In Memoriam: Nick Bachhuber

News of a death from one’s high school class trickles in slowly; first from one stray friend and then another, none of us his intimates and all with our own sources, and then confirmed through a dive into the social media world where it sits alongside random minutiae in other lives temporarily untroubled by sudden loss. It is a jarring experience, one in which I trade some laments and feel momentarily helpless and then do what I always do, which is start to write a few things to make sense of it, and in this case choose to share them in the off chance that they help a few others find that sense, too.

It has been years since I last saw Nick Bachhuber, but he lingers in my mind’s eye as a truly genuine human, a piece of praise I do not dole out lightly. He was beloved by his classmates, outwardly easygoing and willing to connect with anyone, curious and thoughtful in all he did. Nick lost his dad while we were in high school, an absence that haunted him. (We children who knew tragedy could see it in one another.) Out of that, I think, came a depth of character that emerges through adversity, a layer of thought that can provide an added well of richness to strengthen certain interactions. With that he set off for college in Chicago, for Teach for America in Detroit, for a series of steps outward and eventually into a life with a wife and a son and a second on the way before it all came to a sudden halt. He packed so much in to so little time, a raw intensity of experience channeled through him and into his works.

Nick is not the first of my high school classmates to pass, but losing that vivacity and richness of soul is a particular hit. That feeling is underscored as I find myself more and more enmeshed in my hometown, where I watch as some other kids at the same high school form those same ties my classmates and I once did. I am now left to wonder how the march of time will flow through their friend groups, which once fond memories will take on an elegiac tint too soon. Nick’s loss now can only be a reminder of how much every passing moment counts and how long these connections last, even when they stem from experiences long ago in a world half remembered, their peaks and valleys smoothed into a few clean, defining moments. Perhaps our minds know what they are doing, picking out the highlights and giving them back to us as fondness for what was and fuel for what can yet become.

Nick’s coronation as Mr. East, 2008.

A memorial fund is available here.

Nick’s high school story was somewhere in my mind, among other influences, when I penned this short piece of fiction a few years ago.

Rest in peace, man, and know we are all still here for you.


In Memoriam: Renee Van Nett

As I got to know Renee Van Nett, I learned the important thing was to listen. She didn’t need my advice, nor to hear my convoluted backstory, at least not unless she wanted to. I was there to learn from her. She had seen things that I never would, had opinions formed in ways that my life would never allow me to do, and through that journey she had become a force.

Renee was a fiercely independent woman. She hid her past pain and suffering from the world, even as she was open and welcoming to others who had endured struggles. Few knew how much she had already been through, how she’d learned to live a life on borrowed time. She never wanted her story to be about her, and always built it around what she stood for, and the often unseen people she sought to lift up.

She accepted political advice but did things her way regardless, her campaign operations lean efforts that relied on a few key allies and her own force of will. A narrow defeat in her first run for office did nothing to dissuade her, and she twice won a Duluth City Council seat over opposition that wasn’t afraid to take serious swings at her. She governed from the heart, building fierce loyalties that led her on one quixotic final campaign to primary a sitting state senator. Her moves unnerved some when she dared to stray from the progressive orthodoxy that some white Duluth liberals apparently expected out of a Native woman, and at times exasperated even those of us who considered her an ally, too. But we knew that this was what made Renee such a genuine politician, such a person who could take a complex collection of facts before her and form an unflinching belief that only made sense from where she was. She was no one’s pawn, nor was anyone Renee’s pawn. She moved through the world with an authenticity of self whose rarity belies the term’s use.

As I came to know Renee, I took that authenticity as a model for how to move through the world, a lesson all the more compelling when it came from a woman who ventured into realms that were far from what she’d known. It was exemplary. I am a better person for having known her, and I trust that her daughters will know they always have supports who are there for them; may they learn to channel their mother’s strength in their own endeavors.

Renee’s death came far too suddenly, a far too abruptly for a life still bursting with potential. But the vagaries of time and life have no heed for such untapped wells, and it is up to the rest of us to find something in what has been lost and turn it into a beginning once again. Her passing is another reminder to never waste one more precious moment.

My Year of Imaginary Thinking

Travel is useful; it exercises the imagination. All the rest is disappointment and fatigue. Our journey is entirely imaginary. That is its strength.

