The 85-year-old Colombian writer won the Nobel prize in 1982 and is best known for novels including One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera and Chronicle of a Death Foretold.
He has fought a long battle against lymphatic cancer which he contracted in 1999 and it is believed that the cancer treatment has accelerated his mental decline.
"Dementia runs in our family and he's now suffering the ravages prematurely due to the cancer that put him almost on the verge of death," said Jaime [his brother]. "Chemotherapy saved his life, but it also destroyed many neurons, many defences and cells, and accelerated the process. But he still has the humour, joy and enthusiasm that he has always had."
No matter what you think of Márquez's writing—I've always been partial to "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings"—any powerful writer losing his ability to think and articulate those thoughts is a sad thing.
Of course, I would want to know what Roberto Bolaño, one of my polestars, would have to say about Márquez, fame, and what senile dementia means for an author. But Bolaño died in 2003, one year before his mangum opus 2666 was translated into English and reorganized my brain. (It is also a sad thing to fall in love with a man one year after his death.)
So let's dip into the archives, where Bolaño shows his love/hate relationship with Márquez: His own anxiety of influence, which demonstrates not only Bolaño's struggle (though I suspect he had a deeper struggle with the cool, genteel old master Borges, who probably inspired young Bolaño's gritty, white-hot vision of fiction as philosophical detective work, as well as his insistence on the centrality of violence—overt or implied—to how individuals understand themselves and their place in the world, but that's another subject for another day). The Bolaño archives are also perceptive about the importance of Márquez's career as a writer and as a celebrity.
From the Bolaño essay "The Myths of Cthulhu," which has almost nothing to do with H.P. Lovecraft and everything to do with glamor and the rise of Latin American literature:
Today I read an interview with a famous and shrewd Latin American author. They ask him to name three people he admires. He replies: Nelson Mandela, Gabriel García Márquez, and Mario Vargas Llosa. With that answer as a starting point, you could write a whole thesis about the current state of Latin American literature. The casual reader might wonder what links those three figures. There is something that links two of them: the Nobel Prize. And there is something more that links all three: years ago they were all left wing...
All three have made way for deplorable heirs: the clear and entertaining epigones of García Márquez and Vargas Llosa, and, in the case of Mandela, the indescribable Thabo Mbeki, the current president of South Africa, who denies the existence of AIDS. How could anyone name those three, without batting an eyelid, as the figures he most admires? Why not Bush, Putin and Castro? Why not Mullah Omar, Haider and Berlusconi? Why not Sánchez Dragó, Sánchez Dragó and Sánchez Dragó, disguised as the Holy Trinity?
... what can Sergio Pitol, Fernando Vallejo, and Ricardo Piglia do to counter the avalanche of glamor? Not much. They can write. But writing and literature are worthless if they aren't accompanied by something more imposing than mere survival. Literature, especially in Latin America, and I suspect in Spain as well, means success, by which, of course, I mean social success: massive print runs; translations into more than thirty languages (I can name twenty languages, but beyond twenty-five I run into trouble, not because I doubt that language number twenty-six exists, but because it's hard for me to imagine the Burmese publishing industry or Burmese readers quivering with emotion at the magical-realist escapades of Eva Luna); a house in New York or Los Angeles; dinners with the rich and famous (as a result of which we learn that Bill Clinton can recite whole paragraphs of Huckleberry Finn by heart, or that President Aznar reads Cernuda); making the cover of Newsweek and landing six-figure advances...
This is the age of the writer as civil servant, the writer as thug, the writer as gym rat, the writer who goes to Houston or to the Mayo Clinic in New York for medical treatment. Vargas Llosa never gave a better lesson in literature than when he went jogging at the crack of dawn. And García Márquez never taught us more than when he welcomed the Pope in Havana, wearing patent leather boots—García, not the Pope...
They don't reject respectability. They pursue it desperately. And in order to attain it they really have to sweat. They have to sign books, smile, travel to unfamiliar places, smile, make fools of themselves on celebrity talk shows, keep on smiling, never, never bite the hand that feeds them, participate in literary festivals and reply good-humoredly to the most moronic questions, smile in the most appalling situations, look intelligent, control population growth, and always say thank you.
There's a little bitterness in there. (I do not think Bolaño would have been unaware of how his repetition of "smile" echos Hamlet describing his murderous uncle—another anxiety of influence—as "villain, villain, smiling, damned villain! ...That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.") But there's a sticky, non-binary truth in there as well.
Márquez (and Llosa, who has a new book coming out) started as writers, and kept on being writers, but were also showmen who sweated for respectability. Bolaño knew that this sweating (and starfucking) was in some ways distasteful. But their sweat also watered the garden, allowing a whole new generation of Latin American writers to grow.
He also said in a 1999 interview with the Chilean magazine Capital:
Roberto Bolaño: The literature of Vargas Llosa or García Márquez is gigantic:
Capital: A cathedral.
RB: More than a cathedral. I do not think time will harm them. The work of Vargas Llosa, for example, is immense. It has thousands of entry points and thousands of exit points. So does the literature of García Márquez. They're both public figures. They're not just literary figures. Vargas Llosa was a candidate for president [of Peru]. García Márquez is a political heavyweight and very influential in Latin America.
This distorts things a bit, but it shouldn't make us lose sight of the position they have in the hierarchy. They are superiors, superior to the people who came after and, to be sure, to the writers of my generation. Books such as No One Writes to the Colonel [by Márquez] are simply perfect.
So there you have it. Some readers and writers resent Márquez for his success and/or his politics, but the benefits of his influence—as a writer and as a showman—cannot be denied.
Let us hope his inevitable decline and death is the softest of landings.