At the end of 2000, I spent three months traveling around Latin America—Barranquilla, Cartagena, Bogotá, Mexico City— to interview friends and relatives for an oral biography of Gabriel García Márquez. Autobiography is central to García Márquez's fiction, and I was curious how the people (many of whom make appearances in his work) who knew Gabo as a young man would remember him.
People were generous with their memories—everyone, it seemed, had encountered the Nobel Laureate—and I spent afternoons listening to stories. In Barranquilla, I talked with García Márquez's neighbors from Aracataca (the model for Macondo, the town in One Hundred Years of Solitude), where he was born and lived with his grandparents for several years; and with his friends from Sucre (the place where the murder in Chronicle of a Death Foretold took place), where he moved when he was thirteen to live with his parents.
Rafael Ulloa, a distant relative of García Márquez, showed up unexpectedly one afternoon, with a folder full of clipped newspaper stories under his arm, and insisted on giving me his only copy of the special supplement that El Heraldo (the newspaper where García Márquez worked in Barranquilla, writing a column that paid so poorly the only place he could afford to rent was a room in a brothel) had published when Garda Marquez received the Nobel Prize in 1982.
Another afternoon, Juancho Jinete brought along Enrique Scopell, and over the next two hours, and two bottles of scotch, they revived the rowdy group of young writers, artists, and journalists who befriended García Márquez when he arrived in Barranquilla in 1950: Alejandro Obregón; Álvaro Cepeda; Germán Vargas; Alfonso Fuenmayor; and Alfonso’s father, José Félix. García Márquez used to show them early drafts of One Hundred Years at Japi, a bar where, as one of them told me, Faulkner, had he lived in Barranquilla, would have gone drinking. García Márquez has said they were the first and last friends he’s had. A writer’s solitude should always have this kind of company.
In Bogotá, where García Márquez moved in 1953 to work at El Espectador, I met with José Salgar, his editor at that newspaper, who told me that García Márquez had called him earlier that week to recover some details for a story he was using in the memoir he was working on. It was an uncomfortable moment, and I felt as if I was competing with Gabo for his own past.
So when someone asked me—just before I left for Mexico, to interview people who knew García Márquez during the eighteen months he spent, holed up, wearing a blue mechanic’s jumpsuit, in a room his wife, Mercedes, had built for him in their house—what I did for a living, I responded, not quite jokingly, “I stalk García Márquez.”
Living to Tell It (Vivir para contrarla), García Márquez’s recollection of the years documented by his friends and relatives in the pages that follow, includes this epigraph: “Life is not what one has lived, but what one remembers and how one chooses to tell it.”
* * *
In Order of Appearance:
EDUARDO MÁRCELES DACONTE: A Colombian art critic from Aracataca. The son of Imperia.
ROSE STYRON: A human-rights activist. She first met García Márquez in the seventies, when she worked with him on human-rights issues in South America.
CARMELO MARTÍNEZ: A lawyer and retired magistrate to the Colombian courts. He was García Márquez’s childhood friend in Sucre, and the best friend of the young man whose murder is fictionalized in Chronicle of a Death Foretold.
RAFAEL ULLOA: A distant cousin of García Márquez’s on his father’s side.
GUILLERMO ANGULO: A photographer who knew García Márquez during his stay in Paris as a young writer.
JUANCHO JINETE: A founding member of La Cueva.
HECTOR ROJAS HERAZO: A poet and painter who worked with García Márquez in Cartagena, where he wrote his first cultural columns.
ENRIQUE “QUIQUE” SCOPELL: The photographer of La Cueva.
JOSÉ SALGAR: García Márquez’s editor at El Espectador, one of Colombia’s leading newspapers.
PLINIO APULEYO MENDOZA: A Colombian journalist and diplomat.
MARÍA LUISA ELÍO: A Spanish filmmaker. One Hundred Years of Solitude is dedicated to her.
SANTIAGO MUTIS: Poet and son of Álvaro Mutis, one of García Márquez’s closest friends.
ALBERTO ZABALETA: A composer and singer of vallenatos, Colombia’s version of country music. García Márquez has said that One Hundred Years is a 350-page vallenato.
IMPERIA DACONTE DE MARCELES: Daughter of Antonio Daconte, García Márquez’s grandfather’s neighbor and best friend in Aracataca. Many characters in García Márquez’s work have Daconte as a last name.
RAMON ILLÁN BACCA: Author of Maracas en la opera and Cronicas casi historicas. He lives in Barranquilla.
NEREO LÓPEZ: A photographer, a member of La Cueva, and lead actor in Blue Lobster, a film García Márquez wrote when he lived in Barranquilla.
EDMUNDO PAZ SOLDÁN: A Bolivian writer. His books include Sueños digitales and La materia del deseo.
ALBERTO FUGUET:A Chilean writer. His books include Tinta roja and The Movies of My Life.
ELISEO ALBERTO: A Cuban poet; author of Caracol Beach. He lives in Mexico.
ODERAY GAME: An Ecuadorean filmmaker.
JAIME GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ: One of García Márquez’s brothers.
WILLIAM STYRON: Author of Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner. He is García Márquez’s best American writer friend.
