The first time I read Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014) was when I was proofreading the galleys of “The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor”, which the Editorial Sudamericana was getting ready to reprint in Argentina.
I was working in the offices of the Sudamericana publishing house, in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of San Telmo, where I could find myself editing a gothic novel or a literary classic or a work by the Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik, due to the varied menu.
I was 17 years old and I was mesmerised by that short tale, a journalistic report by García Márquez published in a number of instalments in the El Espectador newspaper in Bogotá, in 1955, which came out as a book in 1970.
The complete title was “The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor: Who Drifted on a Liferaft for Ten Days Without Food or Water, Was Proclaimed a National Hero, Kissed by Beauty Queens, Made Rich Through Publicity, and Then Spurned by the Government and Forgotten for All Time”.
Through the first-person account of the exploits of the survivor, García Márquez denounced that the shipwreck of the sailor and his seven companions, who drowned, was due to overweight contraband on the Colombian Navy’s destroyer Caldas.
Colombia at the time was under a military dictatorship, so the report led to the closure of the newspaper and the first of García Márquez’s various periods of exile. The last one began in 1997. He never returned to live in Colombia.
From there, of course, I jumped to “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, the masterpiece that the same publishing house, the Editorial Sudamericana, published in 1967, which was going to revolutionise Spanish language literature and influence the rest of the world’s image and cultural impression of Latin America.
We Latin Americans fell in love, and were shocked, by the Colombia that García Márquez described in this novel and in his other great works of fiction.
The cruelty of Colombia’s wars, the solitude of its heroes, the pathetic flip-flops of its politicians and military leaders, the eternal rule of its dictators, the ominous foreign presence, the state of abandon of its rural villages – all of it contained the realistic feel of first-hand experience. And, while unique, it was also similar to what was happening in so many other corners of the region.
But in the voice of García Márquez it took on another dimension, dreamlike, exuberant and humorous, which transported us as readers and allowed us to reflect on our own woes even with a kind of joy.
Like other great writers, García Márquez built a universe of his own, made up of real and invented places, unlikely characters, and lineages and genealogies.
Their names, like Macondo or Aureliano Buendía, now form part of the collective memory of Latin America, just like what happened centuries earlier with El Quijote.
I devoured all of his short stories and novels, from “La Hojarasca” (Leaf Storm – 1955) to “Memoria de mis putas tristes” (Memories of My Melancholy Whores – 2004), through the formidable and very dissimilar “El otoño del patriarca” (The Autumn of the Patriarch – 1975) and “El amor en los tiempos del cólera” (Love in the Time of Cholera – 1985).
When I was proofreading the galleys of “The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor”, I didn’t yet know that I was going to become a journalist.
Many years later I travelled to Colombia as a reporter, and had the chance to see the land that I had caught a glimpse of through the books of García Márquez, who in 1982 was awarded the Nobel Literature prize.
I saw for myself how the war continued, undaunted, with shifting protagonists and nerve centres, but with the same trail of blood and the same grinding dispossession and neglect.
Since 2012, the Colombian authorities and the main leftist guerrilla group have been discussing in Havana how to put an end to the last half century of war.
García Márquez, who died of cancer on Thursday Apr. 17 in Mexico, did not live to see his country at peace. Hopefully his fellow Colombians won’t have to wait another 50 years.