From the very beginning of Europe’s incursions into the so-called New World, the ecology, the people, and the civilizations of the Americas became transmuted into legend and fantasy. Early explorers imagined the landscape they encountered as filled with marvels—creatures that arose from their own unconscious and from a literary history of exotic myths dating back to antiquity. And as the native people assumed the character of giants and monsters, savages and demons in travel accounts, their cities became repositories of unimaginable wealth, ripe for the taking.
Foremost among these legends was the city of El Dorado. Sought by the Spanish, Italians, and Portuguese throughout the 15th and 16th centuries and by Walter Raleigh in the 17th, “El Dorado,” says folklorist Jim Griffith, “shifted geographical locations until finally it simply meant a source of untold riches somewhere in the Americas.” A couple hundred years after Raleigh’s last ill-fated expedition, Edgar Allan Poe suggested the location of this city: “Over the Mountains of the Moon, down the Valley of the Shadow, ride, boldly ride… if you seek for El Dorado.”
These colonial encounters, and the feverish accounts they produced, “contained the seeds,” says Gabriel García Márquez in his 1982 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “of our present-day novels.” El Dorado, “our so avidly sought and illusory land,” remained on imaginary maps of explorers well past the age of exploration: “As late as the last century, a German mission appointed to study the construction of an interoceanic railroad… concluded that the project was feasible” only if the rails were made of gold.
As Márquez’s work has often recounted, especially his epic One Hundred Years of Solitude, other commodities sufficed when the gold didn’t materialize, and the struggle between conquerors, adventurers, mercenaries, dictators, and opportunists on the one hand, and people fiercely determined to survive on the other has made “Latin America… a boundless realm of haunted men and historic women, whose unending obstinacy blurs into legend. We have not had a moment’s rest.”
Márquez’s speech, “The Solitude of Latin America,” weaves together the region’s founding history, its literature, and its bloody civil wars, military coups, and “the first Latin American ethnocide of our time” into an accumulating account of “immeasurable violence and pain,” the result of “age-old inequities and untold bitterness… oppression, plundering and abandonment.” To this catalogue, “we respond with life,” says Márquez, while “the most prosperous countries have succeeded in accumulating powers of destruction such as to annihilate, a hundred times over… the totality of all living beings that have ever drawn breath on this planet of misfortune.”
From the utopian dream of cities of gold and endless wealth, we arrive at a dystopian world bent on destroying itself. And yet,“faced with this awesome reality,” Márquez refuses to despair. He quotes from his literary hero William Faulkner’s Nobel speech—“I decline to accept the end of man”—then articulates another vision:
We, the inventors of tales, who will believe anything, feel entitled to believe that it is not yet too late to engage in the creation of the opposite utopia. A new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth.
You can hear all of Márquez’s extraordinary speech read in English at the top of the post, and in Spanish by Márquez himself below that. The latter was made available by Maria Popova, and you can read a full transcript of the speech in English at Brain Pickings.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
Thank you for sharing this poignantly beautiful speech.
Indeed EL Dorado is a mystical name that leads to fantasy ~