Its not easy finding the road that leads into the fabled Colombian town of Aracataca–that is despite its reputation as s Nobel Prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s birth-place as well as the same settlement that was to inspire and shape his literary plantation town of Macondo.
I was on the verge of giving up, of supposing that the town –if it had in fact existed at all –had suffered the same fate as its literary counterpart ; those familiar with Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ will recall that Macondo is obliterated in the novel’s catastrophic and concluding windstorm.
It was while glancing over a map of the Caribbean coast at a backpacker’s, that I finally caught sight of it. Eureka! Aracataca- an insignificant and suitably obscure blemish marooned in a swamp of green— Green I could safely assume to be the banana plantations the Author frequently refers to throughout his novels. After a few back and forth telephone calls, I discovered that the town is situated in the Magdalena Province of Colombia, just two hours outside the coastal city of Santa Marta.
And so the following morning—with a day- pack of Marquez reading material in tow-I boarded a bus bound for the elusive Aractaca. Finally, one- step closer to unraveling literary myth from verifiable fact; the maestro’s magic from inseparable realism. Just how much truth would I discover behind Marquez’s frequent claims: that within the Latin American reality- surreality is as much the norm as banality? Only time would tell.
Arriving in Aractaca– I’m abandoned by my bus on the fringes of a remote banana thicket. Feeling more then a little forsaken, I wave down a kid in pedal bike rickshaw– who for a minimal fee– agrees to escort me to my fist port of call –the Garcia Marquez Museum.
It was on Gabo’s –then an aspiring young writer—first return pilgrimage to Aracataca that he found himself bombarded with a torrent of childhood memories– memories that would provoke him into writing his earlier Macondo set novels—‘The Leaf Storm’ and ‘In Evil Hour’ –originally titled ‘This Shit Eating Town’ but renamed after its religious editor considered it too risqué.
While both novels were deemed financial and critical failures, they assisted the Author in laying the first of Macondo’s legendary literary foundations; the blue prints if you will, for an expansive and near incomprehensible mythology that would later dazzle the world through the publishing of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ in 1967.
In the opening chapters of the novel — Macondo is depicted as a veritable utopia; a place where no one grows older then thirty and no one ever dies. Of course with the inevitable intrusions of time and history, the settlements idyllic isolation is eroded, and we read with regret as the state, military, church, technology and capitalism –in the form of the United Fruit Company– set about contributing to its boom and subsequent decline.
Citing his reasons for the name-change in his autobiography ‘Living to Tell The Tale’– Marquez claims that Aracataca simply wasn’t a mythical enough sounding name for the version he had re -assembled in his head.
‘This word Macondo had attracted my attentions ever since the first trips I had made with my grandfather but I discovered only as an adult that I liked its poetic resonance. I had already used it in three novels as the name of an imaginary town when I happened to read in the Encyclopedia that it is a tropical tree resembling the Cieba, that it produces no flowers or fruit and that its light porous wood is used for making canoes and carving cooking implements.’
Sitting at the back of the rickshaw, with my prepubescent driver now huffing away at the handle bar, we make our way through the centre of the town. Here I catch glimpses of familiar literary landmarks: dilapidated municipal buildings, dance halls, a parish church and conglomerations of tin roofed shacks. Pool bars resound with the fire- cracker clack of colliding balls while elderly men sit out on the stoeps, slugging back beer and warring with dominoes.
Festooning the walls and houses throughout the town are banners and murals’ depicting Colombia’s beloved storyteller. To any one unfamiliar with Gabo’s mischievous grin, hirsute brows and unkempt tufts of hair, it would be easy to presume — from the sheer ubiquity of his image– that he was in fact this Settlement’s founding father, and in a certain sense such an assumption would not be all together incorrect. For were it not for Garcia Marquez’s ‘conception in’ and ‘contribution too’, one could be certain that Aracataca would languor alongside its equally uneventful neighbors in complete and utter obscurity.
In fact so influential has the Author been, that the town’s Mayor recently attempted to officially change its name to the literary moniker. A proposal, that while met with a resounding enthusiasm from Aractaca inhabitants, flopped dismally when they failed to turn out in sufficient volumes to cast the required number of votes.
At the Garcia Marquez Museum I find an unofficial little building containing the chaotic semblance of anything remotely connected to the life and family of the Author. I glance over tables scattered with an array of antiquated objects, photographs and first addition Marquez paper-backs. While corkboard’s display photographs of the maestro with his bevy of famous and often contentious buddies: Grahame Greene, Fidel Castro and Carlos Fuentes. In the corner of the museum, a forlorn and rusted film projector stands as the vestige of Don Antonio’s Daconte’s enchanted ‘Olympia Cinema.’–yet another memorable location frequented by Gabo’s eccentric assortment of Macondo inhabitants.
A visit to the Author’s childhood home, a block away from the museum, proves to be a considerably more enlightening excursion– for it is this same ailing structure that was to inspire and house the six successive generations of the Buendia dynasty featured throughout the novel.
To those unfamiliar with “One Hundred Years”- the rambling properties tides of prosperity and bankruptcy perfectly mirror the countries own political and economic temperaments. If this is the case, then surely the buildings current restoration (it will become the new Garcia Marquez museum in late 2008) can be viewed as an encouraging sign.
It’s however, landmark’s such as the melancholy Chestnut tree out in the courtyard, that sets me leafing through my paperback in an attempt to retrace certain character’s converging footsteps. The same Chestnut tree that ardent Gabo fans will recall the hapless Jose Arcadio- in his old age and insanity being bound to, as well as the tree that his son– Colonel Aureliano Buendia is reported to have died whilst urinating against.
Taking a desultory mid-day able through the outlying Aracataca suburbs– I find the plantation town coming to more clearly resemble the ‘Macondo’ I had imagined from Gabo’s prose. Here I find locals wallowing in the limbo of their daily Siesta: Men snoozing in creaking hammocks, while their ancient wives knit (perhaps their own funeral shrouds?) beside them in patio rocking-chairs.
In a fitting finale to my pilgrimage, I come to the Rio Aracataca. A river that runs beneath the shadow’s of the now defunct ‘United Fruit Company’ Railway Bridge. Village children splash blithely in the shallows below while above them– officious military men patrol the bridge’s many check- points. True to its immortal description : Clear water runs along a bed of polished stones-white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs.
That evening, back in Santa Marta–after miraculously surviving a bus head on collision on my return trip home—I take to the hotel roof top to enjoy a cold beer. Here I experience the last of the day’s many magical manifestations. A motif that arrives in the form of a near biblical wind- storm. Its as if Marquez himself has conjured up these great destructive gusts— to prove an enduring point.
It is a gale that roars from every direction, tilting boats in the Santa Marta bay while swinging rusty hooks from harbor cranes. I watch as it tyrannizes tin roofs, tears mercilessly at the fronds of promenade trees before blasting washing lines to opposite ends of the city. Its strength, I must acquiesce with the Author, more then enough to uproot banana plantations and with only a little literary liberty– eradicate entire family histories.