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Culture Kvetch: Gabriel García Márquez and the Slow Fade of Memory

Over the weekend, the Telegraph reported that novelist Gabriel García Márquez has dementia and has stopped writing. Speaking to a group of students in Cartagena, Gabo’s brother Jaime García Márquez said, “He has problems with his memory. Sometimes I cry because I feel like I’m losing him.”

García Márquez, who is 85, has been dealing with memory loss for years; in the late-1990s, he began to mention his memory problems in interviews. In Gerald Martin’s Gabriel García Márquez: A Life, Martin describes a 2005 meeting with Gabo in Mexico City: “his short-term memory was fragile and he was manifestly anguished about that and about the phase he seemed to be embarked upon.”

Indeed, dementia contains a built-in irony—though irony seems too pale a term—in that it progresses slowly but perceptibly enough so that the patient has some awareness of what’s taking place. The sense of slippage, of losing control, is palpable—that is, before the rug is pulled out from under him entirely and he no longer understands the cause of his confusion (and no longer understands or recognizes much else).

For García Márquez, who has described himself as a “professional of the memory,” that awareness must be especially piquant, both because his work is so predicated on notions of memory, history, and ancestry, and because neurological conditions run in his family. He knew this might happen. Two of Gabo’s brothers have had Parkinson’s; another died of a brain tumor; and still another, according to Martin’s book, has dealt with memory loss. García Márquez’ mother, late in her life, sometimes failed to recognize her son. At other times, she would tell him about his childhood, the tales unvarnished “because she’s forgotten her prejudices.” There’s honesty in dementia too, at least in its early stages, when it can reveal some truer, hidden self.

My grandmother, a refugee from Germany (she and her family left in 1938), suffered from dementia for perhaps a decade or more, before she died last August. In the last couple of years, she was rarely able to recognize her children, and she tended to slip deeper into her childhood memories—a last redoubt, perhaps, some fortified keep deep in the brain that is the last to fall. Occasionally a German visitor would come, and for a few seconds, she would regain some fluency in her first language: a poem would be summoned up from the depths, an antique idiom recited, before she dissolved into that look of confusion that anyone who has been around the demented knows.

I lived near her and my grandfather in Los Angeles at the time (she died weeks before my planned move to New York), and I would visit them for lunch. Always my grandmother would be sitting in her chair in the living room, a small table next to her arrayed with everything someone in her condition needed: kleenex, medicine, diapers, a glass of water, and the most important item: a bulky stereo that she used to listen to books on CD. Although she read widely in her life—Karl May’s westerns were an early favorite—Márquez would have been too difficult for her then (though there’s some question of whether she understood anything at all). She liked stories by Jan Karon—so uncomplicated and middlebrow as to be palliative—and anything read by a voice actor whose name I’ve forgotten.

My grandfather, who also wrote a memoir, would make us Italian sandwiches, and he and I would eat and talk. He did most of the speaking (at 90, he’s fortunately in good health, but he’s quieted in the last year), and I listened and asked questions. Sometimes my grandmother sat at the table too, munching on a sandwich and groping, blindly, on her plate for a slice of cheese. Between the two of them it was an unacknowledged study in contrast, as the family’s wellspring of memory unfurled stories, practically testifying to his grandson, to whom he had taught, mostly by example, rather than edict, the value and necessity of remembering.

Sometimes he told me about my grandmother’s life—the flight from Frankfurt, an interregnum in Portugal, their meeting and travels together as a couple—stories which I had mostly heard but seemed essential to hear again. (Now I think of Márquez, who told his biographer, “life is not what one lived but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.” Repetition is part of that, too.)

In One Hundred Years of Solitude, when a plague of insomnia spreads through Macondo, Aureliano fends off the attendant memory loss by labeling objects with their names. Jose Arcadio Buendia, we’re told, seizes on the idea and eventually paints his whole house and, then, the entire village with names of things. But Buendia realizes that it may not be sufficient: “Little by little, studying the infinite possibilities of a loss of memory, he realized that the day might come when things would be recognized by their inscriptions but that no one would remember their use.”

He takes his plan a step further—for example, by hanging a sign around the cow instructing that it must be “milked every morning so that she will produce milk, and the milk must be boiled in order to be mixed with coffee to make coffee and milk.” One can see how this methodology will lead to an infinite regress that will become increasingly desperate and fruitless—to name and describe everything is to rewrite the world itself, an endless pursuit; but it is also a not so veiled metaphor for the task of the novelist. It is sand through the fingers, but still it must be done.

“Thus they went on living in a reality that was slipping away,” García Márquez writes, “momentarily captured by words, but which would escape irremediably when they forgot the values of the written letters.”

During that time, my grandparents’ house was like Macondo during the insomnia plague: everything labeled. Even my still-sharp grandfather could occasionally forget things, and the caretakers and visiting family members had to be instructed about medications, the many doctors’ phone numbers, hygiene supplies, clothes, food, emergency contacts. This inscription became the instruction manual for the home; without his scribbled post-its, we wouldn’t have known what to do.

Long before he was a memoirist, my grandfather was already a kind of self-chronicler, writing on the back of every photo the date, location, and names of those pictured. He cut out hundreds of articles, highlighted and scrawled notes on them, and sent them to relatives or organized them in filing cabinets. Take a book off his shelf and out will fall a book review or an article by the book’s author, written years later. Works of art have small pieces of paper secreted behind them, explaining their provenance. All of this, he told me, would make things easier when he’s gone. (Harder, too: there’s so much of the stuff, and each label can seem like an essential vestige of the person who wrote it.)

In One Hundred Years, Márquez described a character with dementia as eventually sinking “into a kind of idiocy that had no past.” That is only partly accurate. There is still the past of her relatives, the binding ties of experience and memory. They differ for each person—I don’t think I can remember anything about my grandmother before she was ill, and my mother and sister’s memories of her are different, and not always pleasant. She was a difficult woman, who, at a younger age, would not have been happy to be told that she’d spend so many years in murky silence, a remote smile on her face.

For García Márquez, who once said he felt “fury” at the possibility of his death, we can understand how that anguish he once expressed to his biographer has given over to something else—sadness, rage, or the paralytic confusion that defines dementia. But Gabo also created a corpus as great as any of the last hundred years. This is how he has inscribed himself upon the world. Few people are allowed to leave behind so many fruitful instructions; most we are keen to forget.

(Art by Margarita Korol)

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