Gabriel García Márquez, 1981
Foto de Eva Rubinstein
In the Shadow of the Patriarch
By FRANCISCO GOLDMAN
Published: November 2, 2003
My get-away-from-New-York place, my hole-up-and-write place, is an apartment I've kept for the last seven years in Mexico City, in a rundown but sturdy two-story building on a tree-shaded street near a park. The apartment has four large rooms with soft, creaky, dun-hued wooden floors and French windows with disintegrating wood frames and missing panes that let the rain, insects and even birds in. It is furnished with just a bed, bookshelves and two adjoining wooden tables where I work. Here I find concentration and long writing days as I do nowhere else, though that placid routine was turned upside down this summer when Mauricio Montiel rented the apartment next door and it became ''Montiel's Cave,'' where a group of youngish Mexico City writers and journalists gathered regularly at night to talk, over tequila, about books and movies, sometimes until nearly dawn or later. I would drop in to say hello and then find it impossible to leave.
Montiel, a 35-year-old fiction writer and editor with several books published, was the cultural-page editor of Cambio, a Mexican weekly magazine informally directed by Gabriel García Márquez -- Mexico City has been his primary residence since the 60's -- until its owner unexpectedly shut it down last year. It's the sister publication of the original Cambio published in Bogota, in García Márquez's native Colombia, the one he owns. But now, Montiel told me one day, the magazine had a new owner, and García Márquez had phoned with the good news that he could have his old job back. Except Montiel was going to say no. He, along with a number of his friends, had recently committed to a new magazine that another friend was starting. He was excited about it, but felt guilty about turning down García Márquez. He, like some of those same friends, owed their starts in journalism to García Márquez's Mexican Cambio. Montiel told me that García Márquez often spent hours in the magazine's offices huddled with young journalists, discussing projects and correcting and editing their work. When he described García Márquez's brainstorming at editorial meetings, he made him sound more like some excited youth at his first editorial job than a Nobel Prize-winning novelist, now 75, possibly the most famous and generally beloved literary writer on earth.
''Really, he sat with you and edited your pieces?'' I asked, betraying, no doubt, a touch of provincial amazement. But I have to admit that it still always amazes me whenever I encounter people who know Gabriel García Márquez, the one writer who, especially in my youth, meant more to me than any other, in a manner that transcended merely a love of his literature. Meeting people who personally know him, who speak casually of their connections to him -- as so many I've met in Mexico City do -- can leave me dumbstruck with vicarious shyness and wonder. Sometimes it even astonishes me that my friend Gonzalo Garcia speaks so casually of knowing García Márquez, even though Gonzalo is his son. The prospect of meeting any other writer, or any celebrity, does not affect me like this, not in the least.
But Montiel understood and recalled that when he was hired at Cambio, he hadn't really let himself acknowledge what a rare opportunity it was until another young Mexican writer exclaimed: ''Don't you realize what this means? It's as if you're going to work with William Faulkner or Charles Dickens!''
Now Montiel was headed to lunch with the paradoxically living equivalent of a Faulkner or Dickens to tell him he wasn't coming back to work for his magazine. As José Martí once versified: ''A rosebush raises a rose/A flowerpot a carnation/And a father raises a daughter/Not knowing who she is for.'' Youth takes what it needs and, grateful or not, moves on; it's a law of life, especially regarding young writers. Montiel doesn't hide his gratitude and high regard for García Márquez. He was anxious about the lunch, though, about the man's legendary charm and powers of persuasion. But he and his friends were determined to start their own magazine just as García Márquez had done with his own friends as a struggling young journalist in Barranquilla, Colombia, back in the 50's.
Montiel once told me a story he had heard from García Márquez. For a while there were plans to make a film of his novel ''The Autumn of the Patriarch,'' in which Marlon Brando was to play the dictator. When people involved in the movie's planning came to Mexico to meet with the author in his home, they were accompanied by a tall, pale, taciturn man who sat through the meeting without speaking a word or even introducing himself. Later García Márquez asked about the mysterious visitor and was told that he was J.M. Coetzee, the South African novelist. García Márquez was astounded because he had long regarded Coetzee as one of his favorite contemporary novelists. (That enthusiasm is no secret: another friend told me that after Coetzee won this year's Nobel Prize, García Márquez joked that he had received so many congratulatory messages that he felt as if he had won the prize for a second time.) When the famously publicity-spurning Coetzee was in Mexico City for a literary congress in 1998, I had heard him read. I don't know what inspired that incognito visit to the house, but I could imagine myself doing the same. It seemed a perfect way to satisfy your curiosity about a writer's flesh-and-blood incarnation without interrupting the conversation you have long been having with his books or exposing your own baffling timidity.
