கபோவை ஒரே வேலியுடைய அயல் வீட்டுக்காரராகவே உணர்கிறேன். என் வீட்டு யன்னலுக்கு வெளியே விரிந்திருக்கிற அவரின் நிலமும் மக்களும் தெரிகின்றார்கள். கபோவின் மக்களும் அவர்களின் நடனமும் என்றைக்குமான இனிமையான கனவுகளாக எனக்குள் மிதக்கின்றன. தன்னுடைய முதுமையை அனுபவிக்கத் தொடங்கும் போது கனவுகளைத் துரத்துவதை நிறுத்திக்கொள்கிறார் கபோ. ஆனால் ஒவ்வொரு கணமும் தன்னை உயிர்ப்புடன் வைத்திருக்க விரும்புகின்ற முதியவரின் நேர்காணல் இது. கேப்ரியல் கார்சியா மார்க்வெஸ் இன் இறுதி நேர்காணல்.
I’VE STOPPED WRITING : THE LAST INTERVIEW
INTERVIEW BY XAVI AYÈN LA VANGUARDIA, SPAIN
TRANSLATED BY THEO ELLIN BALLEW
In February 2006, La Vanguardia’s magazine published what was to be García Márquez’s last interview, as part of a series of interviews with winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
In the immense human hotbed that is the Mexican plaza Zócalo—at once epicenter of the country’s power and setting for the most diverse protests—where landless people from the country, homeless people from the city, and women fleeing their own husbands’ violence can be seen camping out, several groups of indigenous people are purging passers-by of evil spirits in exchange for a few coins. We are tempted to engage their services, because in just a few hours our interview with Gabriel García Márquez will begin, a privilege few journalists have enjoyed since he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, and we’re tormented by the fear that at the last minute everything will somehow fall to pieces.
The cab driver knows the way to Pedregal de San Angel, a residential neighborhood built on top of volcanic rocks where movie stars, former presidents, and bankers have their homes.
After passing through the front gate and a quiet outdoor patio, we reach the living room, slightly out of breath from carrying the heavy Christmas gifts his friends from Barcelona asked us to bring along. Gabo and his wife, Mercedes Barcha, have lived here since 1975, when they left Spain, and have renovated and added onto the house continually. There are wooden beams, and countless clefts, windows, lace curtains, and apertures that let in the sun, illuminating, among other things, pictures of the writer’s five grandchildren, whose ages range from eighteen to seven, and a gigantic yellow doll that resembles some sort of rabbit.
While we wait, we flip through the books sitting on his coffee table, some filled with portraits of Nobel laureates and others with Richard Avedon photographs (a little later, Gabo will tell us: “That Avedon … He came here, he took my photo, and within fifteen days, he died—I never got to see it”). We walk through a garden with many flowers—including some truly spectacular orchids—on our way to the private study Gabriel García Márquez had built. We catch him sitting before his computer, not in a magical moment of composition but rather reading the world news online. In a friendly manner, he asks us to take a seat and lets it be known that he is making an exception and only hesitantly submits himself to this interview because he hasn’t been able to hold out under the pressure of those close to him; here, he takes us by the arm and asks, in a whisper: “So now come on, tell me, how much did you guys pay my wife?”
The first meeting, then, takes place in his office, and is interrupted only by a few strident English sentences pronounced by his computer, as though the CIA were periodically chiming in. Gabo’s computer is the latest model and reflects every conceivable technological advance; it’s been many years since he abandoned his legendary typewriter. “I had to buy a computer as soon as they came out,” he boasts. “When I worked on a typewriter, I wrote one book every seven years, on average, and with a computer it’s come out to about one every three years, because it does so much of the work for you. I have several identical set-ups, one here, one in Bogotá, and another in Barcelona, and I always carry a floppy disk in my bag.”
As he speaks, he drinks Coke continually, an addiction superseded only by his need to be in constant contact with the news arriving by telephone, internet, fax, and mail about what’s happening in the world right now, especially in his native country, Colombia.
