Maaaeeestro!

Sanjay Subrahmanyam

  • Gabriel García Márquez: A Life by Gerald Martin
    Bloomsbury, 668 pp, £25.00, October 2008, ISBN 978 0 7475 9476 5

When Luis Miguel Dominguín, the celebrated torero, died at the age of 69 in May 1996, the obituaries were many and generous. They recalled his curious relationship with Ernest Hemingway, his love affairs with the likes of Ava Gardner, and that he was the father of the famous singer Miguel Bosé. They made much of his close friendship with Picasso, and Le Monde quoted from his brief work of 1960, Pour Pablo. Dominguín had written:

Tout homme célèbre doit veiller à ne pas détruire sa propre légende, celle qui l’accompagne tout au long de sa vie, dès la naissance jusqu’à la célébrité. La vie d’un homme n’est jamais assez longue pour détruire une légende et en créer une autre. Et, sans légende, il est impossible d’entrer dans l’Histoire.

This reflection – it isn’t clear whether it was manufactured by Dominguín, or was a version of something he had heard and liked – is nearly embarrassing in its assertiveness. It tells us that there is a marked difference between famous men and others. Only celebrities have a legend which accompanies them all through their lives, like an invisible twin, or hamzaad as the Persians have it. One can either tend this legend or destroy it. These might seem rather pretentious words for a man whose profession consisted of a primitive if stylised form of public combat against animals. But they help us examine the problem not merely of celebrity, but of how celebrities think about celebrity; they also take us back by a complex route to chivalric terms like fama and leyenda, which Cervantes was already being ironic about four hundred years ago.

At the very end of his long book on the life of one of the 20th century’s great creative writers, who has also been an unceasing and relentless manipulator of his own image, Gerald Martin writes of Gabriel García Márquez: ‘Literature and politics have been the two most effective ways of achieving immortality in the transient world that Western civilisation has created for the planet; few would hold that political glory is more enduring than the glory that comes from writing famous books.’ Not good books, but famous ones. Martin has just described a huge public celebration, one of several the book revels in. This one was held at a convention centre in Cartagena on 26 March 2007, in the presence of a large number of political actors, including the president and four ex-presidents of Colombia, as well as the king of Spain. It was to honour the life and achievements of the 79-year-old García Márquez. When the arrival of Bill Clinton was announced, ‘the crowd rose as the most famous man on earth made his way down to the front of the hall.’ Only Fidel Castro and the pope, he remarks, were missing from the list of ‘superstars’ who might have been there.

How did a novelist, even a Nobel Prize-winning and bestselling one, come to occupy such a position? Was it testimony to the power of Spanish, one of the few languages (together with Chinese) determinedly to resist the advance of English in the 20th century? How can one relate García Márquez’s work to his curious worship of power and the cult of celebrity, a worship which his biographer seems to share? Even if the writer as celebrity existed in some form before the 20th century, the modern media – glossy magazines and television above all – have been responsible for developing the notion. But so have writers themselves, and a key figure in this respect is Hemingway. Martin tells an anecdote about Hemingway’s suicide in July 1961, just after García Márquez arrived in Mexico City. In one version of the story, he was woken up by his Mexican friend Juan García Ponce, who said: ‘Listen to this, that bastard Hemingway has blown his head off with a shotgun.’ In another, less dramatic account, he was told of the suicide by journalists. At any rate, García Márquez quickly wrote a long essay in homage, entitled ‘A Man Has Died a Natural Death’ (‘Un hombre ha muerto de muerte natural’) and published in the literary supplement to the newspaper Novedades on 9 July. He praised Hemingway as an underestimated writer who would ‘eat up many a great writer through his knowledge of men’s motives and the secrets of his trade’, but also noted that ‘a new era’ had begun in literature, perhaps hinting at a passing of the literary baton.

