BOGOTA - He is the hero. Or was. The great founding legend, and not because he was a great writer. Indeed, Gabriel García Márquez's literary merit may be questioned, and it wouldn't make a difference. One may consider his rhetoric suspect, or his biblical lyricism tiresome; or you may even find that the famous musicality of his sentences dilute the power of the stories.

One might even, reluctantly, qualify other writers of the Latin American Boom, like Julio Cortázar or Mario Vargas Llosa, as easier to read or more effective. None of that matters, because Gabo's fame goes beyond the merely literary, and the deluded utterances of critics cannot lessen his mythical stature. 

García Márquez's real glory is that he did not need to be the world's greatest writer. Perhaps people will be reading him in 500 years' time, alongside Cervantes, assuming Cervantes will be read then and there is still a planet on which to read. But again, it is of little importance.

For beside his work proudly rides García Márquez's life, that uncertain exercise wherein he accompanied us and which he fulfilled with an honorable intensity that has won him our admiration and affection. Most evidently, Gabo enjoyed the elemental and prodigious fact of living on this planet, and accepted the adventure, with all its richness and limitations, on which he embarked without reticence. "That life we love with such insatiable passion."

Mortality's promise

Being an honest man, he was ready to pay the price. He knew that "love is infected with the germs of death, but all was love." Hence, he was not impressed by immortality and its promises. He became a millionaire, enjoyed the company of powerful people, drank fine wine and sailed on 200-foot yachts.

Still, he somehow never fell into the vices of "snappy dressing," which he laughed at very loudly like they do in Barranquilla. He was no cheap arriviste who would ape his wealthy acquaintances. And no traitor. Gabo knew himself to be made of the same stuff as we are, and the privilege of a superior brain was no excuse for him to become an aristocratic marquis, unlike some.

He was always "on this side, the poor side, wherein lies a trail of the yellowed leaves of countless years of our misfortunes and elusive moments of joy." He liked this side, our side. He knew it because he was born there and quite simply, never left. Yes, he wanted to triumph, he strove and he did triumph. But when all is said and done he simply accepted his fate - which had blessed him with the rare gift of being in the right place at the right time.

He was lucky to arrive in time to fill a niche that had to be urgently filled, or remain a void, inevitably leaving us with more yellowed leaves of regret. It is worth asking: What would we have been without García Márquez? What would have happened to Colombia, a provincial and impoverished country, governed by a violent caste of vulgarians that despises anything remotely Colombian? Would we have swallowed the tale that to think is churlish and all we are good for is to be "runners." Would we have found the necessary emotional resources to feel we were participating in world history? How many more years would we have waited to imagine that this part of the world is ours and we deserved to become our own masters? 

Gabo in 1984 at the height of his fame (mangostar)

Many forget - or simply don't know - what Colombia was like in the 1950s, when Gabo was not yet famous and worked as a journalist. One might do well to recall the 300,000 dead of a 10-year civil war - the Violencia - cities growing out of control, and the hordes of barefoot, ragtag children the rich liked to describe in a very French way, as gamines. It was a country where 35% of people were illiterate. To travel to the coast you had to take a plane - there were no highways. If young people from good families wanted jeans, they had to buy them in the United States, as they were not sold in any store here nor made in any factory.

Misery, fear and hypocrisy; these were the cornerstones of a deformed society. In a setting of horror - where people had their throats not slit but cut wide open or were "minced" - grew a generation of people paralyzed by the terrible tales told furtively in kitchens. That is where fugitives exchanged tales of woe in a "rustic" Spanish mocked by their masters, for whom "linguistic purity" was a point of honor.

All this may sound old, faded, even pedantic. But in its time, it was heroic. Fidel Castro was not always a political mummy being preserved by a regime of voracious bureaucrats. Colombian guerrillas were not always discredited. Handing our lands to foreigners was not always the fashion. And above all, we did not always assume that to be part of the world we would have to eat the same junk as others. That is the truth.

