Jasmines in the Hallway

Michael Wood

In English as in Spanish the title has several meanings. The most obvious one involves survival, hanging on after some disaster or adventure. Another suggests a telling which has become a life, perhaps even a compulsion or a doom, like that of the Ancient Mariner. And García Márquez himself spells out a third possibility: that you live, that you always have lived, for the sake of the future story, the one you will keep telling. ‘Life,’ the epigraph to this book says, ‘is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.’ This is an extreme claim, an assertion of what life is and isn’t, and the book doesn’t bear it out. But it does confirm the less extreme and more familiar claim. We do start living many moments as narrative before we’ve even finished living them as experience, and what García Márquez means is that this is just what a writer does – for a living.

The Spanish phrase is slightly snappier than the English, since it does without a noun: vivir para contarla, literally ‘to live to tell it’ – ‘it’ being feminine, and presumably life. The shape of the phrase allows García Márquez to play with it several times later in the book: trabajar para vivir (‘to work for a living’), escribir para no morir (‘to write so as not to die’), and mejor vida para morir (‘a better life for dying’). In each case it is a matter of life and death, and in each case a brief phrase calls up a task or a riddle or a question. This is another way of saying what a writer does, and it is also very much part of García Márquez’s sense of how we get to remember and recount the world. A central chapter concerns the events in Bogotá on 9 April 1948, when the radical politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was assassinated, and a violent rebellion was violently quashed. The Liberals wanted the Conservative president to resign, and he refused with a historic epigram: ‘A dead president is worth more to Colombian democracy than a fugitive one.’ Well, this is what the legend says he said. García Márquez comments:

None of the witnesses recalled hearing it from his lips or from anyone else’s. Over time it was attributed to a variety of talents, and people even discussed its political merits and historical validity, but never its literary splendour . . . So the sentence remained in history as having been said by the one who should have said it, in a devastated city where ashes were beginning to cool, and in a country that would never be the same again.

We may think of the man in Love in the Time of Cholera who lies beautifully and romantically to the woman he loves, not because he wants to deceive her but because he doesn’t want to disappoint her stylistic expectations. She doesn’t believe him for a minute, and she likes ‘the spirited way’ in which he says it.

There are all kinds of ironies running around here, especially involving the attribution of literary splendour or romantic value to a slogan or a banality, and the actual truth of the matter – what the president did or did not say, the many love affairs the man was lying about – is far from irrelevant or eclipsed. But we are also witnessing a triumph of performance, and this is what living to tell the tale means: that what should have been said is part of life too, and there is a real poverty in our forgetting or denying this.

García Márquez’s book, with its eight long, slow chapters, can be seen as (at least) four rather different works. The first tells the story of how this writer became a writer: how he lived as a small child in the little town of Aracataca; went to school in Baranquilla and Bogotá; got into law school, studied in Bogotá and Cartagena, dropped out after three years; became a journalist; started to publish short stories to great acclaim; wrote a first novel, La Hojarasca (Leaf Storm); left for Europe. This same book has affectionate and vivid portraits of many friends, and of many long nights in brothels and restaurants. The writer smokes four packets of cigarettes a day until someone tells him he can’t give up because it would be like killing a part of himself. Then he stops.

The second work shows how this writer was a writer even before he started writing, and much of the book’s best and most characteristic jokes are in this vein. Children usually like to hear the same story repeated, García Márquez says, but he doesn’t believe this is the case for niños narradores, ‘children who are storytellers’, and it wasn’t the case for him. ‘I wanted more.’ When his grandfather gives him a dictionary, he asks how many words it has. His grandfather says, ‘All of them’, and the boy reads the dictionary ‘as if it were a novel, in alphabetical order, with little understanding. That was my first contact with what would be the fundamental book in my destiny as a writer.’ Following the same line of thought, García Márquez claims that as an infant he would stand up in his cot and cry to have his nappy changed not because he was bothered by the dirt and discomfort but because he was worried his new baby clothes might get soiled. ‘That is, it was not a question of hygienic prejudice but aesthetic concern, and because of the manner in which it persists in my memory, I believe it was my first experience as a writer.’ Of course these jokes are not just jokes; they are a joker’s definition of a writer’s vocation.