Until this summer, whenever faced with even the possibility of meeting García Márquez in Mexico City, I had always invoked an essay of his in which he recounted how he had preferred to wave and salute Ernest Hemingway, one of his masters, from across a Parisian street rather than try to speak to him. If I was more than satisfied with the García Márquez I could imagine from his writings, why meet the other one?
first heard the name Gabriel García Márquez some three decades ago on a day when I stayed home sick from school. I was in 9th or 10th grade, and my mother came into my bedroom to read out loud to me, in Spanish, from ''Cien Anos de Soledad'' (''One Hundred Years of Solitude''). That book, published in Buenos Aires a couple of years before, in 1967, had swiftly taken Latin America by storm and was now embarked on its unrivaled conquering of the universe: published in every conceivable language, selling millions of copies. No South American writer or literary novel from South America had ever had such an impact. ''One Hundred Years of Solitude'' became one of those extremely rare books that affected people's ideas about the contemporary novel and also their sense of reality. This became true not only for his readers but also for the many more who eventually received such information, diluted and dispersed into popular culture, without being aware of its source. (A recent newspaper poll in Spain found ''One Hundred Years of Solitude'' ranked just after the Bible and ''Don Quixote'' in universal historical importance -- surely the voters can't all have read it?) Indeed, it is hard to conceive what our sense of the novel, or even of Latin America itself, would be like now had the writings of Gabriel García Márquez never existed.
My mother, reading to me from ''One Hundred Years of Solitude,'' was initiating me into a narrative world that millions of readers had already experienced and have since and will continue to. We lived in a Boston suburb. The last thing my mother, the practical daughter of Guatemala City storekeepers, would have intended was to encourage her adolescent son's subterranean literary aspirations -- for the usual pecuniary reasons and also out of a maternal conviction that writers tend to embroil themselves in politics and end their lives in exile, drunken, shattered and forgotten, unless lucky enough to receive the last-minute reprieve of the Nobel Prize for Literature, as the Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias, living in Paris, had in 1967.
My mother would have bought García Márquez's novel that summer in Mexico or Spain, where she used to go for classes in Spanish and Latin American literature. She had begun her immigrant working career as a secretary in Boston (the factory where she worked made false teeth; it was where she met my father, a chemical engineer, who applied his wizardry in coloration to the infinite range of shadings between the whitest and grayest plausible teeth), but eventually she earned a degree qualifying her to teach Spanish, which she was now doing at a girls' junior college. I don't remember what passage from ''One Hundred Years of Solitude'' she read. But what I learned from her that day forever after influenced my reading of García Márquez, often in useful counterweight to other prevailing ideas about how to read him that I would hear later.
My mother said the book was sad. The novel's title, of course, is hardly cheerful. Her reaction, you might have supposed, was at least partly nostalgic. Her mother's family came from the rural Pacific lowlands of Guatamala. Macondo, the now mythological locus of García Márquez's literary world inspired by his own childhood along the Caribbean coast of Colombia, had obviously reminded her of that part of Guatemala. Many of our family legends and anecdotes were set there: the deaf-mute village diviner whose ambiguous interpretation of fortunetelling cards propelled my then-impoverished middle-aged great-grandfather into cattle ranching. Later, a miraculous roadside healing of his sick baby son led to his extravagant devotion to the Virgin of Lourdes, to whom he built shrines everywhere. And there was the story of my grandmother's arrival in the capital as an orphaned country girl with only a dowry trunk (the boys got the ranches) and sufficient inheritance to pay for her board with a pair of French spinsters who ran a small school.
