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Много лет спустя, перед самым расстрелом, полковник Аурелиано Буендия припомнит тот далекий день, когда отец повел его поглядеть на лед.

Years ago, I was studying abroad in St. Petersburg, a little overwhelmed by culture shock and homesickness.  It was hard to find books in English, and though my Russian was improving every day, I was intimidated by the prospect of tackling a major Russian work.  I would come home at the end of a long day, exhausted enough from trying to make my way in a difficult language, and I didn’t want more hard work – I wanted something familiar.  Familiar and beautiful.  So I found a Russian translation of my favorite book, a book so stitched into my heart that even in Cyrillic, I felt like I recognized every letter.

Here is that same sentence in the original:

Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo.

***

It wasn’t until I had gotten to college that I realized what a sadly narrow version of “world literature” I had been exposed to in my earlier schooling.  I had taken an advanced-level World Lit course in high school, but over time it began to dawn on me that the “world” we were exposed to consisted entirely of Anglophone books, plus an obligatory nod to Beowulf.  My reading world was very small indeed.

I made a friend across the hall in my dorm freshman year.  I admired her so much – she was bold, confident, and creative.  As we grew close I asked her the question I try to ask all my friends: “What is your favorite book?”  She named a novel I had never heard of, by a Colombian author I had never heard of.  Truth be told, until I had that conversation, I had never given any thought to Latin American fiction at all.  Why on earth had it never occurred to me that there were great writers living and working in the vast spaces just to the south of me?

So I read that book, and as I read it I wondered how I had been a reader before I read these words.  How was it possible this book had lived longer than I had and we’d never been introduced?  How would I ever be the same after reading the language, the images, in which I had immersed myself?  There’s a technical term for the genre this book belongs to – it’s called “magical realism.”  I love that term, and I love the genre, but I didn’t know any of that as I read for the first time.  But I did understand that it was magic.

Here is the first sentence from that book, as I read it:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

***

One of the things that constantly fascinates me about languages is that they are an concrete way to see inside the minds of humans.  The way people speak tells a story of who they are and where they came from; the myriad complexities of each language show that we are all human, and remarkably intelligent, and creative.

Literature can do that too, of course.  Literature can reach across almost any barrier.  The best literature manages to say, at the same time, “This is who we are,” and, “This is who you are.”

The world is far richer, and more magical, because of the language and literature of Gabriel García Márquez.  I certainly am richer for it, and grateful.  Rest in peace sir, and muchas gracias (and спасибо большое).

 

Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.