In Other Words

Chronicle of a Friendship Foretold

Vivir para contarla (Living to Tell the Tale) By Gabriel ("Gabo") García Márquez 579 pages, Bogotá: Grupo Editorial Norma, 2002 (in Spanish) Gabo and I were both in the city of Bogotá on that sad day of April 9, 1948, when [Colombian political leader Jorge] Gaitán was killed. We were the same age [ … ...

Vivir para contarla
(Living to Tell the Tale)
By Gabriel ("Gabo") García Márquez
579 pages, Bogotá: Grupo Editorial Norma, 2002 (in Spanish)

Gabo and I were both in the city of Bogotá on that sad day of April 9, 1948, when [Colombian political leader Jorge] Gaitán was killed. We were the same age [ … ]; we witnessed the same events; and we were both studying law. At least, that is what we thought. Neither one of us knew the other. No one knew us, least of all ourselves.

Nearly half a century later, Gabo and I were talking just prior to a trip to Birán, in Cuba’s Oriente province, where I was born early in the morning of August 13, 1926. Our encounter had the feel of an intimate family occasion, when oft-told tales and warm memories tend to dominate, in a setting shared with a group of Gabo’s friends and some comrade leaders of the Revolution.

The night of our conversation I went over the images engraved in my memory: "They killed Gaitán!" was the recurring cry of April 9 in Bogotá, where I had traveled with other young Cubans to organize a congress of Latin American students. While I stood perplexed, the people dragged the assassin through the streets, and a multitude set fire to businesses, offices, and apartment buildings. A few people carried pianos and wardrobes, as in processions, above their heads. Someone shattered mirrors. Others attacked street ads and canopies. Those further away bellowed their frustrations and pain from side streets, flowery terraces, or smoking walls. One man vented his feelings by dealing blows to a typewriter; to save him this extraordinary effort, I threw the machine in the air, and it smashed to pieces as it struck the pavement. While I spoke, Gabo listened, likely confirming his certainty that, in Latin America and the Caribbean, writers have had little to create, because reality far surpasses any imagined story. Perhaps the challenge has been to make that reality believable.

As my tale concluded, I learned that, in a revealing coincidence, Gabo had been there as well, and perhaps we had walked the same streets and lived the same shocks, wonders, and urges that led me to become one more in that river suddenly overflowing from the hills. With my relentless curiosity, I asked, "And what did you do during the Bogotazo?" Unflappable, ensconced in his surprising, vivacious, wayward, and exceptional imagination, he answered me, categorical, smiling, naturally skillful with his metaphors, "Fidel, I was the man with the typewriter."

I’ve known Gabo since always, and the first time could have been in any one of those instants or territories of that verdant, poetic, Garciamarquezian geography. As he himself confessed, he carries on his conscience my "addiction to quick-read bestsellers, as a purification method against official documents." To which one might add his responsibility in convincing me not only that I would want to be reincarnated as a writer, but that I would want to be one like Gabriel García Márquez — with that obstinate attention to detail that supports, like a philosopher’s stone, all the credibility of his dazzling exaggerations. Once he even asserted that I had eaten 18 ice cream scoops, a statement that, as one can imagine, I protested with great vigor.

I recalled later how, in the initial draft of Of Love and Other Demons, a man had ridden on an 11-month old horse, and I had suggested to the author, "Look Gabo, add two or three more years to that horse, because at 11 months it is only a colt." Later, upon reading the published novel, one remembers Abrenuncio [de] Sa Pereira Cao, whom Gabo recognizes as the most notable and controversial doctor in the city of Cartagena de Indias at the time of the narrative. In the novel, the doctor sobs as he sits upon a rock along a path next to his horse, which in October was to reach 100 years of age but whose heart suddenly exploded on a final trip. As one would expect, Gabo transformed the age of the beast into a prodigious circumstance, an incredible event of irrefutable veracity.

His literature is convincing proof of his sensibility and unending adherence to the origins — that is, his Latin American inspiration and loyalty to truth — of his progressive thought.

I share with him a scandalous theory, one that is likely sacrilegious among academics and doctors in letters, about the relative nature of words in language. The intensity of this belief equals that of my fascination with dictionaries, especially the one he gave me upon my 70th birthday, a true jewel that adds famous phrases from Latin American literature following each definition, as examples of good usage. Also, as a public man forced to compose speeches and narrate events, I share the illustrious writer’s delight in searching for the precise word, a sort of mutual obsession that is unappeasable until the phrase is just right, faithful to the sentiment or idea we wish to express, even as we remain firm in the belief that it can always be improved. I admire him above all when, if the exact word does not exist, he invents it with ease. How I envy that license of his!

And now appears […] his autobiography [Living to Tell the Tale], the novel of his memories, a work that I imagine as nostalgia for the thunder of 4 o’clock in the afternoon, that instant of lightning and magic that his mother Luisa Santiaga Márquez Iguarán would long for, far away from Aracataca — an unpaved village of torrential, unending downpours, and of alchemy and telegraphs and turbulent, sensational loves that would populate Macondo, the small village of 100 solitary years that carried all the dust and spells of Aracataca. Gabo has always sent me copies of his manuscripts, still unfinished, in the same generous and humble gesture with which he sends drafts of his books to others for whom he cares, as a sign of our old and deep friendship. This time he sends himself, with sincerity, candor, and fervor, revealing a man with cosmic intelligence and the kindness of a child, a man of tomorrow, a man whom we thank for having lived that life to tell it.

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