The world paused to remember an undisputed cultural giant Thursday when Colombia-born Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel García Márquez, journalist, master of fiction, historian, screenwriter, and political advocate, died at his home in Mexico City at age 87.
His most famous novels, such as One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), were millions of people's first encounter with South American fiction. "Gabo," as he was known throughout South America, became one of the 20th century's most famous writers, and perhaps its most visible politically active writer.
The cause of death was reported to be pneumonia. Mr. Márquez had been diagnosed with lymphatic cancer in 1999, although it had been reported to be in remission. Reports of Alzheimer's disease circulated recently, and he was admitted to a Mexico City hospital with widespread infection and dehydration earlier this year, only to be released home last week.
He was born in 1927 in Aracataca, Colombia, a region that bears a special and dark significance for Colombians. In 1928, the Banana Massacre erupted near there, in which a United States firm, the United Fruit Company, let (some say encouraged) the Colombian army fire into a crowd of protesting workers, killing untold numbers. The massacre came to symbolize the all-but-colonial relationship between the United States (which had threatened to invade if United Fruit was not protected) and Colombia.
A version of the massacre occurs in Márquez's most popular novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, a fabulous, voluptuous weaving of a four-generation family chronicle into an imaginative and troubled history of nascent Colombia, especially the river town Macondo. He returned to that area repeatedly in his fiction, creating an ever-elaborated series of tales about place and people, much as his idol, William Faulkner, had done with Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi.
The popularity of Solitude opened the floodgates for South American writing. The world "discovered" Pablo Neruda (Nobel, 1971), Octavio Paz (Nobel, 1990), Mario Vargas Llosa (Nobel, 2011), Julio Cortázar, Jorge Luis Borges, Manuel Puig, Carlos Fuentes, Juan Rulfo, and many others.
As a young man, Mr. Márquez began to study law at the National University of Colombia but left to become a journalist. He was a stringer, columnist, reporter, and editorialist for newspapers in Baranquilla and Bogotá. He married in 1958 and settled with his family in Mexico City in 1961. He lived in Mexico for most of his adult life, and it is fair to say many Mexicans think of him as their own.
He was 55 when in 1982 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. By then, besides Solitude, he had also published the lyrical Leaf Storm (1955), the journalistic exposé The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor (1970), Autumn of the Patriarch (1975) a study of the isolation of the powerful, and Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981), a new-journalism retelling of a notorious 1951 murder. The Nobel awards jury praised his work, "in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent's life and conflicts."
Fairly or not, Márquez became associated with the literary technique of "magic realism," defined in the quote above. Many writers in and outside South America employed such techniques both before and after him, however, and his work went far beyond a single technique.
That is why, well beyond Solitude, his work, and his image as a politically and socially engaged artist, became so influential throughout the world. He was an experimenter. In 1988, he told the New York Times: "In every book I try to make a different path. . . . [T]he style is determined by the subject, by the mood of the times."
Fairest to say this was a vivid, poetic, passionate writer dedicated to the life of the emotions and the senses. Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), another blockbuster hit, not overwhelmingly magical-realist at all, is, however, very original, depicting a lifelong love affair that climaxes, memorably and with crushing sadness, in the lovers' advanced age.
An outspoken socialist, an intellectual buddy of Fidel Castro, an enemy of dictators like Chile's Augusto Pinochet, and a foe of what he saw as U.S. foreign policy excesses, Mr. Márquez was a towering public intellectual who enjoyed the tussles of political and literary controversy. He was long a persona non grata in the United States. President Bill Clinton, a big fan, lifted that ban during his presidency, declaring Solitude his favorite novel.
Márquez is survived by his wife, Mercedes Barcha, and two sons, Rodrigo and Gonzalo.