Reality Is the Better Writer:
Journalism of Gabriel García Márquez.
On October 26, 1949, in the city of Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, a young journalist named Gabriel García Márquez went to the convent of Santa Clara to see its crypt being emptied prior to the building’s demolition. When the workers took a pickax to one of the burial niches by the altar, “the stone shattered at the first blow…and a stream of living hair the intense color of copper spilled out of the crypt.” The workers eventually brought out more than 20 meters of tresses attached to the skull of a young girl. Watching from a slight distance, García Márquez recalled a story his grandmother told him as a boy: “the legend of a little twelve-year-old marquise with hair that trailed behind her like a bridal train, who had died of rabies caused by a dog bite and was venerated in the towns along the Caribbean coast for the many miracles she had performed.”
The incident was the inspiration for an article he wrote that day for El Universal, the paper where he was then working, and a novel, Of Love and Other Demons, that appeared 45 years later. The story, recounted in the preface to the novel, neatly captures the way fiction and reportage were constantly interwoven across the breadth of García Márquez’s career—the way oral traditions, legends, and popular memories and the evidence of his eyes and ears work to nourish and creatively enrich each other, often across many years. In fact, while his novels and stories may have won him global renown, journalism was his first calling. Not only was it foundational to his development as a writer, but it also remained integral to his work and public persona throughout his life, from his early days as a cub reporter in Colombia until his death in Mexico in 2014.
To begin with, it was the journalism that enabled him to make a precarious living while he wrote fiction, often at night. Yet even after the global success of his 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, he continued to write articles, commentaries, and reported pieces at an impressive rate. In Spanish, his collected Obra Periodística—not including three book-length works of reportage—spans five volumes, comprising more than 3,000 pages. The Scandal of the Century is the first English-language selection from this vast body of work. Long overdue, it provides a fairly representative slice of García Márquez’s journalistic output. In the first half, we track his movements across the globe, from 1940s Colombia through a string of international assignments in the ’50s and ’60s: Rome, Paris, Budapest, Caracas, and Havana, among many others. In the latter half, we find a more rooted García Márquez, largely through the columns he wrote for El País in the ’80s from Mexico City, where he lived much of the time from the ’70s onward. While it captures the geographical breadth of García Márquez’s journalistic work, the book makes some significant omissions that tend to downplay his radical politics. The result is to give us a somewhat truncated view of a writer who told an interviewer in 1978 that “there is no act in my life which is not a political act.”
Throughout García Márquez’s career, literature and journalism had highly porous boundaries. His fiction and his nonfiction for newspapers and magazines can be seen as facets of a single, lifelong narrative enterprise. Indeed, we might even think of both kinds of writing not as distinct genres, to be shelved separately as fiction and nonfiction, but as reportage in different registers or realms of reality. From that point of view, it’s less surprising that García Márquez observed in 1991, “My books are the books of a journalist.”
Born in 1927, García Márquez was raised on Colombia’s Caribbean coast and then went to secondary school in the highland town of Zipaquirá, near Bogotá. In The Fragrance of Guava, a 1982 set of interviews with his friend the Colombian writer and diplomat Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, he recalled an education with distinct Marxist influences: During breaks, “the algebra teacher would talk to us about historical materialism, the chemistry teacher would lend us books by Lenin and the history teacher would talk about class struggle.” He emerged convinced that “socialism was the immediate destiny of humankind.” Though he briefly joined a Communist Party cell in his early 20s, he described himself as a sympathizer rather than a militant, and throughout his life, he tried to navigate the tension between close and committed support for the radical left and critical independence from it.
García Márquez started studying law in Bogotá but abandoned his studies in 1948, amid the wave of violence that followed the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, the presidential candidate of the Liberal Party. Returning to the coast, García Márquez began his journalistic career at El Universal in Cartagena, and over the next few years, he had spells as a columnist for El Heraldo in Barranquilla before moving back to the capital in 1954 to work for El Espectador.
