At Tranquilina’s Knee

G. Cabrera Infante

  • The Fragrance of Guava: Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza in conversation with Gabriel Garcia Marquez translated by Ann Wright
    Verso, 126 pp, £9.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 86091 065 2

To judge by the reaction of some of his staunchest admirers, many readers of Gabriel Garcia Marquez were truly taken aback by what he wrote about the alleged behaviour of British troops in the trenches during the Little War for the Falklands. It’s surprising, however, that most of his disenchanted fans live not in England but in Spain, where the offending article appeared. Down there they are still writing letters of disapproval – though Spanish readers are not exactly what you could call a race of letter-writers. They don’t read the Times, you see. Besides, Spain is a traditional rival of Britain in most international affairs, from the World Cup to the Rock. Moreover, the Spanish were verbal supporters of the Argentine side in what’s usually called by Spaniards la guerra de las Malvinas. They, too, refuse to call the islands Falklands.

But this is not the first time that the Nobel Prize-winner of 1982 has lied in print, and not only in the banana republic of his fiction. He lies about any subject that takes his fancy. On Sundays he dissipates his boredom by writing his weekly column and sending it over to Madrid. In Spanish the words column and calumny come closer than in any English dialect, including Pidgin. But Garcia Marquez makes the homophones become synonyms every week.

It was with characteristic British reserve, though, that Lieutenant-Colonel David Morgan, Commandant of the 1st Battalion of the Seventh Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Gurkha Riders, set about straightening things out. The Gurkhas are the British soldiers whom, in an ugly slur, Garcia Marquez accused of committing almost unprintable atrocities. When interviewed by the Observer Colonel Morgan placed the calumny in its true context: ‘We really have to put the record straight,’ he concluded after a precise rebuttal. ‘Especially as this man clearly has considerable influence.’ ‘This man’ is another name for a congenital liar. He says so himself – in so many words.

Perhaps Colonel David Morgan doesn’t know that what Garcia Marquez told about the Gurkhas is a trick his grandmother taught him as a treat, when he was a child. Marquez’s granny was not Indian or Nepalese but she knew a lot – if not enough to tell a Gurkha from a sepoy, at least how to tell a lie. ‘I am capable of saying the most atrocious, the most fantastic things, with a completely straight face,’ Garcia Marquez said in an interview. ‘This is a talent I inherited from my grandmother – my mother’s mother – Dona Tranquilina.’ Tranquilina means ‘the Quiet Old Lady’ in Spanish. ‘She was a fabulous storyteller who could tell wild tales of the supernatural with a most solemn expression on her face. As I was growing up, I often wondered whether or not her stories were truthful. Usually, I tended to believe her because of her serious, deadpan facial expression. Now, as a writer, I do the same thing. I say extraordinary things in a serious tone. It’s possible to get away with ANYTHING as long as you make it believable.’ The italics and the capitals are of course mine, but the interview was published in Playboy, in February 1983. In it you can also read the most astonishing confession of voluntary submission to political censorship by a writer since Stalin and Zhdanov died. Playboy: ‘One of the rumours about you is that you give Castro a first look at your novels before you submit them to your publisher. True?’ Garcia Marquez: ‘Well, with my most recent book, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, yes.’ Then the interviewer spoils the statement with a servile question of his own: ‘Did he like it?’

This declaration of dependence explains all the lies about Gurkhas and mass rape, but it doesn’t excuse them. Here are some samples of Dona Tranquilina’s evil inheritance. The ‘legendary and ferocious beheaders from Nepal’ advanced on the Falklands, according to Marquez, ‘shouting and cutting off heads’ – which of course makes one of the two actions, if simultaneous, rather awkward, not to say impossible. Nevertheless the ‘ferocious Gurkhas’ managed to behead ‘with their decapitating scimitars a poor [Argentine] boy every seven seconds’. Not, mind you, every five or ten seconds, but precisely every seven seconds. ‘Due to a queer custom,’ writes Garcia Marquez in his well-known inherited deadpan, ‘they held the severed head by the hair and then they cut off the ears.’ But he is merely re-telling it all: he has a star witness, who was there, sur place in the trenches, but begged to remain anonymous, leaving Dona Tranquilina’s grandson to the courage of his concoctions. ‘These beasts,’ the socialist writer writes about the Gurkhas, a racial minority, ‘were so bloodthirsty that when the battle was over, they went on killing their own troops, until they had to be handcuffed to subdue them.’ Mad Gurkhas and Englishmen, no doubt.

Where the gruesome met with the grotesque was the moment the Pope (the Pope, not Poe) made the English surrender a thousand Argentine prisoners, only to find that 50 of them ‘had to be operated on for lacerations in the anus’. An epidemic of hemorrhoids? No, erratic enemy sodomisers. All those soldiers had been brutally raped. (Can anybody be gently raped?) To save the honour of the Third World, the rapists were not the Gurkhas: it was all clumsily done ‘by the English’. British troops were not, as the Marquis of Queensberry once put it, ‘posing as somdomites’ – they were the real thing. The story is worthy of another marquis, De Sade as seen by Pasolini. The Argentine prisoners of war (and victims of sudden lust) had to be quickly interned in some secluded sanatoria that Garcia Marquez calls ‘special hospitals for the rehabilitation’ of soldiers whose families shouldn’t know the ‘state they were in’.

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