Language & Meaning

Category Archives: Language & Meaning

Language, its words and meaning. Etymology, definition, grammar, pedantry

Language & Meaning

Africa Day 2015, a Diverse Continent in Conflict not Unity

Africa Day – 25 May 2015

On Africa Day it is worth reflecting on diversity as much as the so-called unity of the African Union. Africa may be a continent but it is far from united or content. Nor need it be. Diversity and difference, religious, economic and national identity struggle, are features of growth as much as peace and unity are. For now, discontent still rules whether in North Africa’s culturally Islamic Arab Spring countries or in Zimbabwe and South Africa’s continued issues. In between, Nigeria, Sudan and Kenya struggle with North-South divides, extremist groups and campaigns of terror. There are many Africas, not just one.

Africa’s History

Whilst shaking off the shackles of historical European colonialism, no one African identity has emerged but dozens. Self-determination, battles for independence, and religious and tribal/civil wars have ensured that national identities and stable futures are still fighting for supremacy. Africa is still making and creating its modern history.

War and Conflict

Africa leads the world on at least one thing, its 161 conflicts in 26 African countries, half of the continent.  Peace One Day? and prosperity are yet distant horizons. The poor, dispossessed, women and children are so often the innocent victims in conflict. Africa needs peace, but that is not the same as unity.

Africa Day

Africa Day, itself, celebrates the May 25 founding in Ethiopia, by 30 African leaders, of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963, which in 2002 became the African Union whose motto is “united and strong”. Its current chairperson is Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and his statement today is AU president Robert Mugabe’s Africa Day statement 2015.

Geography and the Clash of Civilisations

When was the last time anyone thought of Egypt, ancient or modern, as part of Africa rather than part of the Middle East? Geographical unity is a false guide to religious, cultural and national identity unity. Again, when we talk of the ancient world Africa is usually forgotten, yet Egypt is African, Nubia too, and what about historical Mali and the medieval literary and learning centre of Timbuktu.

African Languages

Africa ethnic language groups Wikipedia via CIA 1996
Africa ethnic language groups Wikipedia via CIA 1996

Arabic, English, French, and Swahili, may be the most well known African languages but many forget the 500 languages of Nigeria, or indeed the 2-3,000 across the whole of Africa making it the most diverse location on Earth, linguistically. South Africa has 11 official languages, more than anywhere else, only Somalia has just one. Most countries will speak ex-colonial languages alongside indigenous ones. 75% of Africa speaks over a dozen different languages but 25% speak hundreds more.

African Economics & Absolute Poverty

Many in African still survive – and that is a dubious description, on less than $1-$2 a day.

“Over the last 30 years, worldwide absolute poverty has fallen sharply (from about 40% to under 20%). But in African countries the percentage has barely fallen. Still today, over 40% of people living in sub-Saharan Africa live in absolute poverty.” Our Africa – Poverty

Nigeria, riven by conflict, violence, corruption, is nonetheless on target to continue to grow as Africa’s strongest economic nation, in the main due to oil.

African Women and Gender Equality

The theme of Africa Day, this year, is the “Year of Women Empowerment and Development towards Africa’s Agenda 2063”. Gender equality is far off with Boko Haram continuing to kidnap young girls and make sex slaves or forced marriages of teenage women. Education is still not an equal right in many states and countries, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) remains a health and human rights issue barely being tackled at all.

Dr Zuma, the Chair of the African Union Commission, said today that the 2015 theme represents:

“a recognition of centuries of African women and women from the Diaspora to the struggles against slavery, racial and gender discrimination, and for the emancipation of our continent and African men and women everywhere.

Women and girls continue to play critical roles – paid and unpaid – in their families, communities, countries and regions, that directly impact on economies and societies.

Despite the constraints that they continue to face, we have made strides, as a result of different waves of struggles by the women’s movements. Since the historic Beijing Conference twenty years ago, and the recognition of women’s rights as human rights, we have seen progress on women’s representation, in the advancement of reproductive rights, on equal pay for equal work, on access to education and basic services.

At the same time, it is estimated that if real change happens at the same [pace], it will take us 80 years before reaching full gender parity.”

