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Requiem with Yellow Butterflies: The World Mourns García Márquez

By (April 1, 2016) No Comment


There is always something left to love.

– Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude


In far-away Brisbane, Australia news reached me within an hour.

“Gabo died today,” said a familiar female voice down the phone. “I thought you’d want to know.”

It had been more than a year since we were in touch.

“R, is that you?”

Se murió en su casa en el DF. He died at home in Mexico City.”

“That’s sad.”

She seemed to be calling from her Skype account because my office phone didn’t recognise the number.

“Where are you?”

“They’re leaving flowers and books and paper butterflies outside his house. He died of pneumonia.”

“You’re outside his house?”

I spoke quietly to avoid annoying my work colleagues. Aside from the sound of fingers punching keys, the office was silent. It was ten o’clock on Friday morning in Australia, Thursday evening in Mexico.

“Do you remember the yellow butterflies?” she said.

“I’m not sure.”

“I’ve tried and tried, but I can’t remember that part. Anyway, people are hanging strings of them outside his house.”

The only image of butterflies from One Hundred Years of Solitude I could summon was of them fluttering over a couple making loving in the bath. My clearest memories of the book were really memories of us. We’d read it together across a year of long, lazy Sunday morning sessions in bed, sunlight streaming through the window of our sixth floor apartment by the muddy brown river that snakes through the centre of our subtropical Australian Macondo. I’d read the novel aloud for her, cover-to-cover, in my hard-won, mongrel Spanish learned over seven years travelling and working in Latin America, while she corrected my pronunciation and patiently explained every unfamiliar word (“el revoloteo de una mariposa,” “the fluttering of a butterfly”). That was her fifth year in Australia, her third living with me, and we both knew there would be no further extensions to her PhD scholarship. A few months after we finished our epic two-handed reading of Cien años de soledad, she submitted her thesis and was obliged, under the conditions of her Mexican scholarship, to return home and work for a year. We discussed me quitting my day job to follow her, discussed a distance relationship, but in the end I stayed.

“I remember a lot of things,” I said. “But I don’t remember the butterflies.”

After García Márquez died, I found myself emailing and chatting with R nearly every day. We sent each other links to articles about him as a pretext, but we both knew what was really happening. Once we started looking, we found yellow butterflies in nearly all the memorials around the world, but never any explanation of their significance or where they’d appeared in the novel. Our Spanish Royal Academy fortieth anniversary edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude was still on my bookshelf. But the anosthought of opening its dark-green cover pained me. We promised that somewhere in the world, at some unspecified point in the future, we’d sit together with our old copy of the book, and go butterfly hunting. For now, she wouldn’t even tell me where she was living, or at what university she’d found work.

No importa. You made your choice. You decided not to come.”

As I read the memorials from around the world, a spark of curiosity kindled. I was struck by how little impact academic critiques of authorship have made on popular portrayals of authorship. Since structuralism in the 1960s, much professional criticism has emphasised readers’ interpretive freedom and downplayed the relevance of authorial intention. Yet nearly all the coverage of Gabo’s death, even in the quality press, returned to good old-fashioned biographical criticism, reinscribing the monolithic myth of the author-genius. Much of it described him as a “universal writer” and his work as “universal literature,” without seriously considering what these categories mean or how they are constructed. In the popular press, the focus was on García Márquez as celebrity, a global brand name and commodity whose prestige derives from the marketplace – more than 25 million copies of One Hundred Years of Solitude sold in over 30 languages – and from famous, powerful admirers like Bill Clinton, King Juan Carlos of Spain, and Fidel Castro.

When I started reading the obituaries for Gabo at the local, national, Latin American, and international levels more deeply, I found something quite different. I found they didn’t produce a “universal” image of the writer at all, but a series of culturally particular and contested versions of Gabo/García Márquez. In Colombia, his death occasioned soul-searching about negative perceptions of the country internationally; in Mexico, a nation drained by emigration, he was celebrated as an immigrant success story – someone who had made a better life in their country for a change; in Spain, at a moment of profound cultural pessimism sparked by the economy, the death of the “new Cervantes” became an elegy for the illustrious Hispanic past. Meanwhile, in the English-speaking world, especially the US, the obituaries played out a range of stereotypes, fantasies, and fears about Latin America that have lingered since the end of the Cold War.