Hesitant to speak about his private life (“for that you can talk to my authorized biographer, the North American Gerald Martin, who really should have already published the book—I think that he’s waiting for something to happen to me …”), he tells us that “this year, 2005, I’ve gone ahead and taken a sabbatical. I haven’t sat down at my computer. I haven’t written a single line. And not only that: I have neither a project nor hopes of forming one. I never stopped writing before—this has been the first year of my life like this. I used to work every day, from nine in the morning until three in the afternoon, I used to say it was to keep my arm warm … but really it was because I didn’t know what else to do in the morning.”
“And now have you found something better to do?”
“I’ve found something fantastic: staying in bed and reading! Now I read all the books I never had the time to read … I remember that before I would suffer greatly when for whatever reason I wasn’t writing. I needed to invent some activity so I could live through till three in the afternoon, as a distraction from my anxiety. But now it’s turned out to be quite pleasant.”
“And the second book of memoirs?”
“I don’t think I’ll write it. I have some notes written, but I don’t want it to just be a professional operation. I’ve realized that if I publish a second volume, I’m going to have to say things I don’t want to say, because of some personal relationships that are not so good anymore. The first volume, Living to Tell the Tale, is exactly what I wanted it to be. In the second, I met a number of people that just had to come along and that—caramba, I don’t want them showing up in my memoirs. It would be dishonest to leave them out, because they were important in my life, but they didn’t end up being very kind to me.”
“Though Gabo doesn’t give us any names, we can’t help asking about Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian writer who was a friend for a short period until, in 1976, he punched Gabo in public, here in Mexico, because of a personal incident that the two authors have left to be explained by “future biographers.”
“You don’t think it’s possible that, some day, there will be a reconciliation?”
“His wife, Mercedes Barcha, who came into his studio a few minutes ago, responds abruptly: “If you ask me, at this point it’s too late. It’s been thirty years.”
“That many?” asks Gabo, surprised. “We’ve lived so happily these thirty years without ever having a need for him,” Mercedes affirms, before adding that “Gabo is more diplomatic than I am, and so you can say those words came out of my mouth alone.”
Returning to his unprecedented period of inactivity, the Nobel laureate clarifies that “my year-long sabbatical has ended, but already I’m coming up with excuses to prolong it through 2006. Now that I’ve discovered I can read without writing, we’ll see how long I can make it last. I think I’ve earned it. With everything I’ve written, you know? Though if tomorrow I come up with a novel, how marvelous it would be! Really, with the practice I have, it’d be no problem to finish: I’d sit in front of my computer and churn it out … but people can tell if you haven’t really put your guts into something. Over there behind me all the technological devices are turned on, ready to join in on the action the day that happens. I would love to come up with an idea, but I don’t feel the need to sit down and invent one. People should know that, if I publish anything else, it will be because it’s well worthwhile.
“You know,” he adds, “I don’t wake up scared in the middle of the night anymore, after dreaming about the deaths of the people from the stories my grandmother used to tell in Aracataca, when I was a little boy, and I think that these things are related, this and the fact that the ideas have stopped coming to me.”
His latest “idea” to date was Memories of My Melancholy Whores, a short novel published in 2004 that millions of readers all over the world hope won’t be his last. “It wasn’t even planned,” he reveals now. “Really, it comes out of an earlier plan; I’d imagined a series of stories like this one, all about prostitutes. A while back I wrote four or five stories, but the only one I liked in the end was the last; I realized that I couldn’t get as much out of the idea as I’d thought, that what I’d really been working toward was that one story, and so I decided to throw out the first ones and publish the last on its own.”
“Another project he was working on, a project that has since been stalled, was the story of a man doomed to die after writing his last sentence. “But I thought: careful, it might happen to you …”
Gabo doesn’t seem distressed by his creative drought, and instead views it with a carefree attitude that’s very Caribbean. “My life hasn’t changed now that I’ve stopped writing, and that’s for the better! The hours it used to fill haven’t been commandeered by any harmful activities.”
