When I was seven my mother gave me Of Love and Other Demons, a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It was the story of a young woman said to have rabies who gets exorcised in 18th century Cartagena. The book spares no scenes of abuse, suffering or torture but for some reason my Colombian mother – incidentally also an expert in Latin American literature – thought this was an entirely appropriate reading recommendation for a child my age.
Back then I’d never seen Colombia. My parents had kept me and my siblings away from a land ravaged by guerrillas, paramilitary factions and narcotraffic. I’d grown up in Europe, blissfully ignorant of the reasons why we’d never visit my mother’s home. The names Cali, Medellin and Bogotá were no more than blurry concepts, with which I only associated certain types of food (arepas and ajiaco) as well as certain genres of music (cumbia and salsa).
I’m not going to pretend that I understood even half of Garcia Marquez’s prose at age seven. But magical realism was my first foray into the history of a country that has very much been part of my identity in absentia since I was born. Thanks to Of Love and Other Demons, Love in the Time of Cholera and, of course, One Hundred Years of Solitude, my mother’s continent took shape in my imagination – admittedly as a place where magic and reality could blend seamlessly. In part thanks to literature, Colombia was never a frightening thought. Instead it was the home of extraordinary legends, impossible love stories and families that lacked imagination in naming their progeny (in One Hundred Years of Solitude, all the men have the same name).
Gabo, as he was known in Latin America, did much more than merely help a little girl picture a far away land. He created a mythology for Latin America as a whole and gave poetry to a country in dire need of something positive to cling to in its darkest hours. Magical realism, he said, was the product of a region so traumatised by bloody dictatorships that the most “crucial problem” for its people had been “a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable”. By his pen, those lives became fantastic instead.
I’ve visited Colombia many times since. But, perhaps as a testament to Garcia Marquez’s genius, I’ve always felt that my first trip there was as a seven-year-old, lost in the streets of 18th century Cartagena.
Daphnée Denis is an associate producer for Monocle 24.