Working my way through all those different Gabos eventually led me back to R.

In Aracataca, where the writer was born, the memorial was staged largely for the benefit of the visiting media. On the Monday after his death, a symbolic funeral was held and screened on national television. A few distant relatives were present, but no one from García Márquez’s immediate family. Some residents felt abandoned, and grumbled to journalists that their most famous son should have done more to help the underdeveloped town economically. The municipal government embraced the celebration regardless, hanging yellow paper butterflies from the town’s main buildings – the García Márquez Museum, the García Márquez school, and the Macondo residences (named after Gabo’s fictionalised Aracataca). This community of roughly 25,000 people once relied on banana plantations for survival. For the best part of sixty years, the United Fruit Company, excoriated in One Hundred Years of Solitude for their exploitation of local workers and brutal repression of organised labour, was the cornerstone of the local economy. The company’s withdrawal in the early 1970s prompted a financial downturn from which the town has never fully recovered.

In recent decades, Aracataca has enjoyed a modest resurgence due to African palm plantations, and a little Nobel-Prize-related tourism. Attempts to convert the town into a living García Márquez museum, however, haven’t been wholly successful. In a 2006 poll, a slim majority voted to rename the town Aracataca-Macondo, but the total number of votes was insufficient to make the change law. Around the same time, a Dutch expatriate succeeded in establishing a guesthouse for tourists. But it didn’t last long. When the owner publically criticised the town’s inconsistent water supply, the provincial government withdrew its financial support. Shortly after shutting down the main accommodation option in town, the mayor erected an oversize English sign for tourists beside the main road: “Welcome to Aracataca-Macondo, Nobel Land” – a gesture of grandiose futility that might have pleased José Arcadio Buendía, the impractical patriarch of the Buendía family in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Aracataca’s memorial for Gabo was similarly shambolic. Heavy rain turned the decorative butterflies to mush, the main street to mud. Until a few minutes beforehand, it was unclear if the event would happen at all. Eventually, a procession of school students and a marching band picked their way through puddles and fallen mangoes, watched by a disappointingly small crowd. The literature teacher from the local high school read a eulogy. Due to technical problems only a short segment was able to be televised. Locals kept asking visiting journalists when the authorities would send Gabo’s ashes. People wanted to know why the great man hadn’t come home to be buried.

leafstormDays earlier, José Gabriel Ortíz, the Colombian ambassador to Mexico, where Gabo had lived for more than fifty years, sparked a minor diplomatic dispute by suggesting on television that the writer’s ashes be divided between the two countries. Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, in full campaign mode ahead of the May 2014 elections, took up the theme. His eulogy appealed to national pride. García Márquez was “the most admired of Colombians,” he said. “They [Mexican authorities] know perfectly well we Colombians would like to have the ashes, but we will respect the wishes of his family.” “Those who say Gabo turned his back on Aracataca and Colombia are mistaken.” “Glory to him who brought us most glory.”

In December 2015, after nearly two years of negotiations, Gabo’s ashes were eventually transported to Cartagena, the coastal Colombian city where he still kept a house. But it seemed unlikely the ashes would leave Mexico in the immediate aftermath of his death. By six o’clock in the evening the day of the memorial in Aracataca the streets had emptied out. A few stragglers at The Leafstorm Café – named after García Márquez’s first novel – watched the much larger Mexico City memorial on television, the only glimpse of the funeral urn they were likely to get.

Outside the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, enormous clouds of yellow butterflies cascaded through the air. Despite heavy rain and strong winds, the crowd was large and animated, clutching photos of the writer, playing the trumpet, adapting the famous “grito” of Mexican independence for the occasion:

“¡Viva Gabo!”

Eduardo Zalamea, sub-director at the Colombian newspaper, El Espectador, invented the nickname while García Márquez was a journalist for the paper in the 1950s. In Mexico City, more than 60 years on, it was cheered by thousands of strangers. After queuing patiently in the rain for up to six hours, mourners were allowed inside in groups of 50 to sight the urn and lay tributes of yellow roses and butterflies. Those unable to enter watched the ceremony on giant screens set up outside.

