By Rachel Word
It’s funny how books sometimes “find you.” You are browsing the library for a new read and then one title just sticks out to you. For me, it was during my freshman year of college while studying creative writing at Susquehanna University that I found Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s books: or more accurately his books found me.
I worked at the university library that first year. I didn’t have many desk shifts, and my main job was to put books that had been checked out back on the shelves. Not a lot of fun, but as a writing major and avid reader, it was one of the best opportunities to be introduced to new writers.
The first of his books that “found me” was Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. This book caught my attention because I had seen the movie starring Javier Bardem, Benjamin Bratt, and Giovanna Mezzogiorno several years ago. I had enjoyed the movie, so I decided to check out the book.
Later that night when I settled into my bed, my pajama pants on, cozy under the covers, I opened the book and read the first line. It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love. And I laughed out loud.
Freshman year + unrequited love = the story of my life.
I had a huge crush on a trombone player named Dave that I played in band with. He was a senior (i.e. way out of my league) and I told no one about how I felt. Marquez’s book had found me just at the right time. I experienced a wonderful catharsis as I was swept up in the whirlwind love triangle between Florentino, Fermina, and Urbino.
Now that my interest in Marquez had been sparked, I started to learn more about him. He was born on March 6, 1928 in Aracataca, Colombia. When his parents moved away from the area, Marquez was taken in by his maternal grandparents. Marquez’s grandfather was affectionately known as the Colonel, because of his service in the Thousand Days War of Colombia, and had a large influence on Marquez’s upbringing. The Colonel was a liberal activist and well-known voice in the community. He was an avid storyteller and the one who ignited Marquez’s love for the written word by teaching him from the dictionary and taking him to circuses.
After reading Love in the Time of Cholera, I was required to read Marquez’s short story “Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” for my Introduction to Fiction class. This story depicts the ordinary life of Elisenda and Pelayo, a couple living in a small, banal town, whose lives are radically changed when Pelayo finds an old man, wearing tattered rags, who happens to have huge, angel-like wings. Elisenda and Pelayo take him in and house him in their chicken coop. Instead of helping him, providing new clothes, food and a warm place to sleep, Elisenda starts charging visitors an admission fee for visitors to come gape at the old man.
This very poignant image of an angelic creature being treated so poorly calls attention to the way that we all react when we see someone less fortunate. Think of when people turn their eyes away from homelessness or change the channel when a tragic news story begins. Marquez is challenging us to not turn our eyes away, and to address these problems head on in order to pioneer change.
I realized the effect that this story had on me when I worked at a temp job in near Washington D.C. There were many homeless people in the area that I was working in and one man in particular always begged for money at the top of the escalator leading out of the metro. Before I read Marquez’s story, I would have done the same as my fellow commuters. I would have walked by without acknowledging him. However, because of my experience with “Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” I felt a deep and tangible empathy for that homeless man. I made sure to never dehumanize him.
Marquez’s beautiful, eloquent novels challenge us to recognize the most valuable parts of life before our time runs out. Throughout his whole life, he urged his readers to bring love to the world. As he writes in Love in the Time of Cholera, “The only regret I will have in dying is if it is not for love.”
When Gabriel Garcia Marquez died on April 17, 2014, the writing world experienced a huge loss. Marquez won numerous awards throughout his career, including the 1972 Neustadt International Prize for Literature and the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature, and moreover he inspired young and old readers alike to treat each other with dignity and respect.