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 last of five excerpts we’ve run this week. Read the complete text here.
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.”
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.