I wrote this post last week when I heard that Colombian novelist and Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez had been admitted to hospital in Mexico City. Now that the tragic news of his death, aged 87, has been confirmed I am inspired to post it again. As the man himself said, "A person doesn't die when he should but when he can."
Garcia Marquez wrote my favourite novel of all time, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and a number of other great novels too - foremost among them, Love in the Time of Cholera. When the dust has settled I will post something longer about what One Hundred Years has meant to the people of South America, the novelists of the world, and to me personally (and I will at some point) but for now I’m just going to focus on what I consider to be one of the best opening lines ever written.
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
True, there may be more catchy lines in world literature – both ‘Call me Ishmael’ from Moby Dick and ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ from Anna Karenina come to mind – but Marquez’s sentence evokes so much more complexity and intrigue than either of these.
Straight off the bat it poses two burning questions which simply have to be answered: ‘Why is the colonel facing the firing squad?’ and ‘What kind of person would have to discover ice?’ Like all great first lines it urges, forces you to read on. At the same time the sentence structure, and the juxtaposition of different times, immediately establish that this is a novel about time and timelessness and the inevitability of all things.
Soon enough you’ll be reading the next sentence, the next page, and the next chapter…And before you know it you’ll be transported into one of the most complete worlds ever created by a novelist. If you haven’t read 100 years, do so now. And if you have, read it again. I find a thousand new things to marvel at every time I revisit it. It’s no wonder Marquez’s novels have outsold all other books published in Spanish except the Bible.
As is always the case when a novelist dies, the man is no longer with us but his books will live on for ever. And in the case of Gabriel Garcia Marquez it isn't hard to imagine where he's gone: "waving goodbye in the midst of the flapping sheets...lost forever in the upper atmosphere."