The Yellow Trolley Car in Barcelona, and Other Visions

Faulkner created Yoknapatawpha County. Welcome to García Márquez' Macondo.
More
"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.

"Mario's book may have the key to me," he said.

Why should he be afraid of somebody else's analysis?

"It's a gamble," he said, "a game. It's possible I would not be harmed by change if I read it. But why should I take the risk?"

There are instructive literary ironies in García's becoming both a critical success and a best seller. ("If I hadn't written Cien Años," he said, "I wouldn't have read it. I don't read best sellers.") He had given up writing and for more than five years did not write a word. This was overreaction to his negative feeling about his early books, to a disorienting change he'd made in his style and approach to his material, and to the influential but frustrating hold that film had on him.

He says he was always a writer, for as long as he can remember. He was born on March 6, 1928, in the small northern Colombian town of Aracataca, which is the prototype in García's imagination for the mythical village of Macondo, where life rages and sighs for one hundred years in his masterpiece. His first published stories did not appear until 1947, when he was at the University of Bogotá, studying law and hating it. Political violence closed the university and he transferred his studies to Cartagena and continued writing. Then during a visit to Barranquilla, he became involved with a small group of other writers and newsmen who knew his work. He quit law school, moved to Barranquilla, and took a job as a newspaper columnist. In 1954 he returned to Bogotá as a film critic and reporter for El Espectador.

"As a reporter," he said, "I was the lowest on the paper and wanted to be. Other writers always wanted to get to the editorial page, but I wanted to cover fires and crime."

His biographer compares his career as journalist-into-novelist to Ernest Hemingway's, and there are similarities. But there are also substantial differences. Hemingway was the realistic, impressionistic, serious-minded reporter. García, much less solemn about his job, more inclined to see it as a source of experience rather than as an outlet for opinion, seems to have had as much Ben Hecht as Hemingway in him. At least that is the impression one gets after reading a letter García wrote to a friend, recollecting a story he once covered in the Colombian town of Quibidó. An El Espectador correspondent had cabled reports of wild fighting in Quibidó, and García and a photographer traveled far and with great difficulty to reach the action, only to find a sleepy, dusty village, and no fighting whatsoever. They did discover the correspondent beating the heat in a hammock. He explained that nothing ever happened in Quibidó and that he'd sent the cables in protest. Unwilling to go back empty-handed after such an arduous trip, García, his photographer, and the correspondent, with the help of sirens and drums, gathered a crowd and took action photos. García sent back action stories for two days, and soon an army of reporters arrived to cover it all. García then explained the Quibidó scene to them and directed the creation of a new and even larger demonstration they could report on.

A high point of his newspaper career came in 1966 when a sailor named Luis Alejandro Velasco came to El Espectador with the offer to tell the whole story of his famous survival at sea.

Velasco had lived ten days on a life raft after a Colombian naval destroyer, en route home from New Orleans, was struck by a storm. Eight sailors were lost overboard, and only Velasco survived. This had already made him a national hero, and quite wealthy. But only the newspapers favored by Colombian dictator Gustavo Rojas Pinilla had been allowed to talk to him. His offer to El Espectador to tell the tale anew, long after public interest had peaked, was first received, says García, as "una noticia refrita"—a rehashed story—but one editor had second thoughts, and turned Velasco over to García.

The result was a fourteen-chapter, first-person narration, signed by the twenty-year-old seaman, which revealed that the destroyer had not encountered a storm at all—and meteorologists verified this—but had been carrying contraband cargo, badly packed on the deck. The vessel almost keeled over in some high winds, the cargo broke loose, and the eight crewmen were knocked overboard. The public found this story delicious and El Espectador's circulation climbed. The embarrassed dictatorship denied all, but the paper subsequently proved its case with photos from other crewmen, showing men standing on the destroyer's deck alongside clearly labeled boxes of TV sets, refrigerators, and washing machines from the United States. The Rojas Pinila government initiated reprisals against the paper and months later, when García was in Paris as El Espectador's roving European correspondent, closed it down.