Unity and equality in Africa are a long way off, slow progress is being made and conflict in various forms continues to destabilise economic and cultural development. Individual hopes, educational and economic opportunity, health and women’s rights, are bigger issues than a surface unity this Africa Day. African rights are human rights and abuses remain ignored by pan-African and international communities. News stories, unless they be of thousands of migrants or hundreds of schoolgirls, go ignored or buried by the international news services. Africa needs greater news coverage and the spotlight of global media, as well as economic aid, in order to progress both human rights and economic development.

Language & Meaning

Extremist, ethnic, economic conflict in Nigeria and the value of African lives

Boko Haram & Nigeria’s War of Terror

African language families Wiki Nigeria outlined
African language families with Nigeria outlined

The extremist war of terror in Nigeria continues to claim more victims. Reports are coming in of around 600 more schoolgirls being captured. In April around 280 schoolgirls were abducted and in May several attacks killed dozens in the villages of northern Nigeria and over 120 died from two bombs in the central Nigerian million-plus population cosmopolitan city of Jos, J-town, or “Tin City”. Jos has been the scene of intra-community violence since 1994 between its Christian, Muslim, and minority residents, killing thousands of people, hardly the “home of peace and tourism” as the Plateau State is known.

Two decades of escalating violence

Jos has been the scene of intra-community violence since 1994 between its Christian, Muslim, and minority residents, killing thousands of people, hardly the “home of peace and tourism” as the Plateau State is known.

Over the last 5 months more than 2000 people have been killed in Nigerian violence and thousands more displaced, according to Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA). From 2009-2013 under 4000 were killed, so there has been a definite escalation in the violence. Perhaps, this may be a response to Nigeria’s belated heavy-handed response to Boko Haram that has included alleged deaths in custody of probably over 1000 suspected Boko Haram fighters last year. Leaked information from a senior Nigerian army officer suggested 950 had died in the first half of 2013 alone. Back in 2009, Boko Haram’s then leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed in police custody after a police raid.

Education targeted by terror

Much of the violence appears indiscriminate, even if at times it has been directed at Christian or Muslim, churches or mosques, it often ends up being directed at schools, colleges, markets, wherever civilians gather and indiscriminate violence can have its most terrifying effect.

“Attacks against schoolchildren, teachers and school buildings demonstrate an absolute disregard for the right to life and the right to education.”Lucy Freeman, Amnesty International’s deputy Africa director.  

The full report by Amnesty on the terrorising of education in Nigeria makes one wonder whether Boko Haram would go to Taliban-like extremes of restricting access to education, especially of teenage girls. Indeed, Boko Haram in Hausa allegedly means “Western education is sin/prohibited (haram)”. The boko element can also mean “fraud”, “bogus” or “inauthentic”. Even locals, are not entirely sure what it means! It is less of a mouthful than its Arabic title: Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad, or “Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad”.

Complicated causes, not just religious

The apparent war between religions and ideologies masks more basic rivalries over resources, land, power, and tribal identities. Religion just exacerbates the incendiary melting pot.

Benjamin A Kwashi, the Anglican Archbishop of Jos, has said that:

“those who have in the past used violence to settle political issues, economic issues, social matters, intertribal disagreements, or any issue for that matter, now continue to use that same path of violence and cover it up with religion.”

An excellent Al Jazeera report into the origins and rise of Boko Haram concluded that:

“Unabated violence, a feeling of marginalisation by the federal government, unemployment and poverty however remain the primary seeds of discontent…” – Yvonne Ndege and Azad Essa, Al Jazeera

Ethnic or Economic Tensions?

Chris Kwaja is a lecturer and researcher at the Centre for Conflict Management at the University of Jos in Nigeria and writes:

“[A]s is often the case with identity conflicts in Africa…socially constructed stereotypes…are manipulated to trigger and drive violence in Jos. They veil deeper institutional factors within Nigerian law that are abused and exploited to deny citizens access to resources, basic rights, and participation in political processes—factors that, left unaddressed, have the potential to trigger violence across the country.” (p2)
“The ethnic or religious dimensions of the conflict have subsequently been misconstrued as the primary driver of violence when, in fact, disenfranchisement, inequality, and other practical fears are the root causes.” (p4)

Nigeria's ethnic breakdown
Nigeria’s major Ethnic groups (Source: Ulrich Lamm)

Nigeria is as riven and driven by identity politics, ethnic “indigene” and/or religious affiliation as many xenophobic groups are racist against black Africans in the predominantly white West.

