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The Political Uses of Memory

In his fabulous analysis of the death of Luigi Trastulli, Alessandro Portelli opened up a new task for the study of oral history, one that I would like to replicate in this short entry on the death of Gabriel García Márquez (April 17, 2014). Portelli transformed the study of memory from a question about correspondences between fiction and fact to a question of use. If the former bridges the gap that separates the telling (fiction) from what happened (fact), the latter interrogates those same gaps so as to understand the political functions served by the way our fictions participate in the co-production of facts. Thus, rather than fixing the fact, “cleansing” it, so to speak, from all its narrative impurities, what interests Portelli are the variety of conflictual displacements by which the recounting of facts is politically useful to the tellers.

Given the sheer quantity of reactions that the death of García Márquez—or Gabo, as his friends called him—death motivated, a journalist coined the term “Gabolatría” to characterize the rapidly expanding urge to memoralize him. Rather than indulging excessively in Gabolatría, I will limit myself to mapping three political uses of Gabo memory that I consider rather representative.

The first concerns the instrumental use of his memory, and was expressed in the comments made by Ilan Stavans to New England Public Radio on April 25. Stavans uses Gabo’s death as an occasion for once again splitting García Márquez’s literature from his politics, so as to rescue the former and bury the latter, a desire deeply shared by many conservative positions to this event, in Colombia and the rest of the globe. In Stavans’s rendition, Gabo’s image is divided between the early author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, who contains, according to Stavans, “the DNA of Latin America, its colonial mentality, its fervent desire for freedom and its complex domestic life,” and the elderly Gabo, whose politics become stagnant as he becomes an “uncritical friend of Fidel Castro and even has a house in La Habana.” The memory of Gabo, in this case, is used against him, to divorce his literature from his politics—with the latter reduced to Gabo’s pro-Castro commitments, a political position that is, paradoxically, called a “dinosaur,” even as Stavans himself lapses into Cold War-era reductions (“the house in La Habana”). Such an instrumental use of Gabo’s death is symptomatic of readings that wish to collapse the real into the magical, to deal with literary metaphors, rather than the real social and political problems that finally forced García Márquez to live in exile in Mexico.

The second, and more properly polemical, use of his memory can be represented by the April 26th editorial by the Colombian journalist Antonio Caballero, in the magazine Semana. Caballero took the opposite position, refusing to separate the literary from the political. Unlike the instrumental position, the polemical text calls attention to its own problematic use of Gabo’s memory to fight its struggles, granting this use a greater moral value insofar as it makes its assumptions and hesitancies explicit for the reader. Against the instrumental invocation of Gabo’s name for the purpose of purging his work of its dissenting voice, the polemical reading honors this dissenting spirit in texts which survive the death of the author. Thus, Caballero takes issue with the words of the current Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos, who makes Gabo into a patriotic hero, entrusting his spirit to the nationalistic agenda of the right. Whoever has read his work, Caballero remarks, quickly realizes that Gabo did nothing else in his literature than denounce the horrors of that patria which now enlists him as its spokesperson and representative. Caballero is right to say that García Márquez’s work is a political commentary and critique of the social reality which we still live in Colombia, a country still populated by “apocalyptic rains, catastrophes without story, deaths foretold, news of kidnappings, slaughter of workers, civil wars, political prisoners, military majors, thieves in the towns, corrupt politicians, dictatorships, bureaucratic frauds and delays, inquisitorial processes, demons, soulless grandmothers, dead birds, child prostitution, and a poor Liberator who everyone spits on the face.” To read One Hundred Years of Solitude disconnected from the Massacre of the Banana Plantations in 1928 is not to read Gabo at all, to ignore what still survives in the literature, and makes visible of the neo-colonial continuity of violence now taking place through the funding of paramilitary organizations by Chiquita (that reincarnation of the 1920s-era United Fruit Company denounced in One Hundred Years of Solitude).

Hence Caballero is right to qualify public admiration for Gabo as hypocrisy whenever it is enunciated in social positions that seek to divorce his literature from his politics. Such hypocrisy appeared without its usual mask when the right-wing Colombian congresswoman María Fernanda Cabal openly said that she wished Gabo would soon be in hell with Fidel. She did so because, as Caballero says, Gabo gave us a real and truthful image of Colombia, one that sought to arrive at the real through the magical, rather than the other way around—a real that elites still do not wish to confront.

And yet Gabo’s commitment to the real goes beyond his association with Castro, or with Presidents from the opposite side of the political spectrum, with whom he was photographed as well. Among his contradictory set of commitments one should include García Marquez’s efforts to build an independent and critical infrastructure for journalism in Colombia, his founding of the magazine Alternativa (Alternative) and the Fundación Nuevo Periodismo (the New Journalism Foundation), as well as his constant efforts in fighting for a negotiated peace to the armed conflict in Colombia, just to mention a few. Most of all, however, one should never neglect his invention of another way of describing inhuman realities.

A third position, closer to the polemical than to the instrumental, cannot entirely be qualified as “using a memory” at all. Brief comments by Eduardo Galeano from Río de Janeiro followed the death of his friend that very day. Refusing to play the game of “Gabolatría,” and resisting the instrumentalization of Gabo’s memory in order to wage ideological battles, Galeano claimed that “some pains are better expressed through silence.” Knowing, as the polemical uses of Gabo’s memory do, that the literary work of Gabriel García Márquez offers a very complex, autonomous, and unique political critique of social exclusion, Galeano made a call to celebrate and reread this work. Galeano remained silent about his friendship, a silence with which he conveyed what words could not, that it is in his literary work rather than in memorial photographs that one encounters Gabo’s politics at their best. The unique voice of García Márquez had a global impact on how the world was seen; it offers a different and distinctive perspective, a way of seeing that decenters the hegemonic site of knowledge production from the North to the South, from European capitals to the city of Aracataca in Latin America. And he did this because, as Gabo himself said when he received that prize for which most people know him still, “the interpretation of our reality with foreign frames only contributes to make us more unknown to ourselves, less free, and more solitary.”

Andrés Fabián Henao Castro is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and a columnist for the online magazine Palabras al Margen

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