* * *
EDUARDO MÁRCELES DACONTE: One Hundred Years is the entire region of Santa Marta, Ciénaga, the banana-growing region, and then the Sierra Nevada all the way to Riohacha. Aracataca lies at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. It’s hot but at the same time it’s cool at night due to the mountains and the streams that flow down from the Sierra. It has a deep, crystal-clear river that flows over a bed of huge rocks that resemble prehistoric eggs, like he writes in One Hundred Years. There’s a dry season and a rainy season. The downpours are tremendous. My grandfather Antonio Daconte came from Italy and set up a general store in Aracataca, which became a kind of meeting place. He brought a phonograph and a gramophone, and set up movies in the patio of the house. They would send him the films by train from Santa Marta. García Márquez’s grandfather would visit often—he would drink his cup of coffee and they would exchange ideas. Sometimes he would take his grandson to my grandfather’s house. The people of Aracataca used candles and kerosene lamps. We used to gather in the dark—I remember walking with a flashlight—and there was always someone who would tell mystery stories, scary ones, tales of terror. I would be scared to death going back home in that awful darkness to sleep in my bed. Gabo remembers those stories they used to tell—things that many people have forgotten. He has an elephant’s memory. When he was a small boy they would tell him that at the bottom of the clay water jars in Aracataca there lived some duendes [sprites]. So, he’d go and try to get them out—fill our glasses trying to get the midgets. Delicious cool water. I don’t know, but I’ve never again tasted water like that.
ROSE STYRON: He says that his grandmother was the great storyteller in the family, and he learned from her. He thinks storytelling is congenital and hereditary. I remember him saying that he had to be a magician for his readers, but that magicians always start with reality and come back to reality.
CARMELO MARTÍNEZ: His family was well-liked. His mother was of white stock, poor but respected. Gabo’s father was a dark Indian type, not black, and he had a mole on his face. He was a man with a great imagination. I think Gabo owes his imagination to him. His father spent his time thinking he was going to win the lottery.
RAFAEL ULLOA: His father believed in him a great deal. He used to tell his relatives that Gabito was a genius, but people didn’t believe him. He used to say that Gabito had two brains.
GUILLERMO ANGULO: His greatest inspiration was his grandmother. One of his relatives was combing his hair, and his grandmother warned him not to comb his hair at night because it would cause a ship to be lost at sea.
RAFAEL ULLOA: I think that his greatness lies in his imagination. An imagination with which he reveals things to the world that appear to be improbable, but people like them. It’s the way he puts them. A metallic grasshopper, for example, that leaps from town to town along the banks of the Magdalena River. Connecting technology with grasshoppers. Gabo has some marvelous ways about him. Not long ago I was talking with some friends and we were reminiscing about the paid mourners. These are women brought to wail and weep for the dead. Gabo remembered one called Pachita Pérez, who was the champion of all the mourners. He says that she was so powerful a mourner that she could sum up the corpse’s life in one shriek.
EDUARDO MÁRCELES DACONTE: Before, nobody knew where Aracataca was, but Garda Marquez put it on the map. It changed its life. Tourists began to visit. A chain of restaurants was opened. The town economy was affected because people who went there had lunch or stayed in a hotel. The house were he was born was declared a museum. The front of the house used to be a whitewashed mud-and-cane building, which collapsed, so they replaced it with one of cement but left the back of the house, the kitchen, and such as it was when he was born.
JUANCHO JINETE: One day a gringo showed up and asked me to take him to the place where the murder in Chronicle of a Death Foretold took place. This was back when the marijuana craze was at its peak. I told him, “You show up looking like that and they’re going to think you’re looking to buy pot and they’ll mug you and take everything you have.” We dressed him up—I got him a typical country hat, and we changed him totally. A lot of people have passed through here looking for Macondo.
* * *
HECTOR ROJAS HERAZO: El Universal started as a labor of love. It was just a page, but at least we were trying to put something out. It was located on the first floor of a two-story building in Cartagena—that’s where the revolution started. We were influenced by everything. We were starving for knowledge. Ignorance winds up being the greatest stimulus for the creative process. That was Socrates’s dictum: I only know that I know nothing. Every human being has to suffer ignorance: enjoy it and convert it into something creative. It is like love: it has to make you suffer. We really had a hurricane of influences coming from all over the place. All that influenced us. We used to go out to the park, and we’d talk about everything. We talked about the importance of Latin American literature. I mean, we already had the English, French, Russian fiction writers, and then came Faulkner and the narrative stimulus from the United States. What the world was missing was what Latin America had to say. We talked about that and how we could come up with the most direct knowledge of the reality we were living and suffering. It was a search to find out on what we had to base ourselves in order to tell about our surroundings. I always had a quote from Tolstoy in my mind: Look really well at your village and you will become universal. The village, the village, the village. We people from the coast had a great advantage, which is that we had no vanity at all because the coast had not had until then anything grand. I interviewed a great painter from Antioquia once, and he asked me why had the coast never produced anything great. I told him not to worry—we were just listening to the sound of the ocean, and to just wait and see what’s going to happen.
RAFAEL ULLOA: When Gabo lived in Barranquilla, he would visit my aunts and I would see him there. At first, nobody paid attention to him. He acted like a nut. He dressed oddly—he never wore socks; he wore guayaberas. The people around here used to call him trapito [ragamuffin].
