García Márquez in his home in Mexico in 2003. Photo: Indira Restrepo.
In the summer of 1961, Gabriel García Márquez lived with his family in the Webster Hotel on West Forty-Fifth Street in New York City. They paid two hundred dollars a month for a room. The thirty-three-year-old García Márquez had moved to the city a few months earlier to join Prensa Latina, the fledgling Cuban state news agency with offices at Rockefeller Center. While he worked, his wife, Mercedes, and infant son Rodrigo spent their days strolling Central Park. The FBI was monitoring the newsroom, which was itself consumed with subterfuge and rumors over who among the journalists were counterrevolutionaries. Before long, García Márquez’s friend Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, who worked at the agency’s Havana bureau, heard of impending mutiny and flew to the States to warn him. By the time Mendoza arrived, Gabo, as he was affectionately called, had already quit. He had enough money to get his family to New Orleans aboard a Greyhound bus. Mendoza returned to Bogotá and wired the cash the family would need to reach Mexico City. There, Gabo had friends and the prospect of part-time journalism work to sustain him while he wrote his next novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Learning about this trip was like a puzzle piece sliding into place for me. I read One Hundred Years of Solitude for the first time during graduate school. Back then, I knew little about the book or its author. Something about the way it was written struck me as Southern, though. It echoed my home in rural Alabama, regional writers I admired, and the novel I was at the time desperately trying to finish. I was still figuring out my identity as a writer, and One Hundred Years of Solitude became an outsize and formative influence for me. Reading Solitude, I felt like the novel’s Aureliano Segundo when he unexpectedly comes upon the ghost of the gypsy Melquíades alone in a room:
One burning noon, a short time after the death of the twins, against the light of the window he saw the gloomy old man with his crow’s-wing hat like the materialization of a memory that had been in his head since long before he was born.
When I first read Solitude, I wanted to understand how a fictional village in South America, imagined by a Colombian writer living in Mexico City, could so strongly recall my home in the American South. I searched for clues in those four-hundred-plus masterful pages. But the bus trip García Márquez took straight through the South, I thought, might reveal more. García Márquez must have paid close attention during all those hours—more than three hundred total—spent traveling through my homeland. After all, the superintendent of the banana company that comes to Macondo is a Jack Brown from Prattville, Alabama—a town just outside Montgomery. Perhaps, I thought, things Gabo experienced on this trip might appear throughout the masterpiece he wrote five years after he arrived in Mexico City.
As I read Solitude yet again, I kept noticing how García Márquez wrote about the land. He describes the earth as “the original food.” Overcome by “a tear of nostalgia” one rainy afternoon, the novel’s Rebeca hides handfuls of dirt inside her pockets and eats them, little by little, in secret. To borrow an idea from Eudora Welty’s essay “Place in Fiction,” place confines and defines characters. Take this passage from early on:
The men on the expedition felt overwhelmed by their most ancient memories in that paradise of dampness and silence, going back to before the original sin, as their boots sank into pools of steaming oil and their machetes destroyed bloody lilies and golden salamanders. For a week, almost without speaking, they went ahead like sleepwalkers through a universe of grief, lighted only by the tenuous reflection of luminous insects, and their lungs were overwhelmed by a suffocating smell of blood. They could not return because the strip that they were opening as they went along would soon close up with a new vegetation that almost seemed to grow before their eyes.
As a child, I spent countless hours wandering the forty-some acres my maternal grandparents owned in northern Alabama, deep hardwood forest cut by clear creeks and broken up by the occasional untended pasture. It seemed possible to walk all day without reaching the property’s borders. Like the characters in Solitude, I existed within nature rather than in spite of it. Often I tromped along in a fugue state, entranced by the beauty I encountered even as my family’s presence had altered, if not destroyed, this place’s appearance. Here, the land, as in García Marquez’s Macondo, was a repository for all of creation. I was taught by my grandmother the importance of knowing local flora and fauna and geology and myths, as if this information might in some way protect me or at least bring me closer to the knowledge that in the eternal history of the world, I was the equivalent of a speck on a fly’s back.
