Famous First Words: Leaf Storm
The town of Macondo was founded near the northern coast of Colombia, a Caribbean region community whose inhabitants remained almost completely isolated during the first phase of their collective history. Whatever else might be learned from a more concerted research effort, there are two major points that have come to be recalled most readily. The first is the cautionary tale of Macondo’s rapid economic ascent, the fortunes of which hinged on the establishment and operation of a banana plantation that was brought in by the arrival of the railroad in the late nineteenth century. The second is that Macondo doesn’t, technically, exist. It’s this second point that tends to inspire the most fervent objections.
To be sure, the lasting influence of Gabriel García Márquez’s Macondo looms much larger now than any trivial questions about census designation. This is partly due to the fact that the source of its inspiration, Aracataca, is indeed an officially recognized municipality, but mostly it’s because the story of Macondo was documented by its principal historian as a means of communicating truth rather than as an attempt at merely filling out the public record. If he could manage to get just a little closer to achieving that goal along the way, then the actual veracity of the details would become altogether unimportant.
It was a setting that García Márquez knew exceptionally well. The eldest of eleven children, he was born in 1927 and spent the first eight years of his life in Aracataca, where he lived with his maternal grandparents and a complex network of extended family after his parents left town to find work. The was house packed to the limit by a rotating cast of personalities that included aunts, cousins, transient houseguests, an assortment of distant relatives, and his grandfather’s various illegitimate children, all incorporated equally into the mix. His grandfather, a pensioned army colonel who had fought in the War of a Thousand Days, and grandmother, a wildly inventive and unrestrained storyteller, were the figures responsible for providing him with a thorough home education about this former outpost of the United Fruit Company, and the often troubled history of Aracataca played a significant role in shaping the worldview of young García Márquez.
The boy had minimal contact with his parents until 1935, when his grandfather was badly hurt in a fall at their home. With the colonel in failing health, García Márquez returned to the custody of his parents in Sincé. The family then moved back to Aracataca for a while, though García Márquez’s father separated from them on the trip back in order to try and set up a pharmacy business in Barranquilla. When that venture failed, his father set off again, landing in the river port town of Sucre. His wife and children joined him there, but it soon became clear that García Márquez, who was an exemplary student but was behind schedule in his education after several interruptions over the years, needed to get out. With a considerable effort, his mother was finally able to convince her husband to send García Márquez, at the age of thirteen, to a boarding school back in Barranquilla.
He acclimated quickly, excelling in his classes and contributing to the school magazine, but his studies were suspended again in 1941 when recurring episodes of emotional instability caused him to withdraw from school for a few months. Though he would return in early 1942, he left Barranquilla the following year and moved on to Bogotá, getting a scholarship to a prestigious high school in nearby Zipaquirá. He started writing more, expanding his range as a short story writer, and before long he was publishing poetry under the pseudonym “Javier Garcés.”
García Márquez graduated in 1946 and enrolled at the National University of Columbia to study law at the insistence of his parents, and he quickly grew to loathe the program. In 1948, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán Ayala, a leading Colombian Liberal Party member, was assassinated, initiating a brutal decade of political unrest known as La Violencia. The National University of Columbia went out of commission temporarily, so García Márquez relocated to Cartagena and was accepted into the university there. Around this time, however, he was already working regularly as a journalist and never completed his degree.
By 1950, he was dividing his time between his daily newspaper column, a succession of short stories, and his second attempt at a longer work. (The first attempt, a project titled “The House” that was initiated years before, would ultimately be scrapped.) The new manuscript, called “Leaf Storm,” followed the exploits of an old colonel who comes under attack after taking on the responsibility of burying a friend of his, a man who was universally despised in his community because he had, among other transgressions, refused to treat wounded townspeople in the aftermath of a political conflict years before. For his protagonist, García Márquez adapted the character of his grandfather; for the location, he simply substituted his own hometown. The novella was a striking departure from the sober, incisively uncompromising tone of his news features, which had begun to attract widespread acclaim from readers and just as much scrutiny from the military government that he frequently criticized. Serving as the official introduction of Macondo (a backdrop that García Márquez would revisit in his landmark work to come), the story also employed elements of the narrative technique that he had acquired as a child from his grandmother—the meticulous exaggeration and purposefully coordinated fantasy that was eventually categorized as “magical realism.”
When the book was emphatically rejected in 1952 by an editorial committee in Argentina, García Márquez shook off the disappointment and carried on at the newspaper, and his reputation as a remarkably dexterous and versatile writer continued to build. It wasn’t until 1955 that a publisher and cultural attaché to Israel named Samuel Lisman Baum accepted a revised version of the manuscript and told the author that they would talk again soon. About five months later, García Márquez was stunned when he was contacted by Sipa Editions, an imprint owned by Lisman Baum, and informed that a print run of 4,000 copies was ready for distribution. Just like that, Leaf Storm was set in motion, and while very few of the copies from that initial print run were ever actually sold, it’s a detail that is now entirely beside the point.