From early on, García Márquez’s journalism showed a recurrent concern with the blurry frontiers between real events on the one hand and legends and literature on the other—and he strongly emphasized how often the former outdo the latter in delirious invention. In a wonderful series from March 1954 on the “strange idolatry” of the people of La Sierpe in coastal Colombia, he writes of the local veneration of a cedar plank supposedly bearing an image of the Virgin Mary in its knots and grain before telling his readers about the town’s cult of St. Kidney, a cow organ apparently displaying the face of Jesus. There is, to be sure, an element of gentle mockery in his description of these beliefs, but more telling is the weight he gives them as a genuine expression of what La Sierpe’s residents think. For much of humanity, it’s the fantastical that helps make sense of reality, not the other way around.
Soon after his return to Bogotá, García Márquez wrote a short piece that captures his thoughts about the role of journalism in society. The work of a reporter is not simply to transmit facts and information but also to record and participate in the collective discussion of events, a habit that goes back to the dawn of humanity. “Without doubt,” he jokes, “the first sensational news produced—after creation—was the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.” He then imagines the Fall being retold as a crime story: “An apple was the cause of the tragedy.” For García Márquez, the printed word is only the point of departure for those collective discussions. Every town, he insists, has its reporters, amateur as well as professional, who help shift the conversation from the page to the streets: “There will always be a man reading an article in the corner of a drugstore, and there will always—because this is the funny thing—be a group of citizens ready to listen to him, even if just to feel the democratic pleasure of not agreeing with him.” From this perspective, journalism and fiction are just different names for the same enterprise of telling and retelling, of contesting and comprehending a community’s stories.
García Márquez’s stint as a reporter in Bogotá was brief but dramatic. In early 1955, he achieved nationwide renown for a series of interviews with the sailor Luis Alejandro Velasco, the sole survivor of a shipwreck who became a national hero. The Colombian Navy’s official story was that his ship sank because of a storm. But from García Márquez’s gripping reports—eventually collected and published in 1970 as The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor—it became clear that the ship had been overburdened by the goods the crew was bringing illegally from the United States. The series landed García Márquez in hot water with the dictatorship of Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, and as a precaution, in July 1955 he persuaded El Espectador to send him to Europe as the newspaper’s roving correspondent.
Based at first in Italy, García Márquez produced, among other things, a long series of articles under the rubric “The Scandal of the Century” about the case of Wilma Montesi, a young Italian woman who died under suspicious circumstances. As the investigation into her death unfolds, we are given a portrait of 1950s Italian society, in which traditional Catholic mores came increasingly into conflict with a fast-living culture of glamour and celebrity.
From Rome, García Márquez moved to Paris, where he immediately found himself stranded without a job: At the start of 1956, Rojas Pinilla shuttered El Espectador and other oppositional newspapers in the name of a “free but responsible press.” By this time, most of Latin America was under the rule of right-wing authoritarians, and García Márquez chose to stay in Europe, falling in with a growing number of Latin American exiles who had fled the ever more stifling political climate in their countries and were now clustered in cheap hotels on the Left Bank. He later recalled one of his neighbors, the Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén, leaning out of his window one day and shouting, “The man has fallen!” The various exiles in the neighborhood perked their ears, hoping that Guillén was talking about their dictator. (In this case, it was Argentina’s Juan Domingo Perón.)
García Márquez’s time in Paris coincided, of course, with France’s ferocious counterinsurgency in Algeria and its repression of anticolonial activism within its own borders. The Paris police zealously targeted anyone they thought looked like an Arab, and García Márquez recalled being dragged to jail several times during police roundups of Algerians. As a result, he made friends with members of the Algerian National Liberation Front, who suggested that he might as well be guilty of helping them if he was going to get arrested anyway and put him to work for their cause. Hence García Márquez could later truthfully claim that “the Algerian Revolution is the only one for which I’ve actually been imprisoned.”
