21 December 2022

Live and tell the tale as you will

Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez wrote novels and short stories, some would add ‘of epic proportion.’ His ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude,’ has been hailed as an epic account of Latin American history although the author never saw it as such.

Epic. The word is associated with the heroic, with things grand in scale and character. Originally, though, it just meant ‘song’ and sometimes ‘word’ or ‘story.’  So when someone uses the word to describe something monumental, an act or event perhaps, the unsaid is that it is probably amenable to poetic rendition, a long narrative poem or a story like the Iliad, Odyssey or the Ramayana. Unsaid also is the inevitable hyperbole and frivolous treatment of truth.  

The word, anyway, makes us think of larger than life characters or, put another way, people who have considerably exceeded expectations, individuals who did or do the unthinkable. Heroes. Kings and queens, princes and princesses. Giants. Even gods as in the Greek ‘epics’ and the Mahabharata.

Are there greater and lesser lives, really? Is it simply that those who we consider great or the lives whose heroic stature is undisputed just happen to be more visible, their voices louder (or more musical), their exceptionalism a ‘rise’ from nothing more than the invisibility of others, softness of other tones, a preference for shade as opposed to spotlight or the absence of energy or compulsion self-advertise?

No, I am not saying that heroes are necessarily braggarts. I am not downplaying efforts that changed the course of history. I am not for a moment denying that individuals have contributed to the advancement of science, the well being of society and so on.

We must acknowledge, however, that individuals have unleashed all manner of disasters and tragedies. Many such individuals who, in the words of Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ have ‘shed blood which flows and has always flowed in streams, which is spilt like champagne, and for which men are crowned in the Capitol and are called afterwards benefactors of mankind.’

Raskolnikov’s conclusion is telling: ‘If I had succeeded I should have been crowned with glory, but now I'm trapped.’ This, sadly, is not atypical.

The key idea in all this is ‘the grand.’ For anything to be grand it must have visibility and wide public acknowledgement. The lilliputian stories of lilliputian men and lilliputian women in lilliputian social landscapes just don’t make the news unless it is some horrific crime that the general public can recoil in horror at. The word epic does not find its way into narratives about people and things of lilliputian dimensions.

Revisiting the work of Márquez lately, especially the fascinating interviews with the man and even more alluring, his biography, ‘Living to tell the tale,’ has made me reflect deeply on the epic-idea. It seems that his rich literary output was but an incredibly faithful recounting of things, processes and people he has encountered. Of course he has created composites of all kinds, merging characters, locations and stories, collapsing or stretching time. It’s fiction but the people, their lives and how they’ve unfolded is hardly fictional.  

Colonel Aureliano Buendia in ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude,’ the unnamed veteran who is the chief protagonist of ‘No One Writes to the Colonel’ and  Simon Bolivar on whom the General in ‘The General in his Labyrinth’ is based, are certainly grand characters, but Márquez, one could say, peels off the grandeur and in doing so strips them down to a point they cannot be distinguished from any one of the ‘lesser’ people in these stories. All humanly frail, all subjected to the vagaries of the ata lo dahama.

At the same time he makes it abundantly clear that ‘lesser lives’ if unpacked with the same meticulous attention to detail and narrated with the poetic flourish that neither embellishes nor detracts but simply deployed to give volume and weight to a name, would be as grand, as heroic, as memorable for their exceptional qualities and similarly unforgivable flaws.

Years ago, a senior journalist conducting a training session for younger and less experienced colleagues, asked a simple question: ‘why are you in journalism?’ He told me that a 16 year old intern, Duranya, had come up with the best answer: ‘I want to write stories no one has written.’

There are people who live epic lives. Indeed all lives are epic. Only, they don’t put their encounters and reflections thereon into the form of novels or autobiographies. They don’t write in languages that are read, put another way. Their epics leave traces upon the paths they walk, the skins of people they walk with or stop to have a conversation with, the gravel which alone knows intimately the texture of their calloused feet.

There are no rules about writing biographies. Some get written and some do not. A few bold brush strokes can paint ‘epic’ on an otherwise not-so-heroic account. The lack of brush or simply the absence of need to be ‘biographied’ in the end means that there are innumerable strands left out of the overall grand narrative of humanity. This does not impoverish us, but it may render us less enriched.

Writers, and indeed all artists, recover in part these amazing stories. And so we are grateful to the likes of Márquez. Doesn’t mean of course that we have to wait for the next great novel. Stories can be obtained even if they are not transcribed. Márquez, in his autobiography, reveals many who he wrote into his stories. There are many who weren’t picked and not because their lives were less epic. Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez wrote tirelessly. He could not, obviously, capture-all.


['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series.]

Other articles in this series:

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart 

The allegory of the slow road