless figure at the hearth, part historian, part haruspex ... first lulls to sleep your grip on a manageable reality, then locks you into legend and myth."

While One Hundred Years of Solitude is a sweeping metaphor for Colombian cultural history -- ghosts and modernity, colonialism and liberal reform, the introduction of railroads, the hegemony of American corporate interests and military jackboots -- the mythical town of Macondo itself was inspired by Aracataca, the Colombian village where Garcia Márquez lived with his maternal grandparents until the age of eight. There, he absorbed his grandmother's supernatural folklore. His left-leaning grandfather, a retired colonel, bequeathed the author a lifelong fascination with military and political power.

Garcia Márquez was the eldest of 11 children (though his father, a pharmacist, also claimed several illegitimate offspring). In the fictional Macondo, the character Colonel Aureliano Buendía, "had seventeen male children by seventeen different women and they were exterminated one after the other on a single night before the oldest one had reached the age of thirty-five. He survived fourteen attempts on his life, seventy-three ambushes and a firing squad." Such prose, at once epic and compressed, inspired an entirely new lit-crit lexicon, including terms like "Macondic." Along with other Latin American writers, Garcia Márquez helped to popularize the genre known as Magical Realism.

But it's the realism in his writing that's often forgotten.

Garcia Márquez  was born in 1927, the year before the so called "banana massacre," in which striking Colombian workers for the United Fruit Company were crushed by the country's military, who were anxious to forestall a threatened invasion by the U.S. Marines -- a scenario he recasts in One Hundred Years of Solitude. He was a gifted student and attended a state-run boarding school. Later, under pressure from his family, he studied law at the National University of Colombia in Bogotá, but soon turned his attention to writing and never completed his degree.

When a Colombian Liberal Party member was assassinated, triggering La Violencia, a decades-long period of civil strife and violence that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and displaced citizens, Garcia Márquez gave up his legal studies completely and became a journalist. But he also read deeply the literature that would inform his development as a fiction writer. A particular obsession of young Garcia Márquez's was William Faulkner, whose mythical Yoknapatawpha County in the American South has been called a precursor to Macondo.

As a columnist in Bogotá in the 1950s, Garcia Márquez wrote an expose about a naval shipwreck -- the piece was later published in English as "The Story of A Shipwrecked Sailor" -- that earned him the ire of the Colombian dictator, Gustavo Rojas Pinilla. To quell the fallout, the author's newspaper sent him to Europe as a correspondent, but soon the government shut down the paper altogether. Garcia Márquez kept writing fiction while working as a journalist and moving frequently, with spells in Venezuela, Columbia, New York, and Mexico City. In 1958 he married Mercedes Barcha Pardo, who remained the unmovable pillar of his personal life until his death. The couple resided primarily in Mexico City and had two sons.   

The left-leaning Garcia Márquez wrote admiringly of Fidel Castro, eventually befriending the dictator. Both trouble and fame attached to him; The Colombian government planned to have him arrested for his political activities, Mexico offered him refuge, and the French awarded him the Legion d'Honneur. In 1982, he won the Nobel Prize for literature. Later, he would say that he put the prize money in a Swiss bank account and forgot about it for years; he eventually used it to buy the weekly magazine Cambio.

While he was lauded for his literary achievement, there were those among even his most ardent admirers who were disheartened by his politics, particularly his cozy relationship with Fidel Castro, who showered his writer friend with gifts that included a house on the outskirts of Havana. He, in turn, described Castro's "childlike heart ... political intelligence, his instincts and his decency, his almost inhuman capacity for work, his deep identification with and absolute confidence in the wisdom of the masses...."

Critics and curious contemporaries reasoned that Garcia Márquez was simply star struck by a man in uniform. Others theorized that that the writer was using the friendship to bend the dictator's ear, and help Cubans leave the island or avoid harsh treatment.

According to a 1999 New Yorker profile by Jon Lee Anderson, García Márquez, "confirmed that he had helped people leave the island, and he alluded to one 'operation' that had resulted in the departure of 'more than two thousand people' from Cuba. 'I know just how far I can go with Fidel. Sometimes he says no. Sometimes later he comes and tells me I was right.'" The White House, however, was not philosophical about the author's political engagement, and for a period of years he was obliged to apply for a special visa to enter the United States. Garcia Márquez seemed able to live with the moral contradictions posed by his friendship with Castro. But, given the complex dilemmas he assigned his most compelling characters, it's hard to imagine that he was a man who would fail to grapple with that relationship.

