Travel book ‘journeys’ to some of literature’s most famous – and fictional – locations | Books

Despite the decades that have passed since they were conjured into existence, not everything has changed in Macondo or in Umuofia.

The denizens of Gabriel García Márquez’s fictional Caribbean town remain condemned to solitude and questionable realities, while the people of Chinua Achebe’s allegorical Nigerian village are still dealing with the fallout from the things that fell apart.

Both places feature in a new Spanish anthology called imaginary regions (Imaginary Regions), which uses texts, maps and photographs to explore 10 of the most famous locations in fiction and the real places that inspired them.

imaginary regions

As well as Macondo from One Hundred Years of Solitude and Umuofia from Things Fall Apart, the book sets out in search of regions including William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha county, Juan Rulfo’s Comala, Abdul-Rahman Mounif’s Hudayb, Andrea Camilleri’s Vigata, and RK Narayan’s Malgudi.

The project emerged from conversations between the book’s creators, the journalists Bernardo Gutiérrez and Luis Fernández Zaurín.

“Luis and I are fascinated with how, in the works of some authors, reality and concrete places on planet Earth are explained, shaped, and sometimes even changed, by means of imaginary regions,” says Gutiérrez.

“These places are not that far removed from reality; in a way, they serve to interpret that reality.”

Bernardo Gutiérrez, a Spanish-Brazilian journalist and writer who has long been fascinated with the work of Gabriel García Márquez, set out in search of Macondo, which features in many of the late Nobel laureate's works – most famously One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Bernardo Gutiérrez, who has long been fascinated with the work of Gabriel García Márquez

The pair came up with an original list of 40 or so fictional places, including purely imaginary areas such as Middle-earth and Lilliput, before alighting on 10 places rooted in reality.

The book – published by Menguantes, which specializes in unusual travel writing – dispatches 10 writers and photographers on 10 quests and also uses a cartographer to map the fictional areas. Its basic aim, according to Gutiérrez, is to explore the extent to which fiction helps us to interpret reality and to address issues from conflict and racism to history and memory.

Gutiérrez made two trips to seek out Macondo and to document it in his epistolary contribution to the anthology. He was also lucky enough to meet García Márquez and to confirm his suspicions of him that Macondo was not solely based on Aracataca, the town in the Colombian Caribbean where the late Nobel laureate was born in 1927.

Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, sitting with his wife, Mercedes Barcha, is asked by admirers to dedicate them books, before boarding the train to his home town Aracataca in Santa Marta, Colombia
Gabriel García Márquez sits with his wife, Mercedes Barcha, before boarding a train to his hometown in 2007. Photograph: Alejandra Vega/AFP/Getty Images

Although Aracataca went as far as holding a referendum on changing its name to Aracataca-Macondo 16 years ago, Gutiérrez also points out that if you look at the nearby municipality of Ciénaga on Google Maps, it says ‘Capital of magical realism’.

“I spoke to Gabo for about 15 minutes at a dinner in Havana a couple of years before he died. We talked about politics but also about Macondo. He asked me if I’d found Macondo in Aracataca and I said: ‘Yes. But also in Cienaga.’ And he said: ‘Yes. It’s in Ciénaga too. But also in Santa Marta.’”

On his travels, Gutiérrez saw for himself how thoroughly the imaginary has come to infiltrate the real. While many of the people Gutiérrez met had never read One Hundred Years of Solitude, its episodes were as familiar to them as their own family lore – proof, it seems, of the enduring strength of the Caribbean oral tradition.

“With Macondo, it’s not just about an interpretation or a modification of reality: Gabo’s own fiction has ended up interfering with reality and changing it in very interesting ways,” says the journalist.

Take, for example, the infamous Ciénaga banana massacre of 1928, which appears in fictionalized form in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

“In the book, 3,000 people are killed, but I investigated it and got hold of a contemporary report and no more than 100 people were killed,” he says. “A kind of myth was constructed with Macondo that kind of ended up spreading through the whole region.”

Chika Unigwe, Nigerian-born writer
Chika Unigwe, a Nigerian writer who lives in the US, has ‘revisited’ Umuofia, where Things Fall Apart is set. Photograph: Victor Ehikamenor

Not all the pieces in Imaginary Regions are reportage or semi-fictitious. For her journey back to Umuofia, the Nigerian writer Chika Unigwe chose to write a short story focusing on the great-granddaughter of Okonkwo, the doomed protagonist of Things Fall Apart.

Achebe’s book, which she read when she was relatively young, opened Unigwe’s eyes to a version of the past that differed radically from the one she had been taught.

“[It] showed me that my people had a history, a civilization, a way of life that was scuppered by colonization,” she says. “For the first time, colonization was presented to me, not as this benign, benevolent project, but as a violent invasion that forced the suicide of one of Umuofia’s most prominent men. That is wild.”

While Unigwe’s protagonist, Obiageliaku, lives in a different Umuofia to her great-grandfather, she bears the burden of the family’s shame, and the society she inhabits remains painfully patriarchal and still struggles with its colonial legacy.

“I wanted it to go in dialogue with Achebe’s novel, expanding that conversation and inserting a woman at its center in a way that would have triggered Umuofia,” says the writer. “I hope that it teaches us that the imaginary – not just imaginary spaces – can be platforms for having honest, relevant conversations.”

Gutiérrez agrees that fiction can be a more supple and subtle material than historical or geographical fact when tackling the big questions.

“While the book is a kind of bridge or dialogue with fiction, the idea wasn’t just to talk about these imaginary regions from an academic or theoretical point of view, but also to actually go in search of them through travel and expeditions,” he says. “And that’s what gives the book its real heft.”

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