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Mourning and memories in Garcia Marquez's languid hometown

Residents hold lighted candles as they pay homage in front of the house of Colombian Nobel Prize laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Aracatac
Residents hold lighted candles as they pay homage in front of the house of Colombian Nobel Prize laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Aracatac

By Helen Murphy

ARACATACA, Colombia (Reuters) - The sleepy Colombian town that was Gabriel Garcia Marquez's birthplace and inspired him to write "One Hundred Years of Solitude" mourned its Nobel Prize-winning author on Friday with music, candles and flowers.

A day after Garcia Marquez's death, his cousin Nicolas Ricardo Arias leafed through dog-eared photographs and recalled with a smile the family reunions on the rare occasions when Aracataca's famous son returned home.

"I remember him with his whisky and his jokes," said Arias, 78, on the porch of his humble home in the town near Colombia's Caribbean coast. "This is a very special day of sadness and memories ... Today we will just remember Gabriel."

Garcia Marquez, who died at his home in Mexico City on Thursday, spent the first years of his life in Aracataca and drew on it for some of the characters and tales in his masterpiece "One Hundred Years of Solitude".

Dozens of mourners gathered on Friday at a shrine of flowers and candles on the piece of land where he was born. Musicians played guitar and sang ballads commemorating his life.

"We heard he had died, and we rushed right here," said one resident, Sara Parodis, as she made cut-out yellow butterflies, a tribute to the swarms of butterflies that appeared in the classic novel whenever one character's forbidden lover arrived.

"This is the end of a very important era," Parodis said, pinning one of her butterflies on the lapel of a mourner.

"One Hundred Years of Solitude" tells the epic, dream-like story of seven generations of the Buendia family in the fictional town of Macondo, based largely on Aracataca.

Garcia Marquez said he drew on the stories that his grandmother told him when he was a child, laced with folklore, superstition and the supernatural.

The novel sold over 30 million copies, helped Garcia Marquez win the 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature and popularized the genre of magical realism. In it, characters are visited by ghosts, a plague of insomnia envelops Macondo, a priest levitates above the ground and the child of an incestuous couple is born with a pig's tail.

FADED MAGIC

It made Aracataca famous and drew literary pilgrims hoping to absorb some of the bewitching energy he wrote about.

But there is little magic in the Aracataca of today, and it retains no evidence of the banana wealth which washed over northern Colombia in the early 20th century.

Concrete buildings have replaced the elegant wooden homes and offices set up by plantation owners, political slogans splash the walls and residents sit on street corners sipping beer and complaining that the government has failed to harness the opportunity that Garcia Marquez's fame brought.

A wooden replica of his grandparents' home seeks to create a sense of the past. His comments are displayed on giant posters above his bed and at the dining room table plates are laid out as if waiting for him to join the family for dinner.

Photos show the appalling conditions endured by workers at a nearby banana plantation that led to a 1928 strike and the massacre of thousands. He portrayed the slaughter in "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and used the real name of the military officer who led the attack, General Cortes Vargas, the only historically accurate name in the entire novel.

Since Garcia Marquez's death on Thursday, tributes have poured in from U.S. President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton and poets, presidents and pop stars from across Latin America. He was the region's most famous and beloved author, known affectionately as "Gabo".

"When someone like him writes that way, he ties you to them like a brother and makes you love him as if you had known him," Arturo Covarrubias, a 46-year-old mariachi musician, said at a book fair in Mexico City on Friday.

"The work of men like him is immortal," Cuban President Raul Castro said. Garcia Marquez, a leftist who flirted with communism, was a decades-long friend of Cuba's revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, Raul's older brother.

In Aracataca, residents are clearly proud of their native son but some feel he could have done more to ease poverty here.

"He brought nothing at all to the town. We have his house, and a few murals, but nothing much else," said Osvaldo Bergara, selling water on a street corner close to the house.

But others, like his cousin Nicolas, say Garcia Marquez is not to blame and that local corruption has sapped the town of its potential.

"It's totally unfair, he gave and the administration took it and did nothing," Arias said, pointing to the muddy road that floods his home during storms. "We don't even have drainage. It's the government that should pay for this, not Gabo."

"He would ask me 'How is Aracataca?' And I would tell him: 'It's abandoned.' That made him sad."

Garcia Marquez left Aracataca to attend high school and never lived there again, though he visited occasionally.

While Aracataca's past glories have faded, residents still remember their own grandparents' tales of years ago.

"My grandmother told me of the music and dancing in the square, of the plantation owners who would come by, and Gabo and his visits," said Parodis. "The memories are from another time."

(Additional reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota and Noe Torres and David Alire Garcia in Mexico City; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Kieran Murray)

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