|Mercedes, Gabo and sons|
THE BEST YEARS OF HIS LIFE:
WITH GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ
By Marlise Simons; Marlise Simons reports from Latin America for The New York Times and is the author of ''The Smoking Mirror: Life in Latin America.''
The New York Times
Published: April 10, 1988
FOR Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the pleasure and turmoil of writing change from novel to novel. In the case of ''One Hundred Years of Solitude,'' he thought so long and hard about the story that when he finally sat down to commit it to paper, it came in a great burst. But he had difficulty writing ''The Autumn of the Patriarch,'' a novel he published seven years before he won the Nobel Prize in 1982. With that book, he recently recalled, ''I was doing well when I could finish four lines a day''; the whole project occupied him, off and on, for seven years.
By contrast, the years when he worked on ''Love in the Time of Cholera'' were among the happiest of his life. Nostalgically, he wrote about the courtship of his parents and his own journeys by riverboat, both of which were important sources for the book. In Mexico City, his longtime home base, we talked about what writing the novel had been like:
This book was a pleasure. It could have been much longer, but I had to control it. There is so much to say about the life of two people who love each other. It's infinite.
Also, I had the advantage of knowing the end beforehand. Because in this book, the end was a problem. It would have been in poor taste if one or even both of the characters died. The most wonderful thing would be if they could go on loving forever. So the reader is given the consolation that the boat with the lovers will keep on with its journey, coming and going. Not only for the rest of their lives, but forever.
A kind of Flying Dutchman of love. Have you done a lot of traveling on boats yourself?
I've known that boat for a long time. I traveled a lot on it, beginning when I was 12. I lived on the coast [ in Colombia ] but I got a scholarship to study in Bogota. So I would take the boat from Baranquilla to La Dorada and then the train to Bogota. That was about the time the river began to deteriorate. Between my first trips and my final ones, I saw the decay in the river that appears in the book.
I had to have two river journeys in the book. The first was that of Florentino Ariza, when he is named telegraphist in the interior. There is no purpose to this one because he arrives, regrets it and turns back. But I had to invent it to be able to describe the river and the landscape. If not, that whole description would have had to come at the end of the book, when the two old people go on their journey. And that would have overshadowed the relationship between the two, which is what mattered there. So that device helped me also to show how the river changed from a fresh and thriving stream and fell into decadence. I must have taken the last trip when I was at the university, when I was about 22. Then the boats stopped running.
All these things for me are part of a nostalgia. Nostalgia is a great source for literary inspiration, for poetic inspiration.
You wrote most of the book in Cartagena?
Yes, and those two years when I was writing it was a time when I was almost completely happy. Everything went well for me. People spend a lifetime thinking about how they would really like to live. I asked my friends and no one seems to know very clearly. To me it's very clear now. I wish my life could have been like the years when I was writing ''Love in the Time of Cholera.''
I would get up at 5:30 or 6 in the morning. I need only six hours of sleep. Then I quickly listened to the news. I would read from 6 to 8, because if I don't read at that time I won't get around to it anymore. I lose my rhythm. Someone would arrive at the house with fresh fish or lobster or shrimp caught nearby. Then I would write from 8 till 1. By midday, Mercedes [ his wife ] would go to the beach and wait for me with friends. I never quite knew who to expect; there were always people coming and going. After lunch I had a little siesta. And when the sun started going down I would go out on the street to look for places where my characters would go, to talk to people and pick up language and atmosphere. So the next morning I would have fresh material I had brought from the streets.
I also had one of the most curious and enjoyable literary experiences I've ever had. One of the characters was Fermina, an 18-year-old girl living in a Caribbean town in the late 19th century. She lived with her father, a Spanish immigrant, and with her mother, who I could not figure out. And there was an aunt, her father's sister, who I saw very clearly and who had the same name. I just could not grasp the mother. I would seat them around the table and I could see how they all behaved - except for the mother. At first I thought the aunt was in the way. And I took her out and put her back again. But the mother was the problem. I could not see her: not the face, the name or anything about her. And then one day I woke up and realized what had happened. The mother had died while the girl was still young. And when I saw that the mother was dead, she became alive and real. She grew and had a great presence -in the house, in everyone's memory. It made me so happy to resolve this. I had been stretching the logic of the book. I had been trying to put a dead person among the living, and that was not possible.
And the men? How did you feel about Florentino?
I don't really like him. I think he is very selfish, like all men are. And as for Fermina, I think she became more bourgeois than she realized. That changed her a lot and made her very pretentious. She only understood that by the time she was very old, when she agreed to go on the boat. To do that, she had to break with her whole life.
But there is another important character, one that has no name - and that is the society of the Caribbean coast, its prejudice and superstitions, its old-fashioned ways. This is what really drives the whole story.
You have said that the thwarted early courtship of your parents served in part as a model for this book. Has your mother read it?
I don't know if she's read it all the way through. She's 84 years old now. I think they have read parts to her. Anyway, she knows what's in it. When I first started writing it in Cartagena, I would go to her house every afternoon and I would question my mother and my father separately. He was still alive then.
Have you read the English translation?
My English translator is [ Gregory ] Rabassa. I always trusted him so much; I never had to pay attention. But this time he had other commitments, and another translator was sought. I can read English, but not well enough to judge the way I dare judge a text in French or Italian. But anyhow, there were all sorts of test translations. Of the three sample translations, I read only the first chapter of this one and it was the best, without a doubt. The editors at Knopf agreed. Anyhow, what can I do? I can't worry. There is also the Japanese and the Swedish and the Dutch and so on.
Do the translators contact you and consult you?
Sometimes it's an editor who sends notes asking little things. Sometimes translators send a list of things they have doubts about. The strange thing is that, regardless of the language, the list of doubts is almost always the same.
I know you get a lot of mail from your readers. What sort of things do they write to you?
The letters I find most interesting are from people who ask me where I got this theme or that passage or such and such a character. Because they feel it is about something or someone they know. They will say: So and so is just like my aunt. Or: I have an uncle just like him. And: that episode happened exactly like that in my village. How did you know about it? People from all over Latin America wrote such things, especially after ''One Hundred Years of Solitude.'' They felt it was part of their lives.
That's why you still refuse to let the book be filmed? Because that identification will be lost?
It will be destroyed. Because film does not allow for that. The face of the actor, of Gregory Peck, becomes the face of the character. It cannot be your uncle, unless your uncle looks like Gregory Peck.
Will ''Love in the Time of Cholera'' be filmed?
Maybe. I don't mind as long as it's a Latin American movie. By that I mean one that is directed by a Latin American, that exudes the atmosphere of Latin America, that shows our character, our way of being, our society, because those are the things that define this drama. Anyway it's a problem. But the answer is for me not to get involved. It has already happened with Francesco Rossi, who made ''Chronicle of a Death Foretold.'' He showed me the screenplay and I said, ''Don't show it to me because if I read it the film will probably never be made. I am thinking of my book and you are thinking of your film. I wrote the book alone, you make the film alone.'' And that's how it happened and he thanked me.