Take the journalist-narrator of Garcia Márquez's slim, 2005 volume, Memories of My Melancholy Whores, who, nearing the end of his life, shares a ruthless self-analysis: "I discovered that I am not disciplined out of virtue but as a reaction to my own negligence, that I appear generous in order to conceal my meanness, that I pass myself off as prudent because I am evil-minded, that I am conciliatory in order not to succumb to my repressed rage...." Such honest writing is what makes Garcia Márquez's characters so universally accessible, his fiction so humane. 

But Garcia Márquez also embraced popular imagery, using melodrama, romanticism, and sentimentality unabashedly in novels like Love in the Time of Cholera, based on his own parents' romantic history. He was a fan of telenovelas and boleros and even wrote a profile of pop-singer Shakira in 2002. The female characters in his fiction, while diverse, often fall into the category of dusky cat-eyed temptresses -- the fiery Latinas of a good bodice-ripper. At the same time, child prostitutes and a scene during which a housemaid is raped while doing laundry, reveal a more pitiless and exploitative form of sexuality in his writing.

Through his fiction he undermined crude American stereotypes of Latin Americans and informed the world about the region's recent political history. The author himself once noted, "For Europeans, South America is a man with a mustache, a guitar and a gun." Perhaps not so much anymore, thanks in large part to what Garcia Márquez has left us.


Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images



Vladimir Putin's Terrific, Triumphant, All Good, Totally Badass Year

Try and tell me the Russian president isn't winning … for now.

Admit it. You wish you were Vladimir Putin right now. Enemies fear him. Allies are grateful to him. Women are drawn to him. Jimmy Fallon imitates him. Even Edward Snowden wants to be his video buddy. To paraphrase that great geopolitical analyst Alicia Keys, this guy is on fire.

Oh sure, his country's economy is in the tank and sinking fast. But what's that to a man whose personal fortune is estimated in the billions? (That KGB pension plan rocks.)

Yes, Barack Obama thinks that Putin is hurting Russia with his Ukrainian antics. But the Russian people -- the constituents who would be directly responsible for electing him president if anybody believed Russia were actually a democracy -- are giving him approval ratings Obama would kill for. And the deal the West and the Russians cut with Ukraine on April 17 to ease tensions seems likely to take relieve some of the East-West tensions, leaving Putin with much of what he wanted.

Of course, winning Crimea brings with it a ton of challenges given that the region is an economic basket case and building the infrastructure to connect it to Russia will cost billions of dollars. But not only was the annexation an emotional pick-me-up for a Motherland that has been down in the dumps for a generation, but it took little more than Putin raising one of his intimidating Bond-villain eyebrows to get it. And the penalties the finger-wagging West has imposed upon him hardly even qualify as "surgical" sanctions -- they were more like pinpricks. (New ad slogan for the West: "The Atlantic Alliance -- blazing new trails in foreign policy acupuncture.")

The list of Putin's recent triumphs is a long one. And it would be even longer, I suspect, if we knew every source of cash that was flowing into every secret bank account he has. (By that I mean allegedly has. Might have. If he were corruptly siphoning off vast amounts of his struggling nation's national patrimony.) But even so, it's a long list of wins. And there is every reason to assume that by the end of his current annus mirabilis it will be even longer.

Not only do we have the bloodless annexation of Crimea and the political boost at home associated with it, the guy's divorce went through -- and according to reports he has been involved with a Russian rhythmic gymnast ever since. Then there was Sochi, which packs of wild dogs and plumbing problems aside, went pretty darn well for the host and Russian athletes. Prior to all that, there was the deftly played Russian gambit to forestall America's attack on its Syrian ally and the gains in international clout associated with Russia's central role in the Iran nuclear negotiations. Even if Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov can't always get his calls answered in the Kremlin, and even if some in the U.S. government have been known to call him "the slug" (which is probably not a compliment, even in Moscow), Russian diplomacy is more globally important today than it has been at any time in the past two decades. And then of course, there was Snowden, whose fortuitous landing in Moscow offered Putin not simply just a way to tweak the West. It was a one-two punch: giving refuge to a man many see as a hero for revealing American surveillance abuses while at the same time almost certainly giving Moscow's intelligence agencies access to the treasure trove lurking in Snowden's hard-drives.