The articles were republished in paperback in Barcelona under García's name in early 1970, the first time he was publicly connected with them. He entitled the book: "The Tale of a Shipwrecked Sailor who was adrift ten days on a life raft without food or water, who was proclaimed a hero of the nation, kissed by beauty queens and made rich by publicity, and then loathed by the government and forgotten forever." In a prologue to the unaltered reprint, García credits Velasco with a natural gift for narrative and an astonishing memory for detail, and adds: "It depresses me that editors are not interested in the merits of the text as much as they are in the name of the author, for much to my regret, this makes me out to be a fashionable writer. Fortunately; there are books that belong not to those who write them but those who suffer them and this is one of those." And he states that the rights of the book belong to Velasco, not García.

It was Hemingway who argued against journalism, adjudging it a good training ground if you get out in time, but one that could spoil a writer who stayed at it too long. García could not accept such a dictum, for he was writing journalism to live, and he stayed at it from 1948 to 1961. He was much more in tune psychologically with William Faulkner, who felt that nothing could destroy a good writer. Like so many serious writers at mid-century, García was deeply influenced by the work of Faulkner, and so much has been made of this that he now draws the curtain on extended talk about the relationship. Nor can he read Faulkner anymore, perhaps because of this, although he ascribes it to the effusion of Faulknerian rhetoric that put him off when he went back to him in 1971. But in the late 1940s, when García was writing Leaf Storm, Faulkner was of major importance to him.

Leaf Storm was finally published in 1955, the same year as the shipwreck articles, after almost seven years of searching for an editor who would accept it. One critic rejected the book for an Argentinian publisher, advising García that he was not talented as a writer and ought to dedicate his life to something else. The story of Leaf Storm is told alternately by a father, his daughter, and his grandson, who are the only mourners at the burial of a doctor who once lived with them. The doctor later became a recluse and by a single act earned the enmity of the whole town, which now wants to humiliate his corpse. Faulknerian phrasing is evident and the doctor bears some resemblance to Reverend Gail Hightower of Light in August.

But despite Faulkner's influence, Leaf Storm is not a derivative work. Its own language is rich, dense, but without the difficulty that goes with much of Faulkner. It is occasionally surreal in a way that Faulkner's work is not. And though it establishes Macondo in emulation of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, it does so with such originality and relevance to Latin American life that by the time Macondo matured into the fully appointed village in Cien Años, multitudes of Latin readers recognized it as the dwelling place of their communal spirit.

The world García imagines is always solidly grounded in the real world, but it is deceptive, for the real is also frequently surreal.

In Leaf Storm, the old doctor sits down to a pretentious, bourgeois dinner and startles everybody by saying to a servant: "Look, miss, just start boiling a little grass and bring that to me as if it were soup." "What kind of grass, doctor?" the servant asks. "Ordinary grass, ma'am," the doctor says. "The kind that donkeys eat."

Surreal? Not to García. "A man said that in my house," he said.

He believes that Faulkner differs from him on this matter in that Faulkner's outlandishness is disguised as reality.

"Faulkner was surprised at certain things that happened in life," García said, 'but he writes of them not as surprises but as things that happen every day."

García feels less surprised. "In Mexico," he says, "surrealism runs through the streets. Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America."

About two weeks before he talked, a newsman had called to ask García for his reaction to an occurrence in a rural Colombian town. About ten in the morning at a small school, two men pulled up in a truck and said, "We came for the furniture." Nobody knew anything about them, but the schoolmaster nodded, the furniture was loaded onto the truck and driven off, and only much later was it understood that the truckmen were thieves.

"Normal," says García.

"One day in Barcelona," he continued, "my wife and I were asleep and the doorbell rings. I open the door and a man says to me, 'I came to fix the ironing cord.' My wife, from the bed, says, 'We don't have anything wrong with the iron here.' The man asks, 'Is this apartment two?' 'No,' I say, 'upstairs.' Later, my wife went to the iron and plugged it in and it burned up. This was a reversal. The man came before we knew it had to be fixed. This type of thing happens all the time. My wife has already forgotten it."

