Living to Tell the Tale

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Márquez's magical world offers hope for the real one.

Gabriel García Márquez's memoirs, or at the least the first volume of them, will be published in early November. It's a strange piece of autobiography, because Márquez has already become a kind of legend. His status as a writer must be unique - he has become almost indistinguishable from the world he has created and the people in it. The Gabriel he writes about, and the Colombia in which he grows up, both seem very familiar and very immediate.

Of course, his novels are set in a single place - the community of Macondo - which is imaginary and metaphorical. It is isolated geographically, surrounded by inhospitable landscapes that trap its inhabitants where they are. At the beginning of Márquez's great novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, Colonel José Arcadio Buendía tried to lead an expedition out of the trap. But on one side is the ocean, on another a great swamp, on another a hostile mountain range. Only the jungle seems to offer an escape route, but after days and days of marching they find only a Spanish galleon in a tree - and the group turns back.

The terrible irony is that while the inhabitants seem unable to escape, external forces can come in at will. When the first train arrives, it's preceded by a woman screaming about this strange new creature about to enter the village. When technology makes its earliest appearance, it is in its most trivial form - ice or false teeth - as consumer goods. The industrial development, the accumulation of resources, the technological foundations happen somewhere else - only the products arrive.

I remember walking along a street in Lima a few years ago where the very poorest people in the city sat in the road with a blanket spread out in front of them selling plastic Donald Ducks and Mickey Mouse pencils. They had arrived in exactly the same way as false teeth came to Macondo.

So isolation was one aspect of Macondo. The other was violence. In his memoirs Márquez describes his early years as a writer and journalist in a country which lived through a 14-year period known only as La Violencia, 'the violence'. What began with the assassination in Bogotá of a popular presidential candidate, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, and the three days of urban protest that followed, continued as local and regional armed conflict when all political life seemed to be suspended or abandoned - a situation Márquez describes in another novel, In Evil Hour.

The odd thing is that Colombians themselves have begun to use the word Macondo to describe their own world. The metaphorical place seems more real than the ungraspable reality of their own country.

Here was a place whose history, whose very origins, seemed to be shaped by external forces that arrived in their world, yet were outside their control. First it was the Spanish colonists, then European capitalists, later the US oil and fruit corporations. Today, Colombia lives with the unwanted gift of over 2 billion dollars worth of US 'aid' which is almost entirely directed towards the Colombian army and police. External forces and internal interests combine to continue the violence, with or without the capital letter. The state of emergency which suspends normal politics and legitimises all forms of military repression continues with no sign of an ending.

In this frightening reality, trivial things become full of significance. Disney films and comics issuing out of Bush's America take on a sinister undertone as weapons of ideological war. Thirty years ago, as the military coup in Chile was being prepared, the US and its friends and allies in the armed forces always chose the names of Disney characters to describe their military plans - Donald Duck, Pluto, Mandrake. Today, brand names like Nike or Gap carry sinister undertones.

Coca-Cola is perhaps the most chilling of all. Today in Colombia, in Macondo, the workers of the bottling plants are fighting for their lives. Their dispute with the company, like everything else in Colombia, has been militarised; trade union activity is subversion, and therefore subject to direct repression. Thousands of trade unionists have been killed in the last decade under the umbrella of a war against terrorism (previously known as the war on drugs).

The metaphor of Macondo becomes terribly real. You know that somewhere there is a reason for things - real forces, real interests using their power to destroy and terrorise in their own interests. But it is impossible to know who is responsible or how to stop them. That is the reality. On the other hand, in Macondo, in the world of the imagination, of popular memory, the oppressed and exploited have their own extraordinary powers - and their own story, where the world is turned upside down (or possibly right side up).

Small wonder that Colombians, and even Márquez himself, would prefer Macondo to a Colombia where Coca-Cola rules.