“In a survey conducted by Ellsworth in 1999, titled Re-imagined Communities, it was discovered that ethnicity and religious attachment are the two top ranked identity makers for a vast majority of Nigerians than other indices such as National, ECOWAS and African. The xenophobic tendencies that quietly run in our system is further compounded when the religious card is flashed, as is typical of Christian/ Muslim conflicts throughout most of the north, which is usually about anything (politics, economic control and competition after scarce resources, ethnicity).” Rotimi Maye, Nigeria and Indigeneship Question

Invariably, the victims are drawn from all religions and not just one, and from multiple indigenous and immigrant ethnic groups, of which Nigeria has some 500, 70% made up of Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, and Falani.

Economic Growth

Nigerian States by GDP
Nigerian States by GDP (2010)

Nigeria has, this year, become Africa’s largest nation and economy, and is now ranked 26th in the world, thanks, in part, to its oil wealth, mainly in the south – something that is also fought over. Not only is Africa a divided continent by perhaps 3000 languages and ethnic groups, so too it is divided by wealth and opportunity, health and oil.

Boko Haram origins, Sharia law

Almost half of Nigeria, mainly in the north, now has some form of Sharia law. Over the last decade the extremist Islamist group Boko Haram has sought to impose Sharia and depose the existing rule of law.  It is even against other muslims and one of its founding leaders firmly believed in a flat earth fundamentalism. Many Nigerian Muslim groups have condemned it. One Nigerian Muslim leader, The Sultan of Sokoto Sa’adu Abubakar, called Boko Haram “anti-Islamic” and “an embarrassment to Islam”.

“While Boko Haram is a religious organisation, it is almost impossible to separate the activities of the group with the political, economic and territorial struggles in northern Nigeria which, in spite of a secular consitution, is often divided on religious lines. Established in 2002 in Maiduguri, Boko Haram spent 2002-2009 consolidating its base, spreading its disdain for Western education and government corruption, culminating in the creation of alternative schools and attacking symbols of state power…” – Al Jazeera report

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Somali-born feminist, activist and founder of the eponymously named AHA Foundation which seeks to protect women in the West from being subjected to religious or cultural oppressions including forced marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM) and honour violence. For her the conflict in Nigeria, at least that part for which Boko Haram can be held responsible, is about religion – or rather the patriarchal putting down of women, and jihadist suspicion of the liberal West. In a recent Wall Street Journal piece, Ali wrote that:

“The kidnapping of the schoolgirls throws into bold relief a central part of what the jihadists are about: the oppression of women. Boko Haram sincerely believes that girls are better off enslaved than educated. The terrorists’ mission is no different from that of the Taliban assassin who shot and nearly killed 15-year-old Pakistani Malala Yousafzai—as she rode a school bus home in 2012—because she advocated girls’ education. As I know from experience, nothing is more anathema to the jihadists than equal and educated women.”

#BringBackOurGirls, Western ignorance about Africa

Boko Haram were behind the kidnapping of some 276 Chibok schoolgirls last month which attracted international attention with the social media Twitter campaign #BringBackOurGirls. Again, somewhat indiscriminate as though the majority were Christian, several were Muslim, around 50 have subsequently escaped. Indeed, some images used to highlight their plight were not even of the kidnapped girls, or even Nigerian.

Malala Bring Back Our Girls
Malala #BringBackOurGirls

The West only kicked up a fuss when it was schoolgirls that were kidnapped, much as Live Aid in the 1980s fed off the famine of Africa’s starving using emotional images to stir up interest in a continent we were otherwise willing to ignore. US television networks ignored Boko Haram this last year despite 1500+ recent killings because African lives are worth less or, perhaps, even considered worthless. News stories for just 4 missing British sailors, a child-saving cat, or the latest UKIP xenophobic “Bongo-Bongo land” own-goal, dominate over any news from the “Dark Continent“, a reference originally not to race or colour, but to Africa’s remote and mysterious unknowns. To this day, for many, it remains a great unknown.