García likes the principles of surrealism but not the surrealists themselves. Given a choice, he prefers the painters to the poets, but he does not think of himself as being like any of them. And it is true that his work is based more in the anecdote than in the symbolic or random flow of events so important to the surrealists; true also that his aim is to be accessible, not obscure. And yet, a surreal quality, a rendering of the improbable and impossible as real, pervades his work. And its importance to him has obviously intensified since the tepidly surreal grass-eating of Leaf Storm. In Cien Años he made the leap to earth-eating, to a plague of insomnia, to ghosts that grow old, to a young woman who ascends bodily into heaven and takes two bed sheets with her. His improbability usually extends an everyday reality. In Cien Ahos, for instance, José Arcadio, son of Ursula, enters his bedroom, closes the door, and a pistol shot is heard. Then:

A trickle of blood came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces, went down steps and climbed over curbs, passed along the Street of the Turks, turned a corner to the right and another to the left, made a right angle at the Buendía house, went in under the closed door, crossed through the parlor, hugging the walls so as not to stain the rugs, went on to the other living room, made a wide curve to avoid the dining-room table, went along the porch with the begonias, and passed without being seen under Amaranta's chair as she gave an arithmetic lesson to Aureliano José, and went through the pantry and came out in the kitchen, where Úrsula was getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread.

"Holy Mother of God!" Úrsula shouted.

She followed the thread of blood back along its course, and in search of its origin she went through the pantry, along the begonia porch where Aureliano José was chanting that three plus three is six and six plus three is nine, and she crossed the dining room and the living rooms and followed straight down the street, and she turned first to the right and then to the left to the Street of the Turks, forgetting that she was still wearing her baking apron and her house slippers, and she came out onto the square and went into the door of a house where she had never been, and she pushed open the bedroom door and was almost suffocated by the smell of burned gunpowder, and she found José Arcadio lying face down on the ground on top of the leggings he had just taken off, and she saw the starting point of the thread of blood that had already stopped flowing out of his right ear.

We talked of this passage in connection with the surreal aspect of the book, but García all but dismissed the improbable quality of it, saying only: "It is the umbilical cord." And we moved on to something else.

fter Leaf Storm, García encountered some heady influences that would change his fictional style and bring him as close to socialist realism as he would ever come. The Communists in Bogotá wooed him after Leaf Storm was published; but while they wanted him as a writer and a mind, they rejected his style as too artistic to convey the stringent socialist realities. On this point Mario Vargas writes: "Although he never fell into the coarse conceptions of socialist realism, García Márquez nevertheless reached a similar conclusion about his narrative language some months later, at the beginning of his second novel." The change in his writing that followed could hardly be adjudged a bad one, for working in his new style García produced three highly regarded works. But he was not satisfied, because the change restricted his imagination.

He had a flurry of party militancy in Bogotá, but it faded quickly and he then went to Europe for El Espectador. He found himself in Rome covering Pope Pius XlI's hiccups, and he enrolled at the Centro Sperimentale de Cinematografia, with plans to become a director and film his own version of Leaf Storm. After some months of study, he moved to Paris and learned there that the Rojas dictatorship had closed his paper and that he was out of a job.

He stayed in Paris, beginning a short story about some violence he remembered from childhood, changing the locale from Macondo to "El Pueblo" (the town), a shift which has generated confusion about the settings of his various works. His language became more staccato, with dialogue playing a larger role. The short story he had begun expanded quickly and took shape as a novel, then two novels. The last offshoot he completed first and it became El Coronel No Tiene Quien Le Escriba (No One Writes to the Colonel), the story of an old military man who waits endlessly for his military pension, long after he and the war that he fought in have been forgotten by the government.

"He had written a small masterwork," Vargas writes, "but not only did he not know it, he also experienced the same sensation of failure as when he finished Leaf Storm."

He then completed his novel about violence in the same small town, the violence provoked by pasquines—anonymous signs that appear mysteriously on the walls of public places. The book is called La Mala Hora(The Evil Hour) and has not yet been published in English.