In these years, he made two politically formative trips to the Eastern Bloc—the first, in 1955, to Poland and Czechoslovakia and the second, in 1957, to East Germany, Hungary, and the Soviet Union. His reports on these journeys are especially rich and fascinating, recording his first encounters with actually existing socialism. He was on the whole quite positive about his time in the USSR, but his experiences in Hungary and East Germany convinced him, as he put it later, that “what they had in the so-called people’s democracies was not authentic socialism” because “it was a system imposed from the outside by the Soviet Union through dogmatic local communist parties with no imagination.”
While in Budapest, García Márquez managed to elude his minders and wander the streets of a city still scarred by the crushing of the 1956 popular uprising by Soviet tanks. “Almost a year after the events that stirred the world,” he wrote, “Budapest is still a provisional city. I saw extensive sectors where the streetcar tracks have not been replaced and which are still closed to traffic. The crowds, badly dressed, sad…stand in endless lines to buy basic necessities. The stores that were destroyed and looted are still being rebuilt.” García Márquez visited taverns in a working-class neighborhood, where he found “the seed of the uprising” still alive “despite the military regime, the Soviet intervention and the apparent tranquility that reigns.” (Sadly not included in The Scandal of the Century is his perceptive portrait of János Kádár’s regime, installed after the Soviet intervention, in which García Márquez displayed sympathy with the uprising as well as an understanding of the political dilemmas it created for those whose opposition to domination from Moscow didn’t mean they wished for a return of the reactionary ancien régime.)
García Márquez’s dispatches from behind the Iron Curtain were written for Momento, a magazine edited from Caracas by Mendoza, and at the end of 1957, he moved to the Venezuelan capital to work on staff at the magazine. He arrived just in time to witness the fall of the dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez in January 1958. Later that year, García Márquez wrote, “Venezuela was the freest country in the entire world.” His descriptions of it evoke not only a chaotic, festive atmosphere but also an example of radically democratic mass politics: “Each time the government glimpsed some danger, it immediately consulted the people by direct channels, and the people took to the streets against any attempt at regression. The most delicate official decisions were made in the public arena.” Inspiring as this may have been for someone of García Márquez’s socialist sympathies, however, it turned out to be only the prelude to a still more dramatic revolutionary upheaval that began in Cuba the next year.
For García Márquez as for many Latin Americans of his generation, the Cuban Revolution was a political watershed: It shaped allegiances and drew ideological battle lines across the region for decades to come. This was as much because of the hemispheric chain reactions it generated as because of what happened in Cuba itself. For the radical left, the island was a bridgehead in the struggle to dismantle the region’s centuries-old inequalities. For local elites and the United States, Cuba set a dangerous precedent that had to be smashed in the name of anti-communism. What García Márquez saw in Cuba was the possibility of a different kind of socialism, one that escaped the coercion and gray bureaucracy he had witnessed in the Eastern Bloc and that was made to Latin American specifications—what he called “a human and visible socialism, that you can touch with your hands.”
García Márquez traveled to Cuba less than three weeks after the fall of the military strongman Fulgencio Batista, which in many ways appeared to be a replay of the scenes he witnessed in Venezuela 12 months earlier. “For those of us who had lived in Caracas for all of the previous year,” he wrote in an article reflecting on his first encounter with the Cuban Revolution, “the feverish atmosphere and creative disorder of Havana at the beginning of 1959 was not a novelty.” The Scandal of the Century contains two later pieces devoted to Cuba, which retrospectively convey his enthusiasm for the carnival atmosphere of the revolution’s early stages as well as his keen eye for detail. At one point, he describes how some Cuban soldiers who hadn’t sided with Fidel Castro’s rebels initially confined themselves to their barracks so that they could grow their beards and pretend to have been barbudos all along.
