Macondo in the Soul
The Casa del Hielo, at the corner of Barrio Boston, Aracataca. I begin the story of the real Macondo at the same point where the story of the fictional Macondo begins. Travelers from all over the world visit this place from time to time, admirers of Gabriel García Márquez who hope to find here, in the town where he was born, tangible elements of his literary universe.
When certain nonchalant locals catch wind of these foreigners in the town’s streets, they understand that it’s time to get into character. Macondo may be pure fiction in the pages of One Hundred Years of Solitude, compadre, but here in Aracataca it exists, it’s genuine, physical matter, they see it every day and they can make it visible to the visitors who have faith in finding it somewhere beyond literature. This house on the corner, for example, was where Colonel Aureliano Buendía discovered the ice that he would have cause to remember many years later, as you know, before the firing squad. Pass me the camera, if you will, and I’ll take a photo of you here with your girlfriend.
If the tourist asks for more details, they’re forthcoming. The wooden house was built in 1923. Up to two hundred blocks of ice were stored on its patio every week during the days of the United Fruit Company, the multinational corporation that controlled the production of bananas in these lands at the time. For the old folks who lived in Aracataca in those days, the coming of the ice represented a remarkable advancement. They had just discovered a marvel that would serve to preserve foods and beat back the scorching heat.
Sometimes the spontaneous guides add that, during much of the past century, ice was a status symbol. You know what I mean, you old gringo, a little ice for your midday lemonade and a little ice for your evening refreshments. A luxury that could never be available to everyone, only the rich families of Aracataca and the bigwigs of the banana company. The blocks came from Ciénaga on a United Fruit Company train. They were covered in sawdust to keep them from melting, since wood serves as thermal insulation. Anyone who wanted a cold drink had to go to the patio and chip off a few flakes.
“That’s right, míster, you know how the news goes around here with this heat.”
Sometimes, while the guide attends to the foreigners, some kids in flip-flops will appear: children who now earn a living selling bags of frozen water. The tour guide will shoot them a knowing glance and smile.
“The ups and downs of life: before it was way too expensive to drink cold water and now it’s the cheapest thing in the world. Just three hundred bucks, míster. Today the ice is the air conditioning of the poor.”
The guide picks up his speech right where he left off when he made the digression. Then he says that in the 1920s, the children loved these blocks, since they were scored with cracks that shone as if iridescent in the sunlight. And so, one of the favorite plans for a family afternoon out was to come to this house and stare at the ice. Gabito–almost everyone here calls him that–surely came many times with his grandfather, Colonel Nicolás Márquez. The only difference is that in the novel the one who came to discover the ice was Colonel Aureliano Buendía. That Gabito is such a trickster!
In the real Macondo, many people live convinced that they know every element of the fictional Macondo like the back of their hand. They quote its characters as if they had seen them in the neighborhood, they describe its spaces as if they were right before their eyes. That’s what the poet Rafael Darío Jiménez tells me while we walk into the Casa del Hielo.
Casa del Hielo? House of Ice?
The name sounds ironic: when we cross the threshold, we are met by a puff of hot air. On the ground is a pile of electrical cables and many parts of disassembled cars.
“Now it’s a mechanic’s shop,” says Jiménez.
Many visitors search in the real Macondo for the poetic resonance of the literary Macondo. But here the ice is not a gleaming floe that remains intact in memory but a vulgar substance that slides between your hands. Nonetheless, Jiménez the poet tells me that some visitors insist. They want to know, for example, which one of the town’s women was the original mold of Petra Cotes, the lover of Aureliano the Second in One Hundred Years of Solitude. You can always find an astute local to provide the requested information.
“That was What’s-Her-Name, So-And-So’s girl.”
Then the guides add that, according to what their parents said their grandparents said, the Mauricio Babilonia of the novel was an electrician who, every time he passed by the house of the Márquez Iguarán–Gabito’s grandparents–left a swarm of yellow butterflies in his path. Curiously, many of the natives have never read a single García Márquez book. But they have heard talk of their creatures and stories for years, they are well aware of how to exploit certain Macondian codes. What’s more, they feel that the Macondo of literature is a simple reflection of their own lives. And so, why waste time searching in novels when they can see it on their own street corners?
