Author Alvaro Santana-Acuña talks to us about his new book Ascent to Glory, and Gabriel García Márquez's ties to Cuba and self-imposed quarantine.

Photo courtesy of Harry Ransom Center

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“In these times, when it seems that we’re all living in a global Macondo, many readers are turning to One Hundred Years of Solitude as if it were a prophetic book to understand the world we’re living in, and above all the post-pandemic world we’ll inhabit,” wrote Álvaro Santana-Acuña in a recent Op-Ed. And so the timing is excellent for the release of Santana-Acuña’s new book, Ascent to Glory: How One Hundred Years of Solitude Was Written and Became a Global Classic (Columbia University Press, August 2020). 

One Hundred Years of Solitude, by the Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, spans a century in the lives of the Buendía family, whose patriarch, José Arcadio Buendía, founded the fictional village of Macondo. It seems that nearly every high school world literature curriculum includes the novel, considered a masterpiece of Latin American literature —it’s the second most-read literary work written in the Spanish language, after Don Quixote— and has sold an estimated 50 million copies and been translated into 49 languages. 

Where To Buy Alvaro’s book: Ascent to Glory: How One Hundred Years of Solitude Was Written and Became a Global Classic

The ability of the classic to lodge itself in the reader’s imaginary is part of its success. Throughout Ascent to Glory, Santana-Acuña clues us in to other factors that help transform a literary work into a classic.

Ascent to Glory is a continuation of Santana-Acuña’s doctoral research, which he hopes will appeal to both scholars and fans of García Márquez’s work and to people interested in the literary and market factors that helped catalyze the novel into a global bestseller and a classic. The release of Ascent to Glory coincides with a major exhibition of Gabriel García Márquez’s personal archive acquired by the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin, including various versions of manuscripts of major works, the author’s correspondence and photos with well-known personalities, and one of his typewriters and computers.

“In these times, when it seems that we’re all living in a global Macondo, many readers are turning to One Hundred Years of Solitude as if it were a prophetic book to understand the world we’re living in, and above all the post-pandemic world we’ll inhabit.”

Álvaro Santana-Acuña, author of Ascent to Glory: How One Hundred Years of Solitude Was Written and Became a Global Classic

Now on the faculty at Whitman College, the idea to write about One Hundred Years came to Santana-Acuña a decade earlier, when he was a student at Harvard University. It was pouring as he ran across Harvard Yard, and suddenly he thought to himself that it was raining “like in Macondo.” He was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and had never been to Latin America (Santana-Acuña is from the Canary Islands in Spain). And yet, the idea that Macondo had become a universally relatable place stuck in his mind. 

It was pouring as Santana-Acuña ran across Harvard Yard, and he thought to himself that it was raining “like in Macondo.” He was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and had never been to Latin America.

Magical Realism and a New Latin American Literature

Most people associate Nobel-prize winner Gabriel García Márquez with creating the genre of magical realism, but that is among the myths debunked in Ascent to Glory. Different forms of magical realism actually were in print decades before One Hundred Years was published. 

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Although the idea for the Buendía family story occurred to García Márquez in 1950, it wasn’t until 1965 that he finally sat down to finish the novel. Driving along the highway from Mexico City to Acapulco with his wife and two children, a cow crossed in front of the car, causing it to stop abruptly. At that moment the first sentence of One Hundred Years came to his mind: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Without a minute to lose, he turned his car around and drove back to Mexico City. He quit his job and locked himself in a self-imposed quarantine for a year and a half to finish the novel, impoverishing himself and his family in the process. When he went to the post office to send it to a potential publisher, he only had enough money to send half the manuscript.

The advent and solidification of a truly Latin American literature “boom” —as opposed to the limited national-level circulation of books in limited print runs in the early 20th century— allowed the book to be distributed and read on a regional and global level.

In the 1950s and 60s, a new Latin American literature had emerged. Many writers and intellectuals kept up close correspondence, and their work was published in short form and widely distributed. As with so many things that go “viral” these days, in the intervening years from when García Márquez first dreamt up the idea for the novel until its publication in 1967, many cultural “brokers” helped both lay the foundations for the enthusiastic reception of a novel of its kind. If he had written and published the novel at the time when he first imagined it in his early twenties, it would likely not have had the same dissemination or success. 