Céline, Journey to the End of the Night (lifted from the credits of La Grande Bellezza)

I began 2021 with the particular belief of a convert to a new faith. It was hard not to, since I started it by diving into a pool at a mountaintop estate on a Caribbean island, my crash into its depths a burst through the din of jungle fauna and steel drum bands echoing in the distance. A couple months later, I received my second stab of Moderna and penned what I hoped would be a victory essay over the virus that had disrupted the previous year of life. I had grand travel plans, I would see family again, work would move away from the misery of Zoom, and I would find undying love.

I wasn’t so naïve as to think it would be that easy, which is good, because it wasn’t. New variants surged, a dream of optimism curdled into an air of mystery, the general malaise lingered, and while I generally went about my life, the world did not. I certainly have no judgment for those who continued to take strong precautions for various reasons and would always work to reach their levels if need be. But to sacrifice any more of my rapidly dwindling youth to a climate of fear that was unlikely to afflict me in any serious way seemed a high price to pay, and trying to negotiate a world in which everyone was on a different page on this issue added another layer of complexity. To be a conscientious friend in 2021 was to live in a state of hyper-aware caution, and the escape of obstinacy grew ever more attractive.

I proceed with family and friends more or less as I did before the pandemic, but my social circles have not grown much, and arranging anything with anyone feels like a considerably larger chore than it used to, the serendipity of stray days together now a rare occurrence. My friend group is a busy one, and a lot of them have been pairing off and reproducing while I have not, a divergence that both keeps them occupied and is wont to drive me to brood. I field questions about my house as if contemplating the excitement of a new garage door is a comparable life step to having a child. For that matter, I have been traveling too much and too caught up in my day job when I am home to get around to acquiring the garage door.

The year took its tolls. I lost a grandmother, an aunt, and a cousin, and endured a funerary marathon for all three of them over one week in July. Somehow, this was not the most draining stretch of family time in 2021; that dubious accolade instead goes to a visit, two weeks later, to the other side of my family, on which I will not elaborate much out of respect for my relatives except to say that no human should ever be allowed to own more than three cats. The less weighty but still disruptive milestones mounted: in the hockey world, a man who was an ordering principle for my drive in life lost his job, a complex but significant era drawn to a close; at work, my colleagues and I were too good at our jobs, in short order overwhelmed by requests for help and pushed to the brink by a taxing schedule, a herd of Sisyphean retrievers forever chasing the ball. It took me until some time after that to see that I was slipping into those same dragging tendencies that had annoyed me about the rest of the world, and another period of time after that to correct course.

I sought my freedom from days of exhaustion and low-grade dread through bursts out into different worlds. It started in the Virgin Islands, made its way to some wilderness retreats in my own backyard, wound its way through another grand western road trip, and popped off to New York and St. Louis and Tucson for punchy weekends. I kept the pace going right up until the end: a week of professional development in Minneapolis featured not only full days of classes, but a different form of scheduled programming each evening as I caught up with family and friends, then topped the whole thing off with a 48-hour jaunt to Chicago for the Christmas party that, every year, manages to put every other party I attend to shame.

All this travel is dangerous. At times it makes me ponder other realities, roads not taken and potentialities looming within a kid who is still capable of quite a bit when he puts his mind to it. I come home from these trips a jumbled mess, always in need of recovery, at once enlivened and invigorated and yet sapped by long hours on the road and disappointed by the return to routine and possessed of a poorly directed energy. The magic does not necessarily last. But how I lived on these trips: sweating up slopes and treading blissful waters, fine dining and good drinks, revelry till the end of the night in the presence of delightful people who, consciously or unconsciously, understand what I mean when I quote Joan Didion and say I want not a window on the world but the world itself.

Didion has been my muse for pandemic era reckoning, and 2021 delivered one final blow when it stole her away this past week. Her death saddened me as much as that of any person I never met in the flesh. No contemporary writer had a greater influence on how I think about the art of prose, or gave me a better sense of how to frame my view of the world. Didion learned to write by copying down Hemingway sentences, and I have learned to write by copying down Didion sentences. An essayist adoring Didion is about as original as a classical music buff lauding Beethoven or a hockey person saying there’s something worth emulating in that Gretzky dude, but sometimes greatness is so plainly obvious, so transcendent of subjective standards, that it can stand up even amid the rush of cliches that inevitably pursue it like fame-hungry paparazzi.

