It is a well-known fact that young men under 18 embrace literature primarily to impress the girls they are trying to seduce. You had to congratulate my ambition: A Soviet-Jewish immigrant kid with funny hair and funnier clothes after an American-born, Catholic, Colombian beauty whom I’ll call C. But I had a secret weapon: the work of her countryman Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who died yesterday (on this earth, at least) at 87. That I would try to seduce this ethereal creature was as fantastical a proposition as any of the things that went on in the novels of the great Gabo, where blood ran from a battlefield to the doorstep of the home of the slain, women ate dirt in despair, and lovers reunited after 50 years of forced separation. But a Russian Jew, even at 15, knows how to hustle. A Russian Jew brings friends to a fight.
Gabo — and C — were everything that my life in northern New Jersey was not. I had emigrated at nine from a country of voluble, undiplomatic, and boundary-invading kitchen talk (so unlike the grayness usually associated with the USSR) to a country of greater civility but less self-revelation and candor. My family still talked loudly and over-intimately in America, only now this was severely out of place and looked at askance. But that disposition was native once again between the covers of a Marquez novel. There — and in C’s family kitchen — the blood ran quick in the way that I remembered from home, and as a promise that such a life could be found again. Add to this that, in emigrating, I had suddenly passed from a sheltered childhood to a radically unfamiliar place where I was made responsible for the well-being of adults twice and three times my age because I had learned English the fastest. You could not have met a more stressed, terrified, humorless teenager. You can imagine why I lost hours with Marquez’s books.
Northern New Jersey may have been the least romantic place in the world, but Gabo made it bloom for me and C. We read his books one after the other, each of us underlining what moved us, making comments to each other in the margins. Because of our different religions, our families did not like us together, and because we were kids, that was all the reason we needed to think we should be together forever. Gabo quickened our sense of ourselves as doomed lovers. Let this be the first and last place where I reveal that my ultimate seduction was inspired by a scene in “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” (It involved fluttering rose petals and four adults waiting out the night in the parking lot of a Shop Rite. But that’s for another essay.) Also that I wrote C’s senior-year term paper, also about “Solitude.” It was called “Love Among the Ruins.”
There’s a singular bittersweetness to the moment when a hero returns to the role of, simply, someone you read once. For the first time in nearly twenty years, I opened Solitude last year to discover I could not get very far. Enough things had happened in my life – really real things, things that could not be mitigated even by that novel’s magical happenings – that I found its fabulism ungrounded and irritating. As an adult, I wanted something that engaged with the stubbornly real, melancholy timbre of the world I was actually living in. My adoration had passed on to William Styron, Bernard Malamud, J. M. Coetzee.
But even erstwhile heroes leave a lasting mark. In my debut novel, out this June, about a failed young journalist who starts forging Holocaust-restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn, the conversation is between the grandchildren and grandparents, the parents hardly making an appearance. After finishing the novel, I realized that it was Marquez, who had been raised by his grandparents and their tall tales, who had led me to this emotional matrix. I had been raised by my parents, but it was the stories of my grandparents, who had lived in a time when life seemed to work entirely differently, that had really impacted me. This is to say nothing of the novel’s obsession with fabulism and invention, relocated to the far less surreal precincts of the American Northeast. At one point, Slava Gelman, the protagonist says, “If you say there are elephants flying outside your window, no one will believe you. But if you say there are six elephants flying outside your window, it’s a different story.” That is taken directly from a Marquez interview with The Paris Review. And while I have never quite found that new home where life answers to the heart instead of other gods like the market, there is only one reason why the personal essay is my favorite form. For me, Gabo lives.
As for C and I, we were together for three years. (If I ever run for office, she can destroy me by publishing some of the Marquez-inspired poetry I wrote her during that time. “The moonlight on your hair…”) Some days, it seemed like Gabo was all that we shared. I wonder if the intensity of our affection and gratitude for his work helped conceal all the ways in which we weren’t happy with each other, made the relationship go on longer than it should have. Perhaps. But I know that the old man would have relished that he had been used to kindle this first love, a love between a Jew and a Catholic from opposite ends of the world meeting in a third place, free but sedate, that they both craved to escape for the unreasonable world of his pages. Was that any less fantastical than what he wrote about? Would that he were still around to take on the idea.
Boris Fishman’s debut novel ‘A Replacement Life’ will be published on June 3 by HarperCollins.