by KARLA CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO
I couldn’t tell you what the weather was like on the day he died. It hovered around 50 degrees in New York, but I don’t know if it was sunny and the Internet has moved on. The red moon came and went. I prayed for rain but instead we got hail, some days before or after his passing, I don’t remember. I resented the sunshine when it came. It seemed disrespectful. Gabriel Garcia Marquez had just died, but the sun had come out anyway and somewhere everywhere young co-eds unpacked their shorts and headed to campus lawns carrying Frisbees. Life went on.
Some Christians believe that, for three hours after Christ died, the Earth was cloaked in an inky darkness. From Matthew: “From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.” Theologians disagree on the specifics of the event and we can only fact-check against the Bible (a precarity that should be avoided), but there’s something immeasurably reassuring in believing the heavens will turn black for you, even if that specific move is reserved for the Messiah. The sky didn’t darken when Garcia Marquez passed away and as much as I searched for some kind of local sign, there was nothing. Green chrysanthemums did not start sprouting out of bathroom faucets, eggs did not lose their yolks, white doves followed no one, and midnight fireworks over Sarasota did not warn the poets on the boardwalk about how it all might end. Magical realism had failed us.
There is a Jonathan Larson song from Rent that I’ve always liked. The singer, who is dying — remember, this is Rent, everybody is dying — goes through a list: rain falls, grass grows, flowers bloom, children play, eagles fly, the earth turns, the breeze warms, the tides change, the oceans crash, the crowds roar, the babies cry. What follows the list: “But I die.” The singer has HIV and is literally dying but she also misses her ex-boyfriend and is amazed that life was going on despite her pain. It’s not a wholly solipsistic expectation but it is naïve to carry around that sense of spiritual entitlement. It is also immeasurably comforting.
Growing up on a steady diet of Garcia Marquez’ works, from the journalistic accounts of his early career to that last book he wrote that nobody liked, groomed me to be the kind of adult for whom magical realism was not merely a literary device, but a belief system that provided a language for the way grief was metabolized. For Joan Didion, a dignified adulthood meant losing “the conviction that lights would always turn green for me.”
Garcia Marquez coddled us, promising that not only would traffic lights turn green for us, but swallowtails would swarm the house if someone in it had their heart broken. He didn’t offer a solution for sorrow, but he promised cosmic sympathy. Believing him might be foolish, but it is a legitimate way to grieve.
In Bluets, a little book about heartbreak, Maggie Nelson quotes a friend who said that “we sometimes weep in front of a mirror not to inflame self-pity, but because we want to feel witnessed in our despair.” Magical realism meant never having to experience sadness alone because the earth was looking at us suffer and would respond in time. Maybe a tree would grow outside the house and its fruit would taste salty, like tears, or maybe honeybees would leave their empty hives as an offering outside the kitchen door. Crying was not a private act and mourning was communal.
This was true of Garcia Marquez’s funerary procession. Thousands of people pilgrimaged to the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City to say goodbye to Gabo, as he is affectionately called in Latin America. A storm hit as the public waited for the presidents of Mexico and Colombia to take the stage. The public released yellow butterflies — a mechanic in One Hundred Years of Solitude was always followed by yellow butterflies — into the wind. His ashes might be shared by Mexico and Colombia. It seemed like a very important diplomatic consideration. Thousands of pilgrims with yellow flowers waited their turn to see his urn. Gabo had died, leaving behind him a trail of tears and yellow butterflies.
"I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You" - The Hold Steady (mp3)
"On With The Business" - The Hold Steady (mp3)