4.17.2017 Doc of the Day

1. Samuel Langhorn Clemons, 1869.
2. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1981.
3. Jorge Majfud, 2007.

4. Margaret Atwood, 2013.

CC BY by Boston Public Library
CC BY by Boston Public Library

Numero Uno“The next day was an outrage upon men and horses both.   It was another thirteen-hour stretch (including an hour’s ‘nooning.’)  It was over the barrenest chalk-hills and through the baldest canons that even Syria can show.  The heat quivered in the air every where.  In the canons we almost smothered in the baking atmosphere.  On high ground, the reflection from the chalk-hills was blinding.   It was cruel to urge the crippled horses, but it had to be done in order to make Damascus Saturday night.  We saw ancient tombs and temples of fanciful architecture carved out of the solid rock high up in the face of precipices above our heads, but we had neither time nor strength to climb up there and examine them.  The terse language of my note-book will answer for the rest of this day’s experiences:

‘Broke camp at 7 A.M., and made a ghastly trip through the Zeb Dana valley and the rough mountains–horses limping and that Arab screech-owl that does most of the singing and carries the water-skins, always a thousand miles ahead, of course, and no water to drink–will he never die?  Beautiful stream in a chasm, lined thick with pomegranate, fig, olive and quince orchards, and nooned an hour at the celebrated Baalam’s Ass Fountain of Figia, second in size in Syria, and the coldest water out of Siberia– guide-books do not say Baalam’s ass ever drank there–somebody been imposing on the pilgrims, may be.   Bathed in it–Jack and I.  Only a second–ice-water.  It is the principal source of the Abana river– only one-half mile down to where it joins.   Beautiful place–giant trees all around–so shady and cool, if one could keep awake–vast stream gushes straight out from under the mountain in a torrent.   Over it is a very ancient ruin, with no known history–supposed to have been for the worship of the deity of the fountain or Baalam’s ass or somebody.  Wretched nest of human vermin about the fountain–rags, dirt, sunken cheeks, pallor of sickness, sores, projecting bones, dull, aching misery in their eyes and ravenous hunger speaking from every eloquent fibre and muscle from head to foot.   How they sprang upon a bone, how they crunched the bread we gave them!  Such as these to swarm about one and watch every bite he takes, with greedy looks, and swallow unconsciously every time he swallows, as if they half fancied the precious morsel went down their own throats– hurry up the caravan!–I never shall enjoy a meal in this distressful country.  To think of eating three times every day under such circumstances for three weeks yet–it is worse punishment than riding all day in the sun.  There are sixteen starving babies from one to six years old in the party, and their legs are no larger than broom handles.   Left the fountain at 1 P.M. (the fountain took us at least two hours out of our way,) and reached Mahomet’s lookout perch, over Damascus, in time to get a good long look before it was necessary to move on.  Tired?  Ask of the winds that far away with fragments strewed the sea.’

As the glare of day mellowed into twilight, we looked down upon a picture which is celebrated all over the world.   I think I have read about four hundred times that when Mahomet was a simple camel-driver he reached this point and looked down upon Damascus for the first time, and then made a certain renowned remark.  He said man could enter only one paradise; he preferred to go to the one above.  So he sat down there and feasted his eyes upon the earthly paradise of Damascus, and then went away without entering its gates.  They have erected a tower on the hill to mark the spot where he stood.

Damascus is beautiful from the mountain.  It is beautiful even to foreigners accustomed to luxuriant vegetation, and I can easily understand how unspeakably beautiful it must be to eyes that are only used to the God-forsaken barrenness and desolation of Syria.   I should think a Syrian would go wild with ecstacy when such a picture bursts upon him for the first time.