The writer draws our attention to the large yellow doll we noticed when we first came in: “It was hand-made in Mexico, a gift from Felipe González,* who comes around here a lot.” We then start to talk about his fascination with power, and the different politicians and ex-politicians that visit him. “As a writer, I’m interested in power, because in it can be found all the greatness and misery of human existence.”
“He mentions his friendship with Clinton. “Have you met? He’s a wonderful guy! I never have such a good time as when I’m with him. AIDS is what he’s really worried about these days, he’s sincerely shocked and disturbed by how little attention the authorities are paying to the alarming spread of the disease into new zones, especially the Caribbean. They’re not listening to him, but nobody knows more than he does about the issue.”
He takes us to see his home movie theater. “It’s very difficult for me to make it to the normal screenings, I spend hours and hours giving out autographs at the door. This way they send the films here; otherwise, they invite me to private screenings.”
“His passion for the seventh art isn’t new: when he was young, he even dreamed of being a director, a dream his son Rodrigo, a constant presence at prestigious film festivals like Cannes, Locarno, and San Sebastián, later fulfilled. Rodrigo, in addition to having directed episodes of The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, is responsible for the feature films Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her, Ten Tiny Love Stories, and Nine Lives. “It’s a good thing they’re so excellent,” his father comments. “It would have been so horrible for me if I didn’t think they were any good!” Rodrigo lives in Hollywood, and his brother Gonzalo lives in Paris. Both are currently staying with their parents, and they come and go as comfortably as they would have when they were children. Tomorrow, Gonzalo, a graphic designer and painter, will explain to us that “Gabo wasn’t one of those dads that plays a lot of games with you, but he talked to you a lot, and was very open with us about ‘grown-up’ subjects. The kind of thing we’d do with him as kids was talk, and listen to music.”
“García Márquez’s attempt to keep his private life private is more and more successful as time passes, and he seems to have prevented his fame from robbing him of time for his sons, his grandchildren, and his friends. In the beginning, however, “fame nearly ruined my life, because it disturbed my sense of reality, much in the way power does. It condemns you to solitude, creates certain difficulties in communication that isolate you.”
Suddenly the phone rings, and the writer predicts: “It’s Carmen Balcells, no question …” Mercedes picks up and, indeed, on the other end of the line the most famous literary agent in the world is speaking. The writer laughs heartily to himself: “See? The woman doesn’t sleep. Nothing escapes her, she knows that we’re talking to you right now … She has us under closer surveillance than ever.”
“Carmen Balcells has been working with García Márqez since 1961, when no one believed in the young writer, who wouldn’t become an international celebrity until the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), which follows the developments of the Buendía family over several generations, as they encounter several characters including a baby with a pig’s tail and a priest that flies. It is now considered the epitome of magical realism”
“Rather than walk through Mexico City, Gabo suggests that we transport ourselves mentally to another city, namely Barcelona in the 1960s and ’70s, where he lived for a time and wrote The Autumn of the Patriarch: “We arrived in 1967 with a two-meter-long alligator skin that a friend had given me. I was ready to sell it, because we needed the money, but I thought better of it and in the end we decided against it. It had traveled with us over half the world, as a kind of token of good luck. It all happened very quickly. When I lived in Barcelona I went from having nothing to eat—before, in Paris, I had even ended up asking for money in the Métro—to being able to buy houses for myself.”
“I don’t think that city surprised us much,” he explains. “It was as if we had already seen it. The reason I went there instead of anywhere else was Ramón Vinyes, that ‘Catalan wise man’ who made an appearance as one of my characters in One Hundred Years of Solitude. In the Barranquilla of my childhood, he’d so vigorously ‘sold’ the Barcelona he’d idealized in his memory, as an exile, that I was sure we had to go there.” When they moved to Spain, Mercedes Barcha and Gabo left behind the cosmopolitan, refined, and progressive Mexico, and the various circles of filmmakers, artists, and literary figures, full of exciting personalities and activities, for a calm Spain that was then in the final stages of Franco’s regime. Barcha fondly remembers “it was all a little snobbish, the Barcelonans were just developing discoteca nightlife while here in Mexico there were already hundreds of them! There they even put on sombreros when they go out!”
