Stalin’s Delicate Hands
Around 1985 I found a badly printed little paperback at Grant & Cutler called De viaje por los países socialistas, by Gabriel García Márquez. It was an eye-opener – the first playful, thoughtful, intimate, non-ideological take on the Eastern bloc I’d read. García Márquez has always called himself a journalist. It turns out that his literary-intellectual formation was nurtured not only by the chatty spirits around his grandmother and the depredations of the United Fruit company, but also by the fabulous variations of Communism he observed on a couple of semi-clandestine trips in the late 1950s.
The book was a trove of weird anecdotes and shrewd assessments. Slightly unpolished, perhaps, but still, why hadn’t it been translated? I contacted Carmen Balcells, his agent, and Tom Maschler at Cape, his UK publisher. Good timing: they were actually looking to do the journalism, but I couldn’t take just that book. They got me preparing a selection from the four-volume Collected Journalism (centred on Colombian politics, but including some great film criticism, striking real-life anticipations of later fiction, and hilarious, disdainful reports from Western Europe). Suddenly Maschler ceded the whole project to Knopf in New York. Then the trail went cold.
A decade later I was at a party with García Márquez in Mexico City. I knew I’d got about one second to ask my question. ‘What happened to the translated journalism, did you see my samples, did anything ever…’ He waved an arm grandly before being whisked away. ‘It’s time!’ he cried. ‘Go ahead, tell Maschler!’ I sent Maschler a fax: no reply.
Last year, casting about for a project, I remembered all this and felt inspired again. Still not a word of the Nobel Prize-winning journalist’s journalism – swelled meanwhile to eight volumes – in English? Why not start with the Eastern Europe book. But, one passionate letter and many phone calls later, Balcells’s deputy remained firmly mysterious: ‘There are obstacles.’ I’ve a publisher who would pay for me to go to Mexico and bang on the door. Tempting, but everyone knows GGM is hermetically resistant to chancers of my sort. Someone who knows him and his writing well, agreeing that the material is superb, suggested that he feels embarrassed about his juvenile leftism. I put this to the agent and she says that if I say so, I said it first. There’s surely nothing for him to regret here: he comes across as a disabused third-world socialist – confident enough to be both sympathetic and critical.
A recent controversy in the elite Hispanic magazine Letras Libres, in which the keepers of the Octavio Paz flame accuse García Márquez yet again of being infatuated with power, quotes a bit from the USSR section of De viaje where he approaches Stalin’s embalmed body and notes his delicate hands with, it seems, insufficient disgust. It’s absurd to exclude non-Spanish-speakers not only from the huge interest of García Márquez’s journalism, but also from elements of what continues to be a loaded debate. Unless, since Eastern Europe’s happy accession to market democracy, ancient history has ceased to matter.