Every couple of months a brown package would arrive at our home in Philadelphia filled with Mexican stamps and neatly tied up. It came from the Libreria Madero in Mexico City. I still remember their bookplate and distinct inscription even though the bookstore ceased to exist a long time ago. There a bookseller chose the latest titles in Latin American literature and sent them our way. My father had met this lady bookseller at the Libreria Madero and sent her a check every month, and she in turn, kept us in books, and what books! I don’t know her name although her taste was unerring and thanks to her we were introduced to all the greats of a particularly fertile moment in Latin American literature, a period now known as the Latin American “boom.”
This is how my brothers and I were introduced to García Márquez and Sábato, to Borges, Cortázar, Roa Bastos, Donoso, Rulfo and Fuentes, to Asturias, Carpentier, Cabrera Infante, Castellanos, Onetti, Vargas Llosa and many others. I remember we read some of the stories out loud and talked about them at the dinner table. One came from an early collection of García Márquez short stories, entitled Big Mama’s Funeral. Among these was a story about a dentist who was able to meter out a bit of justice and pain to a military man who has caused so much grief in his town by his unfair use of power when this military man finds himself in the dentist’s chair as a patient. These stories were a warm up for One Hundred Years of Solitude, which would make García Márquez an international sensation and Nobel Prize winner.
Through his writings Latin Americans felt incorporated into a larger world, and everyone else felt they had been allowed to enter Latin America’s inner sanctum. García Márquez came to be known as Gabo by his friends and admirers, and I shall refer to him as such for the rest of this essay. Gabo said that his early years as a reporter for Cartagena’s El Universal and Barranquilla’s El Heraldo gave him the necessary grounding to become a great writer. For Gabo reportage went hand in hand with reality. And his work combines elements of both fiction and concrete facts to drive his concerns home. These concerns came to engulf his preoccupation with the damage the drug trade inflicted on Colombian society as a whole as in News of a Kidnapping. Throughout his career Gabo was politically engaged and used his own fame to observe and comment on key moments in 20th century history. His friendship with General Omar Torrijos is one which culminated with the author being at his side in 1977 when an agreement was signed by President Carter promising to return the Panama Canal to Panamanian ownership by the year 2000.
The presence of the United Fruit Company in his hometown led Gabo to read U.S. authors and later travel through the American South. For Gabo, Faulkner, Hemingway, Dos Passos, and Steinbeck remain key, as does the Czech author, Franz Kafka. The writings of authors from the U.S. “south” resonated with Gabo and he studied their work closely and incorporated some of their techniques into his own writing. Like Faulkner, he wrote many screenplays and was attracted to the medium of film.
News of Gabo’s death on April 17th, Maundy Thursday, made the front page of all the major newspapers of the Americas, as well as many European and Asian capitals. The tributes have been constant and this Colombian writer had readers from all around the world pay tribute to him. I was fortunate to be able to speak with Gregory Rabassa, translator of many of the great novels of the Latin American “boom” and from the Brazilian. During the 1960s Rabassa was busy translating Hopscotch (Rayuela), by Argentine author, Julio Cortázar into English on a dare. This highly original novel which experimented with linear and non-linear ways to read a novel was one of the many challenges Rabassa undertook and made available to English readers. When Rabassa was approached by Gabo to translate his novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Rabassa turned the project down because he was still working on Hopscotch.
Gabo conferred with Cortázar who advised him to wait. Gabo followed his advice and so One Hundred Years of Solitude eventually came into being in English. Rabassa told me that the epic quality of Gabo’s novel was unparalleled. Through Rabassa’s translation English readers of this novel came to know the mythical Macondo, a town inspired by Aracataca where Gabo spent his early years with his grandparents on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. There yellow flowers rained over thatched huts and spirits and ghosts rubbed elbows with the living. Gabo transformed his hometown into a place of fantastic happenings with a cast of characters who remain fresh and unforgettable.
Through the creation of Macondo Gabo exemplified what critics coined as “magic realism.” This was a highly descriptive type of writing which came to exemplify the whimsical and baroque qualities of nature and life on our continent. Magical realism also heightened the contrast between what was: the poverty, the violence and corruption with the exuberant nature of Latin Americans’ optimism and innate sense of kindness and sense of the absurd. Gabo’s writing was universal enough for any Latin American to identify with Macondo’s denizens. Regardless of your background, you wanted to read Gabo. By spinning this multi-layered tale Gabo inserted Latin America into a broader consciousness. His literature spoke to an enormous swathe of humanity and influenced several generations of future writers not only in the Spanish language, but in English as well.
Rabassa told me how later, another work of Gabo’s broke the profanity barrier at The New Yorker when, after a lot of debate, they decided to publish the first chapter of The Autumn of the Patriarch in their September 27th 1976 issue. Rabassa was the translator and mentioned that the word “shit” appeared numerous times. Until then such language had not sullied the New Yorker’s pages, but they recognized the importance of Gabo’s work.
