WITH GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ
By MARLISE SIMONS
The New York Times / December 5, 1982
he playful, imperturbable Gabriel Garcia Marquez was troubled and tense. His brown eyes and the large wart over his mustache seemed to have shrunk. He had buried his hands deep in the pockets of his navy blue overalls and paced his hotel room in this small Central Mexican town, where he had come to escape a barrage of well-wishers and journalists.
''This is the time I'm supposed to be happier than ever,'' he grumbled. ''I've just received the Nobel Prize. I'm going to Sweden. I'm famous. I don't have to work. And look at the state I'm in.''
Garcia Marquez was fretting over the speech he must deliver at the Nobel Prize award ceremony in Sweden on Friday. He had already studied other Nobel speeches for length, tone and content. Researchers, whom he calls ''my ghostwriters,'' were digging up facts and statistics on Latin America, not to be used as such but to give him ideas. ''It has to be a political speech presented as literature,'' he sighed. ''I envy the chemists and the Peace Prize winners. They don't have to say a word and everyone applauds anyway.'' What's worse, he muttered on, ''I've heard that the Swedish Academy is a solemn clan out to make me over. And I have to wear a tail coat, a colonial costume, an upper-class outfit from the 19th century. I will feel terrible.''
He was what a friend called ''being a Marquezian,'' perpetually spinning tales around events, inflating the small and diminishing the sacred to make it less frightening, more manageable. Those who know him well say he lives, talks and writes this way, taking a minor event of the day, tossing, polishing, repeating and expanding it until at the end of the week it has become an epos with a life of its own.
But this 54-year-old man of literature, the storyteller and novelist of the Latin American wondrous, is also a compulsive politician. The politics of the left he practices are as unorthodox as his own freewheeling mind. They express themselves in reactions and sentiments rather than as a coherent doctrine. They surface when he eats, drinks and debates with heads of state, cabinet ministers and guerrilla comandantes with whom he schemes and mediates. The purpose is to promote change, preferably revolution, maybe in his native Colombia, possibly in all of Latin America. When someone recently pointed to the paradox of his friendship with and support for both France's Francois Mitterrand and Cuba's Fidel Castro, he said, ''It is logical. Progress in France lies with Mitterrand, in Latin America with Fidel Castro.'' In October he acted as an intermediary between Mitterrand and Castro to obtain the release of the jailed Cuban poet Armando Valladares. Mitterrand had been under pressure from conservative French intellectuals for maintaining close relations with the Cuban Government which had jailed the paralyzed poet.
For an author who has long used his literary fame as a vehicle for his political sentiments, there may be few better political platforms than a Nobel award ceremony. Which is why he worried for much of the month of November. ''I have this great opportunity,'' he said. ''I must try and break through the cliches about Latin America. Superpowers and other outsiders have fought over us for centuries in ways that have nothing to do with our problems. In reality we are all alone.'' Inevitably, perhaps, the author whose recurrent imagery in his writings is that of solitude, was developing the theme of ''the solitude of Latin America.''
Why does Latin America's most famous author think he was given the coveted Nobel prize? ''For my books,'' he quickly replied, brushing aside suggestions that it may be related to politics or geography. ''But I knew I had a strong godfather there, the poet Artur Lundkvist. He is the only member of the Swedish Academy who intensely cares about Latin American literature. For us Latin writers, he was always a fearful, remote deity who determined the fate of our letters. When I met him, he proved to be a very humorous old man with a young heart. He once told me, 'I refuse to die until they give that prize to you.' ''
We left the hotel and our car headed through the desert to Zacatecas where the director Ruy Guerra, a friend of Garcia Marquez, was filming his story ''Innocent Erendira.'' From the outset the author, who has no pretense of erudition, had said, ''I am a bad theoretician and a bad critic. I prefer to tell anecdotes.''
He tells stories instinctively, with that same flow of the unexpected that runs through his written narrative. Looking at the unlikely sight of a shepherd appearing with his flock among the desert cactus, he said, ''Being a shepherd is always an art. But in Spain they say a shepherd is only good for one thing, for plane accidents. If a plane crashes somewhere, there is always a shepherd who can tell you, 'It's over there, I saw it fall with my own eyes.' ''
Fame - in Latin America he gets a treatment halfway between a movie star's and a charismatic leader's - to him is an unrelenting invasion of his privacy and an onerous pressure on his work. ''It has become more difficult to write. You cannot forget that everything you put down goes to an ever larger number of people. Fame is very agreeable, but the bad thing is that it goes on 24 hours a day. It reminds me of Graham Greene, who said the terrible thing about bombings is that you get wounded - but the bombing goes on.''
Yet fame, and the perennial interviews brought on by it, also permits him to talk about the past he has poured into his novels and short stories. He never seems to tire of evoking or exploring it with nostalgia.