With a high-domed ceiling, plush red carpets, and wall-sized murals by Diego Rivera decorating its interior, the Palacio de Bellas Artes is an opulent setting. Many of Mexico’s most notable cultural figures have been memorialised here, among them García Márquez’s good friend Carlos Fuentes, who died in 2012. But the formal ceremony was at odds with the writer’s common touch. “Gabo would have liked less solemnity and more white clothing,” wrote local journalist Juan Cruz. The most lively moment of the night was the appearance of a live band playing upbeat Colombian Vallenatos, selected by García Márquez’s sons, Gonzalo and Rodrigo. The least lively moments were the presidential speeches. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos wisely dropped the nationalism he’d adopted in Bogota in favour of inclusive Pan-American rhetoric: “Macondo is a new world and an old one at once where a peaceful utopia is possible – one we seek together.”

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said it was a great loss not only for literature, but for humanity. He is not known as a reader. During the 2012 presidential election campaign, he was famously unable to name a book that had influenced him (other than the Bible). Between these two men sat Mercedes Barcha, García Márquez’s widow. Dry-eyed and dressed in black, she fanned herself, and chatted calmly through the ceremony. Her grieving would be done in private, but her presence bestowed a quiet dignity on the occasion that it would otherwise have lacked.

To understand how Mercedes Barcha came to be flanked by two presidents at her husband’s funeral; to understand how García Márquez came to be celebrated as a “universal” writer, I started reading up on his early days in Mexico, the period just before the 1967 publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude changed everything.

R still refused to tell me where she was living and working. But we remained in email and phone contact, and she encouraged my research.

“You should definitely write something on Gabo,” she said.

noonewritestothecolonelLegend has it that Gabo and Mercedes arrived at Mexico City’s dusty central railway station in 1961 with only $20 US to their name. It was July 2: the day Ernest Hemingway took his own life. García Márquez’s first Mexican publication was an obituary for Papa Hemingway, one of his idols. Literary modernism was dying, and nobody was quite sure what would follow. Soon Mercedes, who had waited patiently through a twelve year engagement before their 1958 marriage, found herself financially supporting her husband and her two young sons, while he wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude. The novel combined Latin American folklore with narrative strategies recognisably derived from modernist fiction in its North American incarnation (especially Hemingway and William Faulkner), but its global distribution and reception would make it a key text in the transition to postmodernist fiction.

The 2014 obituaries in the major Mexican newspapers emphasise the young migrant couple’s upward trajectory in their adopted country: “they were lost, undocumented, probably happy, but hungry.” Narratives of social mobility resonate well in Mexico, as anyone who’s seen a telenovela will attest. Framing the couple’s story in this way also foregrounds a quintessentially Mexican preoccupation with the politics of migration in the region: “[Mexican President] Peña Nieto didn’t say it in the farewell… but 52 years ago that woman [Mercedes] passed hours at the government office on Bucarelli Street waiting … for them to give her residency.”

It should probably be recognised, however, that the couple’s poverty was, at least in part, elective – la vie d’artiste. It’s true that politics was partly responsible for the move to Mexico City. Colombia was still emerging from “La Violencia,” a decade-long civil war, and García Márquez had made powerful enemies with his investigative journalism series, “Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor,” about a government cover-up. But the move was, as much as anything, a calculated risk by a highly educated and already accomplished writer pursuing the career benefits on offer in the metropolis.

By that time he had already published a good deal of outstanding journalism, reporting from behind the iron curtain in Europe, and from Cuba after the revolution. He had already published many of his best short stories, like “Isabel’s Monologue Watching it Rain in Macondo,” and “Baltazar’s Prodigious Afternoon.” And he had published three “Macondo” novels: Leafstorm (1955), Nobody Writes to the Colonel (1961), and In Evil Hour (1962). The second of these – a bleak, deeply unmagical account of small-town dreams destroyed – is now considered a classic. But the status of “classic” was only conferred after the global success of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Irrespective of the literary quality of his work, García Márquez knew he needed to shift closer to the centres of literary capital if he was going to become a professional novelist, let alone a figure of “universal literature.” Mexico City was not New York, Paris, or London, but it was a regional cultural force (alongside Buenos Aires), and it was closely connected to North American and European centres through translators and polyglot intellectuals like Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz. The energetic promotion of Latin American writing in Europe and the US was about to produce the 1960s “Boom.”

