Jaime Abello Banfi and Orlando Oliveros (trans. Fionn Petch)
Gabriel García Márquez died in 2014 and it is already four decades since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he remains present in the everyday lives of Colombians, remembered in countless ways as a national hero, popular icon and cultural cliché. His smiling face appears on the 50,000 peso banknote, and the country’s streets are adorned with murals and graffiti depicting him together with the phrases and images he is so well known for, such as his yellow butterflies. The name ‘Macondo’ serves as a kind of doppelgänger for Colombia, a colloquial synonym for the nation, but is also used for restaurants, handicraft stores and other businesses serving the growing influx of cultural tourists who come from around the world, enchanted by his stories, to discover a country that promotes itself as the birthplace of magical realism. Quotes and themes enunciated by Gabo (the family nickname by which he is universally known) echo every day across social media, newspaper articles, political speeches and – what would make him happiest of all – in declarations of love, even if no longer via handwritten letters but the dubious privacy of online chat messages. During the global Covid-19 lockdown numerous references to the plague of insomnia in One Hundred Years of Solitude circulated on social media, as if they presaged the pandemic. This selection of less well-known quotes from Colombia’s greatest writer, with commentaries on each, is a special contribution to The London Magazine prepared by Gabo Foundation (Fundación Gabo).
Love is the most important theme in the history of humanity. Some say it is death, but I don’t believe that, because everything is connected to love. Every single story of mine has something of love in it, if read with care.
Prior to Love in the Time of Cholera, love in the novels of García Márquez was one of death’s many masks. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, for example, some characters such as Colonel Aureliano Buendía find it impossible to love. However, in the characters of Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, Eros triumphs. From Cholera on, the characters in the subsequent books experience a more genuine and passionate love: Sierva María de Todos los Ángeles and Cayetano Delaura in Of Love and Other Demons; the wise old man and his Delgadina in Memories of My Melancholy Whores.
I don’t want to be remembered for One Hundred Years of Solitude, nor for the Nobel Prize, but for the newspaper. I was born a journalist and I feel more like a reporter now than ever. I carry it in my blood, it calls to me.
Despite the success of his stories and novels, which earned him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982, Gabriel García Márquez never stopped seeing himself as a journalist. It was a profession he practised for over fifty years beginning in 1948 for different periodicals around the world. In 1983, his fascination for news and the art of telling it well led him to dream of founding El Otro, a professional, independent national newspaper he planned to fund with the money from the prize. The project never came to fruition. However, this frustrated adventure found another outlet in the idea of holding workshops for the education of journalists. This led him to establish in Cartagena in 1994 the Foundation for a New Ibero-American Journalism (FNPI) – today the Fundación Gabo. After delivering one of his first itinerant workshops on journalism in Madrid, he spoke to El País: ‘I have nothing to teach, but I realised that I didn’t want to take with me a lifetime’s worth of experience. I thought that the only way to pass it on was in the manner of the Old Masters of the Renaissance, from person to person. But since that was a bit too much, I decided to take ten at a time.’
I see journalism as a literary genre at the same level as the novel, poetry, the short story and theatre. It is important because it is a literary genre that has its feet on the ground. With literature you can escape reality, but with a journalistic training a wire keeps you attached to it. A writer with his feet on the ground and a journalist capable of flight: this is what I am. A storyteller, at bottom. And it is a pity I can’t also tell stories in song, because I’d like that even more. But I’ve never been able to and I regret that greatly.
García Márquez’s vocation was to tell stories, both in non-fiction – chronicles, reportage and opinion pieces – and fiction – stories, novels and scripts. Had he been able, he would have also composed songs. Indeed, at the start of the 1980s he attempted to make an album of bolero music with the Mexican composer and musician Armando Manzanero: Gabo would put his words to Armando’s music. However, he gave up when he found it impossible to reduce his stories to seven or eight verses. ‘It’s the trickiest thing there is,’ he told Revista Coralibe in April 1981.
There is a vast amount of research into period medicine in Of Love and Other Demons. What I had to learn about leprosy, what I had to learn about asthma, what I had to learn about slavery, above all. And to learn the language used for each of them, too. Each book is a world of its own. But there’s something else, too: I do this research myself, but I always have a lot of people helping me. My doctor friends, my lawyer friends, my healer friends. I always turn to them.
