It is inevitable: a tribute to Gabriel García Márquez will try to achieve a remarkable opening line. And, having circumvented the problem, at once arrive at the question of style. But these are hard times for style, when its preeminence has been diminished by those who do not have it.
It is our most under-reported battle – the animosity between the stylish and the rest. So, what is the opposite of style? It is not a question that seeks a contemptuous antonym. There is, of course, the alliterative inanity of "substance". "Style and substance", people often say – as if style, by its very nature, excludes substance. There is another compliment used to fete the absence of literary flamboyance – "precise". As if style is a delirium that makes writers ramble.
One Hundred Years of Solitude is substantive and substantial, and its prose precise for the simple reason that its sentences are too exquisite to be inessential. It is a novel on which is bestowed the laurels usually awarded to great works of frugal prose. Yet its genius is in the operatic telling.
And there is the matter of magic realism. García Márquez is often stuffed into this genre. That is unkind. If a man can fly or a monkey talk, what is left for the story to say, what can be more important than a man flying or a monkey talking? He has never denied that the preternatural elements in the novel are just that. But there is another way to read them.
The writer Arthur Clarke said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Similarly, a historical account as narrated by ancient rustics will be indistinguishable from magic. Even as a child, García Márquez was close to the old, and he listened carefully to their memories. When a writer recounts without the condescension of interpretation, it will be indistinguishable from magic.
When Macondo, the fictitious village at the heart of the novel, is struck by a deadly insomnia plague, it causes the inhabitants to lose their memory. In 1975, a few years after the publication of the novel, neurologists formally recognised a form of dementia – semantic dementia – remarkably similar to the disorder in this apparent magic realism. García Márquez himself is suffering from senile dementia. After Macondo is struck by memory loss, its inhabitants put up signs on things so that they do not forget. Is there a way we can reach inside his beautiful mind and hang a sign, in gratitude, "You are Gabriel García Márquez, of course"?
Manu Joseph's 'The Illicit Happiness of Other People' is published by John Murray