Any time a new Gabo book came out it was a thrill. I remember being in London in the mid-1980s and waiting to get my hands on a copy of Love In The Time Of The Cholera. This he partly based on his parents’ marriage but also on a newspaper story of an old couple who had been carrying on a love affair over decades which no one had known about until they were murdered in Acapulco. For me, reading Gabo is closely linked to memories of being with my father and my siblings, and a magical time, which was my youth. I can mark the decades of my life with specific Gabo titles. Each new book had the hallmark of his inventive use of language, of a lightness of touch and yet the ability too to plunge into regions of darkness with a marvelous combination of language and humor.
Over the years I heard Gabo speak and read from his work: at Columbia University, at London’s Canning House, and for the last time in Mexico City, during the late 1990s. His friend, Carlos Fuentes, considered Gabo the best writer in the Spanish language since Cervantes. Fuentes asked him to read from the first volume of his memoirs titled Living to Tell the Tale (Vivir Para Contarla) where I was struck by Gabo’s down to earth manner and transported back to where it all began, to Aracataca, and a description of a return journey there with his mother to sell his grandparent’s house.
Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to meet Gabo in person and spend a bit of time in his company. But in 1994, I found myself in Havana at a reception hosted by Casa de las Américas, the main Cuban publishing house, hosted by Roberto Retamar, its head. For days, the writers, editors, publishers and intellectuals of our group had been wondering when we might see the Comandante. Whenever anyone asked about his whereabouts, the answer would invariably be: Fidel vive en toda Cuba. The Cuban leader’s whereabouts were top secret and mystery surrounded all aspects of the leader’s life. Rumors abounded about how he never slept in the same place twice, how he might change residences several times in one evening, etc. By this point, Fidel was not unlike the two main characters of The Autumn of the Patriarch or The General in His Labyrinth.
As it was, Fidel was a prisoner of his own success. In Gabo’s words, The Autumn of the Patriarch was a “poem about the solitude of power.”
That March evening in 1994 our group was elated when we were unexpectedly whisked off to an undisclosed location. After waiting for a while in a small theatre Fidel made an entrance and then addressed us for several hours. It was late and we had had a long day and I was so hungry I was bad tempered. It was also late and I kept thinking: Why is he uttering all this propaganda and the same boring rhetoric which has lost its relevance? Why not explore new terrain or pick our brains? Afterall, these were the judges who had been chosen to select the best authors for a series of prestigious literary prizes the Casa de las Américas gave out in Caribbean writing, Pidgin English, indigenous writing and Latin American poetry and prose and they were on the whole sympathetic if not shared a sense of solidarity with Cuba. Any excitement I had felt at the prospect of meeting Fidel was gone. I had heard and seen enough. A little later on, Roberto Retamar, whom I had met as a student in England, insisted on introducing me to the old leader. I reluctantly went along and found myself before one of the luminaries of my time. Fidel was much taller than I expected and his green khaki uniform was made of the finest Egyptian cotton. Although we had all been vetted, Fidel was nonetheless closely guarded.
Fidel and Retamar had a long history, so when Retamar introduced me, Castro was friendly. When he learned I had been working in Chiapas Fidel was curious to know more about the recent insurrection there and if I had met the sub-comandante Marcos. The cavernous hall was cold, poorly lit, and filled with ferns and tropical plants from Cuba’s Sierra Maestra and greenhouses. These were a reminder of the island’s exuberant beauty and the landscape from where the revolution that had altered the history of the continent had occurred over thirty years before. In this hall 1959 was crystallized, if not immortalized, deep in Fidel’s and the collective memory. He had progressed quite a bit from there and perhaps gotten to a place he had never expected to reach: a position of total power. Castro’s was now one of the longest-standing dictators of the continent regardless of whatever ideology he wished his party to spout.
Fidel threw a few curve balls into our conversation. He liked to sprinkle baseball terms into his talk and discuss two or three topics of conversation one after the other to see if you could keep up with him. He reminded me of my youngest sister’s godfather, Bobby Dorion, who came from the Bacardi family and who enjoyed confusing others by throwing a dizzying flow of ideas which were connected but not readily apparent in the flush of animated conversation. To me it simply indicated a playful, bright person who found it amusing to confuse others or see if they could follow his lead without tripping. Fidel had that same spark which could be ignited by a certain degree of dissension or the unexpected.
Like many, powerful men before him, Fidel didn’t eat any of the same things we were served. I don’t know if it was a fear of poison or just his age and need for a different diet. I noticed a waiter bring him a glass of an amber-colored drink.
“Rum?” I inquired.
“No, whisky,” he replied and then added with pride: “Cuban whisky.”