García's life in Paris while writing these works was memorable but not happy. He lived, he said, on "daily miracles," deeply impoverished, as a foreigner not allowed to work, unable to speak the language very well, at one point turning in empty bottles for cash. When his money ran out, his landlord let him live in an attic, where he wrote steadily. When he returned to Paris in 1968 as a success and looked back on his three years of poverty, he concluded: "If I had not lived those three years, probably I would not be a writer. Here I learned that nobody dies of hunger and that one is capable of sleeping under bridges."

My wife and I had just come from Paris to Barcelona, and we told of the extraordinary time we'd just had in the city.

"I had money when I went back there," García said. "I wanted to eat all the things I had not eaten, drink all the wine I could not afford to buy. And I hated it. I hate Paris."

He lifted himself out of his poverty there in 1957 by selling newspapers in Bogotá and Caracas on the idea of a series of ten articles about the Iron Curtain countries. A newsman who went with him on that tour, Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, later in the year became editor of Momento, a Caracas magazine, and hired García immediately. It was in Caracas, confronting his fictional world only on his days off, and reporting meanwhile on the last days of the Perez Jiménez dictatorship, that he wrote some new short stories. These he called Los Funerales de la Mamá Grande (Big Mama's Funeral) when he published them in Mexico in 1962. These, too, have the staccato quality, except for the title story, which is written in dense language that satirizes Colombian political and editorial-page rhetoric. It is the only story set in Macondo, another point of confusion. The others in the collection, all set in El Pueblo, make no mention of Macondo.

The assumption by many casual readers of García's work is that all his fiction is set in Macondo. But when he broke with the lush style of Leaf Storm and took up with the Communist Party realists, he not only adopted a kind of Hemingway realism but he also left his fictional hometown. He returns to his natural style, an exalted but not overblown prose, only in the title story, in which he returns to Macondo.

García said he has a problem convincing people about El Pueblo. "Leaf Storm and Cien Años are in Macondo, nothing else," he said emphatically of his books. "The other three [Colonel, Mala Hora, Mamá Grande] are in El Pueblo." He opened the United States edition of the Colonel to page 42 and cited internal evidence where the Colonel remembers Macondo and mentions when he physically left it, in 1906.

"But some people," he said, "do not accept any evidence, and I leave them so I don't have to discuss it."

Another rumor is that he is through writing about Macondo, but of this he says, "It is a lie. I don't tamper with the future." During the past year, in fact, he completed a short novel which develops the lives of characters he created in Cien Años. It is called The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother, and is now being translated into English by Gregory Rabassa, who translated bothCien Años and Leaf Storm.

García's career as a fiction writer remained publicly static during his time in Venezuela, but journalistically he took an odd turn: he left Momento and went to work for Venezuela Gráfica, a magazine commonly calledVenezuela Pornográfica in Caracas. Solemn fictionists might be put off by such work, but García accepted it then and still accepts it.

"I'm interested in personal life," he said, explaining that at the moment in Barcelona he was reading the memoirs of Jackie Kennedy's chauffeur. "I read all the gossip in all the magazines. And I believe it all."

The Cuban revolution lifted him, for the first time in his life, out of journalistic fluff and fun and into advocacy. He opened the Bogotá office for Prensa Latina, went to Havana later, and in 1961 became assistant bureau chief in New York. He quit in mid-1961 during a wave of revisionism, in solidarity with his disgruntled boss; and with his wife Mercedes, the Barranquilla girl who had waited for him for three years until he married her in 1958, and his two-year-old son Rodrigo, he left New York, but not without a tropical memory of the city.

"It was like no place else," he said. "It was putrefying, but also was in the process of rebirth, like the jungle. It fascinated me."

The Garcías headed for New Orleans by Greyhound, passing through Faulkner country. García duly noted one sign advising DOGS AND MEXICANS PROHIBITED and found himself barred from hotels where clerks thought him Mexican. He had planned to return to Colombia, but Mexico, being a film capital, lured him, and on the urging of Mexican friends he changed plans and began slowly, and with much difficulty, a new career as a screenwriter. He wrote one short story in Mexico and then lapsed into a silence that lasted several years.

