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’.

This kind of news-writing and storytelling combined makes Mark Twain, the famous author of ‘The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’, look like a Jehovah’s Witness delivering a Sunday sermon. I must remind you that Mark Twain never got the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is obvious that it takes a different kind of lying to win it. Here it is, blooming wild.

Every Wednesday the Spanish newspaper El Pais prints, on what they call the ‘Noble Page’ (actually their version of an Op-Ed), an article with the Garcia Marquez byline. Before it’s too late I must warn the editors of Punch that each column wears, very visibly (like the one titled ‘Las Malvinas a Year After’), its author’s own copyright notice. It’s difficult to say if this is a mere legal formality, otherwise unheard of in Spain, to protect the penman from the swordsman, or just another authorial superstition among the many this writer has collected on his way to celebrity. To name only two, I can mention his painful habit of getting up very early in the morning to write his stuff – but never on Sunday, like Hemingway – and his donning an old brown robe to sit at his desk at dusk, like Balzac. Be that as it may, El Pais’s editorial page is thus made doubly noble by the new Nobel novelist. Recently a letter not to but from the Editor praised the writer’s exemplary habits of punctuality, order and cleanliness in terms so compelling they could force an untidy author like Tolstoy to jump in front of a speeding typewriter. Garcia Marquez writes weekly for Spaniards about all things on earth, but when he writes of things heavenly then he writes mainly of himself. To be fair, when he comes out as his own hero he always tells it as it should be – not like it was.

One of Garcia Marquez’s recent bellybusters was devoted to his trip to Stockholm to collect the Nobel Prize. Here he narrated how, in true populist fashion, he attended the ceremony wearing a liqui-liqui (some sort of traditional Colombian white linen suit), with a yellow sunflower in his lapel. In fact, his entourage, all two hundred of them, wore a yellow flower too: in their clothes, in their hair – everywhere. A national emblem perhaps, like the yellow rose of Texas? No, senor. A flowery exorcism against the evil eye: a Caribbean custom. A cumbia band was in full swing throughout the gala. The cumbia is a poor Colombian version of the Manhattan salsa, more gravy than saucy. A Spanish writer commented in Madrid’s Café Gijon that it was as if Juan Ramon Jimenez, the Andalucian poet, winner of the 1956 Nobel Prize, had gone to the Swedish ceremony wearing a Cordoban sombrero, a fancy chaleco and vaquero boots. He could even have taken along a flamenco troupe, with red carnations in their hair and lapels – and one or two with the gypsy rose clenched between their teeth. Olé!

The highlight of the Nobel performance was Garcia Marquez’s speech in Spanish. Here he showed off a first-hand knowledge of that avis vulgaris, the South-American caudillo. He lectured on many picturesque strongmen of the past. But when he came to the present-day variety he merely alluded to them, as if eluding name, rank and serial number. Perhaps he feared that if he named the dean of dictators, General Alfredo Stroessner, who has already been 29 years in power in Paraguay, he would have at least to skirt around Comandante Fidel Castro, who has managed to rule Cuba, all by himself, for 23 full years, without the benefit of the doubt of even a popularity poll! Stroessner rigs his elections but at least he has them – though he is usually the only candidate. When it comes to Latin caudillos Castro is the second-best bet. Any bookie will tell you that Fidel will outlive Fredo into first place any day now.

Meanwhile, back at the Academy, Garcia Marquez quoted from the grim statistics of Latin American exiles in the second half of the 20th century. ‘One million people have fled Chile!’ he claimed in his speech – and of course he lied. Later El Pais printed a news item from Santiago in which the Human Rights Commission in Chile stated that, in all, 200,000 Chileans have left the country, but of those only 20,000 could be considered true political expatriates. But our inveterate liar managed to forget all about Cuba (he didn’t even mention it), one-tenth of whose population has been living in exile for almost twenty-five years, in a bloodless decimation that is none the less cruel for that. During his self-addressed discourse Garcia Marquez twice mentioned the word ‘solitude’ and at least once quoted in full his by now famous title. It seemed as if he had not only invented the ‘concept of solitude’ (thus dismissing the autumn of Petrarch), but also the noun ‘year’ and even the numeral ‘one hundred’. Soon he will be copyrighting ‘Gabriel’. Finally, with a blast of the trumpet, he gave himself the title of ‘inventor of tales’ because, as he assured the august Academicians, he could ‘believe anything’. Of course. But he didn’t have to go all the way to Sweden in winter to prove it.

