A Sad Day in Literature

The world is losing one of the 20th century’s great authors.  Gabriel Garcia Márquez has retired from writing at the age of 85 due to the effects of dementia.

Márquez in 1984

Jaime García Márquez told students in Cartagena, Colombia, that his older brother, affectionately know as Gabo, calls him on the telephone to ask basic questions.

“He has problems with his memory. Sometimes I cry because I feel like I’m losing him,” he said.

The 85-year-old Colombian writer won the Nobel prize in 1982 and is best known for novels including One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera and Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

He has fought a long battle against lymphatic cancer which he contracted in 1999 and it is believed that the cancer treatment has accelerated his mental decline.

“Dementia runs in our family and he’s now suffering the ravages prematurely due to the cancer that put him almost on the verge of death,” said Jaime. “Chemotherapy saved his life, but it also destroyed many neurons, many defences and cells, and accelerated the process. But he still has the humour, joy and enthusiasm that he has always had.”

According to WebMD, there are at least 50 different causes of dementia. However, for most of us the cause is less important than the effect. As individuals, our identity consists primarily of our memories. This identity is also partially determined by the memories of those who have known us, as our interactions in the world depend upon our relations with others. Our parents, our siblings, and our friends and enemies all contain memories of events that have defined us and them. When those memories disappear, a small part of us disappears as well.

In a 1981 interview, Márquez talked about memory and interpretation in journalism and fiction.

On interviews:

The best way, I feel, is to have a long conversation without the journalist taking any notes. Then afterward he should reminisce about the conversation and write it down as an impression of what he felt, not necessarily using the exact words expressed.

On his most famous journalist tale The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor:

The sailor would just tell me his adventures and I would rewrite them trying to use his own words and in the first person, as if he were the one who was writing.

On literature and memories:

Around 1950 or ’51 another event happened that influenced my literary tendencies. My mother asked me to accompany her to Aracataca, where I was born, and to sell the house where I spent my first years. When I got there it was at first quite shocking because I was now twenty-two and hadn’t been there since the age of eight. Nothing had really changed, but I felt that I wasn’t really looking at the village, but I was experiencing it as if I were reading it. It was as if everything I saw had already been written, and all I had to do was to sit down and copy what was already there and what I was just reading. For all practical purposes everything had evolved into literature: the houses, the people, and the memories

Our memories are also fluid and aren’t necessarily the same as events described in the past, and different people often have entirely different memories of the same events. Memories can also be artificially created, as happened in the Satanic ritual abuse craze of the 1980s and 90s.

If stories are told often enough, they can become part of our collective memories and history as well. Thus story tellers are the keepers of our past and Márquez’s tales have infused our memories of the history of Columbia. This is especially true of 100 Years of Solitude, the book that identified him as a literary giant by telling the entire history of Columbia in 450 pages.

Márquez on memory, literature and journalism:

What I would really like to do is a piece of journalism which is completely true and real, but which sounds as fantastic as One Hundred Years of Solitude. The more I live and remember things from the past, the more I think that literature and journalism are closely related.

Here again, we have truth integrated with memory, a concept examined in the book

The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dali 1931

Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. According to them, we create a personal mythology through which we interpret memories to create a persona that matches our concept of personal morality.

Memory is ephemeral and is subject to manipulation and exterior influence as well as interior justifications. Many of us have felt the pain that Jaime Márquez feels in the loss of memory in someone we love. In their loss of memory, not only does their personality disappear, but a little bit of ourselves vanishes as well.

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