Though he was 87 when he died, it seems somehow inconceivable that the passing of Nobel Prize winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez isn’t just a wrinkle in the rich, malleable fabric of one his tales of magical realism. And yet, just like in his 1967 masterwork One Hundred Years of Solitude (translated into English in 1970), history inevitably repeats itself and death is one such repetition we must endure, though in Solitude’s fictional Macondo, ghosts and spirits remain to accompany the living. It would be fitting that of all the writers to leave this earth that Garcia Marquez, the consummate blender of magic and reality, would stick around in some form or another. In the meantime, this is the perfect time to revisit—or, lucky you, encounter for the first time—the elaborate worlds borne out of Garcia Marquez’s imagination. Here are five classics of magical realism that will transport you from your drafty apartment to Latin American jungles full of shipwrecks, insomnia plagues, and grapes that know a little something about death.
If you were marooned on a desert island with only one book, this would be a fantastic choice. According to Pablo Neruda, Solitude is “perhaps the greatest revelation in the Spanish language since Don Quixote of Cervantes.” It’s the complicated tale of the Buendía family, beginning with patriarch José Arcadio Buendía, and the founding of Macondo, the city of mirrors that reflects the world around it. Spanning 100 years, from the city’s founding to its inevitable decline, Garcia Marquez imbues the story with humor and heartache as the generations of Buendías struggle to survive in a place that straddles the line between fiction (the population is, at one point, simultaneously afflicted with insomnia) and reality (Macondo is inspired by Garcia Marquez’s Colombian hometown, Aracataca). And the novel opens with one of the most beautifully perplexing sentences in modern literature:
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
Inspired by his father’s ardent pursuit of his mother, Cholera chronicles 50 years in the tangled love story of Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza. After falling in love in their youth, Florentino and Fermina are forced to separate when her father disallows the relationship. Even after Fermina marries a worldly doctor, who’s a much better social match, Florentino persists and keeps the connection alive through a series of ardent love letters. In life and in love, we’re reminded, “[we] allow [ourselves] to be swayed by [the] conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.” We won’t spoil the ending for you, but it should be a hint that “love” is in the novel’s title. Library Journal says “[i]n substance and style not as fantastical, as mythologizing, as the previous works, this is a compelling exploration of the myths we make of love.”
A perfect example of why more information does not necessarily clarify situations, this is the story of a man who returns to the scene of a 27-year-old murder, determined to find out what really happens. It turns out, as it always seems to do in a Garcia Marquez novel, that the townspeople know a lot more than they’re telling but what they know—and how they know it—is just as suspect as the actual events. Here, a young woman, Angela Vicario, is discovered, just after her wedding, not to be a virgin and her family resigns to avenge her honor by killing Santiago Nasar, her first lover. What seems like a straightforward story—that Nasar died and the identity of his murderer is never in doubt—is rendered far more complex by Garcia Marquez, who plays with a non-linear timeline and a cast of characters whose reasons for acting the way they do are anything but simple.
This is considered Garcia Marquez’s “dictator” novel, inspired by the flight of Venezuelan dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez, as well as Spain’s General Franco and Colombia’s Gustavo Rojas Pinilla. In the fictional version, divided into six sections each recounting the story of the all-powerful leader, The Patriarch is the prototypical Caribbean dictator and Marquez explores the disastrous results that come when one man holds all the power. Known for its fluid point of view, long sentences, and its portrayal of the Dictator-as-God, this is the book in the Garcia Marquez canon that tells us so much about the world we live in, both the good and the bad.
Leave it to Garcia Marquez to write a novel that, on first glance, is a glorified sex diary of a 90-year-old man—it begins “The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin”—but is actually a touching, meditative look at the nature of love throughout our lives. The unnamed narrator, a not-so-talented Colombian journalist and teacher, had slept with 514 prostitutes by the time he was 50 and lost count, but has never been in love. On the eve of his 90th birthday, he calls upon Rosa Cabarcas, the madam of the town’s most well-known brothel, to help procure him a companion. And so begins a journey through his sexual history and his lovely present, on the cusp of impending death. In the words of Booklist’s starred review, “Garcia Marquez’s beautiful, poignant story both avoids sentimentality and escapes salaciousness.”
Reading the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, either for the first time or the tenth, underscores the words of the great, and already sorely missed, man himself: “No medicine cures what happiness cannot.” We thank you, Mr. Garcia Marquez, for all the years—past, present, and future—of happiness.