One enduring myth of origins about One Hundred Years of Solitude has Gabo and Mercedes driving from Mexico City to Acapulco for a beach holiday with their two sons in 1965. Gabo, an inveterate myth-maker about his own life, claims the novel’s famous, time-collapsing first sentence – the one about the colonel facing the firing squad and remembering ice – appeared fully formed in his mind as he drove. At that point, so the story goes, having found the structure for the novel he’d had in his head for 18 years, he turned the car around, drove straight back to Mexico City, and didn’t get up from his writing desk for 18 months. This little scene – the novelist cancelling the family holiday to work on his masterwork – gives such a good condensation of the single-minded and ruthless egoism we associate with a particular modernist archetype of “the great male writer,” that it was surely invented or embellished by Gabo. Gerald Martin, the English biographer who spent more than 15 years obsessively researching every detail of García Márquez’s life, says the holiday was cut short rather than cancelled entirely. Still, many of the 2014 obituaries repeated it verbatim – never let realism inhibit magic.

In fact, the flood of inspiration lasted little more than a year. The novel was drafted between July 1965 and August 1966. Generations of fans and scholars have forensically combed through every detail of García Márquez’s work routine across that period for insight into how the magic was wrought. The production of the manuscript, thanks to Gabo’s mythomania and our own hunger for stories, has become a well-known narrative in itself. We know Mercedes worked to support the family and that García Márquez would drop their sons to school at eight in the morning, writing until it was time to pick them up again at two in the afternoon. We know that he two-finger typed his drafts on an Olivetti typewriter, in a tiny office called “the cave of the mafia” that was perpetually filled with blue tobacco smoke. We know that he corrected the manuscript by hand and gave it to his secretary, Esperanza Araiza, who typed it up, corrected his patchy spelling, and secretly read sections to groups of enthralled friends. Araiza was apparently so immersed in the story that a bus nearly ran her down in the street one day in Mexico City (again, this sounds suspiciously like García Márquez’s fiction).

La mala horaI suspect all the attention to the material circumstances of writing in Gabo’s 2014 obituaries – what kind of ink did he use? What brand of cigarettes did he smoke? What colour flowers were in the vase on his desk while he wrote the great twentieth-century Latin American novel? – stem from a certain twenty-first century nostalgia for the cultural authority of the novelist before the age of television and the Internet. The fixation upon these early twentieth century artefacts conveys a longing for modernist authorship and its trappings: the idea of the writer as secular society’s spiritual representative, and as a transcendent agent outside the market.

Looking back on One Hundred Years of Solitude from the vantage point of Gabo’s death, we are also looking back on the dawn of the age of electronic media – not to mention the age of global celebrity. The novel tends to win comparison with works of “high culture” pre-dating electronic media: the Bible, Cervantes, Dickens, Melville. In fact, it was an exact contemporary of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (the worldwide sales figures of the album and the book are roughly comparable). Forget Cervantes and Dickens, then, the best analogy for Gabo’s blend of popular appeal and cultural kudos from the Anglo-sphere is John Lennon, whose untimely death in 1980 fuelled a similar outpouring of popular grief and earnest hagiography.

It is possible to argue, with no disrespect to One Hundred Years of Solitude, that what truly marks it as a transitional work in literary history, is its coincidence with the globalisation of the media and publishing industries. Certainly it was among the earliest global blockbusters to have been produced by a writer of the so-called “periphery.” Gabo’s opus arrived at a time when technological change was elevating the phenomenon of celebrity to a new level in the West, and enshrining a new reflexivity in our culture.

García Márquez was an important figure in the shift toward what Joe Moran has called a “meet the author” culture. Undoubtedly one of the most seductive storytellers of our age, he was also a masterly manipulator of his own image. In interviews and various published pieces of autobiographical writing (including his 2002 autobiography Living to Tell the Tale), the story of his life is driven by powerful narrative archetypes: the starving, exiled writer and his wife risking everything for the sake of art, succeeding at last through love, talent, and hard work. None of this is necessarily untrue. But to uncritically accept the author’s own version of his life, as many of the obituaries do, or to focus exclusively on his individual “genius,” denies the role of larger cultural forces. Geopolitics also played its role. For just as Gabo’s star was rising, the Cold War, especially the Cuban revolution, was focusing western publishers and readers’ attention on Latin America in an unprecedented way.