It was amid the rush of Didion homages, all consumed breathlessly this past week, that I realized that what sustained me through 2021 was not the travel itself but the opportunities the travel gave me to write. “Her work was her own answer to the question of what writing and living is for. It ought to be ours, too,” wrote Nathan Heller in a New Yorker obituary. There is no personal crisis I cannot resolve, no looming burden I cannot overcome, by taking a moment to jot it into one of several notebooks or clattering away at a keyboard. The act itself, whether it resolves into a single flowing tale or disjointed marginalia, is enough. Through it, I am made whole at the end of every day, and increasingly in the middle of days when I need reminders to escape the tunnel of the mundane.

From a mesmerized gaze at waves on a beach to the solemn donning of a funeral suit, from the hubbub of a brewing party to curling up with some essays as a wintry wind howls outside, here is to the power of the written word. Here is to their power not to exact immediate results but to create the pieces by which, over time, a new idea can assemble itself, word by word and line by agonized line of authorial reflection and search for just the right turn of phrase. The words may or may not capture my reality in full, but that was never the goal. The goal was to change it.

Farewell, Aunt Kat

My Aunt Kathleen, aged 69, passed away this past week.

I knew Aunt Kat least well of my mom’s eleven siblings. I’m not sure how different it could have been, a reality that eats at someone ever inclined to probe the depths. She had suffered, her body broken down by some of the demons she’d faced, and she was who she was. I did not know her before any of that. Her story there is not one I know well, and it is not my place to tell it.

By the time my memory of Aunt Kat starts, she had become a steady constant amid the endless party of my extended family. She arrived early to every family gathering and stuck through them, often settling into a corner with my grandmother or a few other confidantes, ever composed and calm, head propped up by her arm as she held forth with her gravelly voice. Even if she wasn’t okay, she probably said she was okay, taking care of things at her deliberate pace, baking her famed brownies and, of course, collecting yet more Peanuts memorabilia. She diligently sent her nieces and nephews gifts and clip art cards for Christmas and for birthdays, her loyalty to her sprawling extended clan unwavering. (The final one I got still hangs in my kitchen, and will stay there for some time.)

Her faith was her solace and her eternal compass through what she endured, her very literal saving grace. Too many people who fall into holes do not have guides back out, but Aunt Kat did, and it kept her going for decades. Perhaps the only memory of her I have away from a larger family gathering comes from a night when I attended a Midnight Mass with her and my mother as a kid. I remember nothing of the service—I was, if memory serves, enjoying a novel excuse to stay up late—but I remember her at prayer.

Aunt Kat got out and saw much of the world, did a few cruises on her own; she kept that going right up until the end, with a perhaps over-ambitious final voyage not long before Covid shut down the world. In her final year she shared some of those memories on what became a weekly family Zoom, putting up past pictures of journeys I’d never known she’d taken. Thanks to those Zooms, I had the pleasure of seeing her more often over the past year than at any other point in my life, and at some point I registered how pleased she was to see me on those calls semi-regularly, perhaps providing a vicarious window after I bought a house or flitted off to St. Thomas. I never tapped it fully, but there was plenty of wealth tucked away in that mind, rich in experience from her travels and the network of friends I knew little about before the stories shared after her passing.

Aunt Kat’s death was not Covid-driven, but the pandemic still robbed us of a vital ritual, that great outpouring of collective grief that has come with other family deaths. I tuned in to the live-streamed funeral Mass from my home office, where I watched the backs of the heads of a few family members scattered about a church in Illinois; after the pallbearers exited, I clicked out of the video and promptly joined a completely unrelated virtual meeting already in progress. This is not exactly what closure looks like.

Thankfully, the family piled on to another Zoom in the evening for a virtual wake of sorts. A few more memories poured out, interspersed with discussions of the estate; naturally, she’d tidied up her affairs and left things in good order. (The tidiness of the house she left her two godsons, on the other hand, is a different story.) There were pleasant drifts in to topics far more mundane. Many were not quite ready to talk, still processing a looming absence in our midst. The eldest of the nine Maloney sisters is gone now, but she is seared into the minds of her clan.

For me, that final image is of her in the Sculpture Garden in Minneapolis. We were in town for a family wedding, passing the time between functions and touring the town I would soon come to call a temporary home. It was a warm summer day, and she’d walked a long way; she was seated on a chair in the shade, resplendent in red, tired, but content. At the end of a road of uncommon perseverance lies grace. She had arrived.