“You all want to know who that Rebecca girl who ate dirt was? A lady called Francisca who lived on Monseñor Espejo street.”
I tell Rafael Darío that if I was from around here and I had no formal education, I would also think I knew my town’s most illustrious resident without having read him. After all, I’ve been seeing him in the press for years, I’ve heard his voice in the voice of the entire world. If I were just another townsperson and I shut my eyes so someone could read me passages from One Hundred Years of Solitude out loud, I would feel that they were naming my close relatives, I would feel that they were leading me down familiar paths. I would recognize the basin where my aunt washed her hands and the mosquito net that sheltered my uncle. I would rediscover, in fiction, certain objects of reality that are no longer seen in reality itself: the folding bed, the gramophone, the pewter chamberpot. I would identify my compadre’s fighting cock, I would suppose that Remedios la Bella ascended to the heavens wrapped up in white sheets that my grandma washed that morning. I would see Úrsula Iguarán as the personification of my great-grandmother: blind and indestructible.
I understand that these folk don’t see the stories of García Márquez as a poetic transposition of reality, but rather as the simple documentary reproduction of the everyday events described by the neighbors.
“You got it, gringo, who ever said Gabito made those stories up? He said it himself in the interviews, he was just taking notes. So there you have it, on my madre.”
Gabito’s townsfolk know that he is a very important man whose wings spread wide, of course, they know he is renowned, celebrated, funny, distinguished, but many of them don’t see him exactly as a fabulist, as someone who created the universe for which he became so famous. They see him only as a scribe, as a guy who was able to capture in his books the heritage passed down from his elders, a compadre who stuffed his suitcase with all of their stories and made them spread to the furthest corner of the planet.
At that moment, the poet Rafael Darío Jiménez hands me one of the many newspaper clippings he has been collecting throughout his long life as a researcher of García Márquez’s work. A few years ago, he founded a restaurant called “Gabo” in Aracataca, a sort of altar visited by the author’s devotees. There they can pay homage to him and, while they’re at it, eat a nice filet of red snapper with fried plantains. On the walls there are magazine covers dedicated to Gabito, photographs of Gabito, autographs from Gabito. While you sit down on a leather barstool to wait for your lunch, you can listen in fascination to your host, who speaks with the typical grace of the wordsmiths of the Caribbean.
“The first Macondo to exist was a tree,” he says. “It’s originally from Africa, and it can get to be three hundred fifty meters tall.”
“Like the bonga.”
“Like the bonga. In the area where they grow bananas there’s a plantation that still exists to this day. They call it Macondo because they had a lot of those trees.”
“So the plantation would be the second Macondo.”
“Exactly. The third is Gabito’s. In his memoirs, he says he was on the train one day and he suddenly saw the plantation by the side of the track. He read the sign that said ‘Macondo’ on the front of the building, and he was impressed.”
“Sure, the story of the plantation is also a well known part of the myth.”
“Gabito says that before the journey was over he knew the town in One Hundred Years of Solitude would be called Macondo.”
“The third Macondo, then.”
“Yes, the third. The first and second were real Macondos. Gabito’s Macondo is an imaginary world, like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.”
I tell Rafael Darío that, in principle, the Macondo of fiction was fueled by the Macondo of reality, but then the opposite began to happen: the writer’s voice—irresistible, contagious—imposed certain codes upon reality. The proof of the pudding is in the eating: there was never an exact register of the workers massacred during the banana strike of 1928. Gabito wrote in One Hundred Years of Solitude that there were three thousand deaths, and so it passed into history. Later, a congressman proposed a moment of silence in honor of the three thousand victims of the massacre.
If, in the remote lands of the capital, the senators of the Republic invent reality based on fiction, the inhabitants of this burning, real-life Macondo, where the trick was born, have all the more reason to do so. That’s how things go, leading us to an exotic conclusion: it’s also possible to reinvent the quotidian through illusions. Reality as an image of itself, the image as a new reality.