In a continuation of his celebration and jubilation by other means (and another column) Garcia Marquez told how Sylvia, Queen of the Swedes, danced the cumbia with the author during the Academy Awards evening. In sheer delight, this crowned head lost it a bit and hummed discreetly as she waltzed. Wait a moment! The waltz is in triple time while the cumbia is a two-time dance – so how could she? It doesn’t really matter if she goofed a step or two. No queen is perfect, you know. (Though her dancing partners sometimes are.) Anyway, she could have danced all night – even in the wrong steps. The writer, who claims he only writes prose metaphors, had his lyrics mixed up here. He probably got carried away by the memory of dancing the hours away with royalty. Ah yes, he remembers it well! The queen dressed in blue but he still wore the patriotic liqui-liqui, off-white and somewhat crumpled now, what with the abra-zos from the fans from fjords and farms, humble Scandinavians all. They came to Stockholm to see a humble Latin get a literary prize (for being chummy with Castro) which Borges, another Latin though not so humble, didn’t get (for once visiting with Pinochet). All military men are alike but some Latin dictators are more catching than others.

In his fifth column, the most unintentionally hilarious ever, Garcia Marquez appears at Castro’s door, bringing into his humble abode a rare present: a book! Castro claims that he has seen one of those before, but Garcia Marquez sweetly explains that to see what it really is you must open it first. Like this. See? Ah yes. How clever! We must do that more often in Cuba, you know. The novelist goes away, leaving the book with the Prime Minister-cum-President and Maximum Leader, a man so clever with words that mere legerdemain enabled him to trade watches with la Lollobrigida: she had a Cartier, he wore a dime-a-quartz Sanyo. It was then, when Marquez left, according to Gina’s wristwatch, early evening. Castro, moving his lips with stealth, began to read the first page.

Some time next day, late in the afternoon, Fidel (Garcia Marquez always calls Castro ‘Fidel’ – according to Graham Greene, in Cuba only his enemies dare call him Castro) came to see him: with eyes sore or at least redder than usual. He looked haggard and his voice had not the sound of musing but the hideous frog of insomnia. ‘Son of a gun!’ said Castro as a greeting, ‘you and your book didn’t let me sleep at all! I was hooked for the night.’

What volume of Marxist revelation was this that Castro couldn’t put down? To judge by his red eyes it had to be The Communist Manifesto. No, reader: it was Bram Stoker’s Dracula! (The Hammer and Sickle version.) Torquemada was right: nobody knows what evil lurks between covers. That’s why he created the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. (Latin makes lousy titles.) It was too late anyway: Castro was converted from political terror to Gothick horror in one single night of love. Since that fateful day Garcia Marquez has scrounged his library and those of his bibliophile friends and has even raided every Mexican libreria, looking for more fodder in the canon to feed the insatiable appetite Fidel Castro has now worked up for the macabre.

A more recent column shows Marquez feeding not only books but live authors to Castro: he took Graham Greene with him to Havana to meet with the Comandante. In his latest collection of dim-witticisms, Marquez gives rave notices to the spectacle of a tyrant posing for writers as frequently as Napoleon sat for painters: all laurels and a branch of green olive. Per festeggiare il suvenire d’un grand uomo, as Beethoven wrote – but then he erased it. This pièce de resistance (not by Beethoven precisely) is called ‘My Twenty Hours with Graham Greene in Havana’. In it Garcia Marquez gleefully tells us how he entered the United States duty free, as some kind of official contraband (which is not uncommon if you come from South America), this time in the company of Senor Greene: the couple of swell writers were smuggled into Washington by General Torrijos, then the President of Panama. The merriment becomes general too when the author of The Autumn of the Patriarch recalls how Torrijos even tried to disguise the author of The Power and the Glory as a Panamanian colonel! Devised by a Latin American general, this is not so strange a guise. Fidel Castro, who’s no general, has disguised many writers, if not as military at least as militants in his cause, whatever its course.

It isn’t true at all that Garcia Marquez could visit the United States only in disguise, be it as a civilian or a soldier. The man who gave us Leaf Storm now gives us a leaflet. He of course has generals to write about, but on 17 April 1961 he abandoned a sinking ship like a speedy skipper: even before it was listing. He left the Prensa Latina news agency, which he headed in New York, the very moment he read the cable announcing the Bay of Pigs invasion. He fled, contrary to his master Hemingway’s dictum on bravery, without grace under no pressure at all. Garcia Marquez apparently conceded defeat before the first battle: his heart had had reasons that other parts of his body couldn’t fathom, but no verba can hide these facta. Knowing that two lies never make up for one truth, Marquez has piled up lies until he doesn’t know how to tell the truth. He only has his deadpan face left.