“The more Westerners learn about Africa from Africans, the better.” – Robert Bates

“Unfortunately…most westerners form their opinions of Africa based on the reporting and news in their own countries” – Louise Mushikiwabo

Africa's languages around Nigeria
Africa’s languages around Nigeria

In a 2010 Guardian article, Louise Mushikiwabo, Rwanda’s Foreign Minister, went on to say that “In a globalised world we need to know more about each other than ever and the absence of genuine engagement only serves to exacerbate suspicion, and may affect the lives of the very citizens whom we all ultimately serve.” This could apply to any ethnic or ideological group, not only Africa and its 53 nations and thousands of languages.

Indeed, to every headline there is often a complex contextual backstory, no less so than in Nigeria. For instance, this AllAfrica report by Margaret Kimberley, editor and senior columnist at Black Agenda Report, cites the background to the Boko Haram kidnapping:

“Boko Haram members were detained by the police in 2011 and 2012 and that the group swore revenge. Boko Haram leader Abubakr Shekau said in one of his many videos, “Since you are now holding our women, just wait and see what will happen to your own women… to your own wives according to sharia law.” The kidnappings of the past two years are a direct result of the government’s mistreatment of its people and its failed efforts to fight Boko Haram.” – Margaret Kimberley, Nigeria: How Not to ‘Bring Back Our Girls’

Boko Haram, may also turn out to be behind this week’s most recent terrorist bombing atrocity, similar to their double car bombing Christmas Day attack of 2010 in Jos – though they have not yet claimed responsibility.

Goodluck Jonathan

Nigeria’s oxymoronically named President Goodluck Jonathan has described them as “enemies of human progress and civilisation”, a “tragic assault on human freedom”.

President Jonathan, whose wife is called Patience, are Christians from the Ijaw people of southern Nigeria. He holds a Masters degree and a PhD in Zoology and prior to entering politics and becoming President had worked in education and environmental protection. His people, the Ijaws, since the late 1990s had been involved in mainly peaceful protest against the oil companies‘ exploitation of their homeland and suffered state and military crackdowns of their actions.

Nigeria has all the potential to become an economic powerhouse – if it can control its ethnic and religious tensions, not to mention the international oil company exploitation and corruption. The President has faced calls to resign over the handling of, and seeming inaction over, the schoolgirls kidnapping. One critic wrote:

“It is all because those at the helm in the nation attach no value to the lives of others”.

That may well be true, but the “zero value” attached to human lives can surely be laid at the door of Boko Haram and others too. In the past Jonathan has instituted peaceful and progressive policies, so one hopes he will continue to reform and stabilise the country, and face his critics with renewed action on issues that divide the nation. Nigeria’s leader needs to be a leader of the people and of all its peoples. [Update: Goodluck Jonathan’s presidency is over and #365DaysOn we are now closer on #BringBackOurGirls]

Related articles/further reading

http://www.bubblews.com/news/3452547
http://www.theguardian.com/world/nigeria
http://www.nigeriaworld.com/
http://allafrica.com/nigeria/
http://www.amnesty.org/en/region/nigeria

Image Credits

WikiMedia Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:African_language_families_en.svg
Nigeria outline added
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Nigerian_States_by_GDP,_2010.png
Mapping Nigeria’s Diveristy, source: Ulrich Lamm, modified by http://africacenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/AfricaBriefFinal_14.pdf
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Linguistic_maps_of_Nigeria#mediaviewer/File:Nigeria_linguistical_map_1979.svg
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Linguistic_maps_of_Nigeria#mediaviewer/File:Nigeria_Benin_Cameroon_languages.png

Language & Meaning

Elections – Psephology, Psephologists, Psephos, Pebbles, Politics and Polls

Psephology is literally the -ology or study of pebbles – Greek ψῆφος psephos, or ‘pebble’, or the more prosaic, study of elections. It is a branch of political science notoriously fraught with failed election predictions via pre-election sample polling that can totally miss the main result. The term was first used in the UK in 1952 by historian R B McCallum to describe “the scientific analysis of past elections”. Elections and ‘scientific’ seem somewhat oxymoronic to me!