He soon found himself acting as a participant-observer. From September 1960 to May 1961, García Márquez worked for Prensa Latina, the press agency set up by the new government in Havana, helping to establish its bureau in New York as well as shuttling between Colombia and the Cuban capital, where he worked alongside other giants of radical journalism such as Rodolfo Walsh. (It was Walsh who uncovered the US plans to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs; he would be murdered by the Argentine military dictatorship in 1977.) But by the middle of 1961, García Márquez had started to become uneasy with the increasing sway of the Cuban Communist Party over the island’s new revolutionary institutions. Rather than risk a confrontation, in which he might end up tarred as a counterrevolutionary, he opted to take some distance: “I marginalized myself in silence,” he later told Mendoza, “while I kept writing my books.”
García Márquez’s first novel, Leaf Storm, was published shortly before he left Colombia in 1955, with a small print run, and it received little attention. It was followed by two more novels, No One Writes to the Colonel and In Evil Hour, and a collection of stories, Big Mama’s Funeral. But it was the years after his 1961 departure from Cuba that proved most significant for his career as a writer of fiction. He settled in Mexico, where he began working on a novel inspired by the trials of former officials of the Batista regime that he witnessed in Cuba before switching to a subject closer to his heart: the wondrous world of his childhood on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
Written in the mid-’60s and published in 1967, One Hundred Years of Solitude catapulted him to global fame. Translated into dozens of languages, the book had an immediate and profound impact on fiction across the world. Its astonishing success allowed him to become less a journalist who wrote fiction than a novelist who happened to write journalism. From now on, the balance between his two callings would be reversed—but he would continue to pursue them both.
Even as García Márquez attained global renown as a writer of fiction, neither his journalism nor his radical commitments tailed off. In fact, in the ’70s, quite the opposite was true. He remained a firm supporter of Cuba throughout the ’60s, and even though he broke with Castro over the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia, publicly condemning the crushing of the Prague Spring, he stayed committed to the Cuban Revolution as a model for Latin American socialists. In the years after 1968, however, he engaged more actively with the radical left in the rest of the region and began to widen his geographical range far beyond it, devoting increasing attention to liberation movements in the developing world and to groups resisting the right-wing dictatorships that had seized power in most of Latin America. Chile loomed especially large in his thinking: The toppling of Salvador Allende by Augusto Pinochet in 1973 in a US-sponsored coup was a dark threshold for the Latin American left, confirming that local elites and Washington would not hesitate to dispense with democracy. In its wake, García Márquez announced that he would write no more fiction until Pinochet was gone, describing Allende’s fall as “a personal catastrophe for me.” (At this point he had already finished The Autumn of the Patriarch, which appeared in 1975, but owing to the dictator’s firm grip on power, García Márquez eventually broke his promise, publishing Chronicle of a Death Foretold in 1981.)
García Márquez threw himself into editorial work, cofounding the left-wing magazine Alternativa in Bogotá in 1974, which aimed to weaken the long-standing hold on the media by Colombia’s elites. The first issue was impounded by the police, and a year later paramilitaries bombed the magazine’s offices, but it survived until 1980, providing García Márquez with an outlet for some of his finest political reporting. This included a fiery piece about the fall of Allende, interviews with CIA whistle-blower Philip Agee and with Chilean and Argentine leftist guerrillas, and his celebrated account of the 1975 Cuban intervention in Angola, “Operation Carlota.” There were also pieces on Vietnam and a richly evocative portrait of Portugal in the aftermath of the Carnation Revolution of 1974, which reminded him of Havana in 1959 (down to the profusion of military uniforms and facial hair).
It is striking that this period of heightened creativity and political activity gets so little space in The Scandal of the Century. Though the ’70s take up almost an entire volume of his collected journalism in Spanish and spill over into another one, here we are given only two pieces on Cuba, from 1977 and 1978, in which he reflects on the early days of the revolution and discusses the ongoing impact of the US blockade, and a 1978 report on the Sandinista takeover of Nicaragua’s National Palace in Managua. The effect is a dramatic scaling back of our sense of García Márquez’s political commitments—their intensity and urgency as well as their geographical breadth and their significance in his political and intellectual development.