The screenwriting was partially the cause of the silence, but so was what he considered his failure as a writer of fiction. He wrote film scripts, some in collaboration with Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, and several became movies, memorable now mainly because he worked on them. In dry periods he worked again as an editor and at one point did publicity for the J. Walter Thompson office in Mexico City.

"It was a very bad time for me," he said, "a suffocating time. Nothing I did in films was mine. It was a collaboration, incorporating everybody's ideas, the director's, the actors'. I was very limited in what I could do and I appreciated then that in the novel the writer has complete control."

His friends remembered him as being blocked and in a period of severe self-criticism, dissatisfied with all he had done, not wanting to return to anything like it.

It was in January, 1965, while driving from Mexico City to Acapulco, that he envisioned the first chapter of the book that was to become Cien Años. He later told an Argentinian writer that if he'd had a tape recorder, he could have dictated the entire chapter on the spot. He then went home and told Mercedes: Don't bother me, especially don't bother me about money. And he went to work at the desk he called the Cave of the Mafia, in a house at number 6 Calle de La Loma, Mexico City, and working eight to ten hours a day for eighteen months, he wrote the novel.

"I didn't know what my wife was doing," he said, "and I didn't ask any questions. But there was always whiskey in the house. Good Scotch. In that respect my life hasn't changed much since those days. We always lived as if we had money. But when I was finished writing, my wife said, 'Did you really finish it? We owe twelve thousand dollars.' She had borrowed from friends for a year and a half."

At one point, he said, his wife was given the option by the butcher shop, where she was a good client, to pay by the month. She refused, but later, when getting money every day was more difficult, she accepted the offer and paid monthly installments to the butcher. At another point there was no money for the rent, so she told the landlord she couldn't pay for six months and somehow he said all right; so they didn't have to worry about that.

"She is stupendous," García said.

He had been talking in the Ramblas bar for almost two hours and now García had to leave for an appointment. But he said we should come to his home at five and continue the talk, and we did.

He and Mercedes both greeted us. She is a slender, serene beauty, her dark, shoulder-length hair parted in the middle, an Indian quality in her face that is reminiscent of some of Gauguin's Tahitian women. She speaks softly and said that the Spaniards tell her she speaks a sweet Spanish, as contrasted with the cacophonies of Castilian. She employs a day maid to help with the housework, in notable contrast to the time when García was writing Cien Años. She lived those days, she said, trying not to dwell on the precarious quality of their life, for when she did, she became very nervous.

"I would not want to go through that again," she said.

It is not at all likely she will have to.

The Garcías' apartment is modern in its furnishings, with wall-to-wall carpeting, floor-to-ceiling drapes, the color scheme beige, brown, and orange. The hi-fi, which García, and no one else, operates, is a significant object in the room, and in García's life. He treats his records as if they were fine crystal, wiping each one after use. His sons Gonzalo, ten, and Rodrigo, now twelve, have their own phonograph, so that Papa's will not be disturbed. Reading as he listens to music forms the second part of his day and regularly follows his morning work period, which usually begins at ten and lasts until about two. (One page a day, of twenty-four lines, is his average output, five pages his record.) Apart from the records—he played Leonard Cohen for the visiting North Americans—a large and orderly collection of classical works on cassettes occupies a shelf beside the sofa.

"There were no records where I grew up," he said, "and now all this on cassettes. Imagine!"

A discussion of some of García's literary tastes was prompted by the living-room shelves which held some of his books.

"He left most of his books in Colombia when he moved to Barcelona," Mercedes said, "but the Conrad, Plutarch, and Kafka he takes with him wherever he goes. And the Virginia Woolf he always buys when he gets there, if he can find it."

The shelves had all of these, plus the complete works of Stefan Zweig and A. J. Cronin, fourteen volumes of Borges, Rabelais' works, and among other items, The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth. Ah ha! A best seller.

"Literarily," García said, "it is of no importance. But things happen. It is good false reporting."

From the blue he asked: "What do you think of Graham Greene?" His manner implied that I would be judged by my response. I said I had a high opinion of Greene.

