García Marquez makes magical realism realistic

Barney Pite unpacks the "tragic, brutal and cruel" world of Márquez's News of a Kidnapping

Gabriel García Márquez’s News of a Kidnapping is a book about a series of kidnappings made by Pablo Escobar in the early 1990s. Not as well-known or widely read as Love in the Time of Cholera or A Hundred Years of Solitude, News of a Kidnapping evokes a Colombia of drug gangs and violence, chaos, war, and terror. The basic historical context is this: the American Government is seeking to force Colombia to extradite a handful of Colombian drug barons, including Escobar. Escobar kidnaps several high profile figures in an attempt to strong-arm the government into ensuring his safety, and García Márquez tells their story.

What García Márquez is known for is his dense, lyrical, ‘magical realist’ style, which incorporates the structures of fables, fairy tales and allegory whilst telling fundamentally realistic stories. In A Hundred Years of Solitude, for example, a whole town suddenly finds itself unable to sleep. While literally impossible, this image says something powerful about the way communities operate, and this represents the style of microcosm; the conventions of fairy tales are used to convey a broader message.

Magical Realism is also a deeply Latin American style – Borges came from Argentina and Allende from Chile – and García Márquez can be fairly seen as one of the style’s progenitors. But News of a Kidnapping is different. It would be hard to guess from One Hundred Years of Solitude that García Márquez was a reporter for El Espectador for much of his early career – but News of a Kidnapping has a journalist’s eye for what’s true and what isn’t.

García Márquez is definitionally Colombian; all of his novels, without exception, are set in countries which either are or could be Colombia and A Hundred Years of Solitude particularly is a novel steeped in Colombian landscape and traditions. But News of a Kidnapping depicts Colombia at its tragic, ruined worst, and García Márquez doesn’t flinch from the visceral details of the chaos which consumed his home country. Even today, when we think of Colombia, we think of drug cartels and violence, anarchy and Escobar. As an ex-journalist, García Márquez values the historical truth about what happened in his country, and so he doesn’t shy away from describing the brutality and chaos it experienced. It’s powerful, and sad – two of the hostages taken die, one executed in cold blood by Escobar, and it’s one of the saddest scenes I’ve ever read.

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TV shows like Narcos can glamorise the drug trade, but the world García Márquez depicts is uncertain and tragic, brutal and cruel, mostly because it’s real. News of a Kidnapping is a real-life thriller, and it’s different from most of García Márquez’s other work. It depicts with realistic clarity García Márquez’s own Colombia with all it’s manic brutality and chaos. It’s a testament to a terrifying time.