JUANCHO JINETE: We belonged to a group with Alfonso Fuenmayor, who was Gabriel García Márquez’s real friend because they worked at El Heraldo. Back then there was a bookstore, Libreria Mundo and Café Colombia. We would meet there and then go to the pub. I’m not a literary person; I merely listened. Alfonso and Álvaro and Germán had their own literary world; my world has never been the world of literature, but rather work. Writers have never impressed me because anyone can make up a story. It’s easy to make up a story.
ENRIQUE SCOPELL: The person who guided him was José Félix Fuenmayor. We used to go his house—Gabito, Álvaro, and me—and Don José would talk about literature to Gabito. Álvaro used to read Faulkner, which was in style back then.
HECTOR ROJAS HERAZO: Álvaro decided to go to the Deep South to see Faulkner. He used to sit at the entrance of his house and drink. And he drank and drank, then he started to wonder what he was going to tell Faulkner the moment he saw him. He got stinko and finally decided to leave.
ENRIQUE SCOPELL: Álvaro would pass his Faulkner books to Gabito. Back then Gabito didn’t have money or culture. Nowadays he’s very cultured, but he wasn’t born with culture. It wasn’t his fault; he was born poor. I give him a lot of credit for having gotten to where he is; he got there by virtue of his own person. He’s a stubborn son of a bitch. He deserves it because he’s earned it. In this day and age, they dare to compare him to Shakespeare and Cervantes. What more do you want?
JUANCHO JINETE: He used to live in Barrio Abajo. He rented a room because he got paid only two pesos for each article. Sometimes he wrote his column from the second or third floor of El Herat do, which was across the street from a brothel. From there you could see a woman servicing her clients and she would sometimes, the poor lady, open the window to cool off.
ENRIQUE SCOPELL; We used to meet in the afternoon, and count how much money we had. I had thirty-five cents, Álvaro had fifty, Alfonso had twenty, and Gabito didn’t have shit. Germán used to work at the treasury inspector’s office and he had fifteen cents. We would go to the Mundo bookstore and to Japi Bar, right next door—now it’s the electricity plant—and ask for a bottle of white rum and another of tamarind soda. It cost twenty-five cents, and they’d include a lemon. We would drink three bottles of rum and after that we’d all go home drunk. He used to drink with us every day. He always had One Hundred Years under his arm. Alejandro and Álvaro used to say, “Here comes that moocher to talk about literature.” He was always with us at Japi, but he drank very little. He used to hear our stories and then write them down later. I haven’t read One Hundred Years since it was published, but I’ve read it a million times—because every day he used to read the chapter he’d written the night before. If he’d slept with the two-bit whore, he’d write a chapter about it.
RAFAEL ULLOA: He hung out with the taxi drivers and he loved whores. He would hang out in the bars along the Street of Crime and drink with the women, and then he wouldn’t have money and would have to leave his manuscript as payment.
ENRIQUE SCOPELL: Alfonso Fuenmayor liked to drink in neighborhood stores. He had a cousin who had a bodega, and Alfonso said that he would buy the place and set up a tavern. So he called Álvaro—who was working for the Santodomingo brewery—and told him, Listen, I have a great corner for you. Come see for yourself what a great place this is. It was on the corner of Veinte de Julio—a good spot. Álvaro called the brewery and told them to send him a truck with four refrigerators, ten gallons of beer, and two hundred bottles of beer. He got the painters to paint LA CUEVA, and in half an hour the bodega was transformed into a bar. It was a very popular place.
EDUARDO MÁRCELES DACONTE: La Cueva was like a house; you would enter through a small terrace. It was a meeting place for hunters and working journalists and writers.
JUANCHO JINETE: Some university students came to us and they said they wanted to talk about those maestros from La Cueva. Quique had already had a few drinks and he said, “I’m fed up with all this crap! There was never any discussion about literature in La Cueva. What we talked about was rum and shit and from there we’d go to the whorehouse. They think that La Cueva was a sanctuary of literature. What literature? Bullshit! Philosophy? What fucking philosophy?”
* * *
JOSÉ SALGAR: Gabo came to El Espectador with a bit of fame, but when he arrived it was the same as any ordinary reporter. He was a bit uncouth; he was from the coast, a hick, and very shy. He would arrive with bags under his eyes and his hair uncombed because he had been writing that thing. I told him we couldn’t work like that. I would tell him to wring the swan’s neck—that literature was a hobby and what he needed to do was incorporate those things that he was making up into real journalism.
JUANCHO JINETE: He wrote something about the wreck of a ship that belonged to the navy, which was carrying smuggled goods and threw one of the young sailors overboard. He wrote an article that no one dared to write in this country, because it dealt with the armed forces.
GUILLERMO ANGULO: It must have been around 1955, I went to El Espectador looking for him and they told me he had left to be one of their correspondents in Europe and was going to study film at Centro Sperimentale in Rome. He has always had a love affair with film. It’s been disastrous. There isn’t even one great film or script by Gabo. His ideas are wonderful, but his writing cannot be used to make movies. It seems to me a bit much to ask Gabo to be a great filmmaker in addition to a great author. I was going to study at the same place, so when I arrived there I went to look him up. He had left me a letter in which he explained where to get a hold of him: I should go to the second floor and I would run into a lady who sings opera wearing a towel wrapped around her head. So I went there and sure enough the lady showed up and I laughed and she got angry. I laughed because she came out singing opera with her head in a towel. Then I asked her about Gabriel García Márquez. She said, Who knows him? And she was right. Who had ever heard of him? Then Gabo sent me a letter telling me that he had left Rome for Paris. He was at 16 rue Cujas. I wrote him that I was going to be in Paris for six months and that we would see each other there.
