Like the cloud of yellow butterflies which follows one of the characters through the fantastical world of One Hundreds Years of Solitude, the legacy of Gabriel García Márquez hovers restlessly over Colombia – a country which has often seemed poised between beauty and tragedy.
“It’s hard to overstate how important and masterful One Hundred Years of Solitude is,” said Andrés Camilo Ramírez, the young owner of Maestros Grandes, a secondhand bookstore in Bogotá. “There’s a richness to it, to its language and its characters, and we just have to hope they capture that in the adaptation.”
So when Netflix this week announced the first screen adaptation of García Márquez’s landmark novel, Ramírez – and many of his compatriots – met the news with a blend of trepidation and excitement.
Popular television and cinema out of Colombia usually foreground the country’s dark history of violence, focusing on drug traffickers like Pablo Escobar, who was the central character two seasons of Netflix’s Narcos. That show also prompted a degree of indignation thanks to its reliance on non-Colombians actors, who often butchered the country’s regional accents.
“Colombia is more than just war and drug lords,” Ramírez said, adding that having García Márquez’s sons serve as executive producers will help the production stay faithful to the novelist’s vision.
García Márquez – or Gabo as he is affectionately and more commonly known here – is a towering figure in Colombian culture. To find an English language equivalent, one would have to look as far back as Charles Dickens, whose literary esteem was matched by commercial success.
Libraries bear Gabo’s name, and his avuncular, mustachioed face features on the country’s 50,000 peso banknote, as well as works by Bogotá’s myriad graffiti artists.
“We are always looking to take advantage of him and his works,” said Yurika, a member of the collective Vertigo Graffiti, which has painted murals inspired by García Márquez across the country. “The wars, the peasant life, and the absurdity of Colombia, is all part of the richness of Gabo’s work and it serves as a reference and an inspiration for all of us.”
The author’s legacy expands beyond Colombia’s borders. After receiving the 1982 Nobel prize for literature – a first for a Colombian – he remarked to a journalist that the award committee “have taken into account the literature of the subcontinent and have awarded me as a way of awarding all of this literature”.
Juan Manuel Santos, the president who won Colombia’s second Nobel – the 2016 peace prize – canonised the author as “the greatest Colombian that ever lived” upon his death in 2014.
For many Colombians, the fantasies of One Hundred Years of Solitude capture deeper truths of the country’s often bloody history. The novel chronicles life in the fictitious Caribbean town Macondo, where seven generations of the Buendía family live through civil war, massacres and modernization yet eventually fade into oblivion.
“Macondo is much more real than many real life towns, and Colonel Aureliano Buendía – who never existed – is more real than almost all colonels,” said the Colombian author Héctor Abad in an interview.
Abad – himself a fêted novelist and memoirist – expressed some misgivings over the gargantuan task of faithfully adapting such a complex work. He pointed out that García Márquez contributed writing to dozens of Latin American film scripts, but despite being among his most loved and translated works, no film adaptation of 100 Years had previously been approved as he refused to sell the rights.
“García Márquez himself failed in adapting his books into scripts and films even though he loved cinema,” he said. “It is like adapting The Iliad: it is better to focus on one episode, for if you try to do the whole book, you will fail.”
Yet the expediency required for adaptation is perhaps something García Márquez would have understood, said Jaime Abello Banfi, a friend with whom he co-founded the Gabriel García Márquez Foundation for New Ibero-American Journalism, or FNPI, in Cartagena, a colonial city where the author’s career as a newspaper reporter began.
“One time we were in a meeting at the foundation and consultants were asking García Márquez to choose our strategy and he responded: ‘For me things are simpler – it can be what it can be, and it cannot be what it cannot be … the best that can happen is whatever happens’ – that is how he was,” Abello said. “People know of him as being incredibly creative but he was also always pragmatic, and always based in what he could observe.”