Letters & Essays

Three Days with Gabo

Silvana Paternostro

Distressed by what he saw happening to Latin American journalism, Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel laureate author of One Hundred Years of Solitude and a former newspaper reporter himself, started in March 1995 what he describes as “a school without walls”—the Foundation for a New Ibero-American Journalism. Its purpose is to rejuvenate, through traveling workshops, journalism in the region. He insists that what is being taught and practiced needs urgent renovation and complains that today’s journalists are more interested in chasing after breaking news and in the perks and privileges of a press pass than they are in creativity and ethics. They pride themselves on being able to read a secret document upside down, he says, but their work is full of grammatical and spelling mistakes and it lacks depth. “They are not moved by the basis that the best story is not the one that is filed first but the one that is told best,” he wrote in his inaugural remarks.

García Márquez is critical of the way universities and newspaper publishers in Latin America are treating the profession—which he considers the best job in the world. Disagreeing with the professional schools’ stance that journalists are not artists, García Márquez considers that print journalism is “a literary form.” He would also like to convince newspapers to invest less in technology and more in training personnel.

With the support of UNESCO, García Márquez’s foundation, based in Barranquilla, Colombia, has organized, in less than two years, twenty-eight workshops attended by three-hundred-and-twenty journalists from eleven countries. The themes of the workshops have ranged from teaching the narrative techniques of reportage in print, radio and television, to discussions of ethics, freedom of the press, reporting under dangerous circumstances and the challenges of new technology for the profession. The workshops are taught by established professionals and are intended for the younger generation of journalists, preferably under thirty, who have at least three years of experience. Although based in Colombia, the workshops have also been conducted in Ecuador, Venezuela, Mexico and Spain. The centerpiece of the foundation’s curriculum is the three-day workshop taught by García Márquez on reportage.

As a freelance journalist who has been writing about Latin America in English, I applied and was accepted for his fifth workshop. I was so excited to meet him that I, who am late for everything, was the first to arrive at the Spanish Cultural Center in Cartagena, a beautifully renovated two-story house with red begonias and a fountain in the courtyard, owned by the Spanish government. The setting could not be more appropriate. Cartagena is home to García Márquez, and many of the characters from his fiction walked the narrow cobblestones of the city’s colonial center. A few blocks awav from the Cultural Center, at the Cathedral’s Square, Florentino Ariza noticed Fermina Daza’s walk was no longer that of a schoolgirl. Sierva María de Todos los Angeles, the twelve-year-old girl whose hair continued to grow long after she died, lived in the Convent of Santa Clara nearby. Adjacent to the walls that kept Cartagena safe from English pirates, García Márquez’s house here is so close to the convent—now a five-star hotel —that guests have an unimpeded view right into the author’s home. “It was embarrassing,” one guest at the hotel told me. “I could see him having breakfast every morning. Finally, I closed the curtains.” 

 

Monday, April 8, 1996 9:00 A. M.

 

I am one of twelve journalists sitting around a large wooden oval table. We are very quiet, like disciplined students in a Jesuit school waiting for class to begin. Gabriel García Márquez opens the door and comes in, looking at us mischievously, as if he knows how nervous we are. García Márquez —Gabo as everyone knows him —is dressed in white. Here on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, men often wear white, white all the way down to their shoes. He says good morning and, just for a second, it feels as if we might stand, bow or curtsy and answer in unison: “Buenos días, profesor.”

The two empty seats in the room face the windows with their backs to the door. Gabo picks out César Romero, the Mexican journalist sitting next to me —we are facing the door—and asks him for his seat.

“I’ve seen too many cowboy movies,” he says, “I never sit with my back to the door. Plus, I’m sure I have more enemies than you do.”

“Don Gabriel,” says César Romero, “of course.”

As Gabo walks over, I remember my conversation with a Cuban friend who recently graduated from the film school that García Márquez founded outside of Havana and where he sometimes teaches. “You’ll have a great time,” Juan Carlos said. “He always pays more attention to the women than the men in the class. He says women bring him luck.” I look around the table. Out of the twelve participants, Andrea Varela and I are the only women.

Gabo sits down to my left, and I am nervous. My hands start to sweat. I dry them against my pants. I cross my arms. He crosses his legs. I look down at the floor. His pointy, well- polished shoes are white. I look up. His watchband is also white. I focus on his guayabera, those shirts favored by Latin men, worn outside the pants, that rest on the hips, have four pockets, and sometimes embroidery and ruffles. I have always identified them with grandfathers, cabinet members and land- owners—men who usually smell of cologne and sometimes of scotch. His shirt is simple, no ruffles, no smell, and made of such fine linen it is almost see-through. His seersucker pants make a funny, unexpected contrast.

He places on the table a black leather purse, the kind men started carrying around in the seventies. With his glasses on, he takes out the list of class participants from a black folder— where he also has the articles we had been asked to submit, a piece of reportage for Gabo to criticize and edit during the three days he will work with us. The only sound is the rumbling of the air conditioner. No one really looks at him, yet all of us, bona fide reporters, have been in situations much harder to handle than this one. Rubén Valencia, from Cali, traveled by himself to Urabá, Colombia’s most violent zone, where drug traffickers, guerrilla and paramilitary groups massacre each other. Wilson Daza spent twenty days roaming downtown Medellín with drug pushers, prostitutes and gang members. César Romero covered the Zapatista insurrection in Chiapas. Edgar Téllez investigated President Samper’s alleged link with drug cartels.