I hold before my eyes, at last, the newspaper clipping that Rafael Darío just passed me. He smiles and puts his right index finger on a paragraph written by García Márquez himself. I read it aloud:
“I’ve always had a lot of respect for the readers who search for the hidden reality behind my books. But I have more respect for those who find it, because I never have. In Aracataca, the town by the Caribbean where I was born, this seems to be an everyday task. There, in the last twenty years, a generation of astute children has been born who wait at the train station for the myth-hunters to take them to see the places, the things, and even the characters of my novels: the tree where José Arcadio the elder was tied up, or the chestnut under whose shadow Colonel Aureliano Buendía died, or the tomb where Úrsula Iguarán was buried—maybe alive—in a shoebox.”
I smile and take a sip of the lemonade, heavy with ice, that the waitress just brought me. I keep reading.
“Those kids haven’t read my novels, of course, so their knowledge of the mythical Macondo doesn’t come from them, and the places, things, and characters they show the tourists are only real to the extent that they are willing to accept them. That is, behind the Macondo created by literary fiction there is another Macondo, yet more imaginary and mythical, created by the readers, and certified by the children of Aracataca as a third Macondo, visible and palpable, which is, without a doubt, the falsest of all. Luckily, Macondo is not a place but a state of mind that allows you to see what you want to see, and to see it however you like.”
And so, Macondo is carried not on the outside but within. It’s in the soul, far beyond the stones of the real Macondo, far beyond the pages of the literary Macondo. Macondo is a myth that ascended forever to the upper atmosphere where not even the highest-flying birds of memory could reach it.
Macondo is an invention as much of the author as of his readers. That being said, the literary licences with which one kills are the same ones with which one dies. In the epigraph of Living to Tell the Tale, his autobiography, García Márquez says: “Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.” This is no more and no less than the strategy of those who make tourism out of the elements that served Gabito to make literature. They also have their stories, they also narrate. You got it, gringo, now don’t go trying to find out if what you heard is true or false. We’re not interested in that sort of rubbish. If we told you it, it’s because it’s true. In the Caribbean the truth doesn’t happen: it’s told.
Not long ago, another great writer of this region, Ramón Illán Bacca, told me one of those stories that demonstrates that, in the Caribbean, what matters is not knowing the answer but saying it, and saying it with grace. On one occasion, Ramón was talking to a guy who suddenly mentioned “the sword of Demosthenes.” Ramón, in all his erudition, couldn’t resist the temptation to correct him.
“It’s the sword of Damocles.”
But the guy, far from developing a complex, struck upon a more than worthy argument.
“Well, it doesn’t matter if it’s Demosthenes or Damocles, because these days everyone goes around with a sword on them.”
That morning, on the other end of the phone line, Ramón blurted out his brilliant conclusion between guffaws: in the Caribbean, no one wants to kill themselves over confusing Achilles’ heel with Atilla’s, or for washing Herod’s hands and leaving Pilate’s dirty. So you can save those rational scruples, míster, you didn’t come from so far away just to ruin the story.
Every person you bump into has their own Macondo, everyone around here carries the story that chance assigned them. Now, while Rafael Darío Jiménez puts away the newspaper clipping, I remember an anecdote the poet Juan Manuel Roca told me when I announced my journey to Aracataca. One afternoon, after a reading in Santa Marta, Roca came to this town with several poets from other countries, among them the Cuban writer Eliseo Alberto. The guide who met them was the most loquacious guy in the world. With no shame, he sought in the real Macondo certain equivalencies with the fictional Macondo. The insomnia plague, according to him, began at the Puente de los Varaos; the trickle of blood that ran down the Calle de los Turcos in One Hundred Years of Solitude came from a guy who had been a friend of his grandfather’s, and so on.
One of the poets, half in jest and half serious, paid him a compliment.
“How intelligent you are!”
Then the guide expressed his gratitude in the finest Macondian style:
“I’m glad you say that, poet. You see, here in Aracataca we’re all intelligent, but Gabito’s the only one who knows how to write.”
I came to the banana-growing region of the Magdalena, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, because they told me that here I would find Macondo, the mythical town created by the writer Gabriel García Márquez. I’ve spent four days in this area, and I’m still wondering where Macondo lies, what are its boundaries.