Athenian Secret Ballot Discs WikimediaVoting using pebbles or such common items such as mussel shells was certainly in use in 5th century BC Greece and earlier. By the 4th century BC some were using bronze or lead ballots with solid or hollow axles through the middle to distinguish between voting outcomes. The ballot with the pierced axle is inscribedpsephos demosia” or “public ballot”.

We get the word “ballot” from the Italian word ballotta or medieval French ballotte, a “small ball”. The casting of ballots is not to be confused with the throwing of stones such as done by a ‘ballista’, the medieval siege engine that could fire heavy bolts or large round stones. Latin ballista comes from the Greek βαλλίστρα ballistra from the Greek verb βάλλω ballō “to throw”.

Ostraka OstracismBy the 2nd century BC the Romans were beginning to use paper ballots – more practical than the Greek use of ostraka, shells or broken pottery sherds/shards, used to inscribe the names of people to be voted for as election nominees, or for rejection, as persons to be ostracised. Hence why, and from where, we get the word ostracism.

Votes, for or against, guilty or innocent – often a black stone for the former (hence ‘blackballing’ someone) and white for the latter, were deposited in urns or jars and subsequently counted. Initially, votes and voters were not secret or private, but, ever-innovative Greek democracy was beginning to establish the need for secret voting by the 5th century BC.

Ancient Greek Voting Ajax British Museum WikiA Greek wine cup of the period,in the J Paul Getty Museum Collection, depicts an early voting scene with an unhappy outcome. During the Trojan War, after the killing of Achilles, two Greek heroes, Ajax and Odysseus, both claim and compete for Achilles’ possessions – his weapons and armour, Ajax having saved and retrieved Achilles’ body from battle with the Trojans. Rather than argue or duel a vote is held. The terracotta wine cup shows Odysseus getting more pebbles and Ajax’s head-in-hands disappointment leading to him committing suicide by falling on his sword. He’d lost by just one vote and ironically took his life on a pebble beach, as depicted on the inside of the cup.

Well it was civilised up until that point! One can only imagine the losers in modern elections or contests like Eurovision and X-Factor falling on their swords after losing. Although, the psychological pressure to win in these talent competitions is so intense that I don’t doubt many end up depressed, self-harming or worse.

In the Bible, in Acts 26:10, St Paul describes how pre-conversion he’d sent Christians to their deaths by casting his vote (psephon, Strong’s Number #5586) against them.

Psephos is also the eponymous name of Adam Carr’s excellent Election Archive, the world’s largest online archive of election statistics from 182 countries and counting – Eurovision, So-and-so’s Got Talent, and X-Factor shows are not included! It includes excellent coverage of Australian, US, and UK, elections down to regional results.

Paul the psychic Octopus WikimediaPolling and predictions are perilous tasks for the non-psychic, being as relied upon in reality as an aquarium octopus vulgaris divining the World Cup results. Actually, Paul the German ‘common’ (for that is what vulgaris literally means) octopus was fairly accurate in his short 2 year life at predicting German football results! He was 85% right about the 2010 World Cup results and 100% right about the German games.

In order to better illustrate, inform, and “sex-up”, the presentation of political results, the BBC began, as far back as 1955, using the now infamous Swingometer – not an indicator of how polyamorous one is at certain private parties! Initially, the Swingometer was created to show swings between the two main political parties. From 1964 it began to illustrate the likely effect of voting on the composition of the UK Parliament, number of seats, majority or hung parliament outcomes.

SwingometerThe Swingometer was invented by Peter Milne and enhanced by psephologist Robert McKenzie, who, though Canadian, was one of the main BBC’s General Election programme presenters (1955 to 1979). McKenzie had also been, in 1963, a strong interviewer, a.k.a. early Jeremy Paxman-style, of Lord Hailsham during the infamous Profumo scandal.