Twenty years later, he returned to Hemingway in an essay in El Espectador which was then translated and published in the New York Times of 26 July 1981. The account centred on a sort of meeting between the two, an episode that forms the closing vignette in Martin’s chapter ‘Hungry in Paris: La Bohème, 1956-57’. Here is García Márquez’s version:

I recognised him immediately, passing with his wife Mary Welsh on the Boulevard St Michel in Paris one rainy spring day in 1957. He walked on the other side of the street, in the direction of the Luxembourg Gardens, wearing a very worn pair of cowboy pants, a plaid shirt and a ballplayer’s cap. The only thing that didn’t look as if it belonged to him was a pair of metal-rimmed glasses, tiny and round, which gave him a premature grandfatherly air. He had turned 59, and he was large and almost too visible, but he didn’t give the impression of brutal strength that he undoubtedly wished to, because his hips were narrow and his legs looked a little emaciated above his coarse lumberjack shoes.

García Márquez would have been 30 (though he says he was 28), ‘with a published novel and a literary prize in Colombia’, as he writes, but ‘adrift and without direction in Paris’. His two great masters at the time were not Latin American or even Spanish-language writers, but Faulkner and Hemingway. ‘Faulkner,’ he continues, ‘is a writer who has had much to do with my soul, but Hemingway is the one who had the most to do with my craft – not simply for his books, but for his astounding knowledge of the aspect of craftsmanship in the science of writing.’ This is a slightly unexpected claim, meant perhaps to defend himself against the frequent accusation of owing too much to Faulkner. At any rate, García Márquez says he was thoroughly star-struck at the sight of Hemingway across the street, surrounded and at the same time left anonymous by a ‘youthful torrent’ of students from the Sorbonne.

I didn’t know whether to ask him for an interview or cross the avenue to express my unqualified admiration for him. But with either proposition, I faced the same great inconvenience. At the time, I spoke the same rudimentary English that I still speak now, and I wasn’t very sure about his bullfighter’s Spanish. And so I didn’t do either of the things that could have spoiled that moment, but instead cupped both hands over my mouth and, like Tarzan in the jungle, yelled from one sidewalk to the other: ‘Maaaeeestro!’ Ernest Hemingway understood that there could be no other master amid the multitude of students, and he turned, raised his hand and shouted to me in Castilian in a very childish voice: ‘Adiooos, amigo!’ It was the only time I saw him.

In Martin’s account, this rainy day in May inexplicably becomes a ‘bright day early in 1957’, but it’s also puzzling that he doesn’t make more of the rather obvious fact that García Márquez saw Hemingway as a role model for how to live as much as a writer whose technique could be emulated.

García Márquez was born in March 1927 and grew up in the small town of Aracataca near the Caribbean coast of Colombia, between the Sierra Nevada mountains and the border with Venezuela. This was banana country, and a boom in the trade had allowed the town’s population to expand to about 10,000 by the time García Márquez was born. The big figure in the region was a shady American called Minor Cooper Keith (1848-1929), who together with Andrew Preston had founded the United Fruit Company in 1899 and proceeded to buy up huge tracts of land in the Caribbean. By 1927, his company was exporting ten million bunches of bananas a year from Santa Marta, the railhead that lay at the other end of the tracks from Fundación and Aracataca. But in 1928 there were bloody struggles between workers and management and, soon afterwards, the Great Depression led to a precipitous fall in the prices of commodities like fruit. This time spent in an increasingly dilapidated place that looked back on a glorious if largely illusory past provided a more or less inexhaustible mine of material for the novels.

Martin says that a major influence on García Márquez was his maternal grandfather, Colonel Nicolás Márquez, who died when the novelist was ten. The colonel fathered three children (including García Márquez’s mother) by his wife, and at least nine others by six other women. He was probably also a murderer, having in 1908 apparently bushwhacked a former friend, after ensuring that he was unarmed, for fear that the latter – a skilled marksman – would challenge him to a duel over his sexual shenanigans. Even years later, his grandson was still in denial, claiming simply that the colonel ‘had to kill a man when he was very young’.

García Márquez had a difficult relationship with his father, Gabriel Eligio García, who saw his son as a born liar, who would ‘go somewhere, see something and come home telling something completely different’ – not bad talents to deploy in writing a certain type of novel. Still, it was with his father that García Márquez moved first to Sincé, then to Barranquilla (closer to the coast), and eventually to Sucre. By the age of 15, he had begun to frequent brothels with his illegitimate half-brother, and then embarked on a series of love affairs. By the age of 19, his literary talents had been recognised by some of his teachers; he had published some poetry; and he had done very well in his school-leaving examinations. He seemed likely to establish a respectable middle-class professional existence, as a doctor or lawyer. This was certainly what García Márquez’s father, hardly a model of stability, wanted for his son. And this was what took him in 1947 away from the coast and into the highlands, to the Universidad Nacional in Bogotá for a degree in law.

