In 1976, Mario Vargas Llosa hit Gabriel García Márquez with a right hook and promptly ended their friendship. Below, Gabo’s friends recall the incident and its aftermath.
It was about eleven or twelve in the morning and I was in my house in Colonia Nápoles, where I had an office, a big house with an editorial office in one part, and in the other part I lived with my girlfriend and my two children. There’s a knock at the door and it’s Gabo and Mercedes. I was very happy and very surprised to see him. Gabo was already a friend of mine, but there are hierarchies in friendships. It was a friendship of guarded proportions. I was a newspaper photographer and he was what he is. Back then I didn’t presume to call him Gabo. Calling him Gabito was for me like calling Cervantes “Miguelito.” For me, he’s Gabriel García Márquez. They came for the photographs. He told me, “I want you to take some pictures of my black eye.” They came to my house because they trust me.
He wore a jacket. It wasn’t the plaid one. It was another one. And she was in black with large sunglasses. And I said to him, “What happened?” He made a joke, like, “I was boxing and I lost.” The one who spoke up was Mercedes. She said that Vargas Llosa had sucker punched him. “And why was that?” “I don’t know. I went up to him with my arms wide open to greet him. We hadn’t seen each other for some time.” I already knew they had been very good friends in Barcelona and everything, and the two couples got along because he had talked about that with our mutual friend Guillermo Angulo. I mean, it was something everybody knew; when I found out it was Mario Vargas Llosa who had hit him, I was very surprised. They sat down in the living room and began to talk to me.
I know the truth about that fight. I’ll tell you. Look, Mario has been a great womanizer and he’s a very good-looking man. Women die for Mario. So Mario, on a trip he made by ship from Barcelona to El Callao, met a very beautiful woman. They fell in love. He left his wife and went off with her. And the marriage was over and all that. His wife went back to pack up the house and, of course, she began to see friends. Then they got back together and his wife told Vargas Llosa, “Don’t think I’m not attractive. Friends of yours like Gabo were after me … ” One day they met in a theater in Mexico City, and Gabo went toward him with open arms. Vargas Llosa made a fist and said, “For what you tried to do to my wife,” and knocked him to the ground. Then Ms. Gaba said, “What you’re saying can’t be true because my husband likes women, but only very good-looking women.”
It had happened two days earlier. The day before he was sick. The punch happened at night. You know the story, don’t you? It was at a film preview, the one about the survivors in the Andes. So Gabo arrived and said “Mario” and Mario turned and wham!, he hit him with a right and knocked him to the floor. He was bleeding when he fell because the lens in his glasses broke right on the bridge of his nose and the bruise was pretty bad. First aid helped alleviate that, which is what they talk about, I don’t know whether it was China Mendoza or Elena Poniatowska who went to buy meat to put on his eye. And that’s really true. I boxed a little since I was a kid, and you put steak on a black eye. I don’t know how, but it takes away the bruise. Now they use arnica.
Well, my secret is this: Gabo told me what had happened before the fight. I mean, if he had told me afterward it would be worthless. He said, “No, look, she’s coming on to me but I’m so fond of Mario that, even though they’re separated … ” So imagine, I couldn’t tell Mario that, I’m a friend of his, too, but I’d destroy the marriage. That was one of her tricks to tell him, “I have my own public,” right? And she knows he lied. Besides, afterward I was finding out how things had been between the two friends. If they saw each other it was with all their friends, they were always together. There were always two or three friends with them. See? They were never alone when they saw each other.
What I do remember very well is that Mercedes interrupted twice and said, “The fact is that Mario is a jealous fool. He’s a jealous fool.”
The story I heard is that Mario was seeing someone else and Patricia went to Gabo, a good friend, and he told her, “Leave him.” And Mario found out and hit Gabo.
Everybody sees a sexual or erotic issue, and that may or may not have been true. But the three of them are the only ones who know that. More than a political dispute they had a separation. Vargas Llosa had already moved surprisingly to the right. I think the clash must have been because there was that separation, and certainly there must have been other things as well that made Vargas Llosa explode. The punch was certainly violent. I know about punches. It was a right. He was in the row in front of him. It seems he came from the side and Vargas Llosa stood up and hit him. I don’t know from what angle, but it was a hard punch.
PLINIO APULEYO MENDOZA
Patricia was on the ship with Mario when he falls in love. When they get to Chile, Patricia has to go back to Barcelona and pack up the house. Gabo and Mercedes were with her the whole time. They were very close. I know this because Gabo told me about it. When Patricia has to go back to Santiago, Gabo takes her to the airport, but they were running late, and Gabo told her in an offhand way, “If the plane takes off without you, great, we’ll have a party.” Gabo’s Caribbean and it was in that spirit that he said it, and she misunderstood.
