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—this is the second of five excerpts. Read the complete text here.
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 dolike 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.
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.