But ever since Gabo won the Nobel Prize in 1982, he has gone from being the writer of One Hundred Years of Solitude to being a celebrity and an important political actor. In Latin America, especially in Colombia and in Mexico where he spends most of his time, not even presidents have his stature. Here his stardom compares only to that of soccer stars and beauty queens. People stop him on the street for autographs, even those who have not read his books. Presidents, ministers, politicians, newspaper publishers, guerrilla leaders consult him, write him letters, want him around. Whatever he says, on whatever subject, makes the headlines. Last year a guerrilla group in Colombia kidnapped the brother of a former president. Their demand was that García Márquez accept the presidency. In their request they wrote: “Nobel, please save the Fatherland.”

For us Colombians, to refer to García Márquez by his nickname Gabo is to bring his success closer to us, and like a proud family make his greatness our own. In a region consumed by violence, poverty, drug-trafficking and corruption, he is the son the family shows off—even those who disapprove of his friendship with Fidel Castro. In Barranquilla, my hometown, where he worked as a reporter in 1950 and where he met his wife Mercedes, su mujer de siempre, he has been completely embraced. He is not even Gabo but Gabito—the affectionate diminutive by which parents, spouses and friends call their dear ones.

His name comes up in our beauty pageants as often as the Pope’s. The contestants’ answers have become repetitive: Who is your favorite author? García Márquez. Whom do you admire the most? My father, the Pope, and García Márquez. Whom would you like to meet? García Márquez and the Pope. If the same questions were posed to a Latin American journalist, the answers would probably be the same —perhaps leaving out the Pope. For us, Latin American journalists in the early stages of our careers, he is a role model. We like to say that before he was a novelist he was a reporter. He says he has never stopped being one.

Gabo reads our names off the list and adds a comment—always curious, always warm —to each. Rubén Valencia and a few others call him maestro, which to me sounds a little too respectful. I’ve called him Gabo many times when talking about him, but once in his presence that feels a little too forward. He is friendliest with Andrea, who has already been in a workshop with him. “You spend more time here at the workshops than at work,” he jokes, calling her Andreita. “We’re going to call your boss and ask her to send your bed over.” Andrea is shy, and Gabo’s warmth makes her blush.

The door opens in a rush and a young man —out of breath, a light blue shirt glued to his chest and a newspaper tucked under his arm—brings in the heat and the chaos of downtown Cartagena.

“Permiso,” he apologizes, and sits quickly next to César Romero.

“And who are you?”

“Tadeo Martínez.”

Tadeo is nervous, and Gabo knows it.

“Tadeo Martínez. El Periódico de Cartagena,” he says, reading from his list. “Your colleagues are here from, let’s see, Caracas, Bogotá, Cali, Medellín, San José, Mexico, New York, and Miami but you, coming from around the corner, are the last one to arrive.”

We all feel bad for him, but then Gabo shakes his head and smiles.

 

10:00 A.M.

 

Gabo starts by talking about his book on Simón Bolívar—our George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, all of the Founding Fathers wrapped up in one —who liberated five countries from Spanish rule and envisioned a unified Latin America, an empire running from California all the way down to Tierra del Fuego. El Libertador, as depicted in portraits on every public office wall, is always dressed in a starched military uniform, ready for battle or riding his white horse.

“But no one ever said in Bolívar’s biographies that he sang or that he was constipated,” says Gabo. He adds that he believes the world is divided into two groups: “Those who shit well and those who don’t; it makes for very different characters. But historians don’t say these things because they think they are not important.” His dissatisfaction with the cardboard image that official historians have given to his hero explains why he decided to write The General in His Labyrinth, whose pages contain the complete story of the figure who has been such an important influence on his political thought. He tells us he wrote it in the form of a reportaje, reportage.

“Reportage is the complete story, the complete reconstruction of an event. Every little detail counts. This is the basis

of the credibility and the strength of a story. In The General in His Labyrinth each verifiable fact, no matter how simple, can strengthen the whole work. For example, I placed a full moon—that full moon which is so easy to insert—on the night that Simón Bolívar slept in Guaduas on May 10, 1830. I wanted to find out if there was a full moon that night, so I called the Academy of Science in Mexico and they found out that there actually was one. If there wasn’t, well, I would just cross out the full moon and that’s that. The moon is a detail that no one notices. But if there is one false fact in a reporting piece, then everything else is false. In fiction, if there is a fact that can be verified—that there was a full moon that night in Guaduas —then the readers are going to believe everything else.”

Someone asks about fiction techniques in reportage. Gabo replies that he admires the work of Gay Talese, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, all of whom have practiced New Journalism. “The only literary aspect of New Journalism is its narrative style. Literary license is allowed as long as it is believable and stays true to all the verifiable facts.”

As he says this, I recall the piece Gabo wrote about Caracas in a terrible drought and about a man who had taken to shaving with peach juice —a fact that is definitely credible, and verifiable, but one that reeks of literary license. It has been said that Gabo is too creative to be a good journalist. After all, he is the same writer who in his novels, with a straight face, had Remedios the Beauty levitating to the skies and the smell of Santiago Nasar after his well-announced death penetrating the entire town.

