Aracataca, the town that Gabriel García Márquez immortalized under the name Macondo in his masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude, is suffering from the passing of time, as its emblematic houses tumble into disrepair.
News of its desolation has reached our shores in Spain, where I am a writer and physician The old town of mud houses and thatched roofs seems immersed again in an epidemic of profound forgetfulness. I am suddenly concerned: If Macondo is a great metaphor for the world, as critics say, the death of that mythical town would surely provoke our collective demise.
The Calle de los Turcos (Turks Street) in Aracataca, Barbosa's drugstore and the United Fruit Company dispensary, the old Olympia theater and little meadow, or the fenced-off poultry pen belonging to the Yankees, are among the sites that Rafael Darío Jiménez, head of the García Márquez House Museum, has catalogued as belonging to Macondo's cultural heritage.
Colonel Aureliano Buendía, the introverted protagonist of One Hundred Years, used the same trick for those times when he would sink into forgetfulness. With exemplary patience, he labeled the objects, animals and plants of Macondo so their names would resist oblivion's cruel jabs. In fine English lettering, he wrote "door for entry," "bed to sleep in," "cooking pan" or "this is a cow and has to be milked daily."
Rafael Darío is also trying to save Macondo's last vestiges from slipping into oblivion. "Right here, holding onto his grandfather Nicolás's hands, little Gabo discovered ice" and there, he adds, "is where the beautiful Remedios bathed," referring to Colonel Buendía's great niece in the novel. Another character, the pianola player Pietro Crespi "used to dance here," he says, and "this was the Daconte brothers' cinema."
We walk together in this universe of backstreets and little squares where the history of Aracataca and Macondo's fiction inextricably mix and match. Unfortunately, however, all this is destined to disappear, eroded by time and gnawed away by our indolence or worse — and some of it, about to be knocked down by speculators.
Just in front of Gabo's home is the Barbosa pharmacy. It is a corner bungalow with two wings, with a zinc roof that crackles when the sun gets hot and shakes under the rains. Doctor Barbosa or Antonio José Barbosa Arroyuelo, a friend of Gabo's maternal grandfather Colonel Nicolás Márquez and Aracataca's first official physician, lived there. He was born in Maracaibo in Venezuela, and graduated with honors in medicine there in 1901, but later fled Venezuela out of his bitter opposition to its dictator Juan Vicente Gómez.
With other fugitives, he crossed into Guajira in Colombia, where his friends gradually dispersed across this land of banana prosperity. After one or two stops elsewhere, Barbosa settled in Aracataca in 1913, long before Macondo's conception. There, he became an active member of the community and even sought work for his exiled compatriots, mitigating their suffering and maintaining their hopes, and hatred of the dictator.
Little Gabo was petrified of this neighbor, the doctor, and of his yellow eyes. More so when he caught him stealing mangos in his front yard one day, and made him give them back. Barbosa called him a "little garden thief" as his harsh yellow eyes pierced the child's conscience for good. His grandson, Adolfo Barbosa, recalls him rather as an affable, humane individual. He had bouts of depression, and would lie for hours on a hammock, staring at chips in the ceiling. His wife Adriana Berdugo, would be left to run the shop.
The figure of Doctor Barbosa is key not just to understanding the preeminent position of medicine and physicians in García Márquez's works, but also in Macondo's genesis as a literary universe. Both the writer and his best known biographers have observed on Barbosa's inspiring presence behind the figure of the French doctor, a crucial figure in La hojarasca (Leaf Storm), the writer's first novel, written in 1955.
He realized that the stories he must write were not those like Edgar Allan Poe or Franz Kafka.
But the pharmacy's relevance to the emergence of Macondo and García Márquez's literary style may be far more important. In February 1950, the writer accompanied his mother to Aracataca to sell the family home. It was not so much a physical trip as a journey back into his childhood. While living with his grandfather, little Gabo had witnessed the decline in prosperity of banana growers. On this return visit, the place was covered in dust, rust and decline, even if Gabo could see for the first time the treasures buried beneath.
On entering the pharmacy, Gabo's mother and Mrs. Barbosa recognized each other immediately and embraced amid the soothing aromas. Gabo, now a young journalist, felt a chill as he came face to face again with Barbosa, who had aged dramatically. It was a moment of revelation: Before the shelves filled with flasks and potions and surrounded by the odor of valerian, and seeing the women weep as they embraced, Gabo realized that the stories he must write were not those like Edgar Allan Poe or Franz Kafka as he had been doing, but of his own life. The life of his family, his home and his town..
The "Gabo" myth reigns supreme across Latin America — Photo: Abode of Chaos
It might not be an exaggeration to call the Barbosa pharmacy the starting point of all the paths depicted in Márquez's novels. His genuine writing style starts to be discernible in Nabo, el negro que hizo esperar a los ángeles (Nabo, the Black Man Who Made the Angels Wait, 1951), or Monologue of Isabel Watching it Rain in Macondo (1955). So that morning, Dr Barbosa seemingly offered Gabo both a thematic and interpretive key for his stories, and a particular way of narrating. When talking with the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa in Lima in 1967, days before One Hundred Years of Solitude was published, Gabo termed this meeting with Barbosa "the most decisive episode of my life as a writer... that is when I had the idea of writing about the past, and that dusty, hot town."
Nothing remains of the Barbosa pharmacy: neither its wooden counter nor the two front windows with brass handles, nor the framed picture of his Hypocratic oath. The smells that impregnated the place in its heyday are gone. There is now a mobile phone shop in its place, with a photocopying machine and cheap gifts and trinkets. Its building has been divided into smaller units, and there are local reports that it may even be knocked down next year.
This is where we would urge town authorities, national cultural authorities and the University of Magdalena, or even Spain's International Development Aid Agency or medical schools or any entity that feels concerned, to act promptly to save the old building that housed the pharmacy, the source of Macondo's creation in literature. We would then ask for its restoration as a emblematic structure of the banana growing period and to recover the pharmacy that stood here in the early 20th century.
Macondo should be able to live beyond our imaginations.
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