Instead, The Scandal of the Century gives us a rather different kind of figure, devoting a third of its pages to the columns that García Márquez wrote for El País in the ’80s. Though lively and often entertaining, these tend to be slighter pieces and are much less politically engaged. Still, there are flashes of telling detail. In one column he describes a chalkboard that hung from the balcony of El Espectador’s offices in Bogotá in the 1930s and 40s with news updates written on it that attracted crowds that blocked traffic, applauded news they liked, and whistled at news they didn’t. “It was a form of active and immediate participation,” he notes. And in another we find García Márquez expressing his frustration with the way the brutal personalities and outlandish foibles of Latin America’s dictators continually outpaced the ingenuity of even the most creative novelists: “Latin American and Caribbean writers have to admit, hands on hearts, that reality is a better writer than we are.”
The ’80s brought the consolidation of García Márquez’s place in the global literary firmament. In 1982 he was awarded a Nobel Prize; in 1985 he published Love in the Time of Cholera and in 1989 The General in His Labyrinth. Yet even as his status as Latin America’s preeminent fiction writer was being consecrated, he reaffirmed the centrality of the reporter’s craft to his work. In a column written the year before he was given the Nobel Prize, he argues that “there is not a single line in any of my books that does not have its origin in a real event.” Published that year, Chronicle of a Death Foretold describes a murder that took place in 1951 in the northern Colombian town of Sucre and reconstructs the tragic chain of events from eyewitness testimony and by interrogating the narrator’s memories of those times. He deploys the same techniques in his 1986 Clandestine in Chile, an account of a covert trip made by film director Miguel Littín to a country still under the brutal rule of Pinochet. Even García Márquez’s 2002 memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, is as much a work of journalism as an example of lyrical autobiography. He drew on his childhood recollections and interviewed family members and friends, as if doing a piece of sleuth work on himself. For him, the story to be pieced together was always interwoven with the social world in which it took place—and both had to be part of the telling. This time the subject was himself: After years of writing about others, his investigative eye was turned inward, the reporter fused with the reported.
García Márquez’s journalism almost always unfolded in the realm of print, of text on paper—seemingly a far cry from the digitized media landscape of today. Yet in his pursuit of fiction and reportage as parallel modes of collective storytelling, he explored phenomena we would find highly familiar: the blurring of genre boundaries, the feedback loops created between ongoing events and media depictions of them, the uncertain status of facts and memories.
Perhaps the most sustained demonstration of García Márquez’s mastery of these themes came late in life, with his 1996 News of a Kidnapping, which recounts the ordeals of several Colombian journalists kidnapped by the drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. As well as a portrayal of a country in crisis, racked by multiple forms of violence, it evokes the pervasive role of the media in contemporary life and in the process finds García Márquez putting his own profession under the microscope. Movingly recording the physical and psychological strains the journalists endured in captivity, he notes the ambiguous role that news outlets played throughout the kidnapping—providing a constant stream of information, updating the public in real time, conveying coded messages to the hostages, and raising the pressure on Colombia’s politicians to yield to the kidnappers’ demands. Ultimately, journalists were not only the victims at the heart of the story or observers as it developed but also participants in its making.
At one point in News of a Kidnapping, García Márquez delivers a brief aside that journalism is “power without a throne, luckily.” In the context of the book, he seems to mean power unburdened by the trappings and corruptions of political office. This is perhaps a curious assertion coming from a man who, as a journalist, spent a good deal of time in proximity to power and established friendships with Fidel Castro and François Mitterrand, among others. But I think he meant something else, too: that journalism’s power lies in its ability to speak from no fixed place. The power of the journalist comes from being able to float freely in the narrative medium that surrounds us, recording and reporting the news but also shaping the way we remember and speak about it. Throughout his career, García Márquez consistently sought to use that freedom, ranging back and forth between reportage and fiction, in order to show us how we might make it our own.
Author’s bio: Tony Wood is a member of the editorial board of New Left Review and the author of Russia Without Putin.
(Copied from the Nation)
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