The marketing phenomenon of the Latin American literary boom was already well under way by the time Gabo sat down at his typewriter in the Cave of the Mafia. High-powered friends in writing and publishing such as Carlos Fuentes, German Vargas, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Paco Porrúa built anticipation in the Mexican, Colombian, Peruvian, and Argentine media for Gabo’s “Work in Progress” (a name that deliberately echoed Joyce’s long-awaited Finnegan’s Wake). By 1967, he also had an influential Barcelona literary agent, Carmen Barcells of Seix Barral, who was a crucial figure for many of the Latin American writers of the Boom. The novel’s initial print run sounds small in retrospect, but at that time, in that context, it was a risk for his Latin American publisher, Sudamericana, to print 5000 copies instead of their standard print run of 3000 (the run increased to 8000 two weeks before printing due to a high number of pre-orders). Within three weeks of going on sale in Buenos Aires in June 1967 (July in Mexico City), One Hundred Years of Solitude was that rarest of beasts: a number one bestseller with a heavyweight literary reputation.

The process of going global took much longer than it would today, but momentum built steadily. Translations were published in Italian in 1968, French in 1969, and English in 1970. Unlike Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar, Latin American writers whose international fame was conferred by the French, García Márquez found his most receptive non Spanish-speaking audience among English-speakers. The Times in London devoted an entire broadsheet page to the first chapter of the novel. The New York Times praised it to the sky: “You emerge from this marvellous novel as if from a dream, the mind on fire.”

living to tell the taleSuch enthusiasm for his work in the US might have surprised Gabo. Although he’d spent a brief period as a journalist in New York in the early 1960s, he was later denied a visa due to his energetic promotion of the Cuban revolution through the Prensa Latina news agency. There were even death threats from US-based Cuban exiles around the same time. But increased US interest in Latin American writing in the 1960s makes sense in geopolitical context, as translator Susan Jill Levine observes: “The South American novel became important to readers in North America because in 1959, with the Cuban revolution, “Latin America” became a major player in hemispheric and world politics.”

US soft power boosted the profile of many Latin-American authors during the Cold War. It was at this time that Latin American Studies was widely promoted as a discipline in US universities. The American Association of University Presses, backed by money from the Rockefeller Foundation, set about publishing and translating Latin American writing. For all the talk of “strengthening cultural ties” and better understanding “our neighbours to the south,” there was also an ideological function to this activity.

Cuba’s propaganda organs had seized upon the new Latin American narrative as a cultural symptom of the revolutionary mood they hoped would soon sweep the continent. Offering Latin American intellectuals opportunities in the US was seen as a counterbalance, an important weapon in the war of ideas. In this context, the Centre for Inter-American Relations promoted Latin American writers through its literature program. “Every Latin American writer who receives due recognition at our hands is a potential ally,” said translator Harriet de Onis. Many gifted US translators, trained through these initiatives, went on to work for the large commercial publishing houses such as Knopf, Harper and Row, Farrar and Straus, and Grove, who would bring the Latin-American boom to English-speaking readers.

Unlike several of his high profile peers, however, Gabo never renounced the Cuban revolution, and never softened his criticism of US foreign policy – he more or less refused to speak English to the end of his days. It is ironic, then, that both of his outstanding English translators, Gregory Rabassa and Edith Grossman, should be North Americans who honed their skills under the patronage of the Rockefeller family. With Rabassa’s help, One Hundred Years of Solitude lifted García Márquez’s name out the cultural moment that shaped him – decades of political violence in Colombia, the Cuban Revolution, US Cold War intervention in Latin-America, the rise of a new urban middle-class in Mexico – and made it possible to call him a universal writer.