But the next years brought something different. It is at this point that García Márquez opens his autobiography, Vivir para contarla, translated into English by Edith Grossman as Living to Tell the Tale. He recalls that in February 1950, soon after he had dropped out of university, returned to the coast and become a journalist for El Heraldo, his mother came to find him at the Librería Mundo, a bookshop in Barranquilla where he spent a good part of his time. Her purpose was two-fold: first, to sell or raise money on the old family house where he had been born; and second, to have him explain his erratic behaviour to his still absent but always disapproving father. What follows is a narrative tour de force, as García Márquez takes us from the coast via the Ciénaga Grande, the great swamp, down the old banana railway that ran to Aracataca. On the way, we pass ‘the only banana plantation along the route that had its name written over the gate: “Macondo”’. (One of the difficulties with the first part of Martin’s book is that, although it is meticulous and carefully documented, it has to compete with García Márquez’s own far more compelling narrative. It is only in 1955, when Vivir para contarla ends with García Márquez’s arrival in Geneva, that Martin is somewhat liberated, but that is nearly a third of the way through his book.)

García Márquez’s autobiography is an extraordinary work, which gives a real sense of where he stands (and where he already stood by his late twenties): at the crossroads of fiction, journalism and politics. Its slightly ungrammatical title may have been chosen because the Spanish poet José Manuel Caballero Bonald (who was for a time in exile in Colombia and knew García Márquez) had already published a collection of verse called Vivir para contarlo (1969). In his autobiography García Márquez announces his tastes and literary affinities in no uncertain terms, and it is not a coincidence that on the trip with his mother across the great swamp he carries a copy of Light in August by Faulkner, ‘the most faithful of my tutelary demons’. García Márquez has compared the world he lived in as a child with the American South, and argued that his affinity with Faulkner came as much from the ‘guts’ of a lived experience as from anything more literary. He has even said that when he visited parts of the South on a road trip from New York to Mexico City in the early 1960s, he found the built environment familiar, because the Americans who managed the fruit company tended to build in the same style in Colombia.

Behind all this is a question that recurs time and again in Martin’s account: to what extent can García Márquez be understood to be part of a Latin American tradition of the novel? If he can’t, what are the alternatives? Luis Villar Borda, one of his classmates at the Universidad Nacional in the late 1940s, said that García Márquez’s main points of reference, when he first met him, were Dos Passos, Hemingway, Faulkner, Hesse, Mann and the Russians: Colombian literature figured ‘hardly at all, just a few poets’. Is García Márquez more of an American novelist than a Latin American one? How Latin American is he, given his apparent indifference to Brazilian writing, even to Machado de Assis? At the same time, though, more than many of his major contemporaries writing in Spanish, García Márquez is deeply monolingual. Thanks to his limpid Colombian pronunciation, one listens to his spoken Spanish with pleasure, but also with the knowledge of his pride in speaking practically no English, or any other language (with the possible exception of French). The world came to him through translation, and it was through translation that he gained access to Kafka and Dostoevsky, as well as all the others.

It is tempting in this as in other respects to compare him with his great contemporary from neighbouring Peru, Mario Vargas Llosa, and not only because the two were good friends for a time before a celebrated falling-out. Martin has some interesting passages pointing to the parallels between their lives: difficulties with their fathers and a closeness to their maternal grandfathers; an early experience of brothels; a good deal of time spent as journalists; and support in the 1960s for the Cuban Revolution. As early as 1971, Vargas Llosa published an interesting work entitled García Márquez: Historia de un deicidio. It came out four years after Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude), and examines the relationship between the ‘real reality’ on which García Márquez draws and the ‘fictitious reality’ that he produces in both this novel and his earlier writings. Vargas Llosa suggests a series of possible influences ranging from Defoe and the Arabian Nights to Rabelais and Virginia Woolf. He also criticises García Márquez, probably justly, for having an excessively teleological vision of his own work, and seeing the books produced before One Hundred Years of Solitude simply as preparation for the ‘great novel’.

