Looking for the Patriarch

Inge Morath Foundation/Magnum Photos
Gabriel García Márquez (third from right) having lunch with Fidel Castro, 
Las Terrazas, Cuba, 2000. William Styron is at far right.

When Gabriel García Márquez finished writing One Hundred Years of Solitude in August 1966, he was almost forty, the father of two young boys, and so broke that he didn’t have enough money to send the manuscript from Mexico City to his prospective publisher in Buenos Aires. The anecdote is famous, one of many that have contributed to García Márquez’s carefully molded public image as a literary populist and everyman genius. In his admiring biography of the writer, Gerald Martin reports:

The package contained 490 typed pages. The counter official said: “Eighty-two pesos.” García Márquez watched as [his wife] Mercedes searched in her purse for the money. They only had fifty and could only send about half of the book: García Márquez made the man behind the counter take sheets off like slices of bacon until the fifty pesos were enough. They went home, pawned the heater, hairdryer and liquidizer, went back to the post office and sent the second tranche.

In a year’s time the novel’s success would engulf García Márquez in what he would later call “the frenzy of renown”—for a writer of comparable international celebrity one would have to go back to Hemingway. During the preceeding decades, his life is a portrait of the desperate, diasporic existence that seemed to be the lot of Latin American writers of the twentieth century. Prior to One Hundred Years of Solitude, he had published three novellas in tiny, almost clandestine editions. They were influenced more by the neorealist films of Vittorio De Sica than by any literary model, and were familiar only to a small group of Spanish-American cognoscenti. It didn’t seem reasonable to expect more. In 1943, the year García Márquez entered secondary school, on scholarship, six hundred students graduated from high school in all of Colombia.

García Márquez’s career as a journalist gave him the opportunity to slip away to Europe in 1955. This was during the most intense period of a twenty-year-long conservative crackdown in Colombia known as La Violencia.1 To escape was a personal necessity, not a political one. Always cautious, García Márquez never explicitly challenged the government in his reporting, and it is doubtful that he left the country to avoid being a target of the paramilitary squads as some of his admirers have claimed.

Shortly after he arrived in Paris, the Bogotá newspaper he was working for, El Espectador, was shut down by the government. He stayed in Paris for eighteen months, living with a Spanish actress who was as destitute as he was. Martin writes:

He collected empty bottles and old newspapers and received centimes in return at local stores…. One day he had to beg a fare in the metro…and was humiliated by…

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