In the years leading up to García Márquez finishing the manuscript, he was able to make use of the popular practice of publishing chapters from the work in progress in various periodicals, thus garnering publicity and feedback for his novel. Chapters of the novel premiered in six countries, including in France, before the full novel was published. 

The advent and solidification of a truly Latin American literature “boom” —as opposed to the limited national-level circulation of books in limited print runs in the early 20th century— allowed the book to be distributed and read on a regional and global level, and remain relevant and in the forefront of readers’ minds today. 

Fidel Castro and Gabriel García Márquez. Photo courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center.

A self-imposed quarantine was central to García Márquez’s writing of the novel, and epidemics are often central themes of his fiction: plagues, droughts, fantastical features. In an April 2020 letter to his father on the sixth anniversary of his death, and in during his own confinement due to COVID-19, García Márquez’s son, filmmaker Rodrigo García, wrote: “You said once that what haunts us about epidemics is that they remind us of personal fate. Despite precautions, medical care, age or wealth, anyone can draw the unlucky number. Fate and death, many a writer’s favorite subjects.”

Cuban Influences

Alejo Carpentier, born in France and raised in Havana, was one of the first writers to use the style called “lo real maravilloso,” highlighting the fantastical qualities of Latin American history and culture —and even its geography and meteorological conditions— and applying them to fiction and chronicles, as in his 1949 novel El reino de este mundo (The Kingdom of This World). Another Cuban writer, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, employed some of the qualities of magical realism, including in his seminal Tres Tristes Tigres (Three Trapped Tigers) also published in 1967. García Márquez knew both of these authors, and had met renowned Cuban writer Nicolás Guillén in Paris in 1955, sparking his interest in Cuba both for its literary personalities and in the promises of the Cuban revolution.

A key institution in the consolidation of a Latin American literature was the Casa de las Américas, established in Havana after the Cuban revolution, which soon became a mecca of sorts for the Latin American literati. The cultural activities of the Casa —including conferences that convened writers from across the region, and prestigious prizes— strengthened the region’s cultural autonomy, and in turn the commercial success of what would become the New Latin American Novel. 

A key institution in the consolidation of a Latin American literature was the Casa de las Américas, established in Havana after the Cuban revolution, which soon became a mecca of sorts for the Latin American literati, including García Márquez.

At the start of the Cold War, the region —including Cuba— became fair game for a parallel cultural battle between the US and the Soviet Union. As the USSR and China moved to translate more and more literature into Spanish, and Latin American literature into Russian and Chinese, the US also began to publish more English-language translations of work from Latin America.

It’s well-known that García Márquez and Fidel Castro were life-long friends, despite controversy over Castro’s handling of the Padilla Affair in 1971, which divided the intellectual community and led to many prominent writers disassociating with Cuba. Among the many cities where García Márquez lived with his wife Mercedes, the couple spent time in Havana in a house gifted to them by Castro himself. It’s said that ever since Castro once mentioned to García Márquez that he had found a technical inaccuracy about a boat detail in one of his books, the author also relied on Castro to proofread his manuscripts. 

Photo courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center.

Rather than the two men’s friendship being divisive for the author’s readership, Edith Grossman, translator of several of the books into English, said that “his political loyalties and support of Fidel Castro aren’t crucial to his books.”

“If there was one person that wasn’t afraid to criticize Castro, it was García Márquez.”

Stéphanie Panichelli-Batalla, author of Fidel and Gabo: A portrait of the legendary friendship between Fidel Castro and Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Peruvian Nobel Prize-winning writer Mario Vargas Llosa, himself a close friend of Garcia Marquez at that time, called the author “Castro’s lackey.” However, the authors of the 2014 book Fidel and Gabo: A portrait of the legendary friendship between Fidel Castro and Gabriel Garcia Marquez noted that in their many interviews conducted as research for the book, everyone concurred: if there was one person that wasn’t afraid to criticize Castro, it was García Márquez. 

alvaro santana-acuña
Ascent to Glory author Álvaro Santana-Acuña

Despite García Márquez’s wish that his literary works never be adapted for the small screen, his sons Rodrigo and Gonzalo are collaborating on a new Netflix series of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which will surely expand the reach of the novel, perpetuating its status as a universal classic. 

In 1967, when he completed the novel, García Márquez was not a universally-known author. The fantastical style of writing in the novel, and its setting in a remote Caribbean village, as well as the small publishing house that first released the novel, were hardly the usual ingredients for success in the literary marketplace. Yet today it ranks among the best-selling books of all time.

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