We did not always live in a state of apocalyptic desperation where speaking about the future meant first shutting our eyes. There used to be another paradigm. We used to think that being part of the world was to set out and seek happiness, in a state of solidarity. We used to think of corrupt individuals and gangsters as criminals. We used to believe in a world where everything was a possibility for all. That was the dream pursued by García Márquez. 

Whether or not one shares his political ideas, one must recognize his consistency, his determination to fight for a Latin America that was fairer, freer, more conscious. For the skeptics or those with a poor memory - and they are often the same people - here are some reminders: the Alternative review, the Firmes political movement, the San Antonio de los Baños film school, Cambio magazine, the New Journalism School. These were all enormous ventures to which Gabo not only committed his name, but also his work and money. The money was irretrievably lost, because none was a business venture. We needn't reflect much on where his Nobel laurels ended up or the fortune his talent earned him, nor try and fathom the tremendous extra work he was taking on.

What was lost

So one wonders, how did this prodigious creature manage to write his novels? Where did he find the hours to sit and write page after page, with that legendary discipline and a grit befitting a forced laborer. How could this literary beast focus on his own work when he was devoting the best of his energies to awakening others through the humble path of education? How on earth did he avert a collapse?

The answer is, perhaps he did not. He may have simply collapsed. Any sensible critic (whoever they may be) would agree: after Autumn of the Patriarch, there was a decline; and while Love in the Time of Cholera and The General in His Labyrinth maintain decorous standards, nothing he wrote after 1975 justifies the Nobel Prize. Which doesn't mean much when you think of all the people to whom they have given a Nobel Prize. Or it can mean a lot, if Gabo did indeed perform a writer's most generous act, namely to sacrifice his work.

An excellent writer then, who stops writing like a genius because he wants time to do political work: they say it happened to André Malraux, and was the end of him. In Gabo's case it would be a bold, even naive proposition, and impossible to prove. We would like to believe however that at some point, García Márquez decided it was more urgent to educate his readers than write admirable novels. It is refreshing to have had a writer so affectionate toward his public, in this grey time of ours when Colombian authors are increasingly prudent and comfortable, with their pretty little liberal ideas, self-absorbed and contemptuous of their readers.

The greatest of them all was the only one who dared to be politically incorrect and to subvert reality to the very end with more than just words. He should have inspired a little more integrity in others.

What about earning a living you may ask? It is easier being a communist when you're a millionaire! Some might say that the publishing world is a merciless supermarket selling stolen talents at rock-bottom prices, and that to sell a thousand novels these days you have to prove you're a child with acute judgement. Sure, your fears are yours, and one can understand that intellectuals have economic problems. Those who live off words have always suffered under tyrannical masters. There is a reason why we are this way, and were before as we shall be in the future. The problem is not new and has no solution, which makes García Márquez's attitude more valuable.

Now, forget all that and let us speak of the myth, now that the man is dead. We said at the start - and reaffirm - that Gabriel García Márquez is the hero. Or at least was. And we said this because the only thing we do quickly in Colombia is to forget - within reason - and Gabo suffered the same fate as Simón Bolívar. Both became symbols for the communist guerrilas and the socialist regimes of Cuba and Venezuela. This shared fate with the Liberator - a coincidence that inspired The General in His Labyrinth - assured Gabo his own Evil Hour: earning him his compatriots' envy and exile. 

Yet, they will not take him down from his pedestal, like our venerable Bolívar who will remain in his public square, demanding freedom or death. Dressed in his white linen suit, installed in our memories, Gabo will follow us too, shouting out in capital letters that being Colombian is more than sharing a country with Pablo Escobar - that the guavas and fried fish, the gaity of our carnivals, the sight of the son of a telegraph operator winning the Nobel Prize can give hope to a whole nation.

This is the gift given us by Gabo's stubborn heroism: the certainty that what we have is a part of the universal patrimony. For that we shall miss him, because nobody else will tell us so forcefully about the possibilities within our destiny. And for that, in this time of mourning, we should also leap for joy, because the time of our fulfillment began with him, and has yet to end.