The third work raises the stakes by brilliantly suggesting, again and again, that the world this writer grew up in was effectively a García Márquez novel before he even touched it. There are stories, he says, which are not invented on paper. ‘Life invents them.’ We can be sceptical about this proposition, and probably should be, but the evidence is impressive. García Márquez remembers the slogan of a firm of undertakers in Barranquilla – ‘Take your time, we’re waiting for you’ – and tells the story of a woman in the same city who found that a chicken had shat on the immaculate table she had prepared for her husband’s dinner. She had no time to change the cloth, and so covered up the intrusion with a plate. The husband came home in a bad mood, and when asked what he wanted for dinner, said: ‘Shit.’ The wife whisked the plate away and sweetly said: ‘Here you are.’ And if life can’t have invented everything in the following comic tour de force about García Márquez’s arrival in the city of Cartagena, which shows plenty of signs of shaping and crafting, life surely did its bit. An old man, ‘nothing but skin and bones’, offers to carry the young man’s suitcase for 30 centavos. This seems steep to our hero and they settle on three:

The old man . . . hung the sandals he was wearing around his neck, loaded the suitcase on his shoulder with a strength that was unbelievable for his bones, and ran like an athlete barefooted along a rough terrain of colonial houses crumbling after centuries of abandonment . . . I tried not to lose sight of the Olympic old man who could not have had many hours of life left in him. After five blocks he went through the door of the hotel and climbed the stairs two at a time. With his breath intact he placed the suitcase on the floor and held out his palm:

‘Thirty pieces.’

I reminded him that I had already paid him, but he insisted that the three centavos . . . did not include the staircase. The landlady, who came out to greet us, said he was right: the staircase was a separate charge. And she made a prediction that was valid for the rest of my life:

‘You’ll see, in Cartagena everything’s different.’

Both of his parents were ‘excellent storytellers’, García Márquez says, and when he put their courtship into a novel he ‘could not distinguish between life and poetry’. And indeed almost everything he says about his immediate family belongs in this third work. They are already, in this telling, the inhabitants of the fiction he was later to write. We can think of the grandfather’s lapidary replies to the child’s questions (Why does he travel third class on the train? ‘Because there’s no fourth.’ What’s on the other shore of the sea? ‘There is no shore on the other side’). Or of the mother’s well-weighed phrases (‘You can see poverty in the eyes’; ‘Sometimes it happens that even God needs to make weeks that are two years long’), and indeed her whole life as her son lyrically conjures it up:

She . . . was sickly. She had spent an uncertain childhood plagued by tertian fevers, but when she was treated for the last one the cure was complete and for ever, and her health allowed her to celebrate her 97th birthday with 11 of her children and four more of her husband’s, 65 grandchildren, 88 great-grandchildren and 14 great-great-grandchildren . . . She died of natural causes on 9 June 2003, at 8.30 in the evening, when we were already preparing to celebrate her first century of life, and on the same day and almost at the same hour as I put the final period to these memoirs.

The implication is that García Márquez, like many novelists perhaps, found his fictions rather than made them up; narrated them, and signed them. And it is distinctly eerie to read a number of verbatim quotations from One Hundred Years of Solitude, recycled here as simple representations of the way things are. Or were. The quotation in this case (from the second sentence of the novel) begins after the word ‘located’: ‘I remembered it as it was: a good place to live where everybody knew everybody else, located on the banks of a river of transparent water that raced over a bed of polished stones as huge and white as prehistoric eggs.’ Characters from the novel appear here as fragments of history: the boy who sees ice for the first time, the girl who eats earth, the military man who makes golden fishes, the woman who bakes caramel sweets, the banana company and the massacre of the striking workers, again represented by an unmarked verbatim quotation from the novel (‘the insatiable and methodical shears of the machine-guns’). In one sense, these gestures are a straightforward declaration of sources: debts paid by fiction to history. In another sense they present history as already fictionalised, not untrue but never raw, always richly cultivated. When such history gets into a novel it merely comes home. The implied argument returns us to the notions of style and performance. It reminds us not that reality is socially constructed, as we used to say, and not even that we live to tell tales, but that life may be lived as already told, and rather floridly told at that.

