On the occasion of an exhibition dedicated to Gabriel García Márquez in Bogotá, Colombia, Santiago Mutis Durán, the son of Márquez’s close friend Álvaro Mutis, gathered together small author-less stories that Márquez had written down or told over the course of his lifetime. Mutis Durán’s essay was originally published in Conversaciones desde La Soledad magazine in 2001 and has been translated for The Paris Review by David Unger.
We’ve all heard the kinds of stories that get passed around, author-less and persistent. I once heard Gabriel García Márquez tell the Mexican poet Adolfo Castañón one of these “unsigned” stories:
A young couple, a bit tired of city life, decided to move to the country with their two Labradors. Once settled into their little country house, they became friends with their neighbors, a couple that had fruit orchards and raised rabbits. One morning, their neighbors came over to say that they were going to town and would return the following day. The morning passed peacefully, but in the afternoon, the Labradors came into the kitchen with rabbit parts in their mouths. Shocked by this unexpected turn of events, the couple discussed what to do next. After putting the rabbits back in their cages, they returned home, decided not to say anything to their neighbors. They felt disheartened, but went through the rest of the day as if nothing had happened. The following morning their neighbors knocked on their door. Each held a dead rabbit in their hands. Before the couple even had a chance to come up with an excuse over something they had been dreading since the day before and that had kept them awake all night, their neighbors said: “We found them dead in their cages this morning; we’re in shock since yesterday we buried them in the garden.”
Now I recall another story like this; my father Álvaro Mutis told it many years ago, and since then, other friends have repeated it.
Newton Freitas, a Brazilian who knew how to enjoy life, overheard a couple of his friends planning a trip to Brussels, a city he visited every month. He recommended a good bar, actually the happiest bar in the world, according to him. Since his two friends valued his knowledge, they ended up going to that bar, a poorly lit tavern where the customers spoke almost in a whisper. Actually, there was nothing special about it. They figured they’d gone to the wrong place and when they got back to their hotel, they called Newton to make sure they had gone to the right address. “That’s it,” he said, “and I’ll see you there this Friday,” he added, hanging up the phone, not giving them a chance to say another word. That Friday, his friends went back to the bar, which was even more depressing than ever, as if the patrons were sifting time like sand in an hourglass. They thought that if they had a few whiskeys, the place might liven up, but it continued gripped by the same dreary mood. When Newton arrived, he called out to them from the door, in a cheery, friendly voice. The other customers all looked up. As soon as they saw who had come, they lifted their arms into the air, happily shouting out his name. As if it had been bewitched, the bar turned into the happiest spot in the world.
I think that García Márquez lived his life waiting for tales like these, to fill both his days and his notebooks. I’ve read several thick volumes of his journalistic pieces and found only five times when Marquez shouted “Eureka!”—five stories among nearly five decades of articles. Surely these stories once had authors, but they wound up anonymous, slipping through hands like fish into water.
The following was part of Márquez’s November 30, 1950, column in El Espectador newspaper. “Daniel Arango tells this amazingly beautiful story that I’m unable to keep secret,” Márquez wrote.
A five-year-old boy who had lost sight of his mother among the crowd at a country fair went up to a police officer and asked: “Have you by chance seen a lady that’s walking around without a son like me?”
In March 1951, in an article for El Heraldo, Márquez wrote: “In an airplane newspaper, I read a UPI dispatch that I transcribe word for word because it seemed to me the best short-short in the world.”
Two-year old Mary Jo is learning to play in the dark, after her parents, Mr. and Mrs. May, were forced to choose between saving their daughter’s life or having her be blind for life. Both Mary Jo’s eyes were gouged in the Mayo Clinic, after six specialists diagnosed retinoblastoma. Four days after the surgery, the little girl said: “Mamá, I can’t wake up. I can’t wake up.”
Thirty years later, Gabriel García Márquez wrote in El Espectador about “the hundreds of stories written or told that you remember forever.” Maybe they are literature’s souls in purgatory. Some are true poetic gems heard on the fly without registering the author, because we heard the story without asking ourselves who told it to us. After a while we don’t really know for sure whether we ourselves dreamed up these stories. “I know that some charitable reader,” Gabriel García Márquez wrote, “will remind me who authored two stories that deeply unsettled me during my fevered literary youth.”
