By: Raul Perez Torres
Minister of Culture and Heritage of Ecuador
I met Gabo [Gabriel Garcia Marquez] on a clear night in Havana. When we entered the room, the party was already on, and mojitos and daiquiris were poured as water in all directions.
There were small groups all over the place, and conversation flowed; and amidst one of them, I discovered Ernesto Cardenal, with his expression of a saint. I also spotted Juan Gelman and his sadness on the back, and Armando Hart, who talked and laughed aloud. I also saw Claribel Alegria, tiny and brilliant, and Antonio Cisneros, the great Peruvian poet, with his eternal smile. And at the center of all of them, I identified a man in short, gray hair, with bushy eyebrows and thick lips; it was Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
With my aspiring-writer cheerfulness and bafflement, I immediately tried to communicate my wife on my fortunate finding, but she had already released my hand to approach the writer, kind of hypnotized, and was planting a kiss on that Caribbean and open face, plenty of black moles, which by the time counted 52 years of solitude.
He was wearing a light blue suit with a beige shirt. He looked transformed, like puzzled, by a fame degree that had climbed up the sheets of Remedios La Bella and her calm and sober appearance. That person I saw had nothing to do with that bigheaded man in flowered gaudy shirts who lived amidst prostitutes and petty thieves on the last floor of a fleabag hotel in Barranquilla called El Rascacielos (Skyscraper). Little had he in common with that thin Colombian guy, dressed in striped shirts, who lived in rue-Cujas, sleeping in the rundown Hotel de Flandre out of the pity of its owner, and waiting, as his Colonel character, for a payment cheque from El Espectador newspaper -which never arrived. The last letter that malnourished Gabo received was a telegram that said, “Go to Rome, in case the Pope dies of the hiccups.” After that, the newspaper was closed by the military regime of Rojas Pinilla, and the bigheaded man had to sleep in the parks of Paris, always dreaming of the hazy Egyptian face of the “sacred crocodile” -the secret name he gave to Mercedes Barcha, his eternal girlfriend. She was also present that night at the party, reaffirming the saying, “Good things come to those who wait.”
The only trace of the boisterous man he used to be, was that pair of yellow boots he wore, and which reminded me of a Garcia Marquez who in the 70’s was the biggest prize for all Latin American papers and magazines.
I wondered, then, how stupid the Spanish literary critic from Lozada publishing house, Guillermo de Torre, must feel now; he, who received the manuscript of La Hojarasca (Leaf Storm) and answered the letter saying, “you are not endowed with writing abilities; you should think of doing something else.” And I also wondered how many wasted pages, how many wasted sleeping-hours, how many rattles on his old reporter-typing machine were necessary to clear out and destroy that infamous letter. Finally, I imagined the sad eyes of the Parisian mechanic who tried to fix that creaky typing machine, when, brokenhearted, could only say (after all his strenuous efforts): “Elle est fatigée, monsieur!”
Gabo was born under a profound omen, on the day of the first relevant strike in the Colombian banana farming region, and the same year that the Revolutionary Socialist Party of that country was founded. Shaken from the cradle by the gun shots and the violence of the Colombian bourgeoisie, Garcia Marquez filled up his books with dead and enlightened people who undertake insane tasks, and who between vigil and slumber repeat, dazzled by the memory, “there were 3,000 dead; they were 3,000.”
And there he was, calmly chatting, charming the audience with his ability for anecdotes, for exaggeration, which was not an alteration of reality in him, but a concrete reality, his own reality. We was telling the story of his trip with Vargas Llosa from Merida to Caracas. Garcia Marquez recalled how the Peruvian writer, terrified by the plane bouncing, exorcised the storm by reciting his heart out Dario’s poems, and how, at a certain moment, he grabbed Gabo by the lapels and said: “Now that we are going to die, tell me, honestly, what do you think about Sacred Zone” (the novel Carlos Fuentes had just published). He also recalled the time a Spanish editor offered him a mansion in Palma de Mallorca and promised to maintain him as long as he wanted to in exchange of the manuscript of his most recent novel; but the future Nobel winner calmly answered, “You are in the wrong neighborhood; I am not a prostitute.”
As I saw him, I thought that there is all kind of people in the world, snake charmers and women charmers. Garcia Marquez is a words charmer; he whistles or sings, and the words come out of the hat, and bunch together as letters of solitude. Then, transfiguration is concrete, you can touch it, feel it. At a certain point, Gabo’s wife approached, wearing a long, flowered dress and with a slow pace, and as she reached the table, Gabo just said, “You are dressed like a gingerbread doll.” From that moment on, I could not see that woman in a different manner; I could even feel the pleasant and deep smell of yeast in the air. The strength of his speech has a color and a smell; it is like those African sculptures that provoke a series of sensations at a time.
“I always wanted to go to Ecuador,” that is what he said to me, “but there was always something that prevented me from doing it. I want to stand on the line that marks the middle of the world, with my legs open. Maybe, it’s not too late to do it.” (He was right, symbolically speaking.)
In the past, nobody knew the meaning of the word Macondo; some people said it was a healing plant, others stated that it is a good-for-nothing tree. Now, we know Macondo is the genealogical tree of Our America.