"He teaches you how to write," García remarked. "His technique of narration is so good. He also taught us to see the tropics in books like The Power and the Glory, The Comedians, and A Burnt Out Case, which is set in Africa, but which is like Latin America. People think of life in the tropics as being exuberant, happy, rich. But Greene shows its elements—the heat, the plants, the rain, the animals, the sea. And he shows life is poor and sad. And that is the truth about that place."

Greene brought to García's mind one of his prejudices. "The intellectuals would like to like Greene," he said, "but they don't think they should. He writes a good book like A Sort of Life and then confuses them by writing Travels with My Aunt. The intellectual is the worst thing there is. He invents things and then he believes them. He decides the novel is dead but then he finds a novel and says he discovered it. If you say the novel is dead, it is not the novel. It is you who are dead."

He talked of liking Ray Bradbury, but selectively. "There are two Ray Bradburys. One writes the science fiction and one is human. I don't like the science fiction."

He said that he has read no great American writers since what he called "the Lost Generation"—meaning Faulkner and Dos Passos, and Erskine Caldwell and Hemingway for their short stories. He liked none of the Hemingway novels. "The Sun Also Rises was a lengthened short story," he said. Of the Faulkner works, he was most captivated by Absalom, Absalom, but added, only half facetiously, that he thought The Hamletwas "the best South American novel ever written."

"Until you're about the age of twenty," he said, "you read everything, and you like it simply because you are reading it. Then between twenty and thirty you pick what you want, and you read the best, you read all the great works. After that you sit and wait for them to be written. But you know, the least known, the least famous writers, they are the better ones."

Of contemporary Latin American novelists, two in particular, and both of them known in the United States, were early boosters of Cien Años: Carlos Fuentes and the Argentine, Julio Cortázar. García sent his first three chapters to Fuentes, who was so impressed that he wrote for a Mexican magazine:

"I have just finished reading the first seventy-five pages of Cien Años de Soledad. They are absolutely magisterial ... All 'fictional' history coexists with 'real' history, what is dreamed with what is documented, and thanks to the legends, the lies, the exaggerations, the myths…Macondo is made into a universal territory, in a story almost biblical in its foundations, its generations and degenerations, in a story of the origin and destiny of human time and of the dreams and desires by which men are saved or destroyed."

Cortázar, one of the first readers of the completed book, and equally enthusiastic, said García's imagination had redeemed the South American novel from its boring ways. Cortázar's novel, Hopscotch, had won the National Book Award for its English translator, Gregory Rabassa, in 1967. García was dissatisfied with the English translation of No One Writes to the Colonel and, after reading Rabassa's version of Hopscotch, he asked his publisher to have Rabassa, a professor of romance languages at New York's Queens College, translate Cien Años. The publisher found Rabassa tied up for a year.

"I'll wait," García said, a decision for which anyone attuned to the English translation must be grateful.

Rabassa describes García's Spanish as "classical, very clear. He doesn't fool around with syntax. Certain local words do creep in, in dialogue, but he is not an experimenter. He uses the right word in the right place. I would compare his language to Cervantes'."

Rabassa will doubtlessly translate García's next major work, which Vargas has said has the title of El Otoño del Patriarca (The Autumn of the Patriarch). García has been working on it since before Cien Años, inspired by his exposure to the Jiménez dictatorship in Venezuela, and strengthened by what he learned of the Batista dictatorship during his time in Cuba, and the Rojas dictatorship in Colombia. The central figure is a Latin dictator who lives to be 270 years old.

García's alienation from right-wing politics raises the question of why he now lives in Spain under the Franco dictatorship. I asked how he felt about Spanish politics. He groaned and put his head in his hands as a reaction to a question whose public answer could jeopardize his residency in Barcelona, where he lives in apolitical peace.

"If I were to choose a country which had politics that I like," he said, "I would not live anywhere."

"A clever answer," I said. 'I won't press the point."

"You are a gentleman," he said.

