The Yellow Trolley Car in Barcelona, and Other Visions

Faulkner created Yoknapatawpha County. Welcome to García Márquez' Macondo.
"Do you speak English?" I asked him.

"Nada," he said on the phone. "Nada, nada."

Well, it isn't true, but he likes to insist that it is, and so I dug up some rusty Spanish and asked when we'd get together and where he lived. "In a house," he said, and added he'd pick me up at five at my hotel on Las Ramblas, the great thoroughfare of Barcelona's old city. I told him my wife Dana was a puertorriqueña, so we could get through the fine points of language in either direction and he said bueno and that was that.

Ten minutes later he'd changed his mind and said he'd come by at noon. And at precisely noon on the Day of the Book, Gabriel García Márquez came down the crowded, noisy Ramblas in a double-breasted navy-blue sports jacket, gray slacks, an open-collared blue shirt with a brown and white paisley design, a full head of curly black hair, and with a less than lush goatee, begun recently when he'd gone away for a month and forgotten his razor.

Hallo, hello, greetings, how are you, como está, a pleasure, handshakes, and then he asked: "Have you bought a book yet?"

"Of course. Yours."

His book means his big book, Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude), the semi-surreal saga of a hundred years of life among the Buendías, a family of mythical achievements and absurdities in the mythical South American town of Macondo. García's dramatic comedy of Macondo's century, acclaimed a masterpiece again and again, seems to suggest every human high and low point from post-Genesis to the air age. The Times Literary Supplement described it as "a comic masterpiece and certainly one of Latin America's finest novels to date." It won the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger in France in 1969 and won Italy's Premio Chianciano the same year. It has been published in 23 countries, has sold a million copies in the Spanish language during 21 printings since Editorial Sudamericana in Buenos Aires brought it out in 1967. It has been translated into 18 languages, sold 60,000 copies in Brazil, 50,000 in Italy, 30,000 in Hungary, 18,650 in hard-cover and 46,650 in paper in the United States, where it made the best-seller list. All of this gives him the economic and literary freedom he long sought, but also burdens him with what he now sees as a "persecution" by newsmen and editors.

In a letter to a friend he bemoaned the waste of two hours of self-revelation to reporters who reduce it to a page and a half of copy. As for the editors, one came and asked García's wife, Mercedes, for his personal letters. A girl appeared with the idea for a book called "250 Questions to García Márquez." Wrote García to his friend: "I took her, for coffee and explained that if I answered 250 questions the book would be mine." Another editor asked him to write a prologue to the diary of Che Guevara in the Sierra Maestra and García answered he would gladly do it but it would take him eight years, because he wanted to do it right.

And so when any outlander calls, he does not invite him home but meets him elsewhere, in front of a hotel on Las Ramblas, for instance, stays long enough to be civil, then excuses himself. If the interview goes well, he might keep it going. His problem, he says, is to see as few people as possible. Even friends are a complication at times. He accepts a luncheon date with a friend and finds twenty strangers invited to meet him.

"Then I can't make jokes," he said. "I have to be intelligent for them. This is horrible."

But life in Barcelona is not out of control, despite these pressures. "I have accomplished one thing," he said. "I have not become a public spectacle. I know how to avoid that."

As we walked inconspicuously along the crowded Ramblas, seeing flowers everywhere, García had another question: "Did you buy a rose when you bought the book?"

Dana showed him a rose to prove we had. It is the custom on the Day of the Book for the city's publishing houses and bookstores to sell books in temporary wooden stalls on the main streets. By tradition, you buy a rose for your lady and she buys you a book.

"We ought to go someplace where it's quiet," I said, barely able to hear García above crowd noises.

"It's hard to find a place like that in Spain," he said, but then he pointed. "Look, we could go to that bar. It's American. Nobody goes there."

So at a formica-topped table in a bar-restaurant memorable now for its plainness and near emptiness, García ordered coffee for himself and red wine for the visitors, specifying Imperial 1956 to the waiter so that our taste would not be offended by the ordinary tinto, which he does not drink. He apologized for not having wine himself. Too early. He likes to drink when it's dark. Also, he had only one coffee in the two hours we talked. Weightwatching. And balancing values.

"Coffee now," he said, "less whiskey tonight."

I told him the last writing I had done before leaving for a European trip was a short review of his last book published in the United States, Leaf Storm (La Hojarasca), actually his first short novel, published in Colombia in 1955. I explained that even though another short novel and many short stories had been published in the United States, very little personal information about him was available. He agreed.

Moreover, despite a critical reception in this country that for a Latin has been second only to the Borges boom of the 1960s, the literary magazines have been rather unconcerned with the man who wrote a masterwork. This is less strange than it seems. I remember a conversation in an Irish bar in Albany, New York, some years ago, when revolutions were erupting in two Latin American nations. The bored bartender ended a discussion of both upheavals with the observation that "neither of them countries is worth a cat's titty," and this has stood ever since in my mind as a most lucid summary of United States attitudes—literary, political, military, it doesn't matter—toward the lands and people of the subcontinent.

It has been suggested that this less than enthusiastic reception of García as a literary personage has a political basis: the consequence of his work as a Communist newsman from 1959 to 1961 for Fidel Castro'sPrensa Latina in Bogotá, Havana, and New York. He left the United States in 1961, and not until he was given an honorary degree by Columbia University in 1971 was he allowed to return. But if his Communist past ever did percolate down to the level of assignment editors, which is doubtful, it is likely that the Cat's Titty syndrome, rather than anti-Communism, was the dampening agent. Another literary Latin leftist. Ho-hum.

The Spanish-speaking literary world behaves differently toward García. At Columbia University last April, Pablo Neruda referred to Cien Años as "perhaps the greatest revelation in the Spanish language since theDon Quixote of Cervantes." García is already the subject of an excellent critical biography, Historia de un Deicidio (The Story of a Deicide) by Mario Vargas Llosa, published in 1971 by Barral Editores, Barcelona. Vargas, a teacher and novelist (The Time of the Hero, The Green House), wrote the book with García's full cooperation, and García says it is the best book about him to date; and there are several. But he vouches for the authenticity of only the first eighty-four biographical pages, paying Vargas the compliment of being afraid to read the rest.

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