'The story of his life and career is as beautifully shaped and fabular as one of his stories' – Goldman on García Márquez. Photograph: Atonatiuh Bracho/Viva Photography
Gabriel García Márquez: 'What a kind and always funny man he was'American novelist Francisco Goldman on how the life and work of the late Nobel-prizewinning author have inspired him
Saturday 26 April 2014
García Márquez with Fidel Castro. Photograph: Jose Goitia/AP
was about 14, at home, sick from school, the day my mother came into my bedroom to read to me, in Spanish, from a novel that she said was one of the saddest novels she'd ever read. The book's title, Cien años de soledad, did sound pretty sad. The novel didn't exist in English yet, and while the translation I made in my head that day might have been the same literal one as the title, translated by Gregory Rabassa, that would become so famous, mine that day was something closer to "A hundred years of loneliness" – yeah, that sounds like my junior high-school life.
That would have been the first time I'd heard the name Gabriel García Márquez. I don't remember what passage my mother read. The novel was sad, but also exciting to her, because Macondo, the fictional town in the novel inspired by the Colombian one that García Márquez was from, reminded her of her family's village on the Guatemalan south coast. Thanks to Cien años de soledad, my mother discovered a mythological grandeur in her family's backwater roots and misfortune, because from then on she relished those stories in a new way: the deaf-dumb fortuneteller who'd induced my penniless Spanish-immigrant grandfather to become a cattle rustler; "the most beautiful Indian girl in the village" who became his adolescent bride and died in childbirth and from whom we are all descended, though her name has somehow been forgotten …
Years later, when I began to hear people speaking, sometimes bitterly, about García Márquez's magical realism as if it were kind of frivolous literary confection, "fairy dust", mocking his "flying grandmothers", I would wonder what they were talking about. Why didn't they understand or had forgotten that his novels, for all their enchantment and occasional extravagance, were also, as my mother had first taught me, among the saddest ever written? But I understood where the anger came from, though none of it was García Márquez's fault. Europe and the United States had turned "magical realism" into an absurd cartoon, the supposedly "authentic" way that Latin Americans were supposed to write if they wanted to be read outside of Latin America, resulting in an act of cultural vandalism against all the other serious Spanish-language writers who came after García Márquez and who didn't write that way. In the US, even our Latino writers were held hostage to that stereotype. No wonder that magical realism became practically a dirty word among Spanish-language writers at the same time that it influenced and inspired writers in other languages all over the world.
Over the last few days, since Gabo's death, I've had one conversation after the other, some actually face to face instead of via social media, with old friends, newer ones, and with the young Latin American writers living in New York whom I met the night he died, about García Márquez and his books. Across the generations, the same notes are repeatedly sounded. Everyone remembers what they felt upon first reading him, usually in adolescence, and long to read him that way again. What came between García Márquez and his readers? Fame, first, to an outlandish degree. When we see political criminals like the former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari reminiscing about his friendship with "Gabo" in the pages of El País, that intimate communication between reader and author, conducted within the pages of his books, a space we want to keep pure if not innocent, feels, however unfairly, sullied. I've never been bothered by Gabo's close friendship with Fidel Castro – two icons, great men in the old sense, of a vanished era; even if you consider the comandante politically reprehensible, you can't deny that he has a historical weightiness that no novelist should need to justify being fascinated by. If it's true that you couldn't pay me even to have a cup of coffee with the current Mexican president, maybe that's more indicative of something regrettable in my own spirit than of anything else. I felt chastened when I read what Mexican journalist Alma Guillermoprieto, who knew Gabo well, wrote a few days ago: "Drawn to power? Yes, without a doubt: hypnotised by power, unquestionably and unaccountably, openly. Everything attracted his voracious curiosity and hunger for the world." I got to know Gabo just well enough to know that that last phrase is true. Gabo and his wife Mercedes, as Alma also writes in El País, could also be tireless partyers. Only a few years ago I saw them, accompanied by their friends, charging in and out of Cartagena bars, practically doing the rumba, at three in the morning.When I was in my early 20s, I passed up a two-year scholarship on a prestigious MFA in creative writing programme – practically a guarantee in the US to a secure and peaceful university-tenured writing life – to accept the commission of one freelance journalism article in Central America, then descending into its long decade of cold war-fanned warfare. I was looking for my own place in the world and knew that would be a place I was going to need, in certain ways, to invent on my own, fusing the two parts of my world, the US and Central America, into a single "place" that I could write about. But I wanted, also, to be like García Márquez – to write fiction, but to be engaged in the world too, and to be a journalist, like Gabo. Being a reporter was the best profession in the world, he liked to say, and also that journalism should be practised as "another branch of literature".
Coming of age in the shadow of literary titans who were also romantic cheerleaders for the revolutionary left, not just García Márquez, but Neruda, Cortázar, Fuentes and so on, my generation of Latin American writers would be more characterised by political disillusionment. The greatest of us, Roberto Bolaño, born a year before me, scorned those who led young idealists into tragic militancy that inevitably resulted in death or exile. "We fought for parties," wrote Bolaño, "that, had they emerged victorious, would have immediately sent us to a forced-labour camp." Very early on, during my Central American education, leftist derision of Jorge Luis Borges provided an early inoculation against the fanaticism of the left that never wore off. The murder of the Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton by his fellow guerrillas was an early lesson in nihilistic treachery.
Whatever controversies Gabo's cold war politics once engendered feel beside the point now. None of those politicised writers, on the left or on the Thatcher-Reagan right, had a formula for solving Latin America's social ills. Nowadays, probably most Latin American writers reject the public political intellectual role, and I don't think that's wrong either. Cuba's repression of some personal freedoms is abhorrent; but to be poor in Cuba is to have a much better quality of life than a poor person in Guatemala, that's for sure, or even in Mexico. Every day, the US looks more like a 1980s Latin American oligarchy than a modern democracy. All the arguments go on chasing their tails. Chile's new generation of rising young leftists is doing just fine without any literary celebrity attached to their cause.
