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García Márquez And Truth: How Journalism Fed The Novelist's Fantasy

In his early journalistic writings, the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez showed he had an eye for factual details, in which he found the absurdity and 'magic' that would in time be the stuff and style of his fiction.

Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez reads his book

J. D. Torres Duarte

BOGOTÁ — In short stories written in the 1940s and early 50s and later compiled in Eyes of a Blue Dog, the late Gabriel García Márquez, Colombia's Nobel Prize-winning novelist, shows he is as yet a young writer, with a style and subjects that can be atypical.

Stylistically, García Márquez came into his own in the celebrated One Hundred Years of Solitude. Until then both his style and substance took an erratic course: touching the brevity of film scripts in Nobody Writes to the Colonel, technical experimentation in Leaf Storm, the anecdotal short novel in In Evil Hour or exploring politics in Big Mama's Funeral. Throughout, the skills he displayed were rather of a precocious juggler.


Yet one craft, journalism, allowed his style not just to evolve more firmly but, I suspect, became the nurturing source of the hyperbolic, colossal tone of such novels as One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Autumn of the Patriarch and Love in the Time of Cholera.

Wit, humor, irony

In the 1950s, García Márquez cultivated two genres: the light commentary on news (whether on the Argentinian government, a film or on coffins), and the chronicle. The first he wrote over several years in El Universal and El Heraldo (two dailies published on Colombia's Caribbean coast), and the second, for little over a year, in this paper, El Espectador.

His light commentaries, compiled and studied by Jacques Gilard in Textos costeños 1948-1952, aspire to intelligent and witty narration, and are at times as grandiose as a passage in one of his great works.

In La primera caída (First Fall), an article on the elderly playwright George Bernard Shaw published in September 1950, he wrote that "at the age when most men devote themselves to the tedious task of turning to dust, Mr George Bernard Shaw goes for a stroll in his garden in Ayot St. Lawrence, still with enough vitality to slip and break his hip." When Bernard Shaw died on the Day of the Dead, as a result of that fall, García Márquez noted, "Mr George Bernard Shaw — timely as ever! — chose to die on November 2, which is undoubtedly the most appropriate day for that irksome task."

His light commentaries are at times as grandiose as a passage in one of his great works.

The irony in his observations ("enough vitality to slip" or the "irksome task" of dying), is not unlike this bovine passage from The Autumn of the Patriarch: "[...] one afternoon in January, we had seen a cow contemplate the twilight from the presidential balcony. Imagine that, a cow on the balcony of the fatherland [...], there were conjectures on how a cow could possibly have attained that balcony when everybody knows cows cannot climb stairs, particularly a stone staircase and much less with carpeted steps [...]."

The same humor, tempered at times by sarcasm, is evident in El Beso: una acción química (The Kiss: a Chemical Action). After relating how a scientist called Mrs Wilkinson had suggested the kiss was the method early humans discovered to ingest salt in hot months, García Márquez writes, "Henceforth there will be no need to invite anyone to come and observe the moon with us. All we need to do is to sit on a park bench and romantically eat a pound of salt."

With the same dryness used to describe (in One Hundred Years of Solitude) a man falling from a rooftop for gazing at the beautiful Remedios, García Márquez writes in Posibilidades de la antropofagia (The Possibilities of Cannibalism) that "it would not be strange if one of these days, when all supplies have run out, the sale of sacrificial victims were regularized."

 Cultural traditions and mythical geographies

In A Luis Carlos López con veinte años de muerte (To Luis Carlos López, 20 Years Dead), he writes that an indispensable condition of having known the poet López in person was "to be at least 30 years of age." The choice of an ordinary yet dissonant detail (30, not 32 years of age), would return years later at the opening of One Hundred Years of Solitude, in the form of ice. It is an anodyne element of no particular merit turned into an object of discovery, and a symbol of creation and time, which are the novel's spiraling themes.

As a chronicler of El Espectador, he widened this register's potential by placing it on an eclectic scaffolding of fantasy and realism. It is no coincidence that one of his first set of chronicles (initially destined for the Lámpara review), was devoted to La Sierpe, "a legendary town on Colombia's Atlantic coast."

La Marquesita de la Sierpe begins with the story of a man at the doctor's office, waiting to be rid of the monkey he bore in his belly: he had been impregnated by witchcraft, used so often as a punishment around La Sierpe. His chronicles, which report on a fantastic geography and its bestiary, cite winged and dead bulls that convey conformity with the afterlife by gently tapping a coffin. García Márquez's love of hyperbole and wit find a wider, more fruitful ground in the world of cultural traditions and of mythical, public and inherited fantasies, than in the moving terrain of current affairs.

In this fragment of the series El Chocó que Colombia desconoce (Chocó, Unknown to Colombia), relating a plane trip to Quibdó in 1954, hyperbole combined with a verifiable time and place recalls the utterly realistic irreality of Macondo: "When that plane crosses a storm — which probably happens on every trip as it rains 360 days a year in Chocó — the water filters through the fuselage drains, creating a sense of drowning at an altitude of 800 feet." The reporter's precision with the number of days or altitude recurs in the big novels (Fernanda del Carpio purchasing 72 chamber pots in One Hundred Years, herds of premature babies, always born two months early, in The Autumn of the Patriarch, or the president's 73 years of age in Bon Voyage, Mr President).

\u200bAn image of writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez

An image of writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez during the 28th Guadalajara's International Book Fair, in Guadalajara city, Mexico

Gabriel Anaya/Xinhua/ZUMA

From non-fiction to fiction

In this series too one finds pithy dialogue meant to give a scene brisk solidity.

On a bus with passengers from Chocó, Gárcia Márquez describes a man shouting at reporters there: "'These are the most honest folk you could hope to find. I've got 30,000 pesos of declared assets with me and nobody has thought of stealing them.' It was true. Asked who he was, the little man said, cordially and formally, 'I'm the postal service'."

Aspiring writers tend to seek the approval of the literary world.

Doctor Juvenal Urbino speaks in similar terms, in Love in the Time of Cholera, on finding "among the bitter almonds" the body of Jeremiah de Saint-Amour: "Fool, the worst was over."

One is also reminded of the first José Arcadio Buendía talking to his wife Úrsula who refuses to leave Macondo as she had given birth to a child there: "It's not your home if you have nobody buried there." Such comments do not so much provide character details or advance the story as give situations a strong yet colorful conclusion.

It is interesting that the style that allowed García Márquez to process his life experiences in depth should be more closely identified with his press work than his early attempts at fiction writing. In spite of the craftsmanship involved in such books as In Evil Hour and Leaf Storm, it seems García Márquez found in the innate fantasy of day-to-day events a base whence he could rise and loosen himself.

Aspiring writers tend to seek the approval of the literary world through the imitation of models and artificial depiction of emotions. I would propose that in writing news chronicles and shortish commentaries, García Márquez neither pretended nor imitated, nor sought the approval of the literary world. The freedom of writing mundane chronicles was already turning him into the writer he would become. For his chronicles for El Espectador are only 13 years prior to One Hundred Years of Solitude.

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