Once, under a stifling October sun, Gabriel García Márquez, the great Latin American writer, observed the unceremonious wrenching open of a centuries-old tomb. As the sacred stones were smashed into rubble, bundles of luminescent golden hair tumbled through the suffocating atmosphere of dust. Measuring 22 meters and 11 centimetres, it was attached to the adolescent skull of a girl whose given names were still legible in the etched stone: Sierva María de Todos Los Ángeles.
A young journalist at this point, Márquez recognised something immediately. A story had been interred in this catacomb, dormant for long years. And so, decades later, he did what all writers do, he wrote it.
What emerged is a powerful, moving, homage to the desolate hopelessness of love. ‘For you was I born, for you do I have life, for you will I die, for you am I now dying.’ Beautiful and enchanting, it spins the sad tale of a girl bitten by a rabid dog on the eve of her 12th birthday. She was the forgotten and hated daughter of a wretched addict and a feeble old Marquise presiding over the final disintegration of a family fortune built on the back of illicit slave trading. Suddenly under the threat of rabies, in a flash of inspiration, her father endeavours to save the child. Sierva María is drawn out of the family she has known her life long, the African slaves whose languages she speaks and by whom she was raised, and cast into the hands of all manner of healers. Eventually coming to the attention of the Holy Office, the bright and bedazzled young girl is thought to be possessed.
Love, we find here, is the true madness. But ironically, just as it enslaves, it is also the force which sets us free. This is the demon which sweeps through the lives of Márquez’s cast. Like Sierva’s mother, driven to cacao addiction and wild orgies with hired slaves in a bid to reclaim her dead lover.
For the first time since I can remember, as soon as I closed the final page, instead of placing this fable back on a shelf, I began again. Coming to the end of a second reading, it might be difficult to hold off a third. Márquez’s prose is gentle. Even in translation, it flows with a warm rhythm that belies a sometimes harsh message. As he says, ‘the more transparent the writing, the more visible the poetry.’
There are echoes here of José Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher who chronicles the solitude that essentially defines true love. ‘The warm companionship which love intends to be… is an attempt to create a union between my solitude, the genuineness of my life, and that of another; it is the fusing of two solitudes as such into one solitude made up of two.’ This gulf in the heart of the individual is elegantly rendered by Márquez. In his world, life truly begins when a person turns to love, when they invest their solitude in that of another. But this beginning is also the end of something; because it is dangerous, it takes us beyond our own control, ‘O sweet treasures, discovered to my sorrow.’ Yet it is also the ultimate risk worth taking. The Marquise realises this when he sees his daughter sleeping. ‘He adjusted the mosquito netting so the bats would not drain her blood, he covered her so she would not cough and he kept watch next to the bed, feeling the new joy of knowing he loved her as he had never loved in this world.’
This book is highly recommended.
 José Ortega y Gasset, translated by Mildred Adams, Man and crisis, 1958, New York, Norton, p. 92.