As if reading my mind he says, “The strange episodes in my novels are all real, or they have a starting point, a basis in reality. Real life is always much more interesting than what we can invent.” He says that the ascension of Remedios the Beauty was inspired by a woman he saw spreading clean white sheets with her arms stretched out to the sun. He has also said that “to move between the magical and the incredible, one has to become a journalist.”

He tells us about Tale of a Shipwreck, which was originally written as a series of stories when he was working as a staff reporter for El Espectador in Bogotá. He had been assigned to write the adventures of a sailor lost at sea but the story was of no interest to him. “Every newspaper had written about it.” But then he relented. In those days, the fifties —as in the days when Charles Dickens’s novels appeared in the London broadsheets —serialization was a common marketing tool. Gabo’s job was to interview the sailor and write his story in segments. After the first two parts were published, Don Guillermo Cano, the paper’s editor (assassinated by drug cartels in 1986), walked up to his desk. “‘Oiga Gabrielito, those things you are writing—are they fiction or are they true?’ I told him, ‘It is a novel and it is true.’ Then he asked me, ‘And how many more parts are you thinking of submitting?’ ‘Two more,’ I said.

“‘No way, sales are up threefold. Give me a hundred.’

“I wrote fourteen.

“I knew the sailor had spent fourteen days lost at sea,” Gabo tells us, “so I decided to write fourteen chapters, one for each day at sea. I sat down with the guy again and started slicing his days thinner. I began by asking him what he did every day, then what he did every hour, and then every minute. I asked him what time the sharks arrived; what time he ate.”

 

Noon

 

It is almost lunchtime. Gabo began talking at nine sharp and he has not stopped. More than teaching, Gabo chats, tells stories. For more than three hours, the twelve of us have sat, saying little. I have not had breakfast but I am not feeling hungry. He doesn’t drink coffee but many of us do. It is the perfect accompaniment to his stories.

Storytellers, he says, are born, not made: “Like singers, to be a storyteller is something life gives you. It cannot be learned. Technique, yes, that can be learned, but to be able to tell a story is something with which you are born. It is easy to tell a good storyteller from a bad one: ask someone to tell you about the last movie they’ve seen.”

Then he emphasizes, “The difficult thing is to realize that you are not a storyteller and then have the courage to move on and do something else.” César Romero later tells me that of all Gabo’s statements this is the one that struck him the most.

He gives an example. Soon after he received the Nobel Prize, a young journalist in Madrid approached Gabo as he was leaving his hotel and asked for an interview. Gabo, who dislikes being asked for interviews, refused to give one, but invited her to accompany him and his wife throughout the day. “She spent the whole day with us. We shopped, my wife bargained, we went to lunch, we walked, we talked; she came with us everywhere.” When they returned to the hotel and Gabo was ready to say good-bye, she asked him for an interview. “I told her she should change jobs,” says Gabo. “She had the complete story, she had the reportage.”

He went on to talk about the difference between an interview and reportage —a confusion, he says, journalists are constantly making. “An interview in print journalism is always a dialogue between the journalist and someone who has something to say or think about an event. Reportage is the meticulous and truthful reconstruction of an event.

“Tape recorders are nefarious because one falls into the trap of believing that the tape recorder thinks, and so we disconnect our brains the moment we plug in the cord. A tape recorder is a digital parrot, it has ears but it doesn’t have a heart. It does not pick up details so our job is to listen beyond the words, pick up on what is not said and then write the complete story.” He looks down at the pile of papers in front of him—our articles! “Writing is a hypnotic act,” he says. “If successful the writer has hypnotized the reader. Wherever there is a stumble the reader wakes up, comes out of the hypnosis and stops reading. If the prose limps, the reader abandons you. One must keep the reader hypnotized by tending to every detail, every word. It is a continuous act where you poison the reader with credibility and with rhythm.” He pauses, then taps on the papers. “Now I must tell you that I read the articles you’ve all sent and I was fully awake the whole time.”

I gasp, some giggle, and others move around uncomfortably in their chairs.

 

1:00 P.M.

 

“Let’s see what’s in the paper today.” He reaches across the table for Tadeo Martínez’s newspaper. “Is there a story we could go out and cover?” he asks. He studies the front page and shakes his head in disapproval. “Incredible,” he says. “This is a local paper and not one story about Cartagena on the front page. Tell your boss, Tadeo, that a local paper should have local front-page news.

“Nothing here,” he mumbles as he turns the pages. “Let’s see, something here. Stove for sale, unused, unassembled stove. Must sell. Call Gloria Bedoya, 660-1127, extension 113. This could be a story. Should we call? I bet there’s something here. Why is this woman selling a stove, why is the stove unassembled? What do we know from this about this woman? Could be interesting.” He pauses, waiting for us to get excited. But no one seems to be interested in finding out why a woman is selling an unassembled stove, especially when we can keep listening to him.

Gabo sees stories everywhere. During the next three days he says “eso es un reportaje” (that’s a story) constantly. I realize that Gabo is full of nostalgia. He misses being a reporter. “Journalism is not a job, it’s a gland, “ he says.