Aracataca appears in his mind, his small, hot and dusty hometown in Colombia that became the Macondo of ''One Hundred Years of Solitude.'' So does the rambling house where he grew up as the only child among grandparents and aunts, all of whom became characters in the novel's complex family chronicle. When Gabriel was an infant, his parents, who had 16 children, moved to another town where his father worked as a telegrapher, and Gabriel was left in the care of his grandparents. His grandfather, Garcia Marquez said, was ''a former colonel who told endless stories of the civil war of his youth, took me to the circus and the cinema and was my umbilical cord with history and reality.'' Grandmother was ''always telling fables, family legends and organizing our life according to the messages she received in her dreams.'' She was ''the source of the magical, superstitious and supernatural view of reality.''
Almost as important perhaps were his days as a journalist in the coastal town of Barranquilla where he began his literary apprenticeship. He was 20 then and wrote, read and debated every day with three other young reporters with literary aspirations. The inseparable quartet met each evening in a bookshop and went on to cafes, drinking beer and rum till deep in the night. ''We would argue at the top of our voices over literature,'' recalled one of the four, German Vargas, to whom Garcia Marquez dedicated ''Leaf Storm,'' his first book. Along with their own work, the four read and dissected Defoe, Dos Passos, Camus, Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, the American who has perhaps most influenced Latin American contemporary fiction. All four appear as friends - German, Alvaro, Alfonso and Gabriel - in ''One Hundred Years of Solitude.''
''The whole notion that I am an intuitive is a myth I have created myself,'' said Garcia Marquez. ''I worked my way through literature, reading, writing, reading and writing -it's the only way.'' He read the Russians and the great English and American authors. ''I learned a lot from James Joyce and Erskine Caldwell and of course from Hemingway.'' But the ''tricks you need to transform something which appears fantastic, unbelievable into something plausible, credible, those I learned from journalism,'' he said. ''The key is to tell it straight. It is done by reporters and by country folk.''
His stories, he recalled, often started from one initial visual image. '' 'Leaf Storm,' for example, began from a flash of myself as a little boy, sitting on a chair in the living room,'' he said. The initial image for ''No One Writes to the Colonel,'' he went on, came ''when I saw an old man looking at fish in the market of Barranquilla.'' But ''One Hundred Years of Solitude,'' his most monumental work, ''traveled in bits and pieces through my head for 17 years. In the end I was able to talk the book. I walked around with its fragments until they burst. Then I sat down and it took me 18 months to write.''
For ''The Autumn of the Patriarch,'' ''my only book which I have not lived myself, I read everything I could about Latin American and especially Caribbean dictators over a period of 10 years. On top of that I talked with whomever I could who had a related experience. Then I traed to forget everything and forced myself to work purely from my imagination so that no event could be linked to a real one. But the dictator became the most autobiographical character of all. Excluding the aspect of power, which I have not known, of course, many of my personal feelings, obsessions, ideas, nostalgias, superstitions, are attributed to the patriarch. No doubt there are affinities between power and fame. I think the loneliness of power and the loneliness of fame are much alike.''
Everything in his books and stories has an origin he can identify; he knows what he associated with each image and how he put them together. Many incidents are little games he plays with his family or friends. He once recounted the origins of General Lorenzo Gavilan, a character in ''One Hundred Years of Solitude'' who began as a character in ''The Death of Artemio Cruz,'' the novel by his close friend, the Mexican author Carlos Fuentes. ''A conscientious reader had written to Fuentes that the fate of Lorenzo Gavilan, one of his characters, had been left unresolved. Fuentes checked and realized it was true. I told Fuentes it could be fixed. So that is why Lorenzo Gavilan, with the belt buckle from Morelia, dies in the Macondo banana workers' strike.''
The years from age 20 to 30 for Garcia Marquez were a time of hawking manuscripts, of getting good reviews and poor sales. He spent almost three of these years in Europe, a short time in Rome, a longer period in Paris, writing and being dead poor. ''The most important thing Paris gave me was a perspective on Latin America. It taught me the differences between Latin America and Europe and among the Latin American countries themselves through the Latins I met there.'' He is still writing stories about the Latin Americans he knew in that period. It has left him with a love-hate relationship with the French, yet he still visits Paris every year.
Nothing exciting, he feels, is happening in West European fiction. The exceptions, he says, ''are Germany's Heinrich Boll and Gunter Grass. The French are writing the same sort of books every year for the same Goncourt Prizes.'' Garcia Marquez, the anti-intellectual, barely disguises his distrust of France's intellectuals and their ''schematic mental games and abstractions.'' Like so many Latin Americans he looks on theory as an enemy, a box that closes off perception and inhibits the mind. While he has a similar distrust for Communist apparatchiks, whom he calls ''communistoids,'' he voices this view only privately so as ''not to play into the hands of the Right.''
