Not long before he received the Nobel Prize, Gabriel García Márquez agreed to sit down with his long-time friend Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, who had worked in journalism with him since their early adulthood, for the interview to end all interviews. García Márquez did not like renown but One Hundred Years of Solitude had made him world famous and he was constantly pestered about giving interviews and talking to journalists, reporters and academics. A French editor, who was initiating a collection of book-length interviews with famous writers, approached Apuleyo Mendoza to convinced his old friend to join in. When he probed the great novelist, he liked the idea. “That’s a terrific idea. Don’t you see, that way we could get my interviews over and done with for ever.” The book was called The Fragrance of Guava and came out the same year the Swedish Academy gave him the Nobel Prize. If he thought he’d never have to worry about interviews again, he was dead wrong.
By the time García Márquez passed away, earlier this year, I had already read all his essential fiction: Strange Pilgrims and all the stories in Collected Stories, Leaf Storm, No One Writes to the Colonel, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Memories of my Melancholy Whores, In Evil Hour, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Autumn of the Patriarch, Love in the Time of Cholera, The General in his Labyrinth and Of Love and other Demons. There was a time in my reading life, back in high school, when the curricular books were (and are) unbearable to me, when García Márquez was the greatest writer in the world and One Hundred Years of Solitude the greatest novel ever written. I don’t think that anymore but for a young reader, slowly discovering literature, it was a miraculous floating piece of wood come to rescue me amidst the hostile sea of humourless solemnity and cult of pain that is and has always been, with few exceptions, Portuguese letters. Even now the saga of Macondo, with its mixture of fantasy and realism, its ghosts, magical artefacts and apparitions, its non-linear structure and baroque language, constrains my conception of what literature should be.
Gabo’s photograph has adorned my blog for months now until I had an occasion to write something in his memory. The Spanish Literature Month finally gives me that occasion. The Fragrance of Guava is a carefree book put together by two friends who felt like chatting informally about everything: memories, childhood, family, books, love, politics, fame, superstition, books, a book brimming with humanity and good disposition. I sense Gabo’s immense trust in Apuleyo Mendoza as he opened himself up to him, a friend who had been with him since the worst periods of his life and whose friendship continued through the good ones.
This book of evocations begins in Arataca, in a house full of relatives: his grandmother who told him stories full of ghosts and mysteries in a deadpan, serious tone, without astonishment or surprise; his grandfather, a retired colonel of many civil wars against conservative forces who filled Gabo’s young mind with war stories and showed him his war wounds, the reason why civil wars show up so often in his fiction; his mother, who as she grew older came to resemble the legendary Úrsula more and more; and his father, a conservative telegraph operator, for that reason despised by the liberal colonel, who courted his daughter so obstinately that he gave in. Family and friends were important to him and he himself liked being a family man. He met Mercedes, his future wife, when she was 13 and he straight away proposed to marry her. But they had to wait another decade. Together they had two children and Gabo claims that “my true vocation is to be a dad: I like being one, the most wonderful experience in my love was to help raise my two children, and I think that the best thing I did in my life are not my books but rather my children.” Mercedes managed his life while he shut himself for almost two years to write One Hundred Years of Solitude, she was the one who provided him with everything he needed to continue his work unmolested, going so far as to sell her car for money. When he finished the novel and mailed the manuscript, she asked, “What if the novel isn’t any good after all?” Fortunately it would be the greatest success of his life. Gabo never forgets the people he loves in his books. Chronicle of a Death Foretold, for instance, is narrated by him and his mother shows up in it under her real name. And Mercedes shows up in One Hundred Years of Solitude. His family and friends are present in his books, “signs to my most intimate friends, signs only they can discover” and that elude the critics, a pontificating class of people he has no patience for. Uh-oh…
Arataca, until the death of his grandfather when he was 8, was the joyous period of his life. Then he was taken to the capital, where he pursued and abandoned a Law degree and found a career in journalism, moving around Colombia, living in Cartagena and then in a small town called Barranquilla. As a young man he lived a bohemian, dissolute life: heavy drinking, chain smoking, literary meetings at bars, visits to brothels; as a journalist he had the “same schedules as prostitutes” and rented a cheap room in a whorehouse to live in. His first years as a writer were hard because success was slow to come, because of his political sympathies and because of the wide social divides in Colombian society; he came from the wrong background, had the wrong name, dressed the wrong way to make an impression on the elite that controlled the country, an elite that lived in ignorance of the actual country it ruled. In order to attest this disparity, Apuleyo Mendoza tells that when Gabo accepted the Nobel Prize, he wore the traditional Colombian liqui liqui costume. His friend was asked by “elegant ladies from Bogota” why the author had “suited up like a cook” to receive it.