We talked of Barcelona as a place to live and I expressed my short-term admiration of its magnificence and the vibrancy of its life. I also told a trolley-car story: that when we crossed into Spain at Port Bou, we asked at the tourist window for some literature on Barcelona and were given a brochure which, among other things, detailed the trolley lines in the city, by number and destination. At Columbus Plaza we tried to get a trolley that would take us to Antonio Gaudi's Sagrada Familia church, one of Barcelona's wonders. A vendor of fresh coconut at the plaza explained that there hadn't been any trolley cars in Barcelona for fourteen or fifteen years. Why, then, were they still mentioning them by name in the tourist literature? The coconut vendor had no answer and so we boarded a bus instead of a trolley and rode toward Gaudi's monumental work. We stood at the back of the bus and watched the mansions and apartment buildings make splendid canyons out of the street, at times looking like I imagined Fifth Avenue must have looked in its most elegant nineteenth-century moments. And then I said to Dana: "Look, there's a trolley."

She missed it, understandably. Its movement was perpendicular to our own. It crossed an intersection about three blocks back, right to left, visible only for a second or so, then disappeared behind the canyon wall.

"What trolleys still run in Barcelona?" I asked García.

He and his wife both said there were no trolleys in Barcelona. Mercedes remembered a funicular that went somewhere.

"This one was yellow," I said, "and old-fashioned in design."

"No," she said. "The funicular is blue."

García called his agent Carmen Balcells on the phone. "Is there a yellow trolley car in Barcelona?" he asked. "I'm here having an interview with Kennedy and he saw a yellow trolley."

He listened, then turned to us and said, "All the trolleys were yellow in the old days."

He asked about the blue trolley, but Carmen said it was outside of town, nowhere near where we had been. In a few minutes she called back to say that about two years ago there was a public ceremony in which the last trolley car in Barcelona had been formally buried.

What had I seen? I have no idea.

"To me," García said, "this is completely natural."

Then he told of hailing a taxi in Barcelona not long before this, but when he saw someone in the back seat he pulled down his arm. The cab driver stopped anyway and García then saw no one in the back seat. He explained this to the cabbie, who was outraged. "People are always seeing somebody in the taxi with me," he told García.

We had been drinking Scotch carefully for about five hours, lost in small talk and the free-form interchange of two languages. What had begun as a meticulous quest for the translation of phraseology, through the intermediacy of Dana had loosened to the point where I was asking Dana questions in Spanish and she was talking to García in English. García was popping English phrases at me more and more, and I was fluently pidgin in Spanish. There was no comprehension problem. We praised the liberating effect of whiskey, but I downgraded it as a tool for writing. García agreed but hesitated: "There is a point where it works," he said.

It was a quarter to eleven, the theater hour in Barcelona, when García decided we should go to dinner. He drove, soberly, through the old streets, parked near an alley, and then led the way to what he called "the best secret restaurant in Barcelona." I put on my steel-rimmed glasses to read the menu, but García said, "I have better glasses than those," and took out a pair of steel-rimmed half-glasses.

"Are you blind without them?" I asked.

"Not quite," he said, holding the menu as far away as he could. "My arm is still long enough."

I ordered baby squid in garlic and acceded to García's choice of perdiz, which we finally figured out meant partridge. He ordered French wine, Côtes du Rhône, I think, which came in a dusty, crooked-necked bottle. He chewed a piece of bread, clearing his taste buds of old Scotch, before tasting the wine for approval.

We had one more literary discussion at dinner. We had talked of politics and fiction earlier and he had mentioned a writer who, he felt, had hurt himself by overemphasizing politics, and whose work had changed. García considered this a loss. I then asked what he thought the proper place of politics was in fiction. He borrowed my pen and drew some interesting vertical and horizontal lines in my notebook, creating twelve boxes. Beneath the boxes he wrote the word ficcion and drew arrows to the left and right vertical borders. Then he wrote politic in the left central square. He paused. The vacant squares impelled him to further statement, and randomly, in two languages, he filled them in: tristeza, love, humor, dinero, esperanza, muerte, nostalgia, vida, and three question marks.