Unlimited curiosity, the relationship with the sources and investigating the exact piece of information connect his journalistic experience with his literary creation. The Doctors of Macondo, a book by Juan Fernández de la Gala to be published by the Fundación Gabo in 2022, reveals how in García Márquez’s novels the descriptions of physiological processes and diseases combine admirable precision with the finest literary style, thanks to his exhaustive research into scientific texts and consultation of doctors and experts who supported the writing process. Perhaps it is due to the verisimilitude of his imaginary realities that during the global pandemic so many people saw as prophetic the quarantine imposed on the inhabitants of Macondo to prevent the spread of the insomnia plague, the belief that it spreads from mouth to mouth, and the hope that in time the village would return to normality. The premonitory character of these passages in One Hundred Years of Solitude inspired the short film The Insomnia Plague released by the Fundación Gabo in 2020, produced and directed by the Venezuelan Leonardo Aranguibel with the involvement of thirty actors from across Latin America.
There is nothing in what I have written that is not real. What I do is transform reality poetically. Lots of people say I have a great imagination, but those living in these villages in the Caribbean know that this imagination is the truth of their reality.
In a 1981 column entitled ‘Fantasy and Artistic Creation’, García Márquez wrote that the greatest challenge for artists in Latin America and the Caribbean was not to come up with original plots and characters but to make their reality believable. It was this challenge, transformed into a narrative principle, that drove the Colombian writer’s work. His autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale, is an attempt to describe the true yet extraordinary situations that inspired his stories and novels.
In the Caribbean there’s a perfect symbiosis between the people, daily life and the natural world. I grew up in a village hidden away among marshes and jungles on the north coast of Colombia. The smell of the vegetation there is enough to turn your stomach. It’s a place where the sea comes in every imaginable shade of blue, where tornadoes make houses fly away, where villages lie buried under dust and the air burns your lungs. For the peoples of the Caribbean, natural catastrophe and human tragedy are part of everyday life. Amid all this we have the powerful influence of myths brought over by slaves, mixed in with Indian legends and Andalusian imagination. The result is a very special way of looking at things, a view of life that sees a bit of the marvellous in everything, and this appears in my novels. It is the supernatural side to things, a kind of reality that ignores the laws of reason, just like in dreams.
A universe that escapes rationality. In Macondo as in the Caribbean, reality gives way to fantasy and the supernatural. Thanks to the continual encounter between different cultures, with their superstitions and mythologies, the marvellous is an everyday matter.
My influences – in Colombia especially – come from outside of literature. I think that more than any other book, what opened my eyes was music, the Vallenato style in particular. I’m talking about years ago, when Vallenato was barely known in a small corner of the Magdalena river. I was struck by the way they told stories, narrated events so naturally. The Vallenatos told stories the way my grandfather did.
Gabo’s literary work draws on folk culture. His maternal grandmother, Tranquilina Iguarán, not only passed on her fears of ghosts and supernatural creatures and a deep respect for omens, but a Spanish that was full of archaisms. The Vallenato troubadours employed the same verbal resources in their tales, and this local variation of the traditional songs of heroic deeds proved key to the narrative structure of One Hundred Years of Solitude. What’s more, two of Colombia’s leading troubadours appear in the novel under their real names: Francisco el Hombre and Rafael Escalona.
I would be a different writer to the one I am if I hadn’t read Mrs Dalloway at the age of twenty. I remember reading it while fighting off mosquitoes and delirious from heat in a tiny hotel room, a period when I was selling encyclopaedias and medical books in La Guajira. It completely transformed my sense of time. Perhaps it enabled me to glimpse in an instant the whole process of Macondo’s decline and its ultimate fate. I also wonder if that book was not also the distant origin of The Autumn of the Patriarch, which is a book about the human enigma of power, of its solitude and misery.
The development of García Márquez’s style owes as much to English- language modernism as it does to the Spanish Golden Age of poetry and literature. His early reading of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner were key to the construction of his prose. Yet his encounter with the work of Virginia Woolf deserves a chapter all of its own. The London-born writer had such an impact on him that García Márquez began to sign his columns in El Heraldo de Barranquilla under the pseudonym ‘Septimus’, in honour of the character Septimus Warren Smith in Mrs Dalloway.
I’ve always loved cinema, to the extent that the only thing I’ve studied systematically at school is film. I never studied literature, I am wholly ignorant of the rules of Spanish grammar, and I write by ear – but I put my all into the course in Film Directing I took at the Centre for Experimental Cinematography in Rome.
