Someone at MetaFilter linked to “In the Shadow of the Patriarch,” a long, long New Republic article by Enrique Krauze on “Gabriel García Márquez and the demons of his time.” I’ll confess up front that I’ve only read the first of its nine pages, and furthermore that I may very well not get any farther; I’ve enjoyed most of the García Márquez I’ve read, but I’ve already read more than I really need about his life, times, and politics. However, the article begins with a reflection on his relations with the dictionary, which seemed like obvious LH material:
Many years later, in the course of writing his memoirs, Gabriel García Márquez was to remember that distant afternoon in Aracataca, in Colombia, when his grandfather set a dictionary in his lap and said, “Not only does this book know everything, it’s the only one that’s never wrong.” The boy asked, “How many words are in it?” “All of them,” his grandfather replied.
Anywhere in the world, if a grandfather presents his grandson with a dictionary, he is giving him a great instrument of knowledge; but Colombia was not just anywhere. It was a republic of grammarians. During the youth of García Márquez’s grandfather, Colonel Nicolás Márquez Mejía, who was born in 1864 and died in 1936, a number of presidents and government ministers—almost all of them lawyers from the conservative camp—published dictionaries, language textbooks, and treatises (in prose and verse) on orthology, orthography, philology, lexicography, meter, prosody, and Castilian grammar. Malcolm Deas, a scholar of Colombian history who has studied this singular phenomenon, claims that the obsession with language that was expressed by the cultivation of these sciences—their practitioners, Deas notes, insisted on calling them “sciences”—had its origin in the urge for continuity with the cultural heritage of Spain. By claiming “Spain’s eternal presence in the language,” Colombians sought to possess its traditions, its history, its classic authors, its Latin roots. This appropriation, preceded by the foundation in 1871 of the Colombian Academy of Language, the first offshoot in America of the Royal Spanish Academy, was one of the keys to the long period of conservative hegemony—it lasted from 1886 to 1930—in Colombian political history.
García Márquez’s grandfather is a prominent figure in the writer’s early novels, and he was no stranger to this politico-grammatical history. Colonel Nicolás Márquez Mejía fought in the ranks of the legendary Liberal general Rafael Uribe Uribe (1859–1914), one of the few caudillos in Colombian history. His story in turn inspired the character of Colonel Aureliano Buendía in One Hundred Years of Solitude. A tireless and hapless combatant in three civil wars, Uribe Uribe was also a diligent grammarian and a soldier in the civic battles between conservatives and liberals. During one of his stays in prison he translated Herbert Spencer, and in 1887 he wrote the Diccionario abreviado de galicismos, provincialismos y correcciones de lenguaje, or Abbreviated Dictionary of Gallicisms, Provincialisms, and Proper Usage, which seems to have been a moderate success.
In 1896 the general stood alone in Parliament against sixty conservative senators. Finally the crushing majority left him no choice but—in his own words—to “give voice to the cannons.” Uribe Uribe was the protagonist of the bloody Thousand Days War in 1899–1902, which ended with the signing of the Peace of Neerlandia. The signing was witnessed by Colonel Márquez, who, years later, would receive his former general at the family home in Aracataca, near the scene of the events. Uribe Uribe was assassinated in 1914. Two decades later, his lieutenant presented his eldest grandson not with a sword or a pistol, but with a dictionary. This tome that anywhere else would be an instrument of knowledge was, in Colombia, an instrument of power.