Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

r e t r o s p e c t i v e
GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ
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Half a Century Later: the Leaf Storm's still blowing

—Suddenly, as if a whirlwind had set down roots in the center of the town, the banana company arrived, pursued by the leaf storm. A whirling leaf storm had been stirred up, formed out of the human and material dregs of other towns, the chaff of a civil war that seemed ever more remote and unlikely. The whirlwind was implacable. It contaminated everything with its swirling crowd smell, the smell of skin secretion and hidden death. In less than a year it sowed over the town the rubble of many catastrophes that had come before it, scattering its mixed cargo of rubbish in the streets. And all of a sudden that rubbish, in time to the mad and unpredicted rhythm of the storm, was being sorted out, individualized, until what had been a narrow street with a river at one end and a corral for the dead at the other was changed into a different and more complex town, created out of the rubbish of other towns. … —Macondo, 1909
DOESN'T THIS read like a scene out of Gabo's (aka Gabriel García Márquez's) One Hundred Years of Solitude? Nice try. This is the introduction to Gabo's first published novella, La Hojarasca (in English, Leaf Storm), which introduced the mythical and desolate town of Macondo fifty years ago. One Hundred Years of Solitude, on the other hand, was published in 1970, 15 years after the town's debut in Leaf Storm.

Leaf Storm (also translated by Gregory Rabassa, who brought the English-speaking world One Hundred Years of Solitude and others) is not widely cherished like some of Gabo's other books. In its first edition, it included not only the novella, but several acclaimed short stories, such as "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World," "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" and "Blacaman the Good, Vendor of Miracles."

According to Gabo in an interview with writer Gene H. Bell-Villada for the Virginia Quarterly Review, the popular "king of magical realism" holds a great deal of affection for Leaf Storm. He wrote it when he was young, "a 22- or 23-year-old kid who feels he’s not going to write anything else in life, feels it’s his only chance, and he tries to throw in everything he remembers, everything he’s learned about literary technique and sophistication from every author he’s seen."

Gabo was essentially homeless when he began working on Leaf Storm in the early 1950s. He'd been working as a reporter for Bogotá's El Espectador, but wages were tight and he had no place to call home. However, near his workplace were transient hotels that bought him 24 hours of time and space for a peso and fifty cents, so he moved in among the prostitutes and set up shop working on the novella, which he carried with him in drafts in a leather bag everywhere he went. When, on one evening, he couldn't pay for one night's stay, Gabo says he told the man collecting "rent": "Look, you see this here? They’re some papers, it’s what most important to me and it’s worth much more than a peso fifty. I’ll leave them with you and tomorrow I’ll pay.” When he had money to pay, he’d pay; when he didn’t, he’d go in, say "Hello, good evening!” and leave his folder on the front desk in order to get a key. Gabo spent more than a year doing this, and it's at this transient hotel where he finished writing Leaf Storm.

Gabo's literary career launched shortly afterward with a short-story award and the publication of Leaf Storm, which might be, in and of itself, a miracle. The original draft to the novella was finished in 1952, but when Gabo submitted it for publication, it was rejected. He'd been working on its revisions when, in 1955, he traveled to Central Europe. While there, his friends in Bogotá rescued the manuscript from the shelf and sent it on to a publisher, who finally put it in print. But this success was minor: Leaf Storm went largely unnoticed by scholars and critics, despite its literary merits. (Even today, fans of Gabo are likely not to have read the novella at all.)

ORIGINS OF LEAF STORM
Where did he get his ideas? Gabo was influenced by many major writers of the times, but real life for him was equally illuminating. He started writing Leaf Storm after visiting his old family home in Aracataca, an experience from which sprang forth a single visual image of himself as a little boy, sitting on a chair in the living room. The story itself borrows from real life, recounting in the fictive space of Macondo a killing that nobody witnessed but everybody in Colombia knew about. Gabo's grandfather told him the story of that murder when he was just a boy less than six in age. It wasn't until he'd grown up, learned the art of journalism and investigated the story for himself that he began to piece together truths and fictions into the story that would become his first novella. He ended up with what he has characterized as "a baroque novel and all complicated and all screwed up," admitting that what he tried to achieve in Leaf Storm he ended up doing "much more serenely" in his later novel, The Autumn of the Patriarch.

"If you pay attention," he says in the Virginia Quarterly Review interview, "The structure of Patriarch is exactly the same as that of Leaf Storm; they’re points of view organized around a dead man’s body." But with Leaf Storm, he acknowledges that inconfidence as a young writer led to him adopt strategies used by Faulkner in As I Lay Dying to tell the story, using three viewpoints (akin to Faulkner's separate, named monologues). Each of the story's three main characters see the same events, but each interpret them differently, giving rise to the basic foundation of magical realism.