The ebullient Peter Snow took over, following McKenzie’s death, and became renowned for his excitable gesticulations and reintroduction of the Swingometer from 1992. In 1994, he parodied his election night role by presenting analysis of the Eurovision Song Contest entries.

With the onward march of technology and television, election coverage has become ever more graphic, not in the Game of Thrones violence sense, just a plethora of graphical data, charts, numbers, infographics, visuals – but it seems the predictions are no better and people no more interested in participating.

Referendums (or referenda – see below) have been held recently in Crimea and Donetsk with dubious methodologies and legitimacy. Voter turnout of around 75% and pro-Russian support were surprisingly high for a nation that 22 years ago voted 90% in favour of leaving the Soviet Union. But then, that’s politics for you. Political affiliation and union, these days, needs its own swingometer to measure current dissatisfaction with the incumbent rulership.

The UK will soon have its own referendum on full devolution for Scotland – why not Wales, Northern Ireland, London and Greater Birmingham too? The fabulous 1949 Ealing Studios comedy, Passport to Pimlico, comes to mind with its comedic declaration of independence!

The main political parties are also under pressure to offer a referendum on leaving the European Union, unfortunately it is the European Broadcasting Union we would have to leave to get out of the Eurovision Song Contest!

At least pedants will always be able to argue whether it is referendums or referenda – it doesn’t affect the outcome, but is something to talk about during the vote count!

[Parts of this article were first published by me here]

Image Credits

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Athenian_Secret_Ballot.jpg
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AGMA_The_Ostracism_of_Themistocles.jpg
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Voting_scene_BM_E69.jpg
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Oktopus-Orakel_Paul_mit_Schuh.JPG
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Swingometer.jpg low resolution fair use for the purpose of identification and reference

Language & Meaning

RIP Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Magical Realist, Nobel Prize novelist, author of 100 Years of Solitude

The colourful Colombian Nobel novelist Gabriel García Márquez died in April at the ripe old age of 87 at his home in Mexico City. Although solitude was a recurring theme in his novels he leaves behind his wife of 56 years and two children. Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez, or Gabo, was born in March 1927 and at 45 he won the Neustadt International Prize for Literature and at 55 the Nobel Prize in Literature. He started out in law, but abandoned that for journalism and work as a foreign correspondent. He wrote for Bogotá’s El Espectador newspaper in the 1940s.

His literary style has been termed magical realism, a style that began in Latin American/Hispanic writing and which contains fantasy or unnatural elements in otherwise commonplace, mundane ordinary life. Think, Guillermo del Toro movies! No, not, Kung Fu Panda 2 but perhaps Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) or Cronos (1993). Surrealism, symbolism and subtle historical satire also make regular appearances as if works of surrealist art rendered in literary form.

As a result of this Spanish-language literature emerging from South America in the 1960s, it has also been called the Latin American Boom with such literary giants as Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel García Márquez being key figures in its development and global renown.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez One Hundred Years of SolitudeHis most famous novel was One Hundred Years of Solitude (“Cien años de soledad”), published in 1967, and declared by a NY Times review to be “required reading for the entire human race” and the Guardian as “kaleidoscopically, mysteriously alive”. It has been translated into more than two dozen languages and sold tens of millions of copies.

“It’s just a small thing to even call it a book. It is a whole universe that’s been created that you’re being asked to step into.” – Patricia Smith, Associate Professor of Creative Writing, City University of New York

The book begins with the family patriarch’s scion, the now Colonel Aureliano Buendía, looking back on his childhood whilst facing a firing squad. Very evocative of an older era of Hispanic revolutionary times. The description of the early village settlement of Macondo, nestled on the bank of a river containing “polished stones…white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names…” is Edenic and utopic. Then comes the mysterious Melquíades and his gypsies, inventions, alchemy and a secret manuscript that would remain undeciphered for 7 generations of the somewhat doomed to repeat history family – another Latin American trait, fatalism. As his biographer Gerald Martin told AP it was “the first novel in which Latin Americans recognized themselves, that defined them, celebrated their passion, their intensity, their spirituality and superstition, their grand propensity for failure”.