Vargas Llosa’s book may be one of the most generous tributes paid by a novelist of importance to one of his contemporaries, but it also underlines several major distinctions between the two writers, besides the fact that they have drifted apart politically over the years. Vargas Llosa is more attracted to Europe than García Márquez, whose obligatory stay in Paris as a young man does not seem to have brought him great intellectual sustenance. The Peruvian novelist, like Borges, is something of an Anglophile: he speaks fluent and idiomatic (if strongly accented) English. And, as we see in his work on García Márquez, Vargas Llosa is one of those relatively rare great novelists comfortable in the world of ‘high’ literary theory. García Márquez is more of an autodidact, an instinctive writer who isn’t much interested in abstract concepts, whether as a producer of fiction or as a journalist. He has steadfastly refused to read Vargas Llosa’s book: ‘If someone showed me all the secret mechanisms of my work, the sources, what it is that makes me write, if someone told me all that, I think it would paralyse me.’

There has always been a certain interesting naivety about García Márquez, which has served him well most of the time. But it has caused him problems too, even if one leaves aside his odd and continuing devotion to Fidel Castro, whom he has described as ‘a man of austere habits and insatiable illusions . . . incapable of conceiving any idea that is not colossal’. Martin recalls the strange moment in December 1982 when García Márquez appeared in Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize wearing black boots and a liqui liqui, a linen suit with working-class connotations which he never wore in normal life. More recently, there have been his peculiar appearances with and endorsements of the pop singer Shakira. Some may wish to ascribe his adoration of celebrities and desire to rub shoulders with them to naivety, but it isn’t clear that is all it is.

The Nobel Prize was not the end of García Márquez’s literary career but a point of inflection, and he has continued to write at a regular and impressive rate since 1982. Martin – though an accomplished literary scholar – has for the most part decided to leave analysis out of his book, preferring the flatter (and at times even adulatory) approach of conventional biography, taking us step by step through a rather long life. His third and final section, entitled ‘Man of the World: Celebrity and Politics’, deals with the period from 1967 to 2005 and discusses the writing and reception of many of the successful later books, such as The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975) and Love in the Time of Cholera (1985). But one of the questions he does not confront is precisely that of celebrity and its meaning in the literary world of the late 20th century. To be sure, the matter may appear quite different depending on one’s geographical location. As Martin astutely remarks, ‘if an American or an English man or woman wins [the Nobel Prize] it barely makes the news . . . but this was . . . an award to a man from Colombia,’ a country which has won no Nobel Prize before or since.

García Márquez also apparently wanted to be acknowledged as the leading writer of his time in Spanish, and this was the reason for his bitter feud with Miguel Angel Asturias, who had won the Nobel Prize in 1967. Evident here is the view that the accumulation of the symbolic capital of fame is a zero-sum game: the more one author had of it, the less another could get. This corresponded with the view of literature as blood competition notably espoused by Hemingway, who once wrote (and he was not being entirely ironic) that he ‘would be glad at any time, if in training, to go 20 [rounds] with Mr Cervantes in his own home town (Alcala de Henares) and beat the shit out of him’.

Martin’s book makes it clear that García Márquez is far too intelligent not to have some ironic distance from his own celebrity. We see this in the discussion of The Autumn of the Patriarch, a novel ostensibly about an unnamed dictator in an unknown Latin American country. This ‘poem on the solitude of power’, as García Márquez called it, is also, as Martin remarks, a novel that ‘confronted the pitfalls of fame and power before they had even fully engulfed him’. Still, it is hard to escape the feeling that through his peculiar relationship to the fact of celebrity, García Márquez, like Hemingway, has fallen victim to a twisted version of what Pierre Bourdieu once called the ‘biographical illusion’. Perhaps it takes a biography like this one for us to understand that, and in any event it does not diminish him as one of the great novelists of the last half-century. But it leaves one wishing, for the sake of one’s own illusions, that one had done no more than read those brilliant novels.