PLINIO APULEYO MENDOZA: We drove from Paris to Eastern Europe in a Renault 4. We couldn’t get visas for the Soviet Union so we pretended to be part of a group of Colombian musicians playing in Moscow. We would sleep in the car. One day Gabo woke up and told me, “Maestro, I am very sad. I dreamed something very sad.” I asked him what that was, and he said, “I dreamed that socialism didn’t work.”
GUILLERMO ANGULO: I arrived at the Hotel de Flandres on rue Cujas. Across the street, there was a black Cuban poet [Nicolas] Guillen. He was exiled and living in a hotel more pathetic than mine. Every day he went out and returned with his bread under his arm. When I went to 16 rue Cujas the lady told me that García Márquez had left for a tour of the Iron Curtain. I was convinced that I would never be able to meet him. I asked for the cheapest room she had and told her that I would be staying for at least three months. She gave me a room on the top floor, which was very uncomfortable because that’s where the roof was, so that every time you got up you hit your head on the ceiling. One day I got a knock on the door and here was this guy wearing a blue sweater and a very long scarf that went around several times and he said: “Maestrico, what are you doing in my room?” It was Gabo and that’s how we met. I didn’t know. And I have a photograph taken right then and there. I moved elsewhere. Gabo was very, very poor, and while I was there he came every day to have dinner with me. I used to keep five subway tickets, and he would take two on his way out and ask me what to read because his train ride was about forty-five minutes and since I’ve always been an avid reader of magazines I had Cahiers du cinema and Paris Match. He would take what he wanted and bring it back the following day. And that’s how we became very close friends.
PLINIO APULEYO MENDOZA: His room had a typewriter that my sister had sold to him for forty dollars and on the wall with a thumbtack a picture of Mercedes, his girlfriend back in Colombia.
MARÍA LUISA ELÍO: Well, you know, he met Mercedes when she was a little girl. Once, when she was about eleven, she was in her father’s pharmacy when Gabo walked in and told her, “I’m going to marry you when you’re an adult.” And then, when she was older, he told her: “You should marry me because I’m going to be very important.” I think he knew all along.
GUILLERMO ANGULO: One day he got a postcard from his friends at La Cueva, with lots of palm trees and sunshine, in which they wrote, Jackass, you’re over there bearing the cold and here we are having a great time in the sunshine. Get your ass back here. And he thought, Goddamn assholes, instead of sending me some money. And he threw out the postcard.
ENRIQUE SCOPELL: Back then it was forbidden to send money by mail. Alvaro gave ninety dollars and I put in ten. Alvaro was more his friend than I was, because of the writing. The glue was bad and if you wet it you could unseal it, and Alvaro stuck the hundred dollars in it.
GUILLERMO ANGULO: Shortly thereafter, Gabo received a special-delivery letter: Since you’re so stupid we’re sure that you didn’t even notice that the postcard is a sandwich with one hundred dollars in it. Then he went down to where the hotel kept its garbage. Just imagine, condoms, all that junk, and he retrieved it. One hundred dollars. It was Saturday, and that was when changing dollars into francs at a good rate was very difficult. He was desperate because he was hungry, so he started to inquire where he could change the money. Someone told him about a friend called La Pupa who had just gotten in from Rome after getting paid her salary and should have a lot of money on her. So he went to see her—he was bundled up as usual, since it was wintertime—and La Pupa opened the door and a current of warm air from a well-heated room greeted him. La Pupa was naked. She was not pretty, but she had a great body and she would take her clothes off without any provocation. So La Pupa sat down— according to Gabo, what bothered him most was that she carried on as if she were fully dressed—and crossed her legs, and started to talk about Colombia and the Colombians she knew. He started to tell her his problem, and she acknowledged him and went across the room to where she had a little chest. He realized that what she wanted was to have sex, but what he wanted was to eat. So he went to eat and pigged out so much that he was sick for a week with indigestion.
JOSÉ SALGAR: They closed the paper and he got stuck in Europe. Then he wrote and told me everything about his love affairs and the painful experiences that he was having in Paris. Very long letters, and he would wind up begging me to get him the check that the paper owed him, since that was his only means of income. He called me the other day and asked me if I remembered anything about those letters. My answer was very sad. “Well,” I said, “I threw out everything that was sent to the paper and didn’t get printed.”
SANTIAGO MUTIS: What was it that Paris gave him? Paris gave him a brutal confinement, and a way to ask himself who he was, what he was doing. He falls flat on his face, and it defines him as what he has always been—a man from Barranquilla, from Cartagena, from Aracataca. Today’s Gabo—I don’t know why—is a Gabo who fabricates himself. Now he tells this story and it is literary, which doesn’t mean it’s true.
* * *
RAFAEL ULLOA: He had achieved a certain prestige as a journalist. But he began making a name for himself when he got the Esso Prize for In Evil Hour. That’s where it all started, from that point on.