It is not a coincidence that his new book, News of a Kidnapping, is a work of nonfiction. It allowed him—during the three years it took him to write it—to be a reporter once again. It is the story of nine kidnappings engineered between 1989 and 1991 by Pablo Escobar, the head of the violent Medellín drug cartel, who wanted to avoid at any cost Colombia signing an extradition treaty with the United States. In keeping with his motto (“Better a grave in Colombia than a cell in the United States”), Escobar pressured the government by bombing buildings, killing presidential candidates, ministers, judges, police officers and ultimately kidnapping nine people, eight of whom were journalists.

Vividly and eerily, Gabo reconstructs the six months of captivity—recording the impatience and anxiety not only of the kidnapped and their families but also that of the kidnappers, members of Escobar’s cartel, and of the government officials involved in the negotiating process. Of course, as García Márquez, he had the kind of access any journalist would desire. He was able to meet with the families, with government officials, including three former presidents. He talked with the teenagers who kept guard, who listened to Guns ‘n Roses and watched Lethal Weapon on video repeatedly, high on crack with their machine guns cocked next to them—kids who kill for the cartels in order to buy refrigerators for their mothers. When Gabo started writing the book, Pablo Escobar was already dead —shot by police forces in 1993. But he had access to the drug lord’s principal partners, the Ochoa brothers, who received him in jail. Escobar’s lawyers showed him handwritten letters. “Every single detail in this book is real; as much as it was humanly possible to verify the facts, they were verified. If Pablo Escobar himself could not revise the text, it was because he was dead. I know he would have agreed to meet with me.”

The fact he can meet anyone he chooses makes Gabo miss the days when he was a faceless journalist, one who could pick up a pad and go find out why the stove is unassembled. “It is difficult for me now to write a reporting piece. I wanted to write about that village whose bread supply had been poisoned but I knew that if I went there the news would be distorted; I would become the news.” He is referring to an incident which occurred outside of Bogotá a few years ago—a whole town poisoned.

Apart from allowing him to go back to journalism. News of a Kidnapping served another purpose. “I wanted to see if I was still able to write like a journalist,” he tells us. “It has been the most difficult book I’ve written. It is much easier to write fiction, where I am the master, I control it all. But this was written as if for the newspapers. I wrote this book without using a literary adjective or a metaphor. It was a useful exercise because it is important for me not to repeat myself. The challenge of writing Autumn of the Patriarch after writing One Hundred Years of Solitude was self-imposed. I could have written three hundred One Hundreds. I knew how to do that. So I decided I would write Autumn in a very different style. Autumn was not successful when it came out. If I had written another One Hundred it would have been better received.” He smiles and tells us that one of his most satisfying moments was seeing in the United States an edition of One Hundred Years with a gray stripe down one side which read: From the author of Love in the Time of Cholera. “This was the victory over One Hundred Years,” he says.

“As writers we also have to defend ourselves from those authors we like. It is easy to fall into a trap and start imitating them. For example, people like to say I imitated Faulkner, but during my trip to the American South, when I went with Mercedes, a son still in arms and twenty dollars to our name,

I realized I was identifying not so much with his writing but with a reality, which is that the American South is like Aracataca.”

Aracataca is the small town in the Caribbean region of Colombia where he was born, about two hundred miles from where my grandfather grew up. Something has felt familiar ever since Gabo walked into the room, sat next to me and started talking. He has said many times that he retells the stories his grandmother told him. Listening to Gabo makes me feel as if I am listening to my grandfather—if only my grandfather could write!

Gabo leans back in his chair, touches his white mustache and warns us, “You are not writing well if you feel happy when the phone rings and you answer it; or if there is a power blackout and that makes you happy. But if you are on track and the phone rings, you won’t answer it; you will damn the lights if they shut off.” His example about the electricity must seem farfetched to some, but to us Latin American journalists, blackouts and the loss of the text on our computers are always in the backs of our minds. Gabo, who once lost a whole text, now has his own emergency generator.

He begins to read paragraphs out loud from some of our articles; he offers light copyediting. Some of the sentences are too long and Gabo pretends to be choking as he reads along. “We have to use breathing commas,” he says. “If not, thehypnotic act does not work. Remember, wherever there is a stumble, the reader wakes up and escapes. And one of the things that will make the reader wake up from hypnosis is to feel out of breath.”

We have spent almost the entire morning listening to Gabo teach by telling stories. Our job, I’ve realized, is to kick back and enjoy him—as if we are on an extended coffee break or drinking at the nearest bar. “I know journalism cannot be taught, it must be lived, but I can transmit to you some of my experience. There are no theories. Reality has no theories, reality narrates. From it we have to learn.”

 

After Lunch

 

The light in the room was so dim that it took a moment for their eyes to adjust. It was a space no longer than two by three meters, with one boarded-up window. Two men were sitting on a single mattress that had been placed on the floor: they wore hoods, like the men in the first house, and were absorbed in watching television. Everything was dismal and oppressive. In the corner to the left of the door, on a narrow bed with iron posts, sat a spectral woman with limp white hair, dazed eyes and skin that adhered to her bones. She gave no sign of having heard them come in; not a glance, not a breath. Nothing, a corpse could not have seemed so dead. Maruja had to restrain her shock when she realized who it was.