But it was not nostalgia that brought my mother to my room to read to me that day. I was probably pretending to be sick. Whenever my mother wanted to reprimand me for laziness or malingering, she often launched into a cautionary tale about her sad, lazy but amiable Uncle Guayo, who had squandered his life in that same isolated, backward Guatemalan village that reminded her of García Márquez's. Uncle Guayo had tended his little store there, drinking too much, cohabiting with a local woman whom he never married -- though this last detail, out of pride and prudishness, was never a part of her jeremiad.
Supposedly I met Uncle Guayo once before he died, though all I remember is a visit we made to that pueblo: my mother's brother, Tio Hugo, at the wheel of the car, a handkerchief tied over his nose and mouth against the clouds of burning sand billowing in through the open windows as we drove into town; a green coconut in my lap out of which I sipped the fruit's warm soapy milk through a straw; people standing in the doorways of little houses of sun-blazed whitewash and zinc roofs that looked as if they radiated heat up into the air, browning the palm fronds; and a wiry man dressed in rags, gnarly belly exposed, wildly reeling along a drainage canal. It was explained to me that he walked like that because he was a bolo, a drunkard, though he was not Tio Guayo.
Impoverished, smelly, lethargic, the village outwardly resembled any other lowland village in Latin America. Had the world ever cared much about life in those backwaters? García Márquez discovered that a child's memories of such a place could seem more convincingly real than its outward reality. Before, Colombian novelists had usually described such places with anthropological or political earnestness, giving the greatest importance to what seemed most obvious: local customs, the hardship of life and so on. García Márquez in ''One Hundred Years of Solitude'' narrated phantasmal and radiant inner lives and childhood memories as if they were more concrete than their surroundings, poetically fusing these to the cycles of local and universal history and nature and creating something both biblical-seeming and lavishly new and strange. He found a place for the tropical village at the heart of world literature, and readers of all levels of sophistication found themselves remembering ''that distant afternoon'' when they were also taken by their father ''to discover ice.''
I was reminded of all this, of my mother's inadvertent lesson, while reading García Márquez's latest book, a memoir titled ''Living to Tell the Tale.'' Already an international best seller, it will be published in English this week. In it, he recounts his return, in his early 20's, with his mother to the town of his childhood in order to sell his grandparents' house, and he describes his shock at the scorched town's decrepitude, so at odds with the memories that he simultaneously narrates. To one familiar with his novels and stories, these pages are uncanny: García Márquez reveals the real-life people and incidents underlying even his most fantastic fiction, until it becomes hard to think of anything he has left out. When he returns from the trip, he rushes to the Barranquilla newspaper office where he works and begins a novel. ''I'm writing the novel of my life,'' he tells a friend. That was in 1950.
At the time I entered college, in the early 70's, the so-called boom in Latin American literature, at least from the perspective of a student in the United States, was still at its zenith. Among my prized artifacts from that epoch is my old Harper Colophon paperback copy, missing its back cover, of ''Into the Mainstream,'' a 1967 collection of essay-interviews with Latin American writers by a pair of amateur literary enthusiasts. It is a reminder of the variety of fictional styles employed by the writers included, from the surrealist-inspired Parisian sophistication of Julio Cortazar to the ambitious, polyphonic urban realism of the young Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa. Nowhere in that prologue, or even in the chapter on García Márquez -- who at the time of his interview was earning his living writing movies in Mexico City and hadn't even begun ''One Hundred Years of Solitude'' -- do the words ''magic realism'' appear. Only in the chapter on the urbane Cuban Alejo Carpentier do we read that ''the dictate of Breton, that 'nothing but the marvelous is beautiful' . . . opened [Carpentier's] eyes to the authentic wonders of his homeland . . . that 'magic realism' that in his view expresses the continent.''
García Márquez does tell the interviewers, ''What gives literary value is mystery,'' and says that he tries to tap ''the magic in commonplace events.'' Referring to the young writers soon to form the core of the Latin American boom, the collection's editors write, ''Like the other members of the Group, García Márquez is aware of the fact that he is bearing the banner of progress -- he says the ebullience of the Latin-American novel is the only answer today to the sterility of the French nouveau roman -- and he is fiercely proud of it. At the same time, eternally self-questioning, he worries and wonders about himself.''