Salman Rushdie described it as the “greatest novel in any language of the last 50 years”, but it wasn’t just any language, it was Spanish – a language almost as suited as English to passionate expression, with so many evocative words and idioms. It is said that English has perhaps twice as many words at its disposal but that “doesn’t mean that it can’t be just as expressive as English; sometimes it is more so.”

“One feature that Spanish has when compared to English is a flexible word order. Thus the distinction that is made in English between “dark night” and “gloomy night” might be made in Spanish by saying noche oscura and oscura noche, respectively. Spanish also has two verbs that are the rough equivalent of the English “to be,” and the choice of verb can change the meaning (as perceived by English speakers) of other words in the sentence. Thus estoy enferma (“I am sick”) is not the same as soy enferma (“I am sickly”). Spanish also has verb forms, including a much-used subjunctive mood, that can provide nuances of meaning sometimes absent in English. Finally, Spanish speakers frequently use suffixes to provide shades of meaning.”

I remember trying to read a Márquez novel in a post-A level Spanish literary class, and needing a dictionary constantly in hand. Though that interrupted the the flow of the narrative and slowed the comprehension, I was no less enthralled by the beauty and colour of the language, readily understood or not.

Márquez has been described as “the most popular Spanish-language writer since Miguel de Cervantes in the 17th century” and as having “outsold everything published in Spanish except the Bible.”

Upon accepting the 1982 Noble Prize for Literature, Márquez situated his fictional writing firmly in the real, the political, the crucible of civil wars, revolutions, exiles, people ‘disappeared’, “between reality and nostalgia was the raw material for my work”:

“The country that could be formed of all the exiles and forced emigrants of Latin America would have a population larger than that of Norway. I dare to think that it is this outsized reality, and not just its literary expression, that has deserved the attention of the Swedish Academy of Letters [Nobel committee]. A reality not of paper, but one that lives within us and determines each instant of our countless daily deaths, and that nourishes a source of insatiable creativity, full of sorrow and beauty, of which this roving and nostalgic Colombian is but one cipher more, singled out by fortune. Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude.”

The opening lines of Love in the Time of Cholera (“El amor en los tiempos del cólera”, 1985) are literally bittersweet:

“It was inevitable: The scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love…his most sympathetic opponent in chess, had escaped the torments of memory with the aromatic fumes of gold cyanide.”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez Love in the time of choleraWritten 18 years after One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera is less fantastical but no less magical. Described as “a compelling exploration of the myths we make of love” by Barbara Hoffert, in the Library Journal, and the Independent wrote of it that “Few have written so passionately about the power of love”. The Daily Telegraph said of Márquez’ writing, that it was “Quite the nearest thing to sensual pleasure that prose can offer.”

In all the apparent hopelessness of Latin American existence, he, nonetheless, writes of a triumph of hope over experience and celebrates love in its many forms, including lovesickness, and at every age, even in the twilight of our lives. He reached the twilight of his existence and will remain loved by his family, fellow Latin Americans, and avid readers from most every nation alive.

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos said of Márquez that he was Colombia’s “most loved and admired compatriot of all time” and has announced three days of official mourning.

[This article was first published here]

Novels

  • In Evil Hour (1962)
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)
  • The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975)
  • Love in the Time of Cholera (1985)
  • The General in His Labyrinth (1989)
  • Of Love and Other Demons (1994)

Novellas

  • Leaf Storm (1955)
  • No One Writes to the Colonel (1961)
  • Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981)
  • Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004)

Short Story Collections

  • Eyes of a Blue Dog (1947)
  • Big Mama’s Funeral (1962)
  • The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother (1978)
  • Collected Stories (1984)
  • Strange Pilgrims (1993)

Non-fiction Books

  • The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor (1970)
  • The Solitude of Latin America (1982)
  • The Fragrance of Guava (1982, with Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza)
  • Clandestine in Chile (1986)
  • News of a Kidnapping (1996)
  • A Country for Children (1998)
  • Living to Tell the Tale (2002)