|Gabriel Garcia Márquez|
LOVE AND AGE: A TALK WITH GARCIA MARQUEZ
By Marlise Simons
Marlise Simons reports from Latin America for The New York Times.
Published: April 7, 1985
GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ is in the midst of a new novel, and a predictable order is imposed on his life. The 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature is behind him and so is the publication of his most recent novel, ''Chronicle of a Death Foretold.'' Still, his fans seek out the 57- year-old author of ''One Hundred Years of Solitude'' - the book that made him a celebrity.
His days now are like his writing - planned meticulously and carried out with carefree style. After six hours at the typewriter, he divides the remainder of the day between reading and listening to music, and friends, writers, politicians - people he calls my ''critics, protectors and co-conspirators.''
At times he lives in Cartagena, on Colombia's Caribbean coast, not far from where he was born. The area remains a rich source for him, replenishing his imagination with the myth and anecdote that find their way into his writing. But he and his wife, Mercedes, always return to the highlands and Mexico City, where he writes in the privacy of a studio in his garden. This is where the shy yet gregarious writer and I talked in late February. He has said that his novel in progress has to do with aging. I asked him to discuss his approach to old people in fiction:
You're writing a happy love story, as you've called it, a love affair between two very old people.
It's the story of a love that begins when the boy and girl are very young. But it is suspended. It stays in a cocoon. It's renewed when they are in their 80's.
It began with an idea, an image I had. The point of departure for a book for me is always an image, never a concept or a plot. The first image I had for this book is that of an old couple fleeing by boat. An old couple, happy on a boat, dancing on the deck. But I don't want to talk about the book yet. That will bring me bad luck. You've always said that a writer spends the rest of his life writing about his youth. Now you're inventing a peiod of your life that you haven't lived yet.
Yes, I'm anticipating. But in a way I've always done that since I was young. My two first books (both published in the United States as the title stories of collections) were about old people. In ''Leaf Storm,'' an old man no longer knows what to do and hangs himself. And '' No One Writes to the Colonel'' is about an old man waiting for a letter that never arrives. If I think about it, about all those characters in ''One Hundred Years of Solitude,'' I always seem to have observed my elders. I've never written about children.
Perhaps because as a child you lived for some time with your grandparents?
Yes, that was very important. Basically my grandparents were the models for many of the people in my books because I knew how they talked, how they behaved. To make sure the characters were real, I would always use my granparents as a reference point. But I was trying to reflect the behavior of my elders without really penetrating what was happening inside them.
I am beginnig to become conscious of old age now. This book I'm wirting obliges me to think six hours a day about things I had never seriously explored: old age, love and death. It is having an effect on me. You leave a lot of yourself in a book, but a book leaves you with a lot of reflections. I never thought so seriously about death until I began to try and see how it affects people in their old age. I was used to my characters never dying. They were living endlessly.
Except the ones that were hanged, shot or otherwise assassinated.
Yes, through violence. But they didn't die of old age, there was no aging process. Now that I'm getting older, I'm concerned with how age affects the sentiments, which after all is the most important.
Sex, well I don't know, but I have the impression that sex does not end as long as you don't want it to end. While a person does not give up sex, sex does not give up the person. What you cannot do is to stop for a long time because then it is very hard to start up again. So you always have to keep the engine running. It is something I'm dealing with in this book. I don't care what age the characters are, if they've had a continuous sex life, they go on. I don't know if this is a fantasy I'm having. But at least I know that my grandfather, who died very old, was still active.
Did you study old age or read how other writers have treated it?
No, I don't work that way. I only read Simone de Beauvoir's book ''The Coming of Age.'' I try to let the writing, the imagination and invention tell me the secrets of old age. I imagine that afterward, specialists and old people themselves may say that it's not like this. So it may have to be the old age of my book and not that of life.
Curiously, I heard that someone in Colombia just published a study about old age in ''One Hundred Years of Solitude.'' I haven't read it. I was told it was done by a gerontologist who said that the treatment of old age was very well done. For me it was sheer intuition. I wrote the book when I was between 38 and 40.