GUILLERMO ANGULO: I’m the one to blame for the first award Gabo ever received. One day I noticed that there was a contest being held, and the first prize was fifteen thousand pesos. Enough to buy a car—the first Volkswagens cost three thousand eight hundred pesos. Gabo already had made a name for himself as a journalist, and although he had not done anything major in the literary sense, people knew about Leaf Storm. He was already respected, based on expectations rather than anything tangible. He sent me his novel, which came bound with a necktie. It was called This Shitty Town. I did away with the title; I told them it was untitled. With a title like This Shitty Town I knew he would never get the prize. That was In Evil Hour.
JUANCHO JINETE: Then he won a prize in Venezuela, the Romulo Gallegos. He came to receive the prize and the news came out in the paper that he had given the award money to the revolution.
ALBERTO ZAPALETA: I’m a very good friend of the town where García Márquez was born. I got to know the house where he was born very well—it was covered by vines and the patio was full of weeds; there was half a façade in front. Then I found out through El Espectador that García Márquez had won the Romulo Gallegos Prize in literature for the amount of one hundred thousand dollars and that he had given it as a gift to political prisoners. Then he won another prize and he gave that money to some prisoners. However, he had seen the condition of the house where he was born was in; it was dilapidated—not to mention the town, which was in need of an aqueduct and a school. And there he was, giving the money to other people. So I wrote this song:
The writer García Márquez
He has to be made to know
That we have to love the land
Where one is born
And not do like he did
He abandoned his hometown
Allowing the collapse
Of the house where he was born.
I ran into him in Valledupar and he greeted me and told me that my song was very good. He told me that he was upset for three months that the song had been so popular.
IMPERIA DACONTE DE MARCELES: He’s never been back to Aracataca. He showed up one night at midnight, in a car with tinted windows, and drove around the town with some friends, but he’s never gone back to Aracataca. With all he’s achieved, he’s done nothing for Aracataca.
* * *
MARÍA LUISA ELÍO: After a lecture, a group of us went to Álvaro Mutis’s house. On our way there, I had Gabriel next to me, and he started talking. When we got to Alvaro’s house—he had a tiny apartment—everyone had heard Gabo’s story so they scattered in various directions. I was so moved by what he was telling me that I latched on to him and said, “Tell me more. What happens next?” He told me the entire story of One Hundred Years of Solitude. From the very beginning. I remember he told me about a priest who levitates, and I believed him. I said to myself, Why can’t a priest levitate? After he told me the entire book, I said to him, If you write this, you will be writing the Bible. He said, Do you like it? And I said, It’s amazing. And he said, Well, it’s for you. I guess he saw me listening with such innocence that he thought, I’m going to dedicate my book to this fool. At that point he hadn’t started writing the novel. He had written notes but nothing else. I know because the room that Mercedes had built for him so that he could write all day hadn’t been built. They lived in a small house on La Loma, and in their living room Mercedes had someone build a wall up to the ceiling to avoid the noise, with a door. She put a pine table and a typewriter in the room. The room was very, very small. There was room for his table, a chair, and some sort of little easychair. Those were the only things that could fit. Above the easychair there was kind of a picture, something that resembled a calendar, a very tacky calendar that Gabo had hung there. Gabo went in that room and wrote all day. She built that room because Gabo had said, “I have to withdraw for a year, and I’m not going to work. See what you can do to manage.” She managed the best she could. She got credit at the butcher’s shop—later on when Gabo was famous he went back to the butcher to thank him. We started visiting them every night, one night with a bottle of whiskey, another night with a piece of ham.
SANTIAGO MUTIS: Money ends, and Mercedes, so as not to bother him, pawns her hair dryer and the blender.
GUILLERMO ANGULO: Gabo has something that doesn’t exist in Colombia—discipline. Before getting married, I had a very unlucky night—I had two women. That’s one of the worst things that can happen to a man, because there’s nothing you can do. So I thought that Gabo would be the solution. So I went to him, and he said: “I have to correct chapter three.” I asked him if he had a contract he had to fulfill, to which he replied that he had imposed that deadline upon himself and he was going to correct that chapter that very evening. There was no way to convince him otherwise, no ifs-ands-or-buts about it.
ENRIQUE SCOPELL: He sent me a questionnaire when he was writing No One Writes to the Colonel, about two thousand questions. I’ve been involved in cockfights all my life. I’m the one in the cockfights, but only up to a point.
MARÍA LUISA ELÍO: He used to phone me. He would say, “I’m going to read you a fragment and you tell me what you think of it.” Or, “I’m going to tell you how the women are dressed. What else do you think they should wear? What color should the dress be”? Or, “I’m using this word here and I don’t know what it means. Did your aunts used to use this word, because mine did.” It was wonderful.
ENRIQUE SCOPELL: He’s very tenacious. He stuck to One Hundred Years for twenty years.
GUILLERMO ANGULO: He tried to write One Hundred Years early on. At the beginning he called it his mamotreto [bulky notebook]. It was not spoken of; he could not write it. He knew the novel needed a writer with more experience, so he waited until the day he became the writer capable of writing One Hundred Years. It has to do with command of technique. You need a great deal of technique to write a novel like that. He knows the tale; he has the characters and storyline; but he couldn’t write it. You have a novel that has to be typewritten, but you can’t type, so you have to wait until you learn to type it up; the novel is there, waiting.