In 1954, the year in which he joined the newspaper El Espectador, García Márquez began to write a column entitled ‘Cinema in Bogotá. The week’s releases’, becoming a pioneer of film criticism in Colombia alongside Ernesto Volkening and Luis Vicens. He wrote these columns for seventeen months. This was a time when he longed to make films himself, a desire he fulfilled beginning in 1963 in Mexico, when he was hired to write screenplays. His interest in film montage as concept and technique also influenced his literary strategy. He wrote and was involved in the production of many films over the course of his life, and was co-founder and teacher at the International School of Film and Television in San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba, where he offered screenwriting workshops. He is also probably the Spanish-language novelist whose books have most often been adapted for film, but the artistic quality of these adaptations has always been the subject of debate, which is why there are such great expectations for the upcoming Netflix series of One Hundred Years of Solitude.
The dictator is the only new character we have invented in Latin America.
Latin American dictators were his favoured characters because they embodied two recurrent themes in his work: power and solitude. The Autumn of the Patriarch is a novel wholly given over to this predilection. In constructing the dictator who is its central character he was inspired by fragments of real figures from across the continent, above all the Venezuelan Juan Vicente Gómez. In ‘The Solitude of Latin America’, the title of the lecture he delivered upon being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, his deep knowledge of the outrages and eccentricities of these Latin American despots is clear: from General Antonio López de Santa Anna, who held a funeral for his amputated right leg, to General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez and the pendulum he used to test if his food was poisoned.
I feel more at ease believing that peace is possible, than believing it is not possible. That’s because I can’t imagine the state my soul would be in if I thought it will never come.
As his English biographer Gerald Martin describes in Gabriel García Márquez: A Life (2008), the writer used the power fame afforded him to support the peace process, the defence of human rights, and the political and cultural autonomy of Latin America vis-à-vis the United States and other global powers. In Colombia he intervened on a number of occasions in the dialogues between different governments and the rebel groups, and supported the amnesties and peace negotiations. He maintained his relationship with Fidel Castro in Cuba through thick and thin, but used it to negotiate the release of political prisoners, secure exit permits from the island for opponents of the regime and win support for the new Latin American cinema. President Bill Clinton in the U.S., Omar Torrijos in Panama, Felipe González in Spain and many leaders from across the political spectrum in Colombia and abroad cultivated his friendship. Gabo was always open to dialogue with people of every political stripe, despite being a declared leftist. He believed that the development of a country required good education and not bullets, and that terrorism was unjustifiable because ‘as a revolutionary method it is an absurdity’.
Wherever I am in the world, I am writing a Colombian novel.
Despite his many journeys around the world and the different countries he lived in (especially Mexico, where he established his principal residence) García Márquez constantly returned to the apartments and house he maintained in Cartagena, Bogotá and Barranquilla. He never wrote a book that was not bound up with the cultural context of Colombia. The plots and spaces of his ten novels are filled with the attributes of his native country. ‘I am so stubborn that I have the impression that none of the places I’ve lived in have changed me one jot,’ he confessed in an interview with the Barranquilla journalist Ernesto McCausland. ‘I’m as green as when I was in Aracataca.’
The Colombian Edition of The London Magazine is out now and available from our online shop. Published in anticipation of next month’s Hay Festival in Cartagena de Indias, this issue will be followed by a Spanish language version, out in January 2022, in Colombia and the UK.
Cover image: Ritual (Pescadores), oil on canvas, 100x150cm (Pedro Ruiz, 2010)
Fundación Gabo, set up by García Márquez himself, works on journalism, education and culture and is also responsible for the research, interpretation and dissemination of his ideas. It compiles his interviews and non-fiction texts in order to generate knowledge and a collective appropriation of his legacy. This is part of a project to establish a major cultural space in Cartagena de Indias that will be known as Centro Gabo.
Jaime Abello Banfi is the General Director and co-founder, with Gabriel Garcia Márquez, of the Fundación Gabo, created in 1994 in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, which was initially called Fundación Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano. He trained as a lawyer but has dedicated his professional life to journalism, cinema, television and the management of cultural projects.
Orlando Oliveros is a writer, university professor and journalist from Cartagena de Indias, Colombia. Currently he is finishing his first novel and he is the literary researcher and editor of the portal Centro Gabo of the Fundación Gabo.
Fionn Petch was born in Scotland, lived in Mexico City for twelve years, and is now based in Berlin. He translates fiction, poetry and plays from Spanish and French, and also specialises in books and exhibition catalogues on art and architecture. He has curated multidisciplinary exhibitions, including the Citámbulos urban research project, and worked for several film and literature festivals. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the National University of Mexico (UNAM), on the concept of persuasion in early Greek thought. Fionn can be contacted at That Elusive Word Translations.
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