I was in my first year at the University of Michigan when Jorge Luis Borges came to speak. I sat on the floor of a packed auditorium and remember the moment during the questions and answers when a graduate student rose to voice his vehement request for Borges to unequivocally denounce the realist novel. Borges, with his soft, blind stare, resembled an elegant saint levitating in an English suit as he answered, ''Young man, whether we are talking about Henry James or Robbe-Grillet, Conrad or Beckett, all of literature is part of the same dream and one of the few pleasures allowed to us on this earth.''
A few years later, after I had moved to New York City and was living on the Lower East Side, I learned that Carlos Fuentes was giving a ''Great Novels'' course at Columbia's School of International Affairs. It was a very early class, 8 in the morning, I think, which to me seemed like dawn. Carrying the special bound notebook that I had made at a photocopy shop where I worked, I would sneak into his class. Fuentes once imitated the snarling-hissing ghost cats he had heard in the air over Kafka's grave in Prague. During his lecture on ''Swann's Way,'' when he described Swann's recapturing lost time by biting into the madeleine cookie, a student -- of international affairs, I suppose -- tapped his wristwatch with a finger and protested that no matter what, the seconds ticking off were lost forever. With an air of wounded exasperation, Fuentes responded: ''Young man, this is a literature class. We are talking about the imagination.'' My favorite authors were people you could actually meet! Eventually I saw and sometimes met them all: Julio Cortazar, Jose Donoso, Guillermo Cabrera Infante.
In 1979, I returned to Guatemala City, immersed in civil war and a military dictatorship's unprecedented reign of terror. I lived in my uncle's house, in a room across the garden from the main house, trying to write the short stories I needed to apply to creative-writing programs. Soon after, when I was back in New York, one of those stories was published by an American magazine, which also offered me the chance to write nonfiction and to return to Guatemala. For the next 12 years, I lived there on and off, writing freelance journalism. During that time, the wars of Central America were the core of my life.
My fiction writing, however, soon ground to a halt. How to transform so much violence, tragedy, sadness, anger and guilt into fiction, and why? That problem has confounded aspiring writers forever. One day in a Guatemala City bookstore, I bought Mario Vargas Llosa's ''García Márquez: Historia de un deicidio,'' his staggering 650-page study of García Márquez and of ''One Hundred Years of Solitude.'' One chapter describes the younger García Márquez's struggles with ''the historical demon'' of political violence in Colombia -- 300,000 had been killed in under 10 years -- and the pressures he and other fiction writers were under to write about it in a politically ''responsible'' and ''realistic'' manner. In an essay addressed to those with whom he might have shared political convictions but not literary ones, García Márquez wrote that to write about the violence in the manner that others demanded would be to produce ''a catalog of cadavers.'' Literature was read by the living, he wrote, not by the dead. People needed something more from a novel than just a description of the reality they already knew too well. It took me years just to begin to understand and resolve some of the riddles posed by those wonderful words, such a rebuke to self-importance, so full of respect for readers.
A few years later I read a riveting novel called ''La diaspora,'' by the young Salvadoran Horacio Castellanos Moya, which fictionalized the Salvadoran civil war with a hilarious pox-on-both-your-houses venom; it said things I agreed with but hadn't dared to say myself. It was the first novel I read by a Latin American of my own age, and it showed me that young writers were finding their own ways of renewing the novel, free of magic realism and any other obvious influence. Castellanos Moya, now with an international reputation, is one of the friends who drop by Montiel's cave.
So is Jose Manuel Prieto, a Cuban living in Mexico City, whose last novel, published in translation as ''Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire,'' is certainly among the most accomplished written by a Latin American under 40. In adolescence he was sent by the Cuban government to study engineering at a university in Siberia, though he wanted to be a writer. He had devoured ''One Hundred Years of Solitude'' in Spanish, but wondered how it would translate into Russian. He reread ''One Hundred Years of Solitude'' in Russian three times.
Recalling this not long ago, he told me that you undertake such a dismantling of another work to stop being mystified by it, not so that you can imitate it but so you can avoid doing so even accidentally. In Spanish, he said, it is hard to free yourself from the spell cast by García Márquez's hyperbolic, vernacular prose. In Russian, Prieto told me, it was hard to hear that voice, and instead he found himself mesmerized by García Márquez's formal narrative mastery and by the universality of his vision, which opens you to the wonders of everyday existence, whether you are a Cuban seeing a Siberian winter for the first time and thinking that it is just like that distant afternoon when Aureliano Buendia's father took him to discover ice or an American reading about Aureliano endlessly making little gold fishes in his workroom and recalling his own late father's life spent making false teeth.