ENRIQUE SCOPELL: He sent One Hundred Years to Argentina, Mexico, and Spain. And all three countries rejected it. The Spaniards and the Mexicans told him they were not interested, but the Argentines told him to devote himself to something else.
MARÍA LUISA ELÍO: I remember the day the book was published. We got crazy. He brought me a copy, then we went from bookstore to bookstore buying books for my friends and making him write dedications. Gabo told me, You’re heading for financial ruin. I was buying all the copies I could afford. We went to Gabo’s house and drank toasts with Mercedes. The following day, well, we didn’t have any money back then, neither do we have any nowadays, but we manage. You probably remember that there’s a passage in One Hundred Years … where it rained yellow daisies. Well, that day I bought a large basket, the largest I found, and I filled it with yellow daisies. I had on a gold bracelet, so I took it off and put it in the basket, then looked for a little gold fish and a bottle of whiskey. I put it all in the basket and we went to their house.
SANTIAGO MUTIS: Gabo traveled to Buenos Aires because he was a judge for a novel competition; coincidentally One Hundred Years had just been released the previous week. When he entered the theater they introduced him as the author of One Hundred Years, and the entire theater gave him a standing ovation. That’s where and how he started, and it has not stopped since. It wasn’t something he was looking for, but it struck him like a bull. The world came to his feet.
RAMON ILLÁN BACCA: When he won the prize for One Hundred Years my aunt’s comment was, “Oh! Who would have ever thought Tranquilina’s grandson could be so intelligent!”
ENRIQUE SCOPELL: That novel is no good. A lousy novel about local customs and manners. I’m sure people from Bogotá don’t understand half of it. There’s nothing imaginative about it. I mean, you can say this and that about Romeo and Juliet, but Christ! at least it’s about love.
SANTIAGO MUTIS: The entire world understands it because it is an epic, a bible. It tells the story of life itself from beginning to end—a human version, with a very Colombian truth. It is life as it is lived here. Colombia is a magical country; the people believe in that. When you go to a market fair in Villa de Leyva, the people spray the truck with holy water so that it won’t fall off the road. I think this is what happened with Gabo: the nation had an oral tradition, and that oral tradition started to get closed in a bit; the cities began taking on an important role. When the popular culture began to be threatened—to stop being oral—Gabo was there to pick it up. It starts to pass into literature; he senses it, starts to refine it—it’s his parents, his family, his land, his friends, it’s everything. Pop culture is the mother and father of art—that is Gabo.
RAMON ILLÁN BACCA: Here on the coast you hear so many things that are in a fashion magic realism, but are equally a part of the culture. For example, I’ll tell you a story that I relate in my novel. Professor Dario Hernandez was in Brussels studying piano, just like the rest of the well-to-do people of Santa Marta. He played before Queen Astrid. He returned in 1931 or 1932. Naturally, in the Santa Marta Club, which had just been inaugurated, they asked him to play something. So he played Claire de Lune. They asked him to play something else, so he played Chopin’s La Polonnaise. Then he played Sueno de Amor by Liszt. “So that’s what you went there to learn? Don’t you know how to play ‘Puya, puyards’?”—a local song. Dario got very insulted and he slammed the piano top down and said, “This town will never hear me play one single note ever again!" He lived until he was in his nineties. When he did that, he was thirty. He lived another sixty years, in a house he shared with two aunts. He put cotton on the strings of the piano so that the only thing people could hear was clap clap clap when he practiced every morning. If that’s not magic realism, then what is?
JOSÉ SALGAR: You cannot make up fantasies; you have to tell exactly what is out there. He used to listen to his grandfather tell tales, the magic-realist tales from the coast, so he had all of that in his head. Then his literature professors told him to read this and that, and he said to himself that if they could do that then he could do the same with his grandfather’s tales. That is the first spark of magic realism. Magic realism means saying things exactly—start from the truth and enhance it. This phenomenon, created by García Márquez, managed to embellish journalistic language. He added beauty to the truth. The most classic example might be the time when Gabo asked to speak with the pope about Cuban prisoners. A Polish countess in Rome calls him in Paris at five A M. and tells him to leave immediately because she has gotten him a seven A.M. meeting with the pope. So he leaves Paris and heads for Rome. I think that a friend loaned him a blazer, which was too tight on him. The guards let him in, and there was the pope all in white and Gabo all in black. They made eye contact. Gabo noticed a very shiny wooden floor and a table, which they went to. The doors were closed. Then they were alone. I remember that Gabo told me he thought, What would my mom say if she saw me here? That evening Mercedes asked him how it had gone and if there hadn’t been anything unusual. So the story begins. “I don’t know … but hold on, the thing with the button. I was wearing the blazer and, when the time came to bow, the button jumped off the blazer. I could hear it tinkling under the center table. The pope beat me to it; he bent down and I could see his slipper and then he straightened up and gave me the button. When we were leaving the room the pope did not know how to open the door. He had to call the Swiss Guard. They got us locked in and the pope could not get out.’’ The story got longer and longer, and he mixed the countess in with the rest and in no time he turned it into another One Hundred Years of Solitude.
RAMON ILLÁN BACCA: Well, everyone cooks with parsley, but there’s always one cook who takes it to an artistic level. Right? His genius lies in that.