What I don't do is prepare myself to deal with an overall theme. I may consult on small points. For ''One Hundred Years of Solitude'' I didn't study the economic or social conditions of Colombia. I could have made a serious investigation about the drama of the foreign banana companies. But I asked a few questions and look what happened. I went to check how many dead there were in the banana workers' strike of 1928. It was a tremendous national scandal. It's not exactly known, but I was told about 17. For my book, 17 dead would have been a joke. I needed enough bodies to fill a train. I wanted the train instead of being loaded with bananas to be loaded with corpses. History was against me, with 17 dead. That would not even fill a wagon. So I put 3,000. And so not long ago, during a commemoration of the event, someone in a speech talked about the massacre of the 3,000 compatriots.
So what I'm trying to say is that I don't make a study. I am not inclined to theorizing. I do not want to turn any of my experiences into theory and I also read very little literary theory. But of course I may look up some episodes someone has written or check some statistics.
What did you learn from Simone de Beauvoir's book?
I was very impressed by it. It's a study, a book of reflections on old age, and it includes statistics. Nevertheless, one aspect that is not dealt with much interests me a great deal. And that is the sex life of the aged. It is mostly dealt with statistically. What interest me is: why is there a tendency to look upon the sexual activities of the aged with aversion. I don't understand why it should be.
It is one of the points I am working out in the book. The couple are not allowed to marry when he is 22 and she is 18 because they are told they are very young. And when they again consider marriage, he is then 82 and she is 78, they're told they can't because they're very old. As far as I'm concerned, this tendency to see the sex life of the aged as repugnant is unjust. There is no doubt that some old people who can have no sex life masturbate until their death.
My parent in some way are the model for the book - maybe not the model, but many of the experiences are theirs. My parents were married for 60 years, they had 16 children, my mother had a child after she was 42. I've always been very curious to know what happened between them after they were 70. My father died when he was 84. I talked to him about this in very general terms. But you know how it is in Latin America, you don't dare ask such questions, not of one's parents or anyone else.
You've said how much you've always liked being able to drop in at your parents' home every day when you're in Colombia. Now your father has just died (in December). Do you feel his absence has changed you?
Since the age of 13 or 14, I haven't lived with my parents. So I've always felt a visitor at home. And this helps me cope better with the emptiness my father left behind. My brothers and sisters who always lived at home are very disconcerted. No one had died in that family - there are the 16 children, 34 grangchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
But the death of one's father brings the certainty of death closer. And it creates a certain haste. This haste you get not only from a father's death, you get it anyway as you age. As time is passing, you get the impression that you have to work faster. And above all, to start preparing for a useful old age.
How do you see that?
Well, for me it's suffieient to be able to write, I can be useful until I'm a hundred years old if I can write. My subject is life and the subject gets larger the longer I live.
Do you think a lot about growing old?
I'm beginning to. My main fear is the failing of the body. There will be a moment that diets or exercises won't do any good, that the body wastes away. I feel I'm reaching the age of the ''never'': I never felt this before, I never had this pain, I never breathed this way, I never had to go to the bathroom so many times during the night, I never woke up so early.
But the most interesting is what happens in one's heart. that is still a mystery. I'm very curious, as I'm writing this book, to see how the characters go on behaving. It's a true investigation. I could almost say that one writes the novel to see how it will turn out. And to be able to read it.
Do you work very differently now than when you were young?
The writing process is very different. When you are young, you write almost - well, every writer is different, I'm talking about myself - almost like writing a poem. You write on impulses and inspiration. You have so much inspiration that your not concerned with technique. You just see what comes out, without worrying much about what you are going to say and how.On the other hand, later, you know exactly what you are going to say and what you want to say. And you have a lot to tell. Even if all of your life you continue to tell about your childhood, later you are better able to interpret it, or at least interpret it in a different way.