Gabo is reading a chapter from News of a Kidnapping. I am willing to surrender to his words, except his white shoes are impossible to ignore. I close my eyes to give myself entirely to his “poison.”

At night the silence was total and the solitude immense, interrupted only by a demented rooster with no sense of time who crowed whenever he felt like it. Barking dogs could be heard on the horizon, and there was one very close by that sounded to them like a trained guarddog. Maruja got off to a bad start. She curled up in the mattress, closed her eyes, and for several days did not open them again except when she had to, trying to attain the privacy she needed to think with more clarity. Not that she slept for eight hours at a time: she would doze off for half an hour and wake again to the same reality, the same agony waiting to ambush her. It was a permanent dread: the constant physical sensation in her stomach of something hard, coiled and ready to explode into panic. Maruja ran the complete film of her life in an effort to hold onto good memories, but disagreeable ones always intervened …

He reads the entire chapter. I feel Marina Montoya’s panic as she dressed in the pink sweat suit and men’s brown socks and said good-bye to her two roommates. I am transported to the cramped room where the guards are telling Marina she is going to be freed. But everyone knows that the high heels she wears with the sweats are taking her to her execution. “Any comments? Anything I should change?”

No one says a word.

“It is an investigation of three years,” he says with pride. “The research was crucial. Every fact that could be verified was verified. I give credit in the book to my research assistant.” Gabo is talking, but my head is still heavy. I haven’t come out of my hypnosis. I feel groggy and can still see Marina’s body, dressed in pink, lying dead on the grass that divides the only road to Bogotá’s airport, the same one I take every time I visit my parents.

“A good piece of advice is first to write the beginning and the ending. Begin with an anecdote and close with a resonant ending. Then fill in the in-between. You have to fence in your story, almost as if with cattle. If not, you keep researching, and that could take you anywhere. You have to enclose the story, you have to learn how to end the circle of information. Details are the key. You must hold on to a thread in the narrative. If not you get swamped. Even Cervantes lost a donkey, and we must avoid losing as many donkeys as possible,” he says.

“One of the big problems about writing is worrying too much. If you could just write it as you speak it, that is the dream of a writer, to be able to write as one speaks. It’s not done, because when one tries, one realizes how difficult it is to do. In Mexico I used to write with my windows open, so I would hear the birds or the rain, and I would include them in the text I was working on. Not anymore. That thing about only being able to write in a particular space, in a particular way, is a novelist’s mania. Now I can write anywhere just as I used to do when I was a reporter. I just plug in my PowerBook in any hotel room. But I am used to writing on the long screen. I save as I write and transfer to a floppy disk right away. Each chapter is a file.”

He tells us he is hooked on writing on screens shaped like pages. But they aren’t manufactured anymore. “I buy all the ones I can find. I have eleven,” he says. “I believe one needs to buy anything that makes our job easier. Computers are extraordinary. I can prove it. I started writing on a computer with Love in the Time of Cholera. I went from writing one page to writing ten a day, from writing a book every seven years to writing a book every three. Still, writing never stops being difficult. Staring at a blank page, one gets the same anxiety as with sex, always anticipating if it’s going to work or not. There’s always the anguish. As Borges used to say: what God is the God behind the God who moves the pieces of chess?”

He tells us he knows that the worst moment for a writer, or for a journalist, is facing the blank page and shares what for him has been one of the most useful tips, what Ernest Hemingway told The Pans Review in 1958: “You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.”

“I write from eight-thirty in the morning to about two or three in the afternoon,” Gabo says. “From those long years at the chair I’ve developed a bad back; that’s why I play tennis every day. Sometimes after I finish, my back pain is such that I just have to throw myself to the floor.” It is a little before seven when he looks at his white watch. “You guys are not going to make me miss my tennis,” he says. He gets up and walks out.

 

Tuesday, April 9 9:00 A. M.

 

Almost fifty years ago today Gabo lost his first typewriter— the one he used to write “The Third Resignation,” his first published short story. He was an unhappy law student living in an inexpensive hostel in downtown Bogotá. He missed the heat of the Caribbean coast. He rarely went to classes: law, which his family expected him to study, had never interested him. At lunchtime on April 9, 1948, Gabo was about to sit down to eat when he overheard that Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, a popular young presidential candidate who was shaking Colombia’s traditional political structure, had been shot.

Gabo tells us that he got to the square only to find “people were already soaking their handkerchiefs in Gaitán’s blood.” The streets of Bogotá burned and Gabo’s typewriter went up in the conflagration. Colombia was paralyzed. Universities shut down. It was a few months later, here in Cartagena, that Gabo, at the age of nineteen, started his life as a journalist by writing editorials.

“I was walking around one day and Zavala, the editor of El Universal, was sitting at his typewriter outside on the square. He tells me, ‘I know you.’ He says, ‘You are the guy with the short stories in El Espectador. Why don’t you sit down and help me with this editorial I’m finishing?’ I wrote something. Zavala took out his pencil and crossed some things out. The next time I wrote an editorial, he scratched out only a few things. By the third day I was writing without editing. I had become a journalist.”