Farewell to the Patriarch

John Maloney, the co-founder of a family that included a wife of 68 years, 12 children, 20 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren, passed away over the weekend. My grandfather ruled his clan from his suburban Chicago roost, and in his later years from a lake home in northern Wisconsin as well, always a welcome meeting point for the Duluth-based branch of his family. His obituary spends over half its words listing offspring, a fitting tribute to an expansive legacy. He was a true patriarch, a throwback to a now-rare masculine ideal of a father, a breadwinner, a man of faith, and one whose larger-than-life figure left an indelible mark.

My grandfather had a certain curmudgeonly quality, the sort that intimidated me as a young kid but delighted me as I grew into a person who had more than a few things in common with the man. We shared strong literary interests, fondness for baseball on the radio, pleasure in hosting large parties in spite of our introversion, enjoyment in holding court on weighty affairs, the occasional need to escape to a lake, and some skinny ankles. At the most profound level we both aspired a quiet but firm sense of righteousness stemming from an intellectual worldview, and a desire to leave something that lasts. I don’t aim to copy him, either in his unflinching faith or in his reproductive prowess, but his life is evidence that something akin to what I aspire to can be done, and he is as much an inspiration here as anyone I know.


My grandfather, composed entirely of pictures of his progeny, now hanging in my hallway.

It wasn’t easy to break through the crust with Grandpa. He was firm in his beliefs and set in his ways, a product of both his times and his faith. While he was rarely one to open up or acknowledge that things were not always right, he did live by example, and set a standard whose consistency said what words sometimes could not. Grandpa lost his own family fairly early, and wasn’t going to let the same thing happen to him. The son of an accomplished PR man whose employers included the Museum of Science and Industry before an untimely and alcohol-driven death, he attended the University of Chicago, where he met my grandmother, and married her at age 19. By the time he was 30, he had nine children. He settled into life as an actuary, became an iconic midcentury father figure who put twelve kids through college, and with his wife instilled in so many of them his fondness for letters, music, liquor, and the finer things in life.

Central to Grandpa’s kingdom was the kingdom of God, and his robust Catholic faith was the foundation of his life. That faith produced remarkable marriage, and all of his certainties on family life the he lived out until the end. He savaged me for going to Georgetown—“that’s a Jesuit school, why aren’t you going to a Catholic school?” he asked when I was accepted—but it was all in good fun; perhaps he even hoped Georgetown might guide one of the wayward members of his flock back into the faithful fold. (I think he thought I should have been a priest, which, given my fondness for sermonizing and asking big questions, might well have been my fate in a different era.) The last substantive conversation I remember having with him before his decline was about a former professor of mine who wrote in First Things, a densely intellectual and traditionalist Catholic journal that he read. His belief was profound, both spiritual and intellectual, a totalizing force that left no room for doubt. I never shared it, but I certainly admired it.

The last chapter of his life was not an easy one to watch. Grandpa never did recover from the effects of prolonged anesthesia two years ago, and most traces of his once formidable intellect faded away. His final years were spent slumped in his recliner, or rolling about in wheelchairs through hallways of several homes for the elderly with increasing levels of care, the institutionalized prolongation of desperate dreams that old age has become. I only had glimpses of this life, but it was still a shocking window into this sad decline; a sort of pain and loss of faculty that I cannot fathom and doubt I’d be able to handle without going insane.

Fortunately, though, we can choose what to remember of those who leave us, and with Grandpa, that means focusing on the rich first 85 years instead of the feeble final two. It’s a string of memories that begins with him forcefully squishing his grandchildren, and shaking our hands with his vice-like grip. It has him sitting at the head of the table and carving up the meat at Thanksgiving at the Lombard house, or seated at the piano to lead carols at the Christmas party. It features him heading out on East Twin Lake in his fishing boat or telling tales over drinks and cards late at night to the tune of the loons of the Northwoods. It meant classical music blasting on a Sunday afternoon as he devoured some large tome; Viennese waltzes on New Year’s Day and Garrison Keillor on Saturday nights. Popcorn at four, happy hour at five, bedtime in the little twin beds he and Grandma had side by side. Mumbled blessings before every meal, and the Cubs on a lazy summer afternoon. What a life well-lived. So I’ll toast my wine, pack my bags for an Irish wake and a funeral mass, and bid farewell to a man who built a family to endure through the flux of modern life. We descendants have big shoes to fill.