But what worried me was that he was pretending to be in good humor, but the photos tell you that he was depressed. I took half a roll. When he arrived, I didn’t have any film in my house. I was doing a piece for an international magazine on fishing. So I ran to the office that I had in my house. It was quick. There was a small garden. I ran out and said to the technician, “Chino, don’t you have any film?” And he said, “No, I don’t have any, but there’s a little tail end in the camera.” So I said to him, “Make me a roll right away.”
I was concerned about his melodramatic face, and I thought about it very quickly. It would satisfy Vargas Llosa to see his victim wounded, destroyed. What I wanted was to make him laugh, and he wouldn’t give me a damn laugh, even at a joke. He wasn’t laughing at all, and I played the fool and said to him, “Listen, that was some kick he gave you. How does it feel?” And he answered, but very dry. Then suddenly something happened, I said something and he laughed and I took two photographs. One is the one I circulate because, since I really love him, I didn’t want to pass that photo off as tragic. Now, whenever they ask me for that photograph, I send the one where he’s laughing so that the reaction is, He hit me but it’s nothing. I don’t give a damn, as we say in Mexico, right?
“History of a Deicide” [Vargas Llosa’s doctoral thesis on One Hundred Years of Solitude] is not available because Mario doesn’t want it printed. My copy of the book was signed by Mario, and with thanks, besides, because I helped him with the research. Then, yes, the idea of the book is that the writer is a god because he gives life to the characters, kills them, and everything. That’s “History of a Deicide.” The writer ends up killing God and taking his place. That’s the real story.
I have it in Spanish. Mario didn’t allow it to be translated. Cass Canfield had already talked to the two of them. Harper was publishing both of them but he said no.
That photo wasn’t circulated because he said to me … and I’ve been very loyal about that. He said to me, “Send me a set and keep the negatives.” So I made him a set and sent it to him and in a few days, I don’t know whether with Angulo or somebody else, he returned it to me with his notes. Not this one. This one. Two copies of this. And then I sent him the printed photos, all of them eight-by-ten. A select set, fifteen or sixteen photos, whatever was on the roll. He must have sent me some money, I don’t remember. I sent him the photographs and the curious thing is that I kept them in the file and no one saw them. He told me it was for documentation and Mercedes agreed and told me, “Gabo has his file of everything important that happens to him.” And at bottom there’s a touch of vanity in liking the photo. I have it, I have something fairly complicated that’s called the “ego-brary.”
I always had a small photo from that shoot tacked up in my lab because he really revolutionized my concept of literature and of America when One Hundred Years came out, and I’ve read it four times. And I lived with that tiny photo that I had. Every time I sat at my desk to work I saw it. Then a friend of mine saw it about the time Gabo was going to turn eighty, and he said to me, “Listen, I want that photograph. I’ll buy it from you.” I said, “No, I can’t sell that photo or anything.” And I told him the story of how that photo came about. Gabo said to send him a set and to keep them. That was in ’76, but when Gabo turned eighty my friend who knew the story told a reporter, “Listen, Rodrigo Moya has an incredible photograph of Gabo with a black eye.” And so the magazines wanted to talk to me. So I thought, They’re publishing photos of Gabo, who’s going to turn eighty. I can break the promise that really wasn’t a promise. It was an assignment to keep them. I kept them and now I’m going to bring them out. I’ve never made so much money from a photograph.
JAIME ABELLO BANFI
He’s always been very loyal, but at the same time implacable when he breaks with you. There are people he’s broken with and never spoken to again. Obviously, that was the case with Vargas Llosa.
—Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman
Prize-winning journalist Silvana Paternostro grew up in Barranquilla, Colombia, home to García Márquez’s fabled literary group, La Cueva. In 1999, she was selected by Time/CNN as one of “Fifty Latin American Leaders for the Millennium,” and is the author of In the Land of God and Man, nominated for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award, and My Colombian War. A frequent contributor to English and Spanish publications including the New York Times, The Paris Review, The New York Review of Books, Vogue, El Malpensante, and Gatopardo, she lives between New York City and Colombia.
Edith Grossman, the winner of a number of translating awards, most notably the 2006 PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal, is the distinguished translator of works by major Spanish-language authors, including Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Mayra Montero, and Alvaro Mutis, as well as Carlos Fuentes. Her translation of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote was published to great acclaim in 2003.
This essay appears as “Knockout” in Solitude and Company: The Life of Gabriel García Márquez Told with Help from His Friends, Family, Fans, Arguers, Fellow Pranksters, Drunks, and a Few Respectable Souls, by Silvana Paternostro, just published by Seven Stories Press.