Like García Márquez, I left the inalienable place of my youth—he for Mexico City, myself for the Rockies and then the Northeast. In 2016, my partner and I traveled to Mexico City during an especially smoggy spring. Limits had been placed on how many vehicles were allowed on the streets each day. One morning, we took a taxi south from the Centro Histórico, where we were staying, past the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, where students openly smoked joints on the lawn, beyond the sunken bowl of Estadio Olímpico Universitario, to a quiet residential neighborhood on a hill. The homes there were well-kept, and luxury cars were parked along the curb. It was a weekday, and the only people moving about were domestic workers and a private security guard. My partner and I began walking down the gently sloping street, trying to appear inconspicuous as we counted house numbers.
I recognized the towering bougainvillea first. I had seen the vine in photographs of 144 Fuego, spreading across the stone facade of the two-story colonial house where, two years prior, Gabriel García Márquez had taken his last breath. When the security guard rounded a corner, my partner and I crossed the street and doubled back toward the house. The bougainvillea had shed some of its bright-pink flowers onto a manicured patch of lawn. I grabbed three in stride. Back home, we preserved, framed, and carefully hung these flowers on our wall like a totem. I walk past them every time I go down to my office to write.
Three people with memories of the bus trip to New Orleans are alive today. I contacted Rodrigo, but he declined an interview. I mailed a letter to Mercedes Barcha but did not hear back. Meanwhile, I set up a Skype call with Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza. A Colombian author, journalist, and diplomat, Mendoza was a lifelong friend to García Márquez. I grew anxious about the call. It would bring me much closer to García Marquez, I thought, than a few fading flowers hanging on the wall.
Mauricio Mendoza, Plinio’s nephew, agreed to translate our conversation. By the time they called, it was raining outside my house like I imagine it would rain in the jungle village of Macondo. The rain made it difficult to hear Plinio, murmuring in Spanish on speakerphone, but easier to picture him and his nephew, sitting at a table in the dining room of a fourth-floor apartment overlooking a main thoroughfare on Bogotá’s northern end. Mauricio was familiar with many of the stories that his uncle told. After I asked a question, he often said, “I know this.” I did not know whether this meant Mauricio was excited or bored to hear the tales told again.
After introducing myself, I confirmed that Plinio had indeed loaned García Márquez money to get from New Orleans to Mexico City. “All [I] could muster was one hundred and fifty dollars,” he said. Gabo later remembered the amount as a hundred. I asked if García Márquez ever brought up the trip in their many conversations. Was it important to him? Plinio mentioned a letter Gabo had sent after the trip but could not recall its specifics. Later, I found a remembrance of the trip García Márquez wrote, which details encountering what he’d previously only read about in William Faulkner’s books:
At the end of that heroic journey we had confronted once more the relation between truth and fiction: the immaculate parthenons amidst the cotton fields, the farmers taking their siesta beneath the eaves of the roadside inns, the black people’s huts surviving in wretchedness, the white heirs to Uncle Gavin Stevens walking to Sunday prayers with their languid women dressed in muslin; the terrible world of Yoknapatawpha County had passed in front of our eyes from the window of a bus, and it was as true and as human as in the novels of the old master.
It was a grueling fourteen days on the road. In the biography Gabriel García Márquez: A Life, Gerald Martin describes the diet of “endless ‘cardboard hamburgers,’ ‘sawdust hot dogs’ and plastic buckets of Coca-Cola.” This so disagreed with García Márquez and Mercedes that they began sharing Rodrigo’s baby food. Even had the couple been wealthier, their dining options still would’ve been limited. This was the segregated South. In this way, it remained much like the place Faulkner immortalized as Yoknapatawpha County. Years later, in an essay for El Espectador, García Márquez acknowledged that “as a literary experience, [the trip] was fascinating, but in real life—even though we were so young—it was unlike anything else.” Traveling through Maryland, Virginia, both Carolinas, into the deep states of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, the family encountered racial discrimination. García Márquez wrote about the ignominy of drinking from “colored” water fountains. While in Montgomery, where just five years prior the now famous city-bus boycott had unfolded, the family was turned away by one motel owner. They were mistaken for Mexicans, who were no more welcome than black guests.
I asked Plinio whether he thought seeing the American South firsthand had influenced García Márquez. He said no—then, maybe sensing my disappointment, told me that García Márquez had introduced him to Faulkner’s work. “[Gabo] went through several towns where Faulkner lived and moved around,” Plinio said. “So that inspired him.”