Not long after One Hundred Years of Solitude was published, Gabo moved temporarily to Barcelona with Mercedes and the boys in tow. His trajectory from the periphery of “world literary space” (Pascale Casanova’s term) to its traditional European centre was nearing completion. In 1982, he would stand on a podium in Stockholm dressed in a guayabera, a baggy white cotton shirt worn on formal occasions in the Caribbean, and accept the Nobel Prize for Literature. It was a gesture that asserted his proud Latin American identity, as did his acceptance speech. “The Solitude of Latin America,” begins by confronting Europe from outside, from the impoverished south: “Why is the originality so readily granted to us in literature so mistrustfully denied us in our difficult attempts at social change?” But by its conclusion, the speech shifts to talking of “man,” and “humanity.” This is the moment of consecration, the moment “Gabo” steps out of the local, national, regional, and Spanish-language contexts of his work and becomes “García Márquez” – universal author.

The rest is postmodernism. In the later part of his career, the novelist moved between Spain, Mexico, and Colombia; he became a multi-millionaire who could afford to keep homes in Paris, Barcelona, Cartagena, and Mexico City – the last of these perpetually heated at 28 degrees to emulate the Caribbean; he continued to publish fiction and journalism, some of it critically lauded, nearly all of it best-selling; and he endured a level of media scrutiny not even his prodigious imagination could have foreseen. In the end, the “death of the author” – if we understand this to mean the author’s loss of control over the narratives told about his life and work – didn’t come from radical reading practices within the academy, but from the postmodern media. García Márquez’s name and image, by the end of his life, could be made to mean anything. A prisoner of his own success, he withdrew from all but a few press commitments, and would often answer questions: “You’ll have to ask my official biographer, Gerald Martin.”

ALifeMartin’s Gabriel García Márquez: A Life (2007) is strong on detail, but is heavily swayed by Gabo’s charismatic spell: “If ever a subject was worth investing a quarter of one’s own life in, it would undoubtedly be the extraordinary life and career of Gabriel García Márquez.” The biography praises even Gabo’s last novel, Memories of My Sad Eyed Whores (2004), a book that may or may not have been written by an author already suffering from dementia. That work should never have been published. In the 2000s, as Gabo’s powers waned, it was left to his biographer to resurrect the Sovereign Author’s God-like narrative control. Gerald Martin’s final chapter, “Immortality: the New Cervantes,” shows the cantankerous, elderly novelist bossing royalty around.

“You, King,” says Gabo, cheekily summoning King Juan Carlos of Spain to the launch of the Spanish Royal Academy’s 40th anniversary edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude. “What you must do is come to Cartagena.”

But the circumstances of Gabo’s death reveal a different story, one of lost authorial agency. Just before three in the afternoon on April 17, 2014 Fernanda Familiar, a Mexican journalist and friend of the García Márquez family, pushed past the crowd in the cobbled street outside his home, weeping. The press waiting outside the great wooden doors must have known what was coming, despite her refusal to answer questions. More than a month had passed his last public appearance (his 87th birthday), and during that period he’d been hospitalised for a urinary tract infection. He died like a king: holed up in his mansion with reporters besieging the gate.

Another family friend, the Colombian writer Guillermo Angulo, soon hurried inside carrying a suitcase and wearing a hunting cap. He refused to confirm the news, too, but at half past four it became obvious to all. A grey funeral car arrived, company logos covered in an effort to keep the location of the ceremony secret. The paper covering had turned transparent with the humidity, and journalists were able to make out the text below: “García López Funerals.” As the vehicle departed, someone picked a bougainvillea flower from the vine growing between the building’s barred ground-floor windows, and lobbed it onto the grey car’s roof. A statement on behalf of the family soon appeared on Twitter, written by Fernanda Familiar. Gabo would be cremated at a private ceremony that afternoon; a public memorial would be held on Monday at the Palacio de Bellas Artes.

But the public couldn’t wait that long. There were soon so many well-wishers on the Calle Fuego that a security zone needed to be set up around the main entrance and garage to keep them away. Candles were lit and left along the footpath to be extinguished by the afternoon drizzle. Six months later, when I made my own small pilgrimage to the house on the Calle Fuego with R by my side, there were still offerings laid on the doorstep. The security guard across the street asked us what all the fuss was about. He admitted he’d never heard of the writer: “But I will have to read him now.”

