“100 Years of Solitude” vs. United Fruit

Pit one of the world’s most powerful companies against one of humankind’s greatest novels and who wins? According to Rich Cohen of The Daily Beast, in the end Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude prevailed over United Fruit.

Cohen sees the battle as that between two cultures. In one corner we have a company that “trafficked bananas by the billions” and that even had its own creation myth:

It was the Yankee concern that went south to tame the jungle, bringing wealth to the waste places. Its mythology was captured in obscure books written early last century: Conquest of the Tropics, Empire in Green and Gold. It was the world as seen from inside the electric fence that surrounded the compounds. The streets beyond were exotic, dangerous, strange—shanties and creeper weed, the mountains marking the horizon.

In the other corner we have one of the local boys looking through the fence that, as an adult, he would describe as “black with charred swallows”:

He was mischievous and dark haired, one of a crowd of kids whom, to the gringos, were of no more importance than the figures on the wallpaper.

Cohen talks about how Marquez “wrote a kind of bible, the story of United Fruit remade as the story of Pharaoh was remade by the scribes—the winners now the losers, and the losers the salt of the earth”:

 In college, they call it “magical realism,” but, if you know history, you understand it’s less magical than just plain real, the stuff of newspapers returned as lived experience. Everything appears in Marquez from the original banana man (“when they brought to the table the tiger-striped bunch of bananas that they were accustomed to hang in the dining room during lunch, he picked the first piece of fruit without great enthusiasm …”) to the town as it appeared after the collapse of the company (“in the swampy streets there were the remains of furniture, animal skeletons covered with red lilies, the last memories of the hordes of newcomers who had fled [the town] as wildly as they had arrived.”)

In the battle between Garcia Marquez and United Fruit, literature ultimately won out over public relations:

A company, like a nation, cannot survive without its mythology—and that’s what Marquez and others like Pablo Neruda attacked. It’s from them that we get a sense of U.F. as El Pulpo, the octopus with its tentacles wrapped around everything. In the end, the gringo company was forced to see itself as it was seen. By the 1970s, U.F. had pulled out of South America—it was too difficult to operate. Years later, weighed down by its image, the company changed its name to Chiquita Brands, after its mascot—like Nike changing it name to Swoosh.

To be sure, one has to take the long view of history, believing that its arc bends towards justice, to find this consoling. After all, as Garcia Marquez points out, hundreds of striking U.F. workers and their families were massacred and their bodies dumped in the sea. My cynical side recalls the words of Tom Lehrer’s “Folk Song Army” where he mocks left-wing rationalizing: though the fascists in the Spanish Civil War “may have won all the battles, we had all the good songs.”

But it is also true, as Cohen says, that in the end, “history is written not by the winners, but those who remain when the armies have gone.”

A note on the art work: The art work was included in a Fallen Fruit collective exhibit that can be found at blog.calarts.edu/2009/09/15/going-bananas-with-the-fallen-fruit-collective.

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