In our Summer 2003 issue, The Paris Review published Silvana Paternostro’s oral biography of Gabriel García Márquez, which she has recently expanded into a book. In celebration of García Márquez’s life, we’re delighted to present the piece online for the first time—read the complete text here.
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?”
Silvana Paternostro is a journalist who has written extensively on Cuba and Central and South America. She is the author of In the Land of God and Man: Confronting Our Sexual Culture and My Colombian War: A Journey Through the Country I Left Behind.