Latin American literature, he believes, is ''very much alive.'' He calls the late Pablo Neruda of Chile ''one of this continent's greatest poets.'' He admires the Mexican novelists Juan Rulfo and his friend Carlos Fuentes. But there are more than 30 young writers in Latin America, he says, who are doing interesting work and he has tried to use his influence to get their work published. Of Argentina's Jorge Luis Borges he once said that he ''deserves the highest merit because he has done more than anyone for the Spanish language since Cervantes.''
For the past 20 years the author has lived in Mexico City. He went there ''because there was work for him,'' recalled the poet Alvaro Mutis, his friend of 32 years. Here in the 60's Garcia Marquez wrote film scripts and magazine pieces for a living and fiction in his spare time.
But he feels most at ease, he never ceases to say, in the Latin Caribbean, in coastal Colombia rather than in the country's highlands. When he left the coastal town of Aracataca to go to school in a Colombian mountain town, Zipaquira, and later went to Bogota, the capital, he said, ''I became a foreigner.'' Those highlands were part of a Spanish colonial culture - ''solemn, gray and very cold'' - and felt like another country to him. They were opposite realms, the highlands, where people are introverted and silent, and the Caribbean, a domain of sensory profusion, of light, heat and quick repartee, a region where facts and reasons embody none of the virtues ascribed to them in the colonial world. In this realm, truth is regarded as one more illusion, just one more version of many possible vantage points and people change their reality by changing their perception of it.
It is from and about this Caribbean condition of mind that he writes. ''People here sense the presence of phenomena or other beings, even if they are not there,'' he said. ''These must be influences of ancient religions, of Indians and blacks. This world's full of spirits you find all over, in Puerto Rico, in Cuba, in Brazil. In Santo Domingo and in Vera Cruz.''
Given his attachment to the Latin Caribbean, it is not easy to explain why Garcia Marquez feels so irresistibly attracted to its apparent antithesis, the United States. This fascination began more than 30 years ago when the Barranquilla foursome not only studied American literature but also avidly examined the styles of American journalism. ''In Colombia, journalism was very heavy then, academic, classic, very Spanish. North American journalism, especially after its experiences in the Second World War, was new and different.''
American open-mindedness and pragmatism appeal to him. He also unabashedly declares that North America's authors are ''the literary giants of the 20th century'' and ''New York is the greatest phenomenon of our time.'' In the same breath he defends Fidel Castro's foreign policy and scorns Washington's.
His admiration for the United States makes it all the more painful for him that he has had great difficulties obtaining a visa to enter the country since 1960, due to his political views. He has sent his elder son Rodrigo to study history at Harvard. ''There is no way one can relate to contemporary cultural life without going to the United States,'' he said. Ironically that is the place ''with the most serious students and the best analyses of my work. Yet the State Department plays this game with me in which I may or may not be able to go there.''
Why does this man of literature invest so much energy in the political activism that has caused the controversies? ''If I were not a Latin American, maybe I wouldn't,'' he said. ''But underdevelopment is total, integral, it affects every part of our lives. The problems of our societies are mainly political. And the commitment of a writer is with the reality of all of society, not just with a small part of it. If not, he is as bad as the politicians who disregard a large part of our reality. That is why authors, painters, writers in Latin America get politically involved. I am surprised by the little resonance authors have in the United States and in Europe. Politics is made there only by the politicians. The era of Sartre and Camus has definitely passed.''
Next month, after the Nobel Prize dust has settled, Garcia Marquez hopes to go back to writing his new novel. Like his last two books it is already taking shape as a rumor, slowly creating a vanguard of its own. ''One Hundred Years of Solitude'' was preceded by the publication of small, provocative fragments and became a myth before it came out. ''The Chronicle of a Death,'' which is scheduled for publication in the United States next April, was heralded by a publicity extravaganza worthy of a show business scandal. Garcia Marquez has said that he showed the manuscript to Fidel Castro before submitting it to his publisher; ''Castro,'' he said, ''is a very cultured, well-read man, with a keen eye for spotting contradictions in a crime story like this.''
Critics of the author ascribe the brouhaha around his publications to his mastery of the calculated special effect. His friends say it is created by the hordes of reporters who are forever seeking him out. But even his friends concede that the author's claim, widely reported in the mid-70's, that he would refuse to publish until Chile's dictator Augusto Pinochet fell, fits into the category of ''calculated effects.'' Of his work in progress he is willing to give only a hint. It is ''a happy love story,'' he suggests, which may begin with two octogenarians in bed one morning talking and making love.
Next year the author also plans to fulfill a dream when he launches his own newspaper in Colombia. The project clearly appeals to his old yearning for the world of newspapers and to his newer appetite for power through political influence. His own explanation is that he wants to set new standards and train young people for his paper. ''I have always been pulled by the world of journalism. And I am still fascinated by the relationship between journalism and literature.''
Marlise Simons reports for The Times from Mexico and Central America.