García Márquez's truest political legacy is the journalism school, the New Journalism Foundation (FNPI), that he founded in Cartagena, Colombia, in 1994, and that has, ever since, been bringing together young journalists from all over Latin America. If the crónica – long-form journalism – is currently one of Latin America's most vital literary genres, the FNPI has played a fomenting role in that. As one of the best of those alumni, the young Salvadoran Óscar Martínez, author of the precocious masterpiece, The Beast, wrote a few days ago on the foundation's Facebook page: "Never forget that many of we journalists working our beats here and there are who we are in great measure thanks to what you've done with Gabo's legacy." It's significant that the FNPI has taken workshops all over Latin America, but never to Cuba. I've had the privilege of teaching a few workshops there, and an administrator once confided to me that they had decided, for all of Gabo's closeness to Fidel, that to bring the school to Cuba would be a betrayal of its role as uncompromising advocate of a free press. Gabo once said to me: "The world is in such a mess that only good journalists can save it." I believe that this, certainly in the final decades of his life, was his most abiding political conviction.
There is a book – a fat, dishevelled paperback held together with tape – that I value more than any other I own. In some ways, this book is what I had instead of an MFA programme. And it came to me at just the right time, during my first year or so in Guatemala, writing freelance journalism and trying to begin a novel, when my fledgling writing had ground to a halt. How to transform so much violence, injustice, tragedy, sadness, anger and guilt into fiction, and why even try? It's a crazy, obsessive, 650‑page book written by one young literary genius who was determined to understand the genius of another somewhat older writer, to take that genius apart by hand like a fabulous clock and put it back together again in words. It has never been translated into English, probably because the two writers later had a falling out, and the younger is maybe embarrassed now by its occasionally fawning and breathless tone. I bought it in a Guatemala City bookstore around 1980, Mario Vargas Llosa's García Márquez: Historia de un deicidio – The story of a deicide. I took it with me when I went up to Lake Atitlán to be alone for a few days, and I remember sprawling on the lakeside outside my hotel until it became too dark to read. It describes the young Gabo's struggles with "the historical demon" of Colombia's horrific political violence – a period known as la violencia, when 300,000 people were killed in less than 10 years – and the pressure he and other writers were under to write in a politically "responsible" and "realistic" way. If he were to follow those prescriptions, he wrote, his fiction would be "a catalogue of cadavers". The book is packed full of nuggets of writerly wisdom, many formulated by a young García Márquez exploring his own vocation. In 1960, in a magazine essay titled "One or two things about the novel of la violencia", he wrote that the novelists writing as "witnesses" of la violencia had so far failed because "they were in the presence of a great novel, but they didn't have the serenity or patience, not even the astuteness to take the time they needed to learn to write it." And he continued: "Probably the most common mistake made by those who've tried to write about la violencia was to have tried – out of inexperience or voraciousness – to grab the radish by the leaves," filling their fiction with descriptions of "the decapitated, the castrated, raped women, mutilated genitals and disembowelments", forgetting that "the novel isn't found in the dead … but in the living sweating ice in their hiding places."
"I write every day," says Gabo in the book, "even on Sundays, from nine in the morning to three in the afternoon … While the work lasts – and One Hundred Years of Solitude took more than 18 months – there is not one minute of the day or night that I think of any other thing." The real work of a novel is the search, through patient word and structural craft, for a form that, Vargas Llosa emphasises, transforms reality, replaces reality with an autonomous one of its own. In his epigraph to the book, Vargas Llosa cites Conrad, "circles, circles; innumerable circles, concentric, eccentric … a mad art attempting the inconceivable". Perhaps there, with that combination of artistic discipline and impossible but ceaseless quest in mind, we find the García Márquez that still feels modern, as much as Borges and Bolaño still, and seemingly forever, do.
But what a kind and always funny man he was. Unexpectedly, I was pulled into his orbit when, in Mexico City, his nearly lifelong friend, Alvaro Mutis – who died last year – became a sort of mentor and, along with his wife Carmen, a friend to me. Eventually, also in Mexico City, long before I ever met his father, Gabo's son Gonzalo became one of my closest friends, so much so that he was a best man at my wedding to Aura in 2005. When my father died, in 2003, Gonzalo sent me a boxed edition of Living to Tell the Tale, drolly signed by Gabo, "From someone who also writes". In 2008, at a time when his health was beginning to weaken, Gabo appeared by my side at the Guadalajara Book Fair to announce the literary prize my friends and I were founding in honor of Aura, who had died in a swimming accident in 2007, and it was Gabo's participation that put the prize on the map in Mexico.
He was a beguiling mixture of garrulous raconteur and shy, childlike spirit. How gentle and also, to my surprise, fragile he seemed to me when I first met him, with his head of grey curls, his soft voice and sensitive yet direct gaze; his hands seemingly always moving, skittishly elegant. He created an air, especially when he was with his family, of bemused, affectionate calm around him. My favourite memory will probably always be of an afternoon, about 10 years ago, with Gonzalo, Alvaro Mutis and Gabo, the two elders teasing each other about old age like a pair of old Rat Pack comedians – "Jaja, looking at your droopy old man's ass!" – and entertaining each other, for hours, reciting poetry, first the often corny and ornate poetry they'd been made to memorise as students in Colombia, and then Golden Age poetry, and finishing off with an encore of García Lorca sonnets. "Listen," said Gabo, "to the mysterious density that every great sonnet has, the way every two lines seem to enclose a separate poem." I sat, listening, stunned and humbled by the prodigious memories and passion of those two great maestros.