That Mexico City security guard’s impression of Gabo, like that of all of his future readers, will be shaped by the writer’s fame. Already Gabo’s own narratives are hard to separate from narratives about him authored by others, most issuing from centres of institutional power far removed from the muddy streets of Aracataca-Macondo, and even from his adopted home of Mexico City. With the sale of García Márquez’s private papers for a cool 2.2 million US dollars to the Harry Ransom Centre at the University of Texas, US-based Latin Americanists can now pore over Gabo’s manuscripts and private correspondence with Fidel Castro at their own convenience. Sensitive to the writer’s lahojarascaman-of-the people image and politics, his family took the unusual step of requesting that large sections of the archive be digitized and made available online. Meanwhile, journalistic accounts of Gabo’s life and work, often full of half-truths and recycled hyperbole, circulate and re-circulate online, reaching an audience beyond academic critics’ and biographers’ wildest dreams, beyond even Gabo’s book sales. “With famous books,” wrote Jorge Luis Borges, “the first time is already the second, since we begin our reading already knowing them.” Roland Barthes put it another way: “the text is henceforth made and read in such a way that at all its levels the author is absent.”

“Gabo died today,” R had told me. But two months on, I still didn’t know from where she’d called with the news. Watching word of Gabo’s death surge across the Web, I thought of the stream of blood in One Hundred Years of Solitude that flows relentlessly through the streets of Macondo until news of a man’s death is delivered to his mother. Now the stream radiated out from Mexico City and Colombia, burst its banks, and inundated the world. Tides of real or affected sentiment poured from politicians of the right and left, from popular entertainers and the world of high culture alike: Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Dilma Rousseff, Raul Castro, Francois Hollande, Shimon Peres, Mariano Rajoy, Shakira, Mario Vargas Llosa. Thousands of ordinary people posted tributes online: “men like him never die,” wrote Gerardo in Cuba; “See you soon, Gabo” wrote Rubén in Peru.

The fiction writer’s obituary is a strange genre. By surveying the public surface of a life, it excludes precisely those sharply rendered, subjective, intimidate corners of experience that characterise good fiction. A chronological record of life events, publications, and awards received cannot, by its nature, capture the sound of a great writer’s voice on the page. Even the obituaries that strove to imitate García Márquez’s style in some way – emphasising sensory detail and personal anecdote – gave a sense of a hollow or absence.

Indeed, what emerged most clearly from Gabo’s obituaries as a whole was not his personality as a writer or as a man, but the way every portrait of him was really a portrait of its author and audience. Colombians worked through their pride at his success abroad, their dismay at being abandoned. The Mexicans made him an immigrant success story. Granma, the official organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba, praised him as a defender of the poor and an “indestructible” friend of Fidel Castro. Peruvian journalists rushed out to interview their own Nobel Laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, whose friendship with Gabo famously ended in a still-unexplained 1976 fist fight. Vargas Llosa’s words were then reproduced in El Pais, the Madrid-based “global” Spanish-language newspaper:

“A great writer has died whose work brought great prestige to the Spanish language,” he said, neatly shifting the focus from nationalist enmity – the Peruvian versus the Colombian Nobel laureate – to the two writers’ common linguistic heritage, shared with their readers.

The English-speaking world brought its own variety of perspectives to bear on Gabo’s death. US-based Cuban exiles were most critical: “Only a five star scoundrel would put his literary fame in the service of a cause as vile and malignant as the Castro tyranny,” Humberto Fontova in Frontpage Mag. The Economist grumbled about García Márquez’s “weakness for the halo of power,” while The New York Times, balanced criticism of his closeness to Castro with acknowledgement that he sometimes personally interceded on behalf of political prisoners.

Tributes by various writers display the same kind of heightened reflexivity as the editorials, each a variation on the theme of “how García Márquez shaped me.” Australian novelist Peter Carey argued in the Guardian that generations of overseas readers with no knowledge of Colombia have been “nourished by their misunderstandings” of the novelist’s work. As if to demonstrate, he misspelt Macondo and incorrectly referred to the writer as “Marquez” throughout, excluding his father’s surname García. Haitian-born, US-based writer Edwidge Danticat talked about the impact of Gabo’s work on her as a young Caribbean migrant aspiring to write fiction. And here I am in Australia, another link in the signal chain.

