At the age of 14, I pulled Cien años de soledad out of my family’s typical Colombian middle-class family library. It was a battered old copy of the 1982 paperback, from the year he won the Nobel Prize. The book took over my life, as it has that of so many teens in Colombia, the country where Gabriel García Márquez was born 87 years ago. For a couple of weeks, all I did was read, sleep, eat, and repeat. Later I experienced the obligatory García Márquez backlash that is part of every Colombian’s coming of age, where for a period of time you move from the self-pitying triteness of thinking he is the best and only worthy thing to come out of Colombia, to the petulant triteness of thinking he was just a very good note-taker who plagiarized his grandmother. Eventually you rediscover him in early adulthood, and he’s as wonderful as you always feared him to be.
But I’ve never been able to figure out how he won the Nobel Prize, or why non-Spanish speakers would like him at all. There are certainly Americans for whom his works mean a lot, but I’ve also heard from friends and colleagues that, as much as they wanted to understand and love Cien años, they found it confusing and clunky. The English translations I’ve encountered were painful to read: convoluted and awkward, even bland, when in Spanish he’s everything but. What is it like to read García Márquez in Spanish, as a Colombian? I’ve tried many times to express this to non-Spanish speakers, but explaining the beauty of one language in another language is no easy task. As García Márquez said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “Interpreting our reality through a foreign framework only contributes to making us more unknown, less free, more alone.”
Cien años is particularly rich in Colombianisms, making it even more inaccessible. Here is but one example from the first lines of the first page: “Todo el mundo se espantó al ver que los calderos, las pailas … se caían de su sitio.” My American edition translates the line: “Everybody was amazed to see pots, pans … tumble down from their places.” But calderos and pailas are not exactly pots and pans—the alliteration is nice, yes, but you lost the cauldronlike wizardry of calderos and casual grandmotherly grime of a paila. (Paila is so resolutely Colombian that quite inexplicably it is now a one-word code for “Damn—that’s messed up.”)
García Márquez would choose a word over another because it was close and familiar, or wildly improbable, or deadpan and irrefutable. It’s nearly impossible to recreate this in another language because A) we’re not Nobel laureates, and B) the history, music, or emotion words carry is wrapped up in the context from which they are delivered. García Márquez captured Colombian reality from the inside out, with the precision of a journalist, and the clarity of vision of a poet. “I dare to think that it is this colossal, roaring reality, and not just its literary expression, that this year merited the attention of the Swedish Academy,” he said in that Nobel acceptance speech. “All creatures of that boundless, frenzied reality have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude.”
García Márquez’s was a life that was lived to be told, as he said, complete with dictator friends and lifelong literary foes. He lived to tell the tale of Colombia, of Latin America, to tell it back to us like his grandmother did and like our grandmothers still do, while they can. He explained it to us and to the rest of the world, and for a moment they listened—but few understood, and I don’t blame them. It was Colombians, in the end, he was writing for; he told us our own stories back to us in the language and the music of our mothers, lovers, and friends, and we felt less alone because we had our own solitude to turn to.