He is not sitting next to me today. He is not wearing a white guayabera but a turquoise short-sleeved silk shirt. Theshoes are still white. My connection with him feels distant but I’m still drawn to his tales. “I started making money from writing when I was forty-three years old,” he tells us. “I bought my first house, the one in Cuernavaca, in 1970, twenty-five years after my first story was published. I calculated that to take my sons to the movies back then I had to write twelve pages, and to take them to the movies and buy them ice cream I had to write twenty. When I lived in Paris, I didn’t keep constant hours and wrote mostly at night. During the day, I had to worry about feeding myself. Now I know it is better to write during the day, on a computer, with a full stomach and with air-conditioning.”

 

Coffee Break

 

Jaime Abello, the foundation’s director, has hired a photographer and calls us together for a group picture. The foundation issues no certificates: “Life, in its due course, will decide who is capable and who is not,” Gabo has said. “At least, you can all go back with a souvenir,” Jaime says. “Come and sit on the stairs.”

Gabo is complacent and sits in the middle. The photographer from El Universal orders us to smile at the camera.

“Wait,” shouts the woman who runs the Center. “I want a picture with Gabo.” She climbs over us and sits next to him.

 

1:00 P.M.

 

It was inevitable. Fidel Castro had to come up. We were, or I should say I was, waiting for the right moment. Gabo wants to talk about ethics: should a reporter read a document left unattended, one that has the potential for a scoop?

His question gives me a chance. “I had an experience like that,” I say. In 1991 I attended the opening ceremony of the first Ibero-American presidential summit, held in Guadalajara. Castro was told that all the dignitaries had to limit their speeches to seven minutes. Everyone waited apprehensively for Castro’s turn since he is known for his long speeches. We all wondered if Castro, who the day after the triumph of the revolution in 1959 ad-libbed for seven hours, would keep to his instructions. He spoke for exactly seven minutes. President Balaguer of the Dominican Republic spoke for forty-five.

During the break, the pool of journalists, including myself, surrounded Fidel. In person he looms larger than life, even if his military uniform seemed a little faded and the collar of his shirt too frayed. As he walked outside, the crowd followed him. He seemed to love it.

Comandante, I cut cane in the Venceremos Brigade,” a journalist yelled.

He stopped and looked for the voice. “Where?”

A woman extended a black-and-white photograph over the crowd—a picture of the two of them together when his beard was dark. “Can you sign it, Comandante?”

“Was it hard to speak for seven minutes?” someone else called out.

“I was tricked,” said Fidel. “They told me that if I spoke for longer than seven minutes all of the bells in Guadalajara would toll.”

I had noticed a small, crumpled piece of paper next to a yellow pad where he had been sitting. As the crowd moved out with him, I returned to his seat and picked up the ball of paper. I opened it and read his small and cramped handwriting: “Por cuánto tiempo habré hablado?” (How long have I spoken?) On the bigger pad, Fidel had made a list of the presidents and the amount of time, to the exact second, that each had spoken. I walked away leaving the note behind. I’ve regretted it ever since.

“I would definitely have grabbed it,” says Gabo. “Believe me, if he thought it was so important, he would have never left it there. Yes, I would have kept it as a souvenir.”

As I had hoped, Gabo begins to speak about Fidel Castro. He talks about Cuba openly, with concern and passion, like a university student who keeps a poster of Che Guevara on the wall. But about Fidel, he speaks without really saying anything negative, compromising or even revelatory. “I speak about Fidel more from sentiment than from a place of judgment. He is one of the people I love most in the world.”

“A dictator,” someone says.

“To have elections is not the only way to be democratic.”

The American journalist in the group keeps after him. Gabo starts to answer, but sees we are taking notes. His voice turns stern: “This is not an interview. If I want to express my opinion on Fidel, I’ll write it myself and believe me, I’ll do a better job.” Perhaps feeling somewhat guilty for snapping at us, he describes a profile he wrote about Fidel. “I gave it to him to read. In it, I was critical. I spoke about the situation of the free press. But he said nothing about that. What really irked him about my article was that I mentioned he had eaten eighteen scoops of ice cream after lunch one day. ‘Did I really eat eighteen scoops?’ he asked me repeatedly.”

 

After Lunch

 

“Tell us about your trip to Chigorodó.” Gabo is calling on Rubén Valencia.

Chigorodó is a village in Urabá, Colombia’s most dangerous region—which is saying a lot coming from a country that has been described as the most violent in the world. The Gulf of Urabá, on the western coast of Colombia, is a geographical Molotov cocktail. It has the country’s most fertile land; it is a point of entry for arms and a port of exit for drugs; it has poor peasants and rich landowners; it has guerrilla groups, military forces and death squads. Last year, one thousand people were killed, victims of political violence. According to a newspaper report, a twenty-year-old hitman has already killed eighty-three people. In August of 1995, eighteen people were killed inside a dance hall. Massacres like this are frequent.

Rubén is the last person I would have expected to visit Chigorodó. He is a scrawny young man with square glasses too big for his face, with so much prescription in his lenses that his eyes seem tiny. “I went there,” he says, “to write about the effect that violence was having on the lives of the people in the area, to find the human face of the story.”