Garcia Marquez came back to the United States, to the same city he had left in evil hour, but without a little help from his friend the general. He received a doctor honoris causa degree from the very American (and therefore capitalistic) university of Columbia. For the lover of analogies I can say that it is as if the University of Kiev had honoured Jorge Luis Borges with a similar degree. The analogy is only political, of course, not literary. In Manhattan our author was interviewed by the Argentine journalist from Life, Rita Guibert, then doing a book on Latin American writers, called Seven Voices. During the interview Marquez, mark his words, revealed his deepest truth: ‘I scarcely read at all: it doesn’t interest me. I read biographies and memoirs – the lives of men who have held power. Memoirs and revelations by secretaries, even if they aren’t true ...’ In the same Seven Voices a poet who has never written fiction, Octavio Paz, has this to say: ‘Garcia Marquez is an opportunist of the left, a man without ideas, tout court.’ At the Columbian ceremony the Colombian arrived wearing not the Panamanian uniform or the Cuban verde-olivo fatigues but the university toga.

Though the word ‘truth’ is a nonce to him, Marquez is telling the truth here. But his plight is not his only. Many foreign writers are not allowed to enter the United States. Just like hundreds of thousands and even millions of other aspiring visitors who are not Colombian writers. Every country, like each house, greets visitors as they deem best. Franco’s police, for instance, didn’t let me stay in Madrid in 1966, when I had just fled from Cuba, while Garcia Marquez lived happily in Barcelona almost until the Caudillo died He was, he claimed, analysing the death rattles of a patriarch – the Generalissimo to you. A hell of a patriarch! By the way, I’ve never seen him as anxious to visit Moscow as he is to stay in New York.

Now for something similar. The Fragrance of Guava is not Chanel in the tropics but a book of interviews. Or rather one long interview contained in a slim volume. This time the interviewee (Mark Twain hated the word as much as he loathed lies), by repeating everything he said to the Playboy interviewer, falls exactly between two stooges. The co-author of the book, however, Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, is a Colombian writer and an old friend. Mendoza proves to be more of a Pliny than an Apuleius and never lets Marquez look like an ass – not even a golden one, as before. As a matter of fact, Mendoza is a good journalist, and though he has been a factotum of Marquez in the past, now tries hard to avoid becoming a camp-follower. He even redresses many mistakes made by Marquez elsewhere. Like claiming ownership of that fickle fable from Faulkner about the whorehouse being the writer’s ideal home from home – some sort of brothelhood of man, as it were. Here the minstrel machismo has been conceded to the gentleman from the South.

El Olor de la Guayaba (the title, like the yellow flower, comes from an old Caribbean custom) is the chronicle oft told before of a man who has not much to say about anything – but sudden prominence compels him to talk about everything, from art to zoology. Mendoza tries hard, to no avail. Even when he grabs hold of everything for the record. Or almost everything. He has left off the record, for instance, that moment of truth when Marquez explained to his friend, relator and countryman, who had lent him both ears, why he pretended he was a Communist when he wasn’t. (This happened 12 years ago in Paris and many in their circle remember his answer, a revolutionary revelation – or a clue to his character.) Marquez confided to Mendoza that he was certain that the Soviets were going to win in the end. He had figured out that they might be the only begetters of all encyclopedias (including Britannica) in about one hundred years. Marquez wanted to be in all those books, badly, even if they were written in cirillic characters. ‘Solitude’ is a song by Duke Ellington, about three minutes long.

Garcia Marquez began his truculent story of Gurkhas and mass rape in the trenches with this vignette, worthy of O. Henry at his most sentimental. An Argentine soldier comes back from the war in the Falklands. Before reaching home he decides to call – guess who? – mama. After this coup de larmes, a naturalist touch: the soldier phones from the actual 1st Regiment, stationed at Palermo, Buenos Aires. The young man asks his mother if he could bring along a buddy. You see, Mummy, he has been badly wounded and is terribly, horribly mutilated. He is a rookie of only 19, who had lost a leg, an arm and been blinded for life. The mother was happy to hear her son’s voice but is now horrified about having an invalid in her house. She said no, she wouldn’t have him: she couldn’t bear the sight, not to mention the company, of a mutilated man. Sorry, son. The soldier hangs up and shoots himself. This type of tear-jerker has been done already, only much better, by King Vidor in a motion picture called The Big Parade, with John Gilbert as the son who returns to mother from war a mutilated man. The movie was made in 1925 and it was straight fiction. Now Garcia Marquez tells it again but as news from the Falklands front. Blind soldiers who phone unknowing mama only to learn of her horror of mutilation and blindness. Now come on!

After this short short story unworthy of Maupassant even when floored by general paralysis of the insane, I feared that Garcia Marquez might tell us the one about the ‘yaller one-eyed cow that didn’t have no tail but a short stump like a bannanneer’. He was about to, in fact. So ‘lacking both time and inclination, I did not wait to hear about the afflicted cow but took my leave.’ That’s what Mark Twain did. You’d better follow Mr Twain, folks. He knows what he’s talking about. He tamed the tall tale into a darn good yarn and made great art out of lying. Now Gabriel Garcia Marquez, reversing the process, threatens to make all yarns look like news – and all because the quiet old lady loved to lie!