Farewell, Uncle Jack

This weekend, my Uncle Jack passed away.  He was always a welcome presence in my life, even if I never got to know him half as well as I should have. He was a man of great wit, and always a steadying presence in the midst of Maloney family holiday bedlam. Whenever one needed a breath of fresh air, one could usually find Uncle Jack tucked away somewhere, safe from the crush of humanity and at ease. And when he did move to insert himself into the middle of it all, it was often memorable: I remember the one year when, to everyone’s surprise, he was the life of the Annual Family Thanksgiving Political Debate, and had us all rolling in laughter. He passed with much of his extended family on hand, there for him in the end. He took his final breaths while wearing his bunny slippers, which he will also wear at his funeral.

My heart goes out to my Aunt Mary Beth, my cousin Paul and his wife Laura, and their children Luke and Emma, who didn’t get to spend nearly enough time with their grandfather. I wish I could have offered up more than a farewell card, send along with my mother as she hastened south to be with him this past weekend. This blog also lost a loyal reader, even though I’m sure that Duluth politics and high school hockey were never topics of great interest to him. He was dedicated to his extended family in his quiet, reliable way, and his absence will loom over future family gatherings. We’ll miss him, but we have much to remember him by, and he left a proud legacy.

Rest in Peace, Uncle Jack.

Tales from Across the Alley

Yesterday, I learned of the death of Carl Oveson, who lived across the alley from me during my childhood on the east side of Duluth. Big Carl (with me being Little Karl), who lived to the ripe age of 87, was an anchor in the neighborhood, that guy who kept to his routine with a classic Minnesotan sense of decency, staying on his feet with little projects in his garage and always seeming younger than his many years. For a time his son’s family lived with him, but even after they moved away, he soldiered on at home well into his 80s without losing a step. He tinkered around and fished and kept his lawn more meticulously than most golf courses, most likely shaking his head (though always with a pleasant, if mystified, curiosity) as our yard across the way was swallowed by an ever-growing collection of trees and shrubs. His eventual retreat to an assisted living home had more to do with a search for community than any declining faculties, as he spoke mischievously of the numerous old ladies who baked him cookies.

Carl grew up in Roseau, Minnesota, that hockey mecca in the northwest corner of the state. He graduated in 1944, meaning he missed the inaugural State Tournament by one year, and his obituary informs me that he played for a senior league team named the Roseau Cloverleafs after a stint in the military. Sadly, we’d lost touch by the time I was old enough to think of grilling him for some serious hockey history, but I suspect that Carl wrote his name into some of those early Roseau and Minnesota hockey histories, and given his sharp memory, he would have been the ideal source. Just a couple of weeks ago, after a surprise visit by Carl’s son’s family for the first time in years, the thought came back into my head. I can’t help but think I’ve lost a great opportunity to collect some stories.

And what stories they would have been: Carl was a relentless storyteller. The man could talk for hours on end, to the point that my parents sometimes hurried their walk from our back door to the garage lest they be waylaid for twenty minutes while trying to run a simple errand. He’d always be there, ready to opine on this or that or not much of anything at all. This made him an excellent interview subject for those childhood assignments in which one had to interview an old person; all I had to do was prompt him, and he’d talk for so long that my essays would write themselves.

Most of the stories Carl told me in my middle school days, though, were not of hockey, but about the Second World War. (A Google search on Carl revealed, to my pleasant surprise, that a chunk of one of those interviews has been preserved by the Duluth Veterans’ Memorial Hall.) While he didn’t see combat in the war, he did set out on a boat that would have invaded Japan in the absence of an A-Bomb, and spent a couple of years in the Philippines with a U.S. Navy refrigeration unit. There, he was part of that unglamorous task of rebuilding from the ravages of war, and was a witness to Douglas MacArthur’s fulfillment of his prophecy that he would return to the islands. His time in the Philippines left an indelible mark, and the memories poured forth: humorous cultural clashes, grueling conditions, and the occasional stroke of poignancy. He brought that little bit of history home to us, making real a world far beyond that carefully guarded lawn.

