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 third of five excerpts. Read the complete text here.
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.
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.