JOSÉ SALGAR: Magic realism is a label people gave it after he became famous; he didn’t realize it because he was obsessed with only one thing: to tell the story. Why? It wasn’t to make money, and he wasn’t in pursuit of prizes. The reason for his writing was so that his friends would love him more.
MARÍA LUISA ELÍO: I got a call from Spain about 4 a.m. that Gabo had been awarded the Nobel Prize. I put on a pair of pants and a sweater and left for his house, and there was Mercedes with all the phones off the hook. There was a big sign on the door of their house that said Congratulations. He had these big eyes wide open as if he were hallucinating.
JUANCHO JINETE: Obregon went to visit Gabito in Mexico. The address he had for the house was where rich people live, like Mexican soap stars. The day he went to visit was the day Gabo got the Nobel Prize. So when he got to the address, there were flowers everywhere, and he thought, Oh my! He’s dead!
HECTOR ROJAS HERAZO: When the Nobel came around, Colombia went crazy. Everybody was talking about Gabito. That must’ve changed him. The moment comes that he has to be faithful to the success he has achieved.
NEREO LÓPEZ: We formed a delegation with the director of Colcultura in order to accompany the Nobel Laureate to Sweden. Singers like La Negra Grande and Toto, la Momposina; folk groups, a group from Barranquilla and a group from the Valle Province. There were 150 of us. They had told the vallenato musicians that Swedish girls went ape over Latin American men, so the guys went there ready, willing, and able to screw all the Swedish girls that crossed their paths. On the third day we said, “Hey, we haven’t gotten any calls yet. ” Seeing that the mountain wasn’t coming to Mohammed, we took Mohammed to the mountain, and we went to a striptease joint. What a joke! They were a bunch of nuns, all covered up, flashing an occasional breast. We were lodged onboard a comfortable but inexpensive ship while the guests of honor were put up in a first-class hotel. It was so cold, one of our crowd wanted to leave. He said: “The thing is that I have a problem and I need your help. When I go outside to take a leak I don’t find my penis.” He wondered how on earth he was going to go back to his country, where he had three women to respond to. When I asked him where he went to release himself, he told me that he went on deck. I told him that with four or five inches of snow, it was only natural for his penis to hide. I told him, “For goodness sake, man, what’s the matter with you? There is a bathroom downstairs.” At a restaurant, the woman behind the counter let out a shriek because Escalona was going to drink the vinaigrette, thinking it was some sort of fruit juice: “You’re drinking the salad dressing!” Aracataca had arrived in Stockholm!
GUILLERMO ANGULO: I think Gabo gets annoyed when someone tells him that he’s a great writer. That’s very obvious, and he knows it and no one has to tell him.
ENRIQUE SCOPELL: The Nobel Prize did great damage to Colombian literature. Because now everyone wants to be García Márquez. They say, “Oh no. If García Márquez didn’t say it then it’s not Colombian literature. ” He casts a very big shadow. Like a bonga tree’s.
RAMON ILLÁN BACCA: Critics and journalists worship him. They were a horrific presence upon all of us who were trying to write. But people always are very interested in great authors. What has not been written about Thomas Mann?
EDMUNDO PAZ SOLDÁN: The world of García Márquez has always seemed strange to me. I’ve been able to enjoy it, but from afar. I never considered him a father, more like an uncle— I could visit him but I would want to leave the next day. As a reader, I admire his writing. But as a writer, I have to say the hell with it. It’s not my thing.
ALBERTO FUGUET: To read García Márquez at a certain age can be very harmful, and I would forbid it. It can spoil you forever. García Márquez is a software that you install and then can’t get rid of.
MARÍA LUISA ELÍO: Have you been out on the streets with him? The girls throw themselves at him. It must be annoying. It’s a phenomenon that didn’t happen with Octavio Paz. I’ve been out with Octavio not once but a thousand times, and I haven’t seen people throwing themselves at him to kiss him or ask him whether or not he is Octavio Paz. García Márquez’s phenomenon is very special. He has great charisma.
ELISEO ALBERTO: I was walking with Gabo in Cartagena when we heard someone crying out his name: “Gabo, Gabo, Gabo.” We turned around and saw this young couple. The young woman was waving at him to come over. When we got there, she held Gabo by the arm and said to him, “Gabo, please help me. He doesn’t believe me. Gabo, will you please tell him that I love him.”
ODERAY GAME: When I lived in Madrid he would call me up and say, “I’m coming to Madrid for three days. I know you have friends in the press so do not tell them I’m coming.” After three anonymous days he would tell me, “Hey, I can’t stand being locked up. Let’s go out to a bookstore and see if somebody will ask me to autograph a book.”
JAIME GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ: When he comes to Colombia they don’t let him rest. A few years ago, we were both in our pajamas talking away, and there is the president, who wants to say hello.
ROSE STYRON: Somehow, everyone on Martha’s Vineyard seemed to know that he was coming to visit us. Everyone wanted to meet him. Harvey Weinstein, spotting me in Vineyard Haven, hurried over to say, “Please invite me—he’s my favorite author—I’ll sweep the floors.” President Clinton, whom Gabo admired and hoped to talk with, wanted Chelsea to meet him. We decided a large cocktail gathering on our lawn would be prudent, to be followed by a very small seated dinner so the president and Gabo and our Mexican guests, the Carlos Fuenteses and Bernardo Sepulvedas (he was the former foreign minister), could chat in relative quiet. At dinner Gabo’s goddaughter, our friend Patricia Cepeda, translated ably. Our Vineyard neighbors, the Vernon Jordans and the William Luers, and Hillary Clinton completed the table. We all remember that President Clinton’s sweater sported an Elvis crossword puzzle.