What's more, Putin's maneuvers have confounded and mesmerized his critics. Granted, some in the West call him irrational or worse, but the facts say crazy successful is more like it. Let them think it is irrational to systematically advance national and personal interests by identifying weaknesses and playing to strengths. In Putin's Kremlin they'll take that any day. (Just as world beaters everywhere always have done and always will do.) What's more, the Russian president is clearly driving his American counterpart a little nuts -- taunting Obama and testing his limits, while staying far enough away from core American interests to make direct, tough actions unpalatable. And pity poor Angela Merkel, who has been assigned the task of calling Putin regularly -- in part because the relationship with the exasperated Obama is, in the words of one senior U.S. official, "exceedingly difficult" -- trying to take a tough line while also trying to stave off a confrontation which would push the EU's fragile recovery into the ditch.

It seems like everyone, everywhere, has Vlad on the mind -- and tell me that seemed a likely bet 10 years ago.

Worse, the best days are almost certainly ahead. With troops massed on Ukraine's border -- and spies and special forces stirring up unrest inside the country -- the most likely outcome isn't an invasion but rather not needing one for Russia to achieve its goals. The recently announced diplomatic deal -- while probably good for all parties -- may well help advance this Russian goal. When Ukraine starts to redraft its constitution, it is likely to embrace the looser, federalist system that Putin wanted all along. This will give autonomy to the eastern regions, allowing them to drift closer to Moscow and further from Kiev.

But a political victory in Ukraine might not even turn out to be the most striking victory this year for Vladpolitik -- which is the blunt application of toughness in the face of an uncertain, divided ally. As shocking and bald-faced as was the aggression in Crimea, it is nothing compared to the gut-punch that will be Bashar al-Assad's victory in Syria. Here is a mass murderer, a man who has used chemical weapons against his own people (among the least of his crimes in terms of its human toll) who seemed destined for the dustbin of history along with Mubarak and Ben Ali -- but who now has the upper hand in his country's devastating civil war. Barack Obama long ago called for Assad to leave office. That now seems very unlikely. And Putin, who coldly calculated that Assad represented the best bulwark against Islamist extremism, has led the international defense of this war criminal. Barring a major reversal on the ground, his resoluteness (and that of Assad and his Iranian supporters) will produce a victory over a fractious moderate opposition that America and the West have tepidly and inadequately supported.

That the United States will quickly seek to restore working relations with the Russians to seek their cooperation on the Iran deal the Obama administration needs will only add to the sense of Putin's strength.

Admittedly, no good thing lasts forever. Sooner or later, Putin will likely see his historic run end. After all, as he himself keenly remembers, he may have won South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008, but he sent the rest of Georgia headlong into the arms of the EU as a consequence. Surely, Ukraine's western regions will want more protection, as will other countries in Eastern Europe. This will almost certainly lead to new ties -- not only to the EU but to a NATO that will finally begin to reassess and modernize its mission. Nothing awakes an alliance like an enemy. Europe will begin in earnest a search to reduce its dependency on Russian energy. This will likely not hurt Russia as much as some suggest: there will be plenty of partners -- like the Chinese -- who will be happy to buy what the Europeans won't. But Russia's leverage in Europe is sure to decline in the long run as a result of these recent moves.

None of this bodes well for Russia's economy. Nor will any of Putin's posturing reverse the country's demographic problems. Indeed, Putin's heavy-handedness might well increase the likelihood of further tension in its "near abroad," not least with long-simmering, autonomy-seeking Muslim communities. And those photo ops at international summits are likely to be chilly for years to come. (But then, they always kind of were, weren't they? Putin, like Obama, has never really been a hugger with a flair for the too-long embrace of predecessors like Yeltsin or Clinton.)

Perhaps, someday, Putin's very good year will seem like one of short-lived triumphs. Indeed, this all seems likely to lead in an unhappy direction for Russia. But even then, Vlad will still have those (alleged) billions -- and there's probably a lot to be gained from a little personal instruction in rhythmic gymnastics.