Was Gabo An Irishman?

In an excerpt from a new compilation of essays, editor Caroline Doherty de Novoa wonders what Gabriel García Márquez, the father of magic realism, would have written about were he Irish

My husband is convinced that there is a website called 'wiki-paddy-a', which I use to prove that my beloved homeland, Ireland, has given the world many great things. Like Halloween, for example, or the discovery of America.

That’s right. You heard me. Researchers are certain that there was a colony of Irish folk living in what is now South Carolina, when Christopher Columbus 'discovered' the New World. Fact. Look it up.

Anyway, despite the force of the evidence, my Colombian husband balks when I make these kinds of assertions. So, I can only imagine what his reaction will be to my latest theory: the late novelist Gabriel García Márquez was Irish.

Wait. Before you stop reading, just hear me out. I’m not crazy. I promise.

Just like many great Irish writers (such as Joyce, Beckett, Wilde, and O’ Brien – Edna, that is, not Flann), Marquez, known affectionately as Gabo in his native Colombia, lived most of his adult life abroad, but he returned to the place of his birth again and again in his work. He lived in Paris, Mexico and elsewhere, and yet his most memorable stories are set in the Colombian Caribbean coast.

Gabo himself admitted: 'All of my books have loose threads of Cartagena in them. And, with time, when I have to call up memories, I always bring back an incident from Cartagena, a place in Cartagena, a character in Cartagena.'

This ability to write about home only from a distance is something with which many Irish writers are familiar. Joyce is perhaps the greatest example. He left Ireland as a young man, and yet his fictional universe is Dublin, through and through.

Gabo didn’t come up with the idea for One Hundred Years of Solitude sitting on a bench in a dusty Caribbean village; it came to him as he drove with his family on the road to Acapulco. And yet, as we all know, Macondo is not Acapulco. Only by leaving was he able to write his way home.

Speaking about the great Irish writer Brendan Behan, in 1979, TE Kalem wrote in Time magazine: 'The English language brings out the best in the Irish. They court it like a beautiful woman. 

'They make it bray with donkey laughter. They hurl it at the sky like a paint pot full of rainbows, and then make it chant a dirge for man’s fate and man’s follies that is as mournful as misty spring rain crying over the fallow earth. Rarely has a people paid the lavish compliment and taken the subtle revenge of turning its oppressor’s speech into sorcery.'

Now, swap 'English' for 'Spanish' and 'Irish' for 'Colombian' and Kalem could well have been talking about Gabo, who created magic with his words. In doing so, he paid the conquistadores the great compliment (or perhaps exacted the ultimate revenge) of creating what is, without doubt, the finest work of literature in the Spanish language since Cervantes’s Don Quixote.

Many people on the Colombian coast tut unkindly and say that Gabo did not create anything, he merely recorded what was going on around him. That, of course, is to under-appreciate his genius. Yet Gabo would be the first to admit that he was, principally, a chronicler of his immediate world. So I sometimes like to imagine what his work might have been like if he had not grown up in Colombia but somewhere else.

Would his stories have been so magical if he’d lived in Sweden or Canada or Korea? I don’t know. But I like to believe that if he’d lived in Ireland he would still have found inspiration aplenty. Because Ireland, like Colombia, is a place where magic is treated as real and where the real is almost the stuff of myth.

He might have found inspiration in the 1916 Easter Uprising, in which a ragbag of volunteer 'soldiers', led by a schoolmaster, a shopkeeper, and a polio sufferer, rose up against the mighty British Empire. Of course, they were doomed to failure, and the uprising was initially met by a mixture of bewilderment and hostility amongst the very Irish people that the rebels were trying to liberate. However, all that changed when the British executed many of the leaders.

What might have otherwise been recorded in history as a minor skirmish on the streets of Dublin became a battle of mythical importance, making heroes (for many) out of its martyred leaders. Just imagine what Gabo would have done with a story like that.

In a 1984 interview with NPR, Gabo said his writing was forever shaped by the grandparents who had raised him as a young child:

'There was a real dichotomy in me because, on one hand… there was the world of my grandfather; a world of stark reality, of civil wars he told me about, since he had been a colonel in the last civil war. And then, on the other hand, there was the world of my grandmother, which was full of fantasy, completely outside of reality.'

What if he had been brought up by a grandfather who told him stories of the Easter Uprising, the fight for freedom from the British, and the bloody civil war that followed when a large portion of Ireland eventually achieved independence?

And what if he’d been brought up by a grandmother who, like mine, regularly visited a mystic 'healer' and believed that burying a Child of Prague statue in the back garden could stave off the ever-present Irish rain?

If he’d grown up in Ireland, would Gabo still have gone on to become the father of magic realism? It’s quite possible. Of course, his tales would have been a lot less hot and humid and a bit more rainy and windswept, but they still would have been both magical and political in equal measure.

Was Gabo an Irishman? – Tales from Gabriel García Márquez’s Colombia is out now on Papen Press. The collection of essays was compiled and edited by Caroline Doherty de Novoa, a County Tyrone-born author who has lived in Bogotá since 2012. Doherty de Novoa is author of the novel Dancing with Statues.