Carl was never one to order anyone off that lawn, though, and his driveway was often the center of neighborhood chatter as we kids raced about. He was a Minnesotan to the core, but he’d traveled far enough to have a sense of perspective about it all, and counted his blessings. Even his final days were well-ordered, as his family from Pennsylvania got one last quality visit in before the end. He is one of those figures who will always hover in the pleasant haze of childhood, and while I’ll keep the trees in my yard, I can only hope my later years will be so well-tended.

Exit Jim Oberstar

Jim Oberstar passed away in his sleep on Friday night, ending a 79-year life of political service. Love or hate his views, the Chisholm native was a giant on the northeast Minnesota political stage over the past forty years, and his impact spans generations. The eighteen-term representative and former Transportation Committee chairman was arguably the most powerful Minnesotan congressman of the last half century, though unlike some of his better-known contemporaries, he did most of his work behind the scenes. His time was not a happy one for the region he represented, and most of that for reasons beyond his control, as the mines shut down and the manufacturing jobs dwindled, a decline that was followed by a long period of stasis. Like any good long-tenured congressman, he brought home the bacon and did some work to stop the bleeding. Many of the little factors that have helped spur Duluth’s burgeoning optimism, from its emergence as an aviation industry hub to its networks of trails, have their roots in Oberstar’s work.

Oberstar began as a classic northern Minnesota DFLer, a proud member of that generation of Minnesota liberals who gave the state its national political face. As the son of an Iron Range miner, he captured the DFL’s base with his emphasis on labor and taxation on the wealthy. He traveled far beyond the Range in life, though, studying in Belgium, Quebec, and at Georgetown, and was fluent in French. Never much of a revolutionary, by the time I came along Oberstar had the air of a patrician doing what he could to gently steward his district. Still, he never entirely abandoned his working class roots, and there were wrinkles in his platform—most notably, his consistent pro-life stances—that cut against the grain of the liberal elite. His ability to balance his ambitions and worldliness with his Iron Range core was perhaps his most admirable trait, and he made that balance work for a very long time.

Oberstar’s political career came to a stunning end in 2010, when he was taken down in one of the greatest coups of the Tea Party wave election. With its population in decline, Minnesota’s Eighth District had slowly leached south into Michele Bachmann territory, and political rookie Chip Cravaack took advantage of the changing demographics. The real nail in Oberstar’s political coffin, though, probably had more to do with his declining support in his home territory up on the Range. His patient, piecemeal approach and congeniality clashed with growing frustration over decades of economic stagnation, and there was a notion that his balancing act had finally fallen, that he had lost touch after so many years in Washington. Setting aside Cravaack’s own hypocrisy on that front, it was a critique with some merit: every political era must come to an end, and 36 years is quite the tenure. The time for fresh blood had come.

His passing is just another in a slow but steady series of markers of the end of an era. Northeastern Minnesota’s influence on the state political scene has dwindled some—witness Gov. Mark Dayton’s apparent “suburban strategy” for re-election—and the current congressman, Rick Nolan, a DFLer of Oberstar’s generation, is probably only a placeholder. It’s possible that someone of a similar disposition will come along, much as Amy Klobuchar has taken up the torch of Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale in the Senate. But the man best positioned to fill that DFL vacuum, Duluth mayor Don Ness, has taken the cautionary tales of Oberstar’s disconnect to heart. As a profound family man, he seems unlikely to run.

Beyond Ness, the regional DFL machine is in a complicated place in the post-Oberstar era. As the name implies, it’s a coalition with some unusual constituents, from Duluth’s east side elite to the fraying but enduring big labor camp, from the environmental activists to the working-class Rangers who support new mining projects. There might be a window for some new coalitions to emerge, though the inertia of the existing parties may be enough to hold things together, and any challenge from the right will need to develop a coherent policy agenda to gain any traction north of Hinckley. It’s hard to know quite what will come next for the politics of the region, but whatever happens, it will all be somewhere in the shadow Jim Oberstar.

Exit Gabriel García Márquez

“Death really did not matter to him but life did, and therefore the sensation he felt…was not a feeling of fear but of nostalgia.”