Literary influences are perhaps most interesting when they jump borders and languages. García Márquez always listed Faulkner, Kafka and Virginia Woolf among his major influences, along with Latin Americans like Juan Rulfo. In the now familiar logic of Harold Bloom's ''Anxiety of Influence,'' originality in literature is usually a matter of combining at least two unlikely influences. All over the world, García Márquez seems to have provided a part of that equation for writers like Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison and Ben Okri as well as U.S. Latinos like Oscar Hijuelos. One scholar wrote recently that García Márquez is the most influential writer in contemporary Chinese fiction; in a story by the exiled Iraqi writer Najem Wali, a character rediscovers his city of Basra in Macondo.
For ambitious Latin American writers, the effect was inevitably the opposite: they understood from the start that originality meant writing as little like García Márquez as possible. Yet last year an article appeared in Newsweek under the headline ''Is Magical Realism Dead?'' that claimed to introduce a new generation of Latin American writers writing in a new gritty urban way that was represented as a trailblazing rejection of García Márquez's ''magical realism,'' alluded to as ''fairy dust.'' But that article, which incited a flurry of similar ones in the U.S. media, was based on a fraudulent assumption. Of the major boom writers of his generation, only García Márquez was a true magic realist, and not even in all his books. It would be difficult to find a ''grittier'' urban novel than Vargas Llosa's ''Conversation in the Cathedral.'' Virtually no major Latin American writer has written magic realism after García Márquez, though he has had no end of popular imitators and artificial sweeteners. The writers truly confronted with defining themselves against his overwhelming popularity and influence are now entering their 60's -- like the Colombian Fernando Vallejo, author of ''Our Lady of the Assassins'' and winner of this year's Romulo Gallegos Prize, Latin America's most prestigious.
Montiel and the others who gathered in his apartment to talk about books with so much ebullient conviction had their own literary enthusiasms: a mix of contemporary and earlier writers like W.G. Sebald, Haruki Murakami, Martin Amis, Thomas Bernhard, Joseph Roth, Denis Johnson and Edwidge Danticat, along with Vallejo -- who also lives in Mexico City and walks his shaggy, arthritic dog past my building every day. But they especially admired the Chilean Roberto Bolano, who died this summer at age 50. Bolano, it seemed to me, hovers over many young Latin American writers, even those in their 40's, the way García Márquez must have over his generation and the following one. Bolano wrote somewhat in the manner that Martin Amis calls the ''higher autobiography'' -- with the high-voltage first-person braininess of a Saul Bellow and an extreme and subversive personal vision of his own.
For nearly four decades, the stereotype has persisted in the United States that magic realism is the authentic and predominant Latin American form of literary expression rather than one singular author's astoundingly seductive and often misrepresented manner of transforming life into fiction. That is probably why a writer like Bolano, acclaimed throughout the world, remained unknown in the United States. If that Newsweek article and others like it open the way for more Latin American writers to be published here, those young writers will merit gratitude. But it would be sad if one false stereotype -- that Latin Americans write only magic realism -- were now to be replaced by another: now they write gritty urban realism, in rejection of Gabriel García Márquez's ''fairy dust.''
García Márquez's magic realism, derived from the surrealism of tyranny and empty stomachs, is also the massacre that people pretend never happened because it can't be addressed in the newspapers or courts; it is unanswerable power's extravagant appetites; it is the foretold murder an entire town is nightmarishly powerless to prevent. In societies without free expression or recourse to justice, solitary imaginative flights and haunted inner lives are also the voices of the community. In that sense, García Márquez, in his devotion to the profession of journalism and the nurturing of young journalists, and especially in his role as founder of the New Journalism Foundation, which has a school in Cartagena, Colombia, and sponsors workshops and scholarships throughout Latin America, is doing what he can to make the world that inspired much of his fiction obsolete. His refusal to speak out against his old friend Fidel Castro has been a source of controversy, especially in the United States. But it is also significant that the New Journalism Foundation has never taken a workshop to Cuba. Last December, when I gave a class in narrative nonfiction at the school in Cartagena, an administrator told me that they knew that taking the school to Cuba would be a betrayal of their role as uncompromising advocates of a free press.