“Macondo’s just up there, compadre. It’s a plantation.”
“Macondo? Shit, man, I owe you one: I don’t know.”
“Macondo is all the land we’re standing on,” says the poet Rafael Darío Jiménez. “Where we came from was Macondo and where we’re going will be Macondo.”
“Damn, I miss that question. Macondo is in the books by García Márquez. Haven’t you read One Hundred Years of Solitude?”
I’ve found Macondo in various elements throughout my journey. In the banana plantations that stretch out on both sides of the highway. In the afternoon heat at two o’clock. In the speckled hen who laid an egg on the altar and then disturbed the whole neighborhood with her clucking. In the streets by the big house where this fable was born: dusty, winding. Without a doubt, in these lands the world is still so recent that many things still lack a name, and in order to indicate them it is necessary to point.
I’ve found Macondo, I’d say, in that sadness that people sometimes feel even when they have a smile on their faces. In the conversations about the war, the forever war that passes from the real Macondo to the fictional Macondo and vice versa. In the old lady in mourning who, despite her fragile appearance, shakes the house with her commanding voice. In the chaos, in the lack of memory, in the cyclical repetition of our calamities. In the stories they told me about the eternal political disputes and the systemic corruption. Macondo is this Aracataca through which I walk, although it’s no longer a village of twenty adobe houses, like in the novel, but a real town with forty thousand residents.
Macondo is also all I have heard during the trip. I went to the Colegio Gabriel García Márquez to interview Professor Frank Domínguez, an expert on Gabito’s work. He told me that Macondo is a spark, an act of witchcraft. Stay alert and you’ll hear its music. Macondo plays, Macondo sings, Macondo enchants.
“If you’re going to write about Macondo,” Professor Domínguez told me, “you have to read Friedrich Nietzsche.”
At that moment, I must admit, I felt like I was hallucinating.
“Nietzsche in Macondo?”
“Of course: Nietzsche. He said the best phrase I know to describe Gabito: ‘The intellectual power of a man is measured by the dose of humor which he is able to use.’”
“What a good phrase.”
“It’s the epigraph of the book I wrote to celebrate Gabito’s humor.”
When I was leaving the school, I ran headfirst once again into the ludicrous spirit that Ramón Illán Bacca had told me about. On one of the walls, I read the following quote, attributed to the poet “Pedro” Neruda: “One Hundred Years of Solitude is perhaps the greatest revelation in the Spanish language since the Don Quixote of Cervantes.”
By this point, I understand the rules of the game. In Macondo, it doesn’t matter if you call him Pedro or Pablo because we’re all poets here, dammit.
I already said that Macondo is what you hear while you travel through the banana-growing region. Prick up your ears, stay still when the breeze buzzes by. Then you walk a little further and you hear Professor Aura Ballesteros, who they call “Fernanda del Carpio” because she’s “the highlander of the story.” She was born in Simijaca, close to the cold city of Bogotá.
“Macondo is a ray of light,” she says. “Here, the sun never hides for long.”
Searching for Macondo in the landscapes and voices of the banana-growing region, I stumbled upon an unusual story: the story of the Dutch traveler Tim Aan’t Goor, who came to Aracataca with the same intention as all the other visitors: he wanted to find, in reality, the magic that had dazzled him in literature. He came for a week and he’s been here for three years. Not long ago, he built a vault in the town to symbolically bury Melquíades, the unforgettable gypsy of the fictional Macondo.
When I saw the tomb, I wondered if the Macondo of my chronicle would also come to an allegorical end. But now I’m here, in Bogotá, in front of my computer, convinced that Macondo is much more that everything I saw and heard in the banana-growing region. Macondo came with me because it has always been within me. It is the passion for narrating that I drank from the words of Gabito, my prophet, the only sorcerer I believe in. Many people can tell a story well, but few are capable, like him, of creating a personal universe that is easy to identify from the first line to the last. And for that reason, it seems only fair to close my eyes so that Macondo can live on in my memory and the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude can finally have the second opportunity they deserve.
Translated by Arthur Dixon