Strange that an old journalist who punched out his greatest work on a typewriter should be mourned this way: scattered across the Web. If One Hundred Years of Solitude was a book about the coming of modernity to an isolated Latin American village – the arrival of magnets, refrigeration, the railways, radio, and cinema – Gabo’s life, at least the narrative of that life the obituaries tell, seemed to be about the transition from modernity to what comes after. Born the son of a telegraph operator, he had made a living writing for newspapers, and he had died on the Internet.

nobel cover one hundred years of solitudeLate one night after half a bottle of Shiraz, I sent R a different kind of email. I told her I still hadn’t found where the yellow butterflies appeared in One Hundred Years of Solitude, but I’d spent two months following their trail across the web. I told her that I missed her; that I’d made a terrible mistake, a year back, in letting her go. I would fly to Mexico City and meet her so we could light a candle and leave it at Gabo’s door.

“Don’t go anywhere,” she replied. “Give me your new address.”

The following Sunday I was in the bathroom shaving when there was a knock on the door. I went to answer it in my boxer shorts, my face lathered with foam. She was standing on my doorstep with a sky blue umbrella and a milk crate. Her face was thinner and her hair was cut short, but there could be no mistaking her. The crate was full of kitchenware and utensils I recognised from our time together in the river-side apartment: a silver bowl and a hand-mixer like the one Mercedes sold so Gabo could afford to post his manuscript to Buenos Aires.

“You’re here,” I said.

“I thought you might want these back.”

I let her in and left her looking at my bookshelves while I put the crate in the kitchen and went into the bathroom to wipe my face clean. I put on jeans and a blue guayabera she had bought me years ago during a holiday in the Yucatan Peninsula. When I came back, she was sitting on the sofa flicking through a green hardcover book I recognised instantly.

Ya las encontré,” she said, folding the page over.

“What did you find?”

“Can’t you guess?”

I sat down beside her on the sofa and gently took the book from her hands.

“I thought you were in Mexico.”

“I came back,” she said.

She’d been in Australia for three months and was living only a few blocks from me. Her postdoctoral position was not with a Mexican university, as I’d supposed, but with the Australian government’s agency for scientific research, the CSIRO.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were here?”

“Why didn’t you come to Mexico?”

I invited her to stay for lunch. She was delighted to learn I still made quesadillas with fresh chillies from our habanero plant. Light rain that had been falling since dawn grew heavier as we ate. It was belting down by the time we finished, a proper Macondo downpour. Her flimsy blue umbrella didn’t stand a chance.

I invited her to stay and put on some salsas and we danced around the living room at half speed, remembering each other, a little solemn despite the energetic music, smiling occasionally but not speaking, avoiding eye contact. After a few songs we moved to the couch and opened the novel to the page she’d folded over.

“You read it,” she said.

“Sorry if I’m rusty.

The section about yellow butterflies was only fourteen pages long, but it brought Gabo’s voice back to me in a way none of the obituaries had. We often think of reading as a solitary activity, but it is always an intimate act of communion between writer and reader. When the writer has recently died, it can be a kind of haunting, the return of a familiar voice we thought had left our life for good. That rainy Sunday as I read of yellow butterflies, I remembered the sound of Gabo’s voice. I remembered how it sounded from my own mouth every Sunday morning for a year in the grave, old Castilian language it had taken me eight years to learn and that I now spoke with a Mexican lilt. A person with whom we can share One Hundred Years of Solitude, I thought, is a person with whom we can share a life.

To summarise the story of the yellow butterflies here would do Gabo a disservice. It begins when Meme meets Mauricio Babilonio. If you’ve read this far, I suspect you’ll find the answer on your bookshelf or the bookshelf of someone you care about. You might like to take it down and read it again next April 17. That’s what R and I did the week we were reunited. We read One Hundred Years of Solitude a second time, all the way to the famous conclusion that raises the possibility, even as Macondo is destroyed, of a second chance on Earth.

James Halford is a writer and critic who lives in Brisbane, Australia. He is halfway through a PhD in contemporary Latin American literature at the University of Queensland.