His first book, Leaf Storm (1955) was written in the early hours of the morning, in the newspaper’s newsroom, after finishing his shift. Sometimes he was so poor that in order to get credit in the brothels he entrusted the manuscript to the bouncer, who knew how precious those pages were to him. Before he became a novelist, Gabo wanted to become a poet and read lots of poetry: Rimbaud and the poets who revolutionized Spanish-language poetry like Rubén Darío and Pablo Neruda. Then he changed to novels: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens, Flaubert, Joyce, Woolf, Hemingway, Graham Greene, Faulkner and Kafka, who showed him a non-rationalistic way of writing. He discusses at length magical realism. During childhood he tethered between the supernatural world of his grandmother and the rationality of the colonel. Fascinated by her stories, they nevertheless filled him with dread too. “My grandfather, in turn, was for me the absolute safety inside my grandmother’s uncertain world. Only with him did my anguish disappear and did I feel with my feet on the ground and well installed in the life. What’s strange, thinking about it now, is that I wanted to be like my grandfather – realistic, tough, safe – but I couldn’t resist the constant temptation of getting closer to my grandmother’s world.” Kafka, especially The Metamorphosis (translated into Spanish by Borges), introduced him to a way of writing that was similar to the way his grandmother told stories and that showed him how he wanted to write. Even so, to my surprise he claims to detest “fantasy.” “Because I believe that imagination is just an instrument for elaborating reality. But the source of creation, in the end, is always reality. And fantasy, that is, plain and simple invention, a la Walt Disney, without any basis on reality, is the most detestable thing.” For this reason he credits journalism (and I suppose Hemingway) with “teaching me resources to give validity to my stories.” According to him, his flights of fancy are realistic because women need bed sheets to fly into the air and men need cups of chocolate to levitate 10 centimeters off the ground; “the rigour of a journalist,” he says. Hm. Even weirder is when he claims that “In my novels there isn’t one line that isn’t based on reality.” Hm-mm. Inspiration for him merely means “a reconciliation with the theme on the strength of tenacity and mastery.” In other words, hard work; now that’s sensible talk. At the time he kept a rigid schedule, writing from 9 to 15 every day and carefully editing each sentence in order to be perfect, so that it could be ready to be given to an editor without mistakes or corrections.
Gabo reveals a lot about his creative process and the specific process of writing certain of his novels. For instance, in order to overcome the structural difficulty posed by Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which he wanted to end with the minute description of the crime, he claims that he simply inserted himself in the book in order to “walk at his leisure back and forth in the novel’s structural time. I mean, at the end of thirty years I discovered something that we, novelists, many times forget: that the best literary form is always the truth.” His books always start with a visual image; the one for One Hundred Years of Solitude, for instance, started with the image of colonel taking Gabo to go see ice when he was a little boy. That became the novel’s first sentence. Although this was the novel that catapulted his name onto the world stage, he accuses it of “almost ruining my life. After published, nothing was the same again” because “fame disturbs the sense of reality, perhaps as much as power, and besides it’s a constant threat to private life.” He was wary of fame. “It bothers me, the worst thing that can happen to a man who doesn’t have a vocation for literary success, in a continent unprepared to have successful writers, is to have his books sell like hot dogs. I detest transforming myself into a public spectacle. I detest television, congresses, conferences, round tables…” During the ceremony in Sweden, Gabo whispered to Apuleyo Mendoza, standing next to him, “Shit, this is like watching your own funeral!”
In the 2005 preface he wrote for the Portuguese edition, Apuleyo Mendoza reveals that although at the time of the interviews Gabo’s considered The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975) his best book, his preference later changed to Love in the Time of Cholera. He was not overly fond of One Hundred Years of Solitude, calling it even “superficial” and believing he could surpass it. To him he did just that with The Autumn of the Patriarch. “Literarily speaking, my most important work, the one that can save me from oblivion, is The Autumn of the Patriarch,” because it’s the novel “I always wanted to write, and besides it’s the one where I took further my personal confessions.” His main drive to write this spectacular novel, which he conceived as a “poem on the solitude of power,” was because no one had yet written “Latin American dictator novel.” Although Miguel Ángel Asturia’s The President had been published in 1946, both are quick to decry it, which validates my own negative impression when I read it. Originally he wanted to write the novel as a long monologue by the dictator sentenced to death, but scraped that idea. “First of all, it was anti-historical: dictators either died of old age in their beds, or were killed, or ran away. But they weren’t tried. Secondly, the monologue would have restricted me to the dictator’s single point of view and to his own language.” Interesting, what Roa Bastos would have to say about this? In this novel he mixed times (a sunken US war ship shares the sea next to Columbus’ caravels) and geographies, going for a synthesis of reality rather than an accurate depiction of one regime. But although he wanted to write the Latin American dictator novel, he was conscious that simultaneously a series of novels on the same topic had come out creating a subgenre: Roa Bastos’ I, the Supreme (1974), Alejo Carpentier’s Reasons of State (1974) and Arturo Uslar Pietri’s Oficio de difuntos (1976). About this coincidence he says: “I don’t think it was a sudden interest. The theme has been a constant in Latin-American literature since its origins, and I suppose it’ll continue to be. That’s understandable because the dictator is the only mythological personality created by Latin America, and his historical cycle is far from being concluded.”
Sadly the book can’t delve into Love in the Time of Cholera, his last great book. I cherry-picked what I imagined would be the most interesting facts for book lovers, so I’m not going to include his meetings with politicians, his personal politics, or his take on superstitions. But I have to make an exception for his friendship with Fidel Castro, a voracious reader, a lover of literature, and his proofreader. He was in Cuba when he published The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor and Castro “went to my hotel just to tell me that there was a miscalculation on the boat’s speed,” which turned out to be true. Castro has a keen mind and a great culture and is capable of spotting these little mistakes with hawk-like precision. “So that before I published Chronicle of a Death Foretold, I took the manuscript to him and he pointed out a mistake on the details of hunting rifles.” There you have it, his books were proofread by Castro himself. How can this man continue to surprise and amuse after he's left us?