Because of his grandma, Gabriel García Márquez knew magic was real

Until he was eight, Gabriel García Márquez was raised by his maternal grandparents and a bevy of aunts and servants in Aracataca, Colombia, a small town near the Caribbean Sea that he fictionalized in his most famous novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. 

His grandfather, Nicolás Márquez, a retired army colonel, eked out a living as a jeweler and a tax collector, which his grandmother, Tranquilina Iguarán, supplemented by selling vegetables and homemade sweets. 

Each was devoted to the other, but Nicolás and Tranquilina couldn’t have been more different, “Gabo” wrote in his memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, which was published in 2002. 

Pragmatic and authoritative, Nicolás taught Gabo about history, war, and the banana plantation that dominated the town. The colonel’s days were consumed with business, errands, and social calls, all of which he conducted with his grandson in tow.

Meanwhile, Tranquilina, or “Mina,” was a clairvoyant who attended to the household with ceaseless vigilance: prophesying doom at every turn, she dedicated herself to preventing it. She taught Gabo about the ghosts in their bedrooms, the omens in their dreams, and the saints who, if appeased, could forestall disaster.

“I would say that the relationship with my grandfather was the umbilical cord that kept me in touch with reality until I was eight years old,” Gabo later said, according to his biographer, Gerald Martin.

“The strange thing, as I think about it now, is that I wanted to be like him, realistic, valiant, and sure, but I never could resist the constant temptation to peer into my grandmother’s world,” Gabo wrote in his memoir.

Gabo rarely saw his mother and father during these years, perhaps because they lived in a distant city and were busy with an ever-growing brood of younger children. In 1936, when Gabo was eight and his grandfather’s health was failing, his parents reclaimed him, and the adjustment was “almost too difficult to bear,” Martin writes.

As an adult, Gabo would fuse Tranquilina’s worldview with Nicolás’s to create seemingly realistic novels in which magic mysteriously reigns. Gabo didn’t invent “magical realism”—other Latin American writers employed the style first—but with One Hundred Years of Solitude, which was published in 1967, he became its best-known practitioner.

The novel, which chronicles the rise and fall of a fictional Caribbean town with a banana plantation and dramatizes Gabo’s most vivid childhood memories, has sold tens of millions of copies in dozens of languages.

Gabo won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982. He died in 2014, at age 87.

In the following passage, excerpted from his memoir, he describes Tranquilina’s superstitions and the profundity of their impact on him:

She would try to lighten her chores by singing old love songs in full voice, but all of a sudden she would interrupt them with her war cry against calamity:

“Ave María Purísima!”

For she saw that the rocking chair rocked alone, that the phantom of puerperal fever was lurking in the bedrooms of women in labor, that the scent of jasmines from the garden was like an invisible ghost, that a cord dropped by accident on the floor had the shape of the numbers that might be the grand prize in the lottery, that a bird without eyes had wandered into he dining room and could be chased away by singing La Magnífica. She believed she could decipher with secret keys the identity of the protagonists and places in the songs that reached her from the Province. She imagined misfortunes that happened sooner or later, she foresaw who was going to come from Riohacha in a white hat, or from Manure with a colic that could be cured only with the bile of a turkey buzzard, for in addition to being a prophet by trade she was a furtive witch doctor.

She had a very personal system for interpreting her own dreams and those of others, which governed the daily behavior of each one of us and controlled the life of the house. However, she almost died without any premonitions when she pulled the sheets off her bed in a single tug, and a revolver went off, one that the colonel kept hidden under his pillow so he would have it at hand when he slept. From the trajectory of the bullet embedded in the ceiling, it was established that it had passed very close to my grandmother’s face. 

From the time I had a memory I suffered the morning torture of Mina brushing my teeth, while she enjoyed the magical privilege of taking hers out to wash them and leaving them in a glass of water while she slept. Convinced they were her natural teeth that she took out and put in by Goajiro arts, I had her show me the inside of her mouth so I could see the back of her eyes, brain, nose and ears from the inside, and I suffered the disappointment of not seeing anything but her palate. But no one deciphered the marvel for me, and for a long time I insisted that the dentist make the same thing for me that he had made for my grandmother so she could brush my teeth while I played on the street.

We had a kind of secret code by means of which we both communicated with an invisible universe. By day her magical world was fascinating, but at night it caused me terror, pure and simple: the fear of the dark, older than we are, that has pursued me my whole life on lonely roads and even in cheap dance halls all over the world. In my grandparents’ house each saint had a room and each room had a dead person …

I cannot imagine a family environment more favorable to my vocation than that lunatic house, in particular because of the character of the numerous women who raised me … Those who knew me when I was four say that I was pale and introverted, and spoke only to recount absurdities, but for the most part my stories were simple episodes from daily life that I made more attractive with fantastic details so that the adults would notice me. My best sources of inspiration were the conversations older people had in my presence because they thought I did not understand them, or the ones in intentional code in order to prevent my understanding them. Just the opposite was true: I soaked them up like a sponge, pulled them apart, rearranged them to make their origins disappear, and when I told them to the same people who had told the stories earlier, they were bewildered by the coincidence between what I said and what they were thinking.