The sad tale of the depressed guy who jumped from the tenth floor to the street and as he fell, he saw through the windows intimate exchanges between his neighbors, the small domestic tragedies, the secret lovers, the short moments of happiness whose news had never reached the common staircase, so that the moment his body slammed to the pavement, he had completely changed his mind and decided that the life he was surrendering forever through a false door was worth living after all.
And this was the second:
Two explorers were able to find refuge in an abandoned shack, after having survived three agonizing days lost in the snow. Three days later, one of them died. About one hundred yards from the shack, the survivor dug a hole in the snow and buried his friend. The next day, however, after having his first peaceful sleep, he found the corpse inside the shack—dead and frozen, but sitting up like a visitor by his bed. He buried him a second time, in a hole farther away, but when he awoke the next day, there he was again sitting by his bed. This drove him crazy. We know this story because of the journal we found in the shack. Among the many explanations, one of them rang most true: the survivor was so upset to be alone, that every night he dug up the corpse that he had buried during the day.
“The most impressive story ever,” Gabriel García Márquez wrote in El Espectador in 1985, “was also the most vicious and most human.” It was told to Ricardo Muñoz Suay in 1947, when he was imprisoned in the Ocaña Penitentiary in Toledo Province, Spain. It’s the true story of a Republican prisoner shot in the Avila prison during the first days of the Spanish Civil War.
The firing squad took him out of his cell on a frigid cold day and marched him across a snowy frozen field to the execution site. The Civil Guards wore woolen capes, leather gloves, and their traditional three-cornered hats—still they shuddered as they crossed the frozen ground. The poor prisoner, who wore only a frayed woolen jacket, rubbed his nearly frozen body to keep warm while cursing aloud the bitter cold. Fed up with the prisoner’s complaints, the squad leader screamed at him—“Damn it, stop shouting like a martyr over this fucking cold weather. Have pity on us—we’re the ones that will have to walk all the way back.”
To conclude, I want to mention something García Márquez told Rita Guibert in an interview in 1971:
I have a book where I keep notes for stories I might write. I have sixty stories so far and think I’ll end up with one hundred. The interesting thing about creation is my internal process. The story “that arises from a phrase or an incident” either comes to me finished in a fraction of a second, or not at all. Let me tell you something that will help you better understand the mysterious path of how a story came to me. One night in Barcelona, some friends were visiting us and the lights went out. Since we were the only apartment to lose our electricity, we called the electrician. While he made his repairs, I asked him while holding a candle, “How the hell is this a light problem?” He answered, “Light is like water. You open a faucet, the light comes out and registers on a meter.” At that moment, I saw in a flash the completed story.
In a city far from the sea—it could be in Paris, Madrid, Bogotá – a young married couple lives on the fifth floor, with their ten- and seven-year-old children. One day, the kids ask their parents for a rowboat. “Why would we buy you a rowboat,” the father asked. “What can you do with it in a city? We’ll rent one this summer when we got to the seashore.” The kids insist that they want the rowboat now and their father answers, “If you get the highest grades in school, I will buy you one.” The kids get the highest grades, the father buys them a boat, and when they reach the fifth floor, he asks them, “What are you going to do with it?” “Nothing,” they tell him, “we only wanted it. We will store it in our bedroom.”
One night, when the parents go to the movies, the kids break a light bulb and the light, “as if it were water,” starts flowing down from the ceiling until there is four feet of water in the apartment. They take out the boat and start rowing from room to room and into the kitchen. When their parents are about to come home, they put the boat away in the closet, let the water go down the drain and screw the bulb back on as if nothing had happened. This game becomes so much fun that every time they play it, they let the light rise higher and higher. They put on goggles, flippers, and swim under the beds, under the tables, spearfishing underwater … One night, people walking along the street notice that light is flowing out of the windows, flooding the street, so they call the fire department. When the firefighters break down the door, they find the kids had become so absorbed in their game that they that hadn’t realized the light had reached the ceiling and they drowned …
Santiago Mutis Durán is a poet, essayist, and editor.
Translator David Unger is a Guatemalan novelist. He has written about his own relationship with Gabriel García Márquez here.