“They were trying to outdo Paris,” recalls García Márquez.
“I’ve seen the show Cuéntame† and that’s exactly how it was: Gabo and I had arrived in that world,” comments Mercedes, amused.
“It was as though there was some kind of covert loosening of morals, which centered around a discoteca called Bocaccio. To us it all seemed very old-fashioned,” Gabo agrees.
Barcha points out: “They—the Barcelonans—thought we would be the ones who were out-of-date, since we were from Latin America, but it was completely the opposite. I would walk down the street in my pants or jeans and people would stare at me like I was something very strange. One day I asked Luis Goytisolo’s wife, ‘María Antonia, why are they always staring at me?’ ‘Don’t pay any attention to it,’ she told me, ‘they do the same thing to me.’ ”
“The restrictions of Franco’s regime weren’t as stringent in Barcelona as they were in Madrid, the locus of political power, and the Garcías enjoyed the proximity of France. Gabo recalls, “We’d go to France to see the films we discovered in Perpiñán, like Last Tango in Paris. Sometimes we’d go to Paris for three days straight to get caught up on everything. Barcelona was our door into Europe: from there we relocated to London (where we learned English), Milan … We went to concerts, foreign plays … I thoroughly quenched my thirst for culture.”
Gabo and Mercedes experienced the bustling gauche divine,‡ the evenings that never ended and the early mornings at Bocaccio, the blossoming of new literary journals, the political tension preceding Franco’s death … They socialized with other writers who’d been drawn to Barcelona by “Mamá Grande” Balcells, like José Donoso or Mario Vargas Llosa, and they were visited by Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortázar, Pablo Neruda …”
“Now I’m almost ashamed to say it, but those were very good years for us,” Gabo says. “In the Barcelona of the early seventies, people lived really well, though you feel bad admitting it. Only now, when you take a minute to think it over, you realize how sad it all was.”
“Paradoxically, the Garcías left before democracy arrived: “We were in Bogotá when Franco died and, when we heard the news, we came back to Mexico. We thought that things were going to get very chaotic in Spain, that there’d be a lot of instability, and we weren’t sure how the new Spanish government would react to The Autumn of the Patriarch, which was about to be published, and which narrated the decline of a dictator. I thought that they wouldn’t believe I’d been inspired by Latin Americans, like Juan Vicente Gómez in Venezuela or ‘Papá Doc’ in Haiti, who ordered that all the black dogs in his country be killed because he believed one of his enemies had been turned into one, or Maximiliano Hernández Martínez in El Salvador, who had all the street lights in the country covered in red paper to combat a measles epidemic. I don’t know how much sense this makes, but in the end Franco was for me too modern and civilized to be the dictator I had in my head and in my soul. You know, the best review of the book I ever had was from Omar Torrijos of Panama, forty-eight hours before his death, when he told me, ‘It’s your best book: we’re all exactly as you say.’ ”
“Gabo has a house in Barcelona, and says, “I keep going to that city, more or less every year, though my visit in 2005 caused too much commotion, because I hadn’t gone in five years. When we arrive, it’s always as though we never left. We wake up as if it were the most normal thing in the world, and we go out to eat with people who’ve been our friends forever. We go for walks and we watch ourselves grow older. We walk everywhere. They stop you sometimes, they yell at you from across the street, but with that distance Castilians always maintain, keeping their displays of affection in check. For example, we also went to Madrid a few times, where we have a lot of friends, but we didn’t stay because we’re more of a novelty there, whereas in Barcelona our presence has become quite commonplace. In Madrid, the word spreads to the journalists, the singers, the movie people, it turns into a constant celebration.”