—Gabriel Gárcia Márquez on death, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Gabriel García Márquez died at 87 on Thursday, depriving the world of one of its greatest writers. I first met his work as a senior in high school, when I picked up One Hundred Years of Solitude and devoured it in short order. Within a year, I’d started writing my own novel, and in the opening scene, the protagonist had his nose buried in One Hundred Years of Solitude. There was no coincidence in my decision, nor in that of my protagonist.Image

Among foreign critics, it’s normal to cite García Márquez for his portrayal of the “exotic” side of Latin American life. That’s true to an extent, as he wandered far from his home and probably had some appreciation for the apparent absurdities of life in rural, northern Colombia. But we must remember that, for him, these were not unusual and exotic locales: they were home. His hometown of Aracataca gave him fertile ground for writing, sure, and in interviews, he always modestly played down his own inventiveness. Yet García Márquez took a nondescript town in the middle of nowhere, Colombia, and made it into perhaps the widest-reaching allegory in all literature. Out of the little details of his home, out of the vagaries of local history, he created something both timeless and placeless. One Hundred Years of Solitude is a monument to the possibility of literature, one that shows how the novel can tell our stories—many of them at once—in a manner nothing else can match. No wonder I was sucked right in.

Glancing back through the opening lines now, I’m struck most by the simplicity of the writing. It’s not overly verbose—my edition is in Spanish, and I have no trouble with it despite the rather rusty state of my Spanish at the moment—and flows effortlessly into little glimmers of literary play, part silly and part poignant. Sure, there are elements of Hemingway and Faulkner and Borges wrapped up in there, but the voice is so distinctly his own.

It was a voice that came to define a literary movement, and for good or ill, most Latin American fiction since has been in its shadow. It also stirred up its share of political controversy; a number of the metaphors on that front are anything but subtle, and García Márquez added to his legend with his habit for hobnobbing with Latin America’s most powerful leaders. Chief among all of these, of course, was Fidel Castro, a man he counted as a friend, to the extent that Fidel has any friends. García Márquez’s leftism is easy to malign now, though Jon Lee Anderson’s 1999 New Yorker profile (temporarily freed from their paywall) suggests the author abandoned any serious belief in revolutionary Marxism some time ago. He was sympathetic, certainly, but he maintained his ties because he was still a reporter above all else, trying to get to the heart of the story, perhaps so as to ultimately have the final word. But once again Castro has outlived one of his more prominent contemporaries, and perhaps the only one who could have given his biography justice. However serious his political views, and however much we might judge them, García Márquez’s best works transcended political consideration and spared no one.

Life did indeed matter to García Márquez, and his work is infused with nostalgia. It is a collection of histories, from his parents’ romance in Love in the Time of Cholera to his exposure of long covered-up massacres of striking banana-pickers by the United Fruit Company in One Hundred Years of Solitude. The stories are personal, and that provides an added dose of care, despite his frequent use of the gruesome and the macabre. Perhaps that is why, despite his dark and often grisly works, despite the failure of his political views to gain much traction, he remained a genial optimist. He lived richly, and that wealth is evident in his prose. He had a strong memory and was willing to probe its depths with neither adulation nor disdain, but with an entirely different attitude: the world was his plaything, both in its triumphs and its absurdities, and the fruits of his delight will long endure. And while nothing I write will ever endure in that way, I do hope that, so long as I have life, I can share in that nostalgia-tinged wealth.

Of all of the ink spilled in remembering García Márquez, the best thing I’ve come across so far is this essay by Edwidge Danticat. As usual, the Spanish language Nexos magazine is delivering some quality content as well. If I find more good reflections, I’ll add links here.

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Nelson Mandela and Political Sainthood

Nelson Mandela was laid to rest today in Qunu, a town in the idyllic South African hill country straight out of Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. I thought of Paton’s novel several times over the past week, as torrents of remembrances were beamed about the world. Written in just before the South African regime formally established Apartheid, it presaged both the darkness of the decades of repression that Mandela fought so persistently. The characters, white and black, admirable and questionable, were almost certainly straight out of Mandela’s life. But most importantly, it also presaged Mandela’s greatest triumph.

Mandela was an idealist, but idealists are a dime a dozen. He suffered hardship and a long prison sentence, but he’s hardly alone there, either. He was the first president of a reborn nation in the 1990s, but there were quite a few of those in the days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and some of them didn’t turn out very good. No: like the two protagonists in Paton’s novel, Mandela transcended all of that, and managed to bring some healing to a profoundly broken nation.