But this is not the end of the story, and there is a fourth work in Living to Tell the Tale. The book is not always dynamic or funny, and sometimes García Márquez just narrates the rather desultory days he just lived. But parts of the book are so artful and oblique as to seem almost sly. The astonishing first chapter opens in 1950, when the young writer is working for a newspaper in Barranquilla and, with his friends, about to start work on a new magazine. His mother appears and asks him to go to Aracataca with her to sell their old house. He does, and this journey into the past changes his life.

Neither my mother nor I, of course, could even have imagined that this simple two-day trip would be so decisive that the longest and most diligent of lives would not be enough for me to finish recounting it [para acabar de contarlo]. Now, with more than seventy-five years behind me, I know it was the most important of all the decisions I had to make in my career as a writer. That is to say: in my entire life.

Throughout the book García Márquez refers to ‘the day I went with my mother to sell the house’, ‘the trip with my mother to sell the house in Aracataca’, and reminds us of the decisive nature of this journey. Within the book itself, what is decisive is his change of direction as a writer: he drops the book he was working on, simply called ‘La Casa’ (‘The House’), and begins Leaf Storm. But with a larger time-frame in mind, remembering the buried quotations from One Hundred Years of Solitude, and the ghostly presence of this as yet unwritten text everywhere in this evocation of early years, we realise that García Márquez is telling us something else as well, and doing it through one of the most original movements of his narrative style. You recall the discreet deception of the opening sentence of his most famous novel: ‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.’ The colonel does remember the ice when he faces the firing squad and he remembers it just before he dies. But these are separate memory-events, and what the colonel doesn’t do is what the sentence most clearly seems to promise: die at the hands of a firing squad. Similarly, although García Márquez repeatedly refers to the trip to sell the house, and although the trip is life-changing, he and his mother didn’t actually sell the house – or didn’t sell it then. There were too many repairs to be done, the intended purchaser didn’t want to buy, and in any case there were complications about a mortgage everyone had forgotten. The journey is named for its intention and important for its result, and García Márquez is saying, I think, not that his life changed at that moment but that a vast future change, the world fame that arose more than anything from the extraordinary success of One Hundred Years of Solitude, was predicated on this moment, and in hindsight must seem impossible without it. The day he went with his mother to (not) sell the house was the day he began to become the writer he could easily not have been.

There is something strongly mythologising in such a perspective, of course, and García Márquez is very frank about this. Living to Tell the Tale is not really an autobiography and is not offered as such. The blurb for the Spanish language edition calls it ‘the novel of a life’. But it isn’t that either. In an aside on interviews, García Márquez says that he doesn’t believe in their usefulness, and that he considers the many interviews he has given as belonging to his ‘works of fiction’. They are ‘fantasies about my life’. This book is perhaps best described as a long interview with himself, but the idea of fantasy gives too much away. He is not lying about his life, or making up alternatives, and he is not simply dreaming. He is not even dealing in what should have been, although, as we saw in his commentary on the Colombian president’s epigram in 1948, he does believe, like the journalist in John Ford’s film The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, that when the legend becomes the truth, one should print the legend.

García Márquez is giving us lots of (already shaped) history, and subjecting that history to acts of shaping that are most characteristically his own. We see this in the recurrence of his favourite rhetorical figures of paradox and hyperbole. Paradox: ‘I saw the . . . statues of illustrious heroes that did not seem like sculptures in perishable marble but living dead men. For in Cartagena they were not preserved from the rust of time; on the contrary, time was preserved for things that continued to be their original age while the centuries grew old.’ Hyperbole: ‘At that time Bogotá was a remote, lugubrious city where an insomniac rain had been falling since the beginning of the 16th century’; García Márquez’s early stories seem to him ‘like Kafkan riddles written by someone who did not know what country he was living in’. And all of this is beautifully summed up in the image of the unsold house in Aracataca as a place where fantasies materialise and where happiness and death alternate like day and night – where happiness and death are day and night.

At the age of 70 I have still glimpsed in dreams the ardour of the jasmines in the hallway and the phantom in the gloomy bedrooms, and always with the same feeling that crippled my childhood: terror of the night. Often I have a foreboding, in my worldwide attacks of insomnia, that I too carry the curse of that mythical house in a happy world where we died every night.

The deep fantasy here lies not in the phantom or the terror or the happiness but in the diction and rhythms of the sentences. Living to tell the tale means turning life into cadences like these. The shit of the world has its smelly day, but the baby clothes of memory are never soiled.