WILLIAM STYRON: Although I wasn’t listening closely, I could tell—I have enough Spanish to know—that Gabo and Carlos were engaging him in a talk about the Cuban embargo. They were both at that time passionate about the embargo. Clinton was resisting this conversation, I presume because his mind was already made up. He wasn’t about to be budged even by people that he admired as much as Gabo. So Bill Luers, sitting closer, seeing Clinton’s eyes glaze over, as an ex-diplomat spoke out firmly enough to change the tone of the conversation from politics in Cuba to literary matters. It changed the entire tone at the table. Someone, Bill Luers or perhaps Clinton, asked everyone at the table to give the name of their favorite novel. Clinton’s eyes lit up rather pleasurably. We had a sort of literary parlor game. I recall that Carlos said his favorite novel was Don Quixote. Gabo said The Count of Monte Cristo, and later described why. He said it was the perfect novel. It was spellbinding, not just a costumed melodrama, really a universal masterpiece. I said Huckleberry Finn just off the top of my head. Finally, Clinton said The Sound and the Fury. Immediately, to everyone’s amazement he began to quote verbatim a long, long passage from the book. It was quite spellbinding to see him do that because he then began to give a little interesting lecture on the power of Faulkner and how much Faulkner had influenced him. He then had this kind of two-way conversation with Gabo, in which Gabo said that without Faulkner he would never have been able to write a single word, that Faulkner was his direct inspiration as a writer when he was just beginning to read world literature in Colombia. He made a pilgrimage to Oxford, Mississippi. I remember him mentioning this to Clinton. So the evening was a great success, though a total failure as far as politics went.
GUILLERMO ANGELO: Fame and fortune make people change. You can’t compare the old Gabo with who he is today. Nowadays, he is far more aloof; he doesn’t give of himself the way he used to in the past. Gabo has a strange tendency—he adores power, be it economic power or political power. He loves that kind of thing. Once, [General Omar] Torrijos [former dictator of Panama] told him that he [Gabo] liked dictators and Gabo asked him why. “You’re my friend and Castro’s.”
WILLIAM STYRON: I do think that in many ways there’s an eccentric aspect to Castro, which sets him apart from other dictators. He’s got a fascinating and supple and intricate mind. I think that Gabo is attracted to that part of Castro. I remember this interesting little anecdote that Gabo told me. A very delicate crisis—I forget what—that brought the world’s journalists’ attention to Cuba. Gabo flew in to Havana from, I think, Mexico City. There were hundreds of journalists gathered at the airport. Fidel met Gabo and they walked together into an anteroom in the airport. They were there for half an hour or more while these journalists from all the world’s news agencies were clustered around waiting to see what in this case Gabo had said to Fidel and vice versa. They finally came out and confronted the journalists. The first question, of course, was to Gabo: “Could we ask you what you were talking about just now?” And Gabo answered, “We were talking about the best way to cook red snapper. ”
GUILLERMO ANGULO: Gabo really boasts of the fact that there are nine heads of state that he can call on the phone, and he’s become a friend of Clinton’s.
WILLIAM STYRON: We had an interesting talk about presidents. We both agreed that we were almost fatally attracted to presidents. In his case, in Latin America, these men who have almost always ruthlessly climbed to power have an enormous effect on their fellow men. This is a central aspect of national existence. A man like Castro, the president of Mexico—they hold sway over a whole nation. Therefore they are legitimately people who fascinate writers. I find them fascinating, but the idea that I could in any sense influence him in a major way is a delusion. But this is not true in Latin America.
ENRIQUE SCOPELL: This thing about Gabito is an illness. When Gabo says something, it’s like hearing it from the pope. What do you call it when the pope says something and he’s never wrong? Ex cathedra. That means he can’t be wrong. He can make a mistake when he speaks as a normal man, but not when he speaks ex cathedra.
WILLIAM STYRON: Gabo could not exist in the Anglo-Saxon world. We have no real tradition. It’s not that writers to some degree aren’t respected in this country. They are, but not to the degree they are not only respected but venerated elsewhere. Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz had that effect in Mexico. Mario Vargas Llosa was close to becoming president of Peru. Gabo is this sort of phenomenon par excellence. The idea of a writer having such a profound political and cultural influence in the United States like Gabo has in Latin America is inconceivable.
JUANCHO JINETE: I will never forget when Gabito came and stayed at Alvaro’s house, and Juan Gossain—who is the big cheese in Colombian journalism today—was also at the house. Gabo hugged me and said, “These are my childhood friends. ” Then Juan Gossain told Gabito, “Maestro, let me interview you.” Gabito said to him, “What kind of a journalist are you? What more do you want? You have the story right here in your hands. Get it!” It was true—you didn’t have to ask any questions. You know that when journalists start asking questions they ruin the interview—they start to ask a bunch of nonsense that nobody is going to answer truthfully; they tell you the truth that you want to hear—that such and such was a wonderful person, and so on and so forth, all clichés, but none of it is true. Gabito told him, “What more do you want? This is my friend here since we were children. There’s your story.”
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