There is another García drawing in my notebook; it shows a flower blooming atop a two-leafed potted plant and an open-mouthed fish about to bite on a dangling fishhook as a one-eyed sun rises, or perhaps sets, behind an undulating horizon. In homage to Kennedy, he included in the drawing a two-wheeled trolley on a track, off to the left, denoting it as "old yellow," and he signed it in two places and included my own name with the year mentioned, 1972.

We eventually left the restaurant, around one-thirty. I discovered I'd left my copy of the Vargas biography at the García apartment, but I was told not to worry, that there would be bookstalls open on Las Ramblas where we could get another copy. García drove to one but it was Mercedes who leaped out and bought the book; for how would it look, García said, for him to go out and buy his own biography at one-thirty in the morning?

There was a conversation whose site I do not remember. Maybe it was the American bar, or maybe the apartment, or the best secret restaurant in Barcelona. But it has to do with García and his going back to Colombia every two or three years, and returning to Aracataca.

"Each year less," he said of the hometown, meaning each year the world he knew vanishes a little more. But there is a renewal. For each year, as the fame of Cien Años grows, Aracataca becomes more and more a place where tourists who have read the book go to compare its reality with the reality they have in their heads. They want to see the chestnut tree where José Arcadio Buendía, the founder of Macondo, died in beatific madness, tied to the trunk for years, seeing the ghosts of his past grow old along with him. They want to see the old Buendía house, and the plaza where thousands of striking banana workers were massacred by the army and their corpses taken on the longest train in the world to a remote point and dumped into the sea, so that not only would no evidence of their deaths remain but that the he would be given to anyone brazen enough to suggest that a massacre had taken place.

Years later that massacre would merely be a legend, its reality as accepted, yet as unverifiable, as the Trojan horse, or my yellow trolley car. García overheard it as a legend in Aracataca when he was young and he later reinvented it, just as he reinvented most of Macondo from bits and pieces of Aracataca, from the storied or merely imagined past. The Macondo he created barely exists in Aracataca today, but that does not stop the enterprising small boys of the town from reinventing, with their imaginations, what the tourists want to see. For a few coins they will find José Arcadio Buendía's tree and the place where the ants devoured the last newborn in the Buendía line, the infant that had been conceived incestuously and born with the tail of a pig. The cycle of the imagination is not dependent on any reality that can be bought at the hardware store like a seventy-eight-cent screwdriver.

Writing fiction today, a friend once advised me, is about as significant as playing bridge. Possibly this is true for those who dwell in the Land of the Cat's Titty. Possibly, for them, other things have replaced it. But in the face of a primordial event like the creation of Macondo, the argument is not worth rebutting. Whatever the numbers, and the numbers never mattered, there are still those who would rather dwell there for a time, and ride the yellow trolley car that may or may not exist, and thrive on the heat of a one-eyed sun, and draw sustenance from a book full of verities and question marks. Those who feel this have no need to justify their preference.

A Bogotá journalist went to Aracataca in 1969 and found that the home of García's ancestors was being eaten to dust by ants, just as García had predicted the dust storm that would bury the Buendía house and the town forever. The journalist found ruins and solitude in the town, no doubt what he went to find, and which always exist everywhere if you look closely. But the fading of Aracataca was not the consequence of a cursed, fateful prophecy. It had been predicted by García Márquez not because he had chosen it to be that way in his godlike role as novelist, but because—like the gypsy Melquiades, who is Cien Años had written in the coded parchments that "The first of the line is tied to a tree and the last is being eaten by the ants"—he deciphered the key to history, and he knew that events occurred because they had to, that the turn of time was cyclical and that the vital, bloody warmth of every life held in itself not only its own dusty eventuality, but the seeds of regeneration as well.

García's nickname is Gabo, and the diminutive of that is Gabito. And in an Aracataca bar the Bogotá journalist heard a song being sung which was really a song of the rebirth of this novelist, this man:

It was in the land of Macondo,

Where little Gabriel was born,

All of the people knew him,

By the name of Gabito…

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Wild Vacation in the Pacific Northwest

A not-so-ordinary road trip, featuring extra-tall art bikes, skateboards, and hand-painted vans


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In