Based on common bus routes at this time, García Márquez most likely traipsed in Faulkner’s footsteps in New Orleans. While there, he spent part of the money Plinio had sent on a sit-down meal. According to Martin’s book, Gabo and Mercedes dined at “Le Vieux Carré, a high-class French-style restaurant” best known for its bouillabaisse. Tom Fitzmorris, who, since 1977, has been tracking and compiling menus from New Orleans restaurants, told me that Le Vieux Carré was located on the corner of Bourbon Street and Bienville Street in the building where Brennan’s—a French Quarter icon—once operated. One block over and a short stroll down Royal Street, with its photogenic iron balcony railing and painted window shutters, Faulkner once lived in a first-floor apartment—now a bookstore —while writing a draft of his novel Soldier’s Pay.
García Márquez ordered steak. How luxurious after two weeks eating baby food and greasy meals at segregated bus stations and department-store counters. When the steaks arrived, though, the couple was disturbed to see fresh peach sliced atop the meat. Particular as this seems, Fitzmorris told me the garnish wasn’t original to Le Vieux Carré. “[It] was borrowed from a well-known local chain called the Buck Forty-Nine Steakhouse, which served every entrée with half of a canned peach.” Likely someone’s idea to balance savory and sweet. “In fact,” Fitzmorris told me, “there was a branch of the Buck Forty-Nine right across the street from the Vieux Carré. Maybe they confused the two?”
From New Orleans, García Márquez and his family traveled to the border town of Laredo, Texas. The first thing they did was hunt down a fonda, a small family restaurant. “They served us to start, as a soup, a yellow and tender rice, prepared in a different way than in the Caribbean,” García Márquez wrote. “‘Blessed be God,’ exclaimed Mercedes as she tried it. ‘I would stay here forever if only to continue eating this rice.’” A train carried them the rest of the way to Mexico City and they arrived, according to García Márquez, “without a name and without a nail in our pockets.”
He and Plinio continued a regular correspondence, writing to each other, Plinio said, every week. In one of these letters, García Márquez again makes light of the trip:
We arrived safe and sound after a very interesting journey which proved on the one hand that Faulkner and the rest have told the truth about their environment and on the other that Rodrigo is a perfectly portable young man who can adapt to any emergency.
I knew Plinio was close with Mercedes, and I asked whether she had ever said anything about the trip.
“No,” he said. “Not really. Other than personal things about Rodrigo, who was a child. Three years old, more or less. So he was uncomfortable on the bus. You know, personal things. Nothing really important from a literary point of view.”
Plinio did not understand that I wasn’t chasing literary importance. I, like countless others, had felt a personal connection to García Márquez. More so, I had imagined a personal connection he may or may not have made with my home. I wanted to believe, like García Márquez had with Faulkner, that we had set foot in the same places. It felt almost as if this might bestow a protection similar to the ones I was raised to believe emanated from my grandparents’ land.
Perhaps I asked too much of the eighty-five-year-old Plinio, expecting him to pull conversations from a fifty-plus-year fog of memory. Still, I pressed on. He told me about how, when he and Gabo were young men, they had frequented Bogotá’s cafes to flirt with waitresses and hold court among other writers. He told me about Paris and about seeing their first snow. I understood Plinio’s desire to remember these times and why the memories would be more vivid than those of a bus ride he did not take. I thought of the moment in Solitude when the inhabitants of Macondo are overcome with a plague of memory loss. They begin marking everything within eyesight using an inked brush:
At the beginning of the road into the swamp they put a sign that said MACONDO and another larger one on the main street that said GOD EXISTS.
I asked once more whether Plinio thought the trip influenced One Hundred Years of Solitude. “No,” he told me plainly. The experiences that shaped this book were buried in the author long before he boarded that bus. After our conversation, I reconsidered what I’d seen in García Márquez’s masterpiece. I became more, not less, enthralled by his ability to imagine a jungle village that transcends geographical and cultural boundaries—a place unconstrained, where I found memories of my past in Alabama that were so powerful I refused to believe they were not intentionally put there for me by the author himself.
Caleb Johnson is a writer from Alabama. His debut novel, Treeborne, will be published by Picador in June.
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