“Oh, is THAT the GUY who died last week?” asked the bespectacled young man who worked at the library, “we moved some of his books to that table there”. I stared at him, nonplussed that he was unfamiliar with the great man who dominated literary world for half a century. The reminiscences of leaders and celebrities across the world, waxing eloquent about One Hundred Years of Solitude and what it meant to them and to an era, had somehow escaped him. And yet, he worked in this county library, among all HIS books, while the spring shower played on the tin roof. May be I live in Macondo.
You see, I was on this quest for Leaf Storm, the first Garcia Marquez book that I read, while a teenager, with the monsoon keeping the rhythm of the rain that Isabel watched. My goal was to read the stories with explicit reference to Macondo, and to find where simple humor and generous laughter were hidden entangled in the brooding unbounded love, in the elaborate exploitation of the naive, and under the river of melancholy running through the tales. I mean, look at the man, universally described as jovial and kind, pictured below visiting his home town, Aracataca, which inspired Macondo – Isn’t it obvious that he has happy memories of the place – with pranks that went well and girls teased good heartedly? But, where is this same joy and laughter in Macondo? I‘d forgotten where it was, even if I ever knew, and I needed to find it, since he laughs no more.
I walked into the nearest Barnes and Noble bookstore, prepared mentally for the disappointment of the book being sold out. After all, fans seeking closure had bought out all the Chinese translations available in that country in two days. But to my surprise, there was no tribute desk, no announcement of sorrow at the irredeemable loss, no signboard that renamed the fiction aisle as “Hundred Year Way”- nothing. Autumn of the Patriarch and couple of the newer books, nestled between Neil Gaiman and Graham Greene. That was how much B&N cared for Marquez.
“It’s just market economics”, said my businessman friend, “Only three percent of the books published and sold in the U.S., are translations – and that includes the best-selling Swedish mysteries from Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbo and Henning Mankell. Why waste shelf space? Besides wasn’t he banned from visiting the U.S. for decades, until President Clinton made friends with him?” I retract, suitably chastised for believing that being the writer of the century makes up for low sales volume and leftist leanings.
The lady at the bookstore counter recommended that I settle for the online version, but one glance at the Sophia Vergara look-alike on the cover sent me scampering. The leaf green La Hojarasca cover page is what conjures up Macondo to me, not this buxom woman. I did however, succumb to technology and find Big Mama’s funeral and A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings online and reveled in the caricatures. But, that’s satirical humor not the mirthful, mischievous kind that I was looking for.
Could it be that the joyful laughter was lost in translation? Were the nuances of local language and the inside jokes native to Latin America, missed by Gregory Rabassa and Edith Grossman, who are at the top of their game but don’t seem to have visited Columbia? Think how hard it is to translate “mango people in a banana republic” to non-Hindi speakers. Edith Grossman did say in an interview that Marquez was not fussy and not very involved in the translations, with just one exception. “The only proviso was that Gabo hated Spanish adverbs that end in –mente, so I decided to not use English adverbs that end in –ly.” What a beautiful gift to a translator-just one restriction to translate his magnum opus! But it makes me wonder, have we even read Marquez?
Meanwhile, back in the old country, (as European immigrants used to say), seminars were being organized to honor the eminent writer who had never visited India but was revered by generations, intellectuals vied with each other to claim acquaintance by calling him Gabo, and babies born that week were being named Gireesh Garcia Markandaya hoping they would be the next literary phenomenon. Young people argued about the insomnia plague and criticized Salman Rushdie for quoting that in Latin America one can’t say “solitude” anymore without folks invoking Marquez. I was becoming quite frustrated that I was unable to find the book, unable to laugh with Gabo. (There, I said it too. :-))
Then, I discovered (on Wikipedia, of all places!) that Marquez had, with prescience, left me the clue to finding this laughter that I sought. He once said, “Macondo is not so much a place as a state of mind, which allows you to see what you want, and how you want to see it.” So, let me try again, from the very beginning. “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses…“