In front of the school, we posed in the street for a class photograph with a life-size cardboard cutout of García Márquez, who was not at the school at the time. Back in Mexico City, where I got to know his son, Gonzalo, and one of his oldest, closest friends, the Colombian writer Alvaro Mutis, I had still never met Gonzalo's jefe , though there had been some close calls. But sometimes, at Gonzalo's house, his father's tangible presence took me by surprise -- like the time I overheard Gonzalo's son Mateo immersed in a very long explanation of the intricacies of Nintendo over the telephone and realized he was speaking to his grandfather. During the 1998 World Cup, as Mexico lined up for a critical penalty kick against Belgium, Mateo, 11, crouched in front of the television chanting, ''If Mexico scores, I promise to read 'Moby-Dick'!''
When both our fathers were sick with cancer, I would ask after Gonzalo's and he would ask after mine. My father died a year ago. But I know from Gonzalo and others that this is a happy time in García Márquez's life. His health is robust again, and he has been seen out and about, dancing with his wife, Mercedes, at parties, late into the night. He is said to be writing a new novel.
One Sunday this summer I was woken by the telephone at 2 in the afternoon. Montiel had given his housewarming party the night before, and I had been up into the morning. Gonzalo was on the phone; he was at his parents' house with Mutis. ''Come over,'' he said. After the night's excesses, my voice was a dry creek bed. I thought I just needed some coffee. But on the way to the house, my voice utterly vanished.
Unable to speak, I might as well have been invisible as I sat in García Márquez's den. Sipping tequila, I listened and watched. Gabriel García Márquez was sunk into one end of a long sofa across from me, nursing a Scotch; he seemed smaller, rounder, more delicate than I had imagined. His face lit up with amusement: Mutis had entered -- they have been friends for more than 50 years -- and he was pretending to dodder at the edge of the step into the den, drink in hand. Sounding like an old Crosby-Martin routine, they ribbed each other and made fun of old age. They passed a lot of that afternoon reciting the poetry from their youth. After García Márquez recited some Lorca sonnets, he commented on the mysterious density of great sonnets, in which every two lines seem to enclose a separate poem. They quoted from the Colombian poetry they grew up with, challenging each other to guess the authors, and especially delighted in the corny rhymes of forgotten poets of once-inflated reputations: ''You are like she of Olofernes/who goes for a stroll every Friday/with a lieutenant of the cavalry,'' recited Mutis, stumping his friend.
Sometimes García Márquez dozed. Children ran in and out from the garden, including little Jeronimo, who had the same eyes of immense astonishment as his grandfather in the baby picture that adorns the cover of ''Living to Tell the Tale.'' At one point those eyes were fixed directly on me. The world is now in such a state, García Márquez was saying, leaning forward, that only good journalists can save it. I could only nod.
But I don't regret having lost my voice that day. There is nothing I wish now that I had said. A curiosity that I had been either fearful or shy of satisfying had been satisfied. Nothing significant had changed, though I was far from disillusioned. It was wonderful to see Gonzalo seated between his father and the friend who is like a second father to him and to see those two loving patriarchs showing off for him and to see him giddily responding as he must have when he was a boy.
It brought back a memory of cold football stadiums and sitting between my father and his best friend, Uncle Mattie. He was such an indefatigable storyteller -- his World War II stories and the adventures of his dog, Moot -- that when I was 10 or so, as if to be worthy of his esteem, I fell into the vice of telling serial tall tales about myself, which Uncle Mattie and my father listened to as if they were true. I went on embellishing until one day I committed such an obvious blunder that the spell was broken and my face burned with embarrassment -- an early lesson in the perils of the craft, a story I would maybe find a way to recount later, when I regained my voice, back at Montiel's.
Francisco Goldman is the author of ''The Ordinary Seaman.'' His new novel, ''The Divine Husband,'' will be published in April by Grove/Atlantic.