The piece he published is the one he submitted to the workshop. Gabo is holding it in his hand. “Tell us what happened from the moment you arrived? Who was the first person you talked to?” he asks.

“The town was desolate, maestro. I found a twelve-year-old kid, I asked him if he knew where the dance hall was and he took me there. After the massacre, there was an exodus; all the peasants left in fear.” Valencia tells us that he walked around looking for someone to talk to, but fear and silence were all he found. A woman stopped on a motorcycle and offered him a ride to Apartadó, about a half-hour ride in the rain, where he could get more information. He checked into the Hotel Las Molas. On his third day there, a visitor was waiting for him in the lobby.

“Are you the person who is investigating the massacres?” the stranger asked him. “Let’s go out and have a drink. I think you want to talk to me.”

“Sorry,” replied Valencia. “It’s too late. I don’t go out after dark. Do you want to come up to my room?”

Once in the room, the man asked, “What have you found out? What do you want to know?”

“I’m a journalist, I’m trying to find the human face to this conflict.”

“Ah, ya.”

“Who are you?” Valencia finally asked him.

“I am an angel,” said the man.

“What kind of an angel?”

“An angel with a white wing and a black wing.”

“And with what wing will you be talking to me?”

“That depends.”

“On what?”

As Valencia speaks, we are all silent, immersed in his story. I am feeling somewhat envious, what a story!

“But that is not what I read here,” says Gabo, raising the article. “Why didn’t you write that story? Why didn’t you write that just the way you just told it to us. That’s the story I would have written.

“Describe that man,” says Gabo looking at him.

Rubén remains silent.

“Can you remember his face?”

“Yes.”

“What animal did he remind you of?”

“An iguana.”

“That’s it, you need nothing more.” says Gabo. “You lost the trip, my boy. We are not sociologists, we are tale-tellers, we tell the stories of people. Reporting with a human voice is what makes journalists big. Where is that story?”

Rubén, who insists on calling García Márquez maestro, responds: “It’s not easy. When I propose to write that story, my editor tells me, ‘Valencia you are not García Márquez. Stick to the facts!’”

 

3:00 P.M.

 

“Daza, why don’t you read us one of your pieces?” Gabo asks. I am feeling impatient. The day is almost over. The workshop is almost over, and Gabo has not said a word about my piece. Because I had written about Cuba I thought he would show a particular interest. But he has not even acknowledged reading it.

Daza has written about one of Medellín’s underground characters—a profile of a man who prefers the company of animals to humans. He shares his daily buñuelo, a fried dough, his only meal, with a pet rat. He carries a chicken on a leash and keeps fleas in his room. Daza reads it to us. The piece is touching, the writing lyrical, maybe even too lyrical. It is not traditional reportage.

“I will not touch Daza’s writing,” says Gabo. “He might be inventing a new form here, one I know nothing about.” If he thought it was good or bad, we do not know.

Daza is not only daring in his writing style. He is the only one who has shown some disdain: “Gabo is a little full of himself.” Daza had been sent to cover the Ibero-American presidential summit, which in 1994 was held in Cartagena. Reporters were furious because dignitaries were impossible to interview. Gabo, being an important political actor, was there as a guest in a delegation. He was reported as saying that, instead of complaining, journalists need to go out on the street looking for stories, and not expect news to be handed to them on silver platters. If the presidents were unavailable, a good journalist would find a story nonetheless.

Refuting him, Daza says, “It was easy for you to say that.

I wrote a story about how unfair I thought that comment was, especially coming from you. I mean you were there, behind doors, with all of the presidents.”

“I was not there as a working journalist.”

Daza admits that Gabo’s reprimand was useful. He gives an illustration: when he then was sent to cover the summit of the Group of the Non-Aligned Countries held in Cartagena last year, he didn’t go to the convention center where the leaders were meeting. To write about Yassir Arafat, who was attending, and about the Israel-Palestine conflict, he went to one of Cartagena’s many poor slums instead —to one that is actually called Palestina. He wrote a story comparing Arafat’s situation with that of a girl living in Palestina, marginalized in the outskirts of a rich, tourist-filled city.

“You learned the lesson,” says Gabo.

“You were also at that meeting.” Daza is unrelenting. “You were there with the Cuban delegation.”

“I was there,” Gabo says impatiently. “I was there because there were rumors that there was going to be an assassination attempt on Fidel. And the Cuban security wasn’t going to let Fidel be pan of the procession so I proposed to go on the horse- drawn carriage with him. I told them that here in Colombia if I’m on board, no one will shoot. So five of us squeezed into the carriage, tight, joking. While I was telling Fidel that I was sure nothing was going to happen, the horse actually tripped.”

 

Dinner

 

He is having dinner with us at La Vitrola, Cartagena’s most cosmopolitan restaurant. The decor is more British colonial than Spanish, but the group of Cuban musicians dressed in white sings traditional sones. It is where Colombia’s upper class eats when they are vacationing, where the president stops by for a drink. Soap-opera stars, small but flashy drug dealers, young rich kids on their first date, the few local yuppies all come too. The menu resembles that of a New York restaurant. The vinaigrette is made with balsamic vinegar, the mozzarella is fresh and the wine, for Colombia, is good.