I said it couldn’t be very good since Cuba was located at the wrong latitude to offer the right climate or the right sort of peaty soil of the Scottish coasts to produce anything that tasted vaguely like whisky. Many of my fellow guests drew back and looked at me in horror. How dare I contradict el Comandante?! With that Fidel made a motion as if to snap his fingers and in a second one of his bodyguards came closer. Fidel then instructed him to: “Bring the señorita a bottle of our national whisky.” The conversation continued. A little later the man returned with a bottle and gave it to me. Fidel said that he hope I would like it. I thanked him and thought how I would have rather received a good bottle of Cuban rum.
In the meantime, the sycophants were already pressing around us, eager to shower him with compliments. Fidel was amused and we talked a little longer. I could see the feminist contingent giving me the evil eye and ignored them. I finally left ceding my space to the others and made my way to the other end of the great hall. There, in the shadow, I was surprised to find Gabo sitting quietly sipping a drink. I was amazed no one had spotted him and that he by himself, observing the whole scene. I asked him if I could join him and he gestured to a chair nearby. I told him how much I loved his writing, even though I really wanted to ask Gabo if he was planning to write a book about Fidel. He never did perhaps out of respect and friendship.
Everyone knew of Gabo’s friendship with the Cuban leader and his outspoken criticism of some aspects of his regime. I suppose that was possible because Gabo could come and go as he pleased and he could also bring Fidel news from the outside. Gabo had a house in the posh neighborhood of El Vedado. During those days there was talk that the unpopular Mexican president, Salinas de Gortari, had anchored his yacht in Cuban waters. I can’t remember why Gabo made some mention of several suitcases full of worthless Cuban currency he had in his possession except perhaps to say that he wasn’t there for the money. By this time, there wasn’t even caviar, since things had changed on the island since the fall of Communism in 1989.
In a way, both Gabo and Fidel were both legends by then and didn’t have to bother with posturing. Although I must admit that Fidel struck me as less at ease than Gabo. Fidel seemed like one of those old bears brought out on a chain in a Swiss circus to perform around a town square, only to be locked up again after his performance, far from the noise and the crowds. Gabo, on the other hand, while lionized and welcomed into the corridors of power around the world, nonetheless had more autonomy. I don’t know if he was more centered or more in touch with reality, but he gave that impression because of the relative freedom to come and go and not be tied down to a position such as Fidel’s. Gabo still circulated between places, still experimented and challenged himself with the subjects he chose to write about and the manner in which he lived his life. Undoubtedly his fame isolated Gabo from ordinary life by necessity, but he still had that ability to connect and appreciate the quotidian. I don’t think this was still possible for Fidel.
Given his friendship with Fidel and other left-wing leaders and causes, Gabo had on occasion been blacklisted by the U.S. government. In his native Colombia too, he managed to antagonize the powerful and was misunderstood by his compatriots some of whom felt he had meddled in matters which didn’t concern him. Throughout his life Gabo remained politically engaged with various causes but above all curious about others and their plight. His vocation as a writer and his work transcended politics.
When was Gabo last in Cuba? Had the two friends had a parting conversation? I wonder too if there is a stack of papers and letters to be found in Gabo’s Havana residence, just like the literary treasure trove at Hemingway’s Finca Vigia? I remember feeling content and complicit as I sat with the great Colombian writer watching and listening to the others. For all his fame, there was a shyness and stillness in him. For a moment, Gabo was not the main attraction as he observed the theatre before us. Gabo didn’t show any undue curiosity towards me but was open and attentive. As the evening came to a close, Fidel approached us to say good night. I was taken by surprise when this rather tired-looking avuncular man, a famous leader, gave me a kiss on the cheek.
In the end, Gabo’s private life was his own. Fortunately, his work belongs to all of us and will hopefully continue to be read and enjoyed by many for a long time. Gabo forever changed the way Latin Americans viewed themselves and were seen by others through his writing. His imagination was so fertile but at the same time Gabo had an extraordinary ability to synthesize bigger questions and illustrate these through his books. Gabo’s facility for marrying stories with humor, lyricism, wit, and compassion, remain unrivalled. His writings span the gamut from reportage to the historical, from the fanciful to the concrete. Gabo was always grounded in the realities and difficulties, the challenges and imponderable dilemmas that make up life. To this end, he tackled a variety of topics and through stories brought his readers to reflect on bigger questions which affect us all. Gabo’s death marks the end of an era. Although his work remains and endures, the world is a poorer place without him and he will be missed.
Catherine Rendón is a freelance translator and writer who lives in Savannah, Ga. In 2010 she wrote the introduction to Harry Moraless translation of Benedettis The Rest Is Jungle & Other Stories (published by Host Publications). She is currently working on educational materials for the Library of Congress's Hispanic Division.