“Gabo continues trying to avoid the spotlight. He believes subtlety is always more effective, even in politics. He’s maintained his friendship with Fidel Castro, but has distanced himself “through silence” from his more dogmatic stances, and has been instrumental in influencing the Cuban government to free political prisoners and soften their stances on certain issues. He’s been politically active in many countries, in everything from the liberation of bankers kidnapped in El Salvador to getting dictators to allow family members of dissidents to leave the country. In the course of this, he’s had several experiences worthy of a James Bond movie or one of the novels written by his friend Graham Greene. For example, in 1995, Juan Carlos Gaviria’s kidnappers demanded that he assume the presidency of Colombia.§ (The writer’s response was: “Why would anyone choose to take on the responsibility of being the worst president of the Republic? … Let Gaviria go, take off your masks, and start promoting your ideas for change under the protection of the constitution.”) “I have always been more of a conspirator than a ‘signer,’ ” he points out. “I’ve always achieved many more things by trying to straighten them out from the bottom up than by signing protest manifestos.”
One example of this covert diplomacy is that he now acts as a mediator for peace in Colombia, attempting to bring about some sort of agreement between the members of President Uribe’s government and those leading the guerrilla group of the National Liberation Army (ELN). “Maybe we shouldn’t talk too much about this, since it’s still being worked out. It’s not good to make declarations when you’re in the middle of something. From the moment I was born, I’ve been hearing talk of attempts to create peace in Colombia. Now, after much painstaking negotiation, they’ve finally agreed to have a conversation. I’ve participated in some of the first conversations in La Habana, and they went very well. I’m on good terms with both sides. These affairs, for a writer who’s gotten used to success like me, are always very humbling, because in them so many different issues intersect.
“Violence has existed forever, and it’s an ancient resident of Colombia,” he recalls. “What’s at the root of it all is an economic situation that only increases the gap between the very rich and the very poor. And there’s so much money in the cocaine business, tons of money! The day they stop that drug from being sold, everything will get much better, because that’s what made everything get so much worse. The biggest producers in the world are all there. So much so that now they’re not fighting for political power, like before, but instead for control of the drug. And the United States too is completely wrapped up in the whole thing.”
While posing for some pictures in the garden with his wife, Gabo says to her, laughing, “Now you see why I never give interviews, Mercedes. They start out seeming meek, and then they never leave. Now they’re telling me to kiss you, what next? I bet they’d even ask me to say that I love you.” It’d be a superfluous statement, considering that they met when she was a thirteen-year-old girl and are still there before us, sharing their lives.
Before we leave, García Márquez asks us which Nobel laureates will be appearing in this series of interviews: “Ah, I see that you’ve only chosen the good ones.” Confidently, every once in a while he grabs hold of his interviewer and it’s impossible to see on his face any of the legendary shyness that, in Barcelona, made him be silent and tremble terribly whenever he had to speak in public. “I think that I must have social anxiety, like the Austrian Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek, because I can maintain a one-on-one conversation, but it terrifies me to address an auditorium of people. My shyness? I have the great advantage now that the people who come here are already intimidated … and that makes it easier for me.”
“* Felipe González is a Spanish politician who served as Prime Minister of Spain from 1982 to 1996.
† A popular Spanish TV series about the last years of the Franco regime and the Transition.
‡ The term for an intellectual and artistic movement in Barcelona in the 1960s and ’70s made up of writers, publishers, architects, photographers, and fashion models.
§ Juan Carlos Gaviria was the brother of César Gaviria, who served as president of Colombia from 1990 to 1994, succeeded by Ernesto Sampler. Juan Carlos was kidnapped in 1996 by the rebel group Dignidad por Colombia (Dignity for Colombia), and they did indeed demand that García Márquez take over Colombia’s presidency from Sampler, whose campaign was believed to be financed in large part by drug traffickers.”