It wasn’t perfect, of course. Contemporary South Africa has its share of horrors, from AIDS and crime to ongoing poverty and division. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission that investigated Apartheid era abuses did not prosecute those who came forward, a compromise that was brilliant for its political savvy but neither put the past to rest nor brought the worst abusers to justice. Mandela’s political party, the African National Congress, has an unhealthy level of control, and, as shown by the boos for current President Jacob Zuma at Mandela’s funeral, politicians in South Africa will long be stuck in his shadow. By the end of his life, Mandela was the closest thing the world had to a political saint.

Sainthood, of course, suggests a religious dimension, and while people argue over how much his faith informed his actions, Mandela’s willingness to pursue truth and reconciliation instead of revenge or simply burying the past has religious undertones. It reminds us of religious figures like King and Gandhi; the formal process in South Africa was headed by Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Religious people don’t have a monopoly on forgiveness, but most faiths place an emphasis on its virtues, and the moral authority of faith can compel people to transcend base desires. In that sense, it’s easy to see why modern South Africa’s founding father came to be more than just a popular politician.

My first reaction to someone upheld as a political saint, however, involves a healthy dose of skepticism. It’s not that I think politicians are naturally depraved, or doubt the goodness of many of Mandela’s actions; I’m just not one to elevate any one person too high up. Anyone who’s read my political coverage on this blog knows this; I’m often critical of people I agree with, and I’m also the sort of person who could probably find a smidgen of common ground with Pol Pot. (I hasten to add that an instant of shared humanity in no way excuses crimes against humanity.) For everything he achieved, there are things about Mandela that give us pause, from flirtations with communist-backed revolution to adultery.

These critiques, however, miss the point. Sainthood is not and never has been earthly perfection; to say so ignores the biographies of most saints, and is also a horrible misreading of Christian theology, in which everyone is fallen anyway. Dividing the world into sinners and saints is useless, because saints are sinners, too. Traditional saints attain that status by giving themselves up before God; secular saints give themselves to their country, or to the greater good of humanity.

This can be a dangerous road. Commitment to something higher can come at the neglect of the immediate, and leads to painful choices, or choices that should be painful but get short shrift due to revolutionary devotion. We want to believe in causes greater than ourselves, but how far dare we go in fighting for those causes? Are we willing to put our loved ones in danger, and will there be collateral damage? Noble as their causes may be, many freedom fighters battle on without ever stopping to examine their consciences; there is no time for dithering, nothing to be gained from second thoughts or examinations of moral complexity. Mandela, perhaps during those terrible years on Robben Island where he was alone with his thoughts, did not fall into that trap when his time came.

That time was the early 1990s, when the international order that had propped up the Apartheid regime—the dualism of the Cold War—broke down. Stripped of its anti-communist clients, the regime had to change, and though his motives may not have been all that idealistic, President F.W. DeKlerk’s willingness to accept reality took uncommon resolve, and he deserved the Nobel Prize he shared with Mandela. And so he passed the torch to South Africa’s first black president, and Mandela managed to allay the fears of those who predicted further fracture and violence. “The great valley of Umzimkulu is still in darkness, but the light will come there. Ndotsheni is still in darkness, but the light will come there also,” Paton wrote in his novel’s closing lines. “For it is the dawn that it has come, as it has come for a thousand centuries, never failing. But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.” Mandela gave Paton, who died just before his prison release, the answer he’d awaited.

Elevation to sainthood also takes an intense toll on the saint, as anyone who’s read of Mother Teresa’s crises of faith will know. Greatness is often akin to loneliness, and some of the more poignant Mandela memorials revealed the isolation of his later years. He was beloved by his people and genuinely loved them back, but he’d led such a different life from all of them that he was left with a certain emptiness. Some found it a bit odd that the third wife of this champion of the people was the ex-first lady of Mozambique, but as someone who had known and loved another revolutionary figure, Graça Machel was probably one of the few people on earth who could actually relate to the thoughts going through the aging Mandela’s mind.

This loneliness was no sign of weakness, but instead seals Mandela’s greatness. He could have remained a revolutionary to the end, but he was too self-conscious for that, and rather than fight the unending fight, he also sought acceptance, comfort, and assurances that everything he’d done was worthwhile. It was, and his ability to recognize that in spite of his doubts is one of the greatest gifts a person can possess. Humans are neither gods nor beasts, but they can channel both, and at his best, Mandela reached for the former with a rare combination of humility and moral clarity. Both in his triumphs and his complexity, he became larger than life, and his ability to make peace with that role should stand the test of time.