When you are older, when the inspiration diminishes, you depend more on technique. If you don't have that everything collapses. There is no question that you write much more slowly, with much more care, and perhaps with less inspiration. This is the great problem of the professional author.
When I was 20, I wrote a daily story for a newspaper and at times even some editorials on the same day. Then at night when everyone had left the newsroom, I would stay to write a short story or work on a novel.
There is a story called ''The Night of the Curlews,'' one of my first. It was the time when we put out a weekly literary magazine in Barranquilla, called La Cronica. At one point the editor suddenly found he was left with two empty pages. So in the evening I sat down and wrote that story.
I couldn't do that today. If I had it completely worked out, I would still need at least two or three weeks to write it. Worse, not many years ago, I wrote a story of 15 pages and bought a package of 500 sheets of paper. when I finished the story, I had used up all 500 to write the 15.
Besides, I always used to write at night and write smoking. It's disadvantage of youth that you almost always write when you are tired. You sit down only after you've done everything you have to do to make a living. Then with time you become more of a professional and you organize your life.
When the time came that I no longer had to work in a newspaper and could only write, I found it very hard to sit down in the morning and write during the day. Then, as I got older, I had to stop smoking. I had never written a word without smoking.So I had a choice, wait until I get used to not smoking, or learn to write without it right away. I tried right away and it was extremely difficult. Only then I realized that I used to stop writing not because I was so tired but because I was so intoxicated from the cigarettes. I'm much older now but I wake up feeling fresh.
Another great difference between one age and another to me is memory. I never used to write down all the ideas that occur to me while writing.I believed that if I forgot them they were not important, and the ones that really mattered were those I remembered. Now I write them all down. It makes me very anxious to know that I thought of something but I forgot, something I was going to say, that I read, where I read it, a melody I cannot recall. At a certain age, you begin forgetting names, things. It's a real cause of anguish that one has to learn to overcome. It's not easy. A lot of one's work deals with form and you can get obsessive or desperate about a detail. So now I take notes. I'll scribble a phrase, or a point I may need tomorrow. There are advantages and disadvantages in aging.
I've come to realize though, there is one thing for which you need to be young. And that is to learn the technique of writing, the tricks of the trade. If you don't learn that when you're young, you won't when you're old.
After the Nobel Prize you said that success, the prize, are a burden that makes it more difficult to write. Do you still feel that way?
It's a private joke of mine that I have been famous for a long time but nobody knew about it. No, recognition is not a burden for me. I've always had my projects and I haven't changed them. I was working on this book before the prize and I'm still writing it. But it is disturbing for one's private life. It brings many outside interferences, distractions, interruptions. There are many requests to do things, to attend events, they take a lot of time, people don't like to be refused.
Perhaps it's an excess of vanity, but I've always felt all this was going to happen. My commitment to my writing is no different, it's always been very deep. Even in journalism.
Now all my newspaper stories have been dug up in Colombia, whatever I wrote since I was 18. Six volumes have already been published and there are two or three to go.
Imagine the shock I got when I heard people wanted to do this. Then I realized it was going to happen anyway, sooner or later. Or they wait till I'm dead and do it then. So I figured the best thing was to have control over it. I read almost all of them and I don't have to regret anything. There are no great gaffes and no important contradictions. But I've always known that whatever you write down, it will pursue you, even after you're dead. There it is. You cannot say, I didn't write that.
But fame has not created greater pressures?
You could ask me if today I'm more frightened than before when I sit down to write. All my life I've been frightened at the moment I sit down to write.
Every day. Terribly frightened.
When will you finish the book you're writing now?
Someone asked me the other day how much longer I was going to be in Mexico this time. I said, not how much time, but how many pages. I have about 180 pages to go. That means 180 days. It's a matter of three months, I think.
We were talking about how from a very young age you were already writing about old people. How would you feel about doing children's stories, now that you are growing old?
I already tried writing children's stories. It did n't work. Once I wrote one and I showed it to my two sons who were very small then. They gave it back to me. They said: ''Papa, you think that children are really dumb.''