We sit and wait in a small room sipping fruit punches. Gabo arrives wearing a dark blue jumpsuit, zipped from his navel to his chest. Caribbean man by day, by night he seems as though he has just jumped off the cover of a record —funk or disco. His shoes are exactly the same model as this morning’s but this time they are gray. He asks the waiter for a whisky. We go to the private room next to the entrance. He sits between Andrea and me.

The menu is fixed: fried zucchini followed by a choice of shrimp in coconut sauce or red snapper in cream.

“That’s too heavy for me to eat at night,” Gabo complains.The host comes over. “I can give you the snapper, grilled with no sauce? Or a pasta?”

“What kind?”

“How would you want it?”

“Simple.”

“How about pasta in brodo. “Perfect. Bring me that.”

I ask if I can have the same; I have felt feverish all day. “Two of those,” Gabo tells him.

When the wine is served, he declines and keeps drinking his whisky.

The restaurant is filling up. Our table is in plain view. Everyone notices Gabo. He requests that the doors be closed, and I ask the waiter to do so. A reporter from Newsweek who has come from Buenos Aires to interview Gabo is sitting at my left. I speak to him for a while but I really only want to talk to Gabo, whisper to him, not share him with the rest of my colleagues.

I turn to him. We converse about many things. He wants to know why and where I live in New York. I tell him I live in the Village and I ask him if he likes New York. He does very much, but not when it’s too cold because he likes doing nothing better than walking through the streets. I tell him I will take him around the Village, and he promises to call. We talk about Cuba, about Barranquilla, about Bill Clinton, The New Yorker and Sunday magazines. He tells me in intricate detail about a short story he wants to write and about a yellow silk shirt he has, one he wears when he feels in love. His glass is empty so he sips from mine. “I like being around women.

I know them better than I know men. I feel more comfortable around them; I grew up with women around me.”

The waiter walks over and hands Gabo a white napkin, folded. He opens it and reads what’s on it. He tells the waiter to say nothing. It must be difficult to have everyone want something from him all the time. He has told us about a friend running for the assembly who called him up: “Gabo, can you write something about me, say something about me, even if it’s just to insult me.”The door opens and a man peeks in. Gabo looks up, stands up and, with his arms extended, walks over, “Ah. mon ami, quelle coincidence. I suppose it is the man who had sent him the note on the napkin. As he sits back again he whispers in my ear, “I just want to escape out that window.”

 

Wednesday, April 10 9:30 A. M.

 

Gabo is sitting at the head of the table again, reading from what appears to be a manuscript, waiting for everyone to arrive. He knows the class went out after dinner last night. He looks amused at the last ones arriving late, perhaps with a hint of nostalgia. Everyone looks sleepy, unshowered and irritable with pounding headaches from too much anisette. He looks sparkling clean in his white outfit.

I sit at the other end of the table and I wonder if he has not mentioned my piece to keep me on tenterhooks. Time is ticking, an hour left, and Tadeo’s story about a convicted Spanish woman in Cartagena who was not allowed to serve her prison sentence because she was HIV-positive is still being discussed. “You have the best story here,” says Gabo, “but you got lost telling it; this makes no sense.”

He finally looks at me. I am less nervous than when he first sat next to me but nonetheless my heart races.

“Silvana has good taste in music,” Gabo says. “Like me, she likes Van Morrison.”

My piece is about the difficulties young rock musicians have in Cuba, where the state does not support them and private initiatives are impossible. I wrote about a struggling troubador with a stringless guitar whose voice I described as like Van Morrison’s.

“Silvana has written a good piece, well-structured. I wouldn’t change anything,” Gabo says. But he disagrees with some of my descriptions: “Is it necessary to say that a television is broken, that it is black-and-white and that there is no money to fix it? There are many homes right here in Cartagena where money is short and TVs are not in color. Would you write that if it weren’t about Cuba?”

We go back and forth on the subject of culture control in the Cuban government. “I’ve talked to them many times,” he says as if frustrated that they haven’t listened to him. Then he gets up, walks over to me and hands me my piece. He has not done that with anyone else.

He walks back to his seat. My feet are not touching the ground. I feel like Remedios the Beauty—I’m levitating.

Gabo has a last comment to make: “I see you all—and in your fears, in your clumsiness, in your questioning, I am reminded of the way I felt when I was your age. Telling you about my experiences has also allowed me to look at myself. After all, it will be fifty years since I started writing—every day of my life. If you don’t like your job, resign. The only thing you die from is from doing something you don’t like. If you like your work, you have longevity and happiness assured.” Everyone makes a queue toward him. Copies of One Hundred Years of Solitude, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, No One Writes to the Colonel all need to be signed. He inscribes all, and shakes everyone’s hand. Rubén Valencia hands him a copy of Autumn of the Patriarch. Curious to know what Gabo would write to someone who has been so respectful and so adoring, I ask Valencia to show me the inscription. It reads: “From the patriarch of the workshop.” César Romero wants his book signed for his newborn son. Gabo writes: “For Rodrigo when you were beginning.”

I have not brought a book for him to sign. I wait next to the door. As he sees me, he smiles the same smile of mischief he had when he entered the room the first time. “And you Silvana, aren’t you sad it’s over? Aren’t you going to cry?” 

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