Faulkner was perhaps Gabo's greatest influence, though at that time Gabo was also tuned into folks like Kafka and Sophocles. Gabo admired Faulkner for "interpreting and expressing a reality that looks a lot like" his home town's—Aracataca's. It's been widely accepted since that Macondo, in all its incarnations, is comparable to Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha in terms of literary depth, execution and detail.

EARLY MAGICAL REALISM, GABO-STYLE
Leaf Storm was the earliest emergence of Gabo's signature variant of magical realism, though it's widely known that he's resisted that label on the grounds that "There’s not a single line in any of my books that I can’t tell you which experience from reality it corresponds to. Always, there’s a reference to a concrete reality."

Other contemporaries throughout Latin America were also writing their own versions of literary magical realism as part of what is now known as El Boom, or else they were drafting essays to define and characterize it. Even among them, some had trouble placing Gabo's work within what they understood as magical realism at that time.

But Gabo developed a following anyway. In fact, he takes credit: "'The whole notion that I am an intuitive is a myth I have created myself,'' he says, though not through the use of magic and miracles, but through good, old-fashioned hard work: reading and writing. Studying literature is "the only way'' to become an adept creative writer, Gabo insists, though he also credits his work as a reporter for giving him the additional skill to write magical realism: "The tricks you need to transform something which appears fantastic, unbelievable into something plausible, credible, those I learned from journalism,'' he said. ''The key is to tell it straight."

That's what's especially interesting about Leaf Storm—Gabo paints these early characters and the town of Macondo without sentiment or whimsy, unlike his later, more celebrated “magical realism” narratives. He tells it straight…and it works.

THE FIRST SNAPSHOT OF MACONDO
Leaf Storm's Macondo (which means banana in Bantu and is the name of a banana plantation near Aracataca) rivals the Macondo of One Hundred Years of Solitude in its abject reality. An essay in TheModernWord.com describes the early Macondo as "a devastated place, lonely and broken down, existing in the povertized solitude left when the banana company pulled up and went away."

Here, it's important to point out that the term, leaf storm, is colloquial and suggests devastation. The town, drenched by rain, begins to exude "a palpable odor of decay. The people are closed and bitter, quick to judge and harsh in their sentences. Living among them is the Colonel, a honorable man who takes it on himself to fulfill a promise he made years ago: to bury the Doctor, a salacious and parsimonious foreigner who had the distinction of being the most hated man in Macondo. The story revolves around the relationship between the Doctor and the Colonel’s family, and the difficult task of burying the man the rest of the town would rather see rot, forgotten and unattended." This is hardly the enchanted village we come to know and love later.

TO OWN A PIECE OF LITERARY HISTORY
If you haven't read any of Gabo's work, Leaf Storm is probably not the place to start. Shoot first for One Hundred Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera or Autumn of the Patriarch. Then, work backward to Leaf Storm. You'll enjoy connecting the dots between novels past and present as well as witness the power of the microcosm of Macondo from its earliest dawning.

Because Leaf Storm isn't as widely popular and circulated as most of Gabo's other works, used copies of the English-language edition (which wasn't released until two years after One Hundred Years of Solitude made Gabriel García Márquez a household name in North America), command amazing sums. One fine first edition in hardcover and inscribed by the author in 1992, "in a very good plus jacket that shows light wear to the extremities and a small closed tear on the top front panel," goes for a whopping $1,500.

Luckily, readers who can't afford that price tag can still find affordable copies of the classic novella and story collection in reprint via Harper Perennial's Harper Colophon imprint, which was release in 1990.

SOURCE ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Gabo Works: Fiction, by Allen B. Ruch for TheModernWord.com, November 2004

Gabriel García Márquez (1928-), for the Kirjasto Books and Writers resource

Journey Back to the Source—An Interview with Gabriel García Márquez, by Gene H. Bell-Villada for Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2005

Leaf Storm and Other Stories, by Gabriel García Márquez, tr. Gregory Rabassa, ©1973, Avon Books (a First Bard Printing in arrangement with Harper & Row Publishers, Inc.)

Leaf Storm and Other Stories bookseller sales information, Matthew Raptis & Co., Booksellers of Brattleboro, VT, U.S.A.

A Talk With Gabriel García Márquez, by Marlise Simons for The New York Times (Books), December 5, 1982 [free subscription required]

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