From his high perch, one sees before him and below him, a wall of dreary mountains, shorn of vegetation, glaring fiercely in the sun; it fences in a level desert of yellow sand, smooth as velvet and threaded far away with fine lines that stand for roads, and dotted with creeping mites we know are camel-trains and journeying men; right in the midst of the desert is spread a billowy expanse of green foliage; and nestling in its heart sits the great white city, like an island of pearls and opals gleaming out of a sea of emeralds.  This is the picture you see spread far below you, with distance to soften it, the sun to glorify it, strong contrasts to heighten the effects, and over it and about it a drowsing air of repose to spiritualize it and make it seem rather a beautiful estray from the mysterious worlds we visit in dreams than a substantial tenant of our coarse, dull globe.  And when you think of the leagues of blighted, blasted, sandy, rocky, sun-burnt, ugly, dreary, infamous country you have ridden over to get here, you think it is the most beautiful, beautiful picture that ever human eyes rested upon in all the broad universe! If I were to go to Damascus again, I would camp on Mahomet’s hill about a week, and then go away.  There is no need to go inside the walls.   The Prophet was wise without knowing it when he decided not to go down into the paradise of Damascus.

There is an honored old tradition that the immense garden which Damascus stands in was the Garden of Eden, and modern writers have gathered up many chapters of evidence tending to show that it really was the Garden of Eden, and that the rivers Pharpar and Abana are the ‘two rivers’ that watered Adam’s Paradise.  It may be so, but it is not paradise now, and one would be as happy outside of it as he would be likely to be within.  It is so crooked and cramped and dirty that one can not realize that he is in the splendid city he saw from the hill-top.   The gardens are hidden by high mud-walls, and the paradise is become a very sink of pollution and uncomeliness.  Damascus has plenty of clear, pure water in it, though, and this is enough, of itself, to make an Arab think it beautiful and blessed.  Water is scarce in blistered Syria.  We run railways by our large cities in America; in Syria they curve the roads so as to make them run by the meagre little puddles they call ‘fountains,’ and which are not found oftener on a journey than every four hours.   But the ‘rivers’ of Pharpar and Abana of Scripture (mere creeks,) run through Damascus, and so every house and every garden have their sparkling fountains and rivulets of water.  With her forest of foliage and her abundance of water, Damascus must be a wonder of wonders to the Bedouin from the deserts.   Damascus is simply an oasis–that is what it is.  For four thousand years its waters have not gone dry or its fertility failed.  Now we can understand why the city has existed so long.  It could not die.  So long as its waters remain to it away out there in the midst of that howling desert, so long will Damascus live to bless the sight of the tired and thirsty wayfarer.

‘Though old as history itself, thou art fresh as the breath of spring, blooming as thine own rose-bud, and fragrant as thine own orange flower, O Damascus, pearl of the East!’

Damascus dates back anterior to the days of Abraham, and is the oldest city in the world.  It was founded by Uz, the grandson of Noah.  ‘The early history of Damascus is shrouded in the mists of a hoary antiquity.’  Leave the matters written of in the first eleven chapters of the Old Testament out, and no recorded event has occurred in the world but Damascus was in existence to receive the news of it.  Go back as far as you will into the vague past, there was always a Damascus.   In the writings of every century for more than four thousand years, its name has been mentioned and its praises sung.  To Damascus, years are only moments, decades are only flitting trifles of time.  She measures time, not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise, and prosper and crumble to ruin.  She is a type of immortality.  She saw the foundations of Baalbec, and Thebes, and Ephesus laid; she saw these villages grow into mighty cities, and amaze the world with their grandeur–and she has lived to see them desolate, deserted, and given over to the owls and the bats.  She saw the Israelitish empire exalted, and she saw it annihilated.  She saw Greece rise, and flourish two thousand years, and die.  In her old age she saw Rome built; she saw it overshadow the world with its power; she saw it perish. T he few hundreds of years of Genoese and Venetian might and splendor were, to grave old Damascus, only a trifling scintillation hardly worth remembering.  Damascus has seen all that has ever occurred on earth, and still she lives.   She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies.  Though another claims the name, old Damascus is by right the Eternal City.

We reached the city gates just at sundown.  They do say that one can get into any walled city of Syria, after night, for bucksheesh, except Damascus.  But Damascus, with its four thousand years of respectability in the world, has many old fogy notions.  There are no street lamps there, and the law compels all who go abroad at night to carry lanterns, just as was the case in old days, when heroes and heroines of the Arabian Nights walked the streets of Damascus, or flew away toward Bagdad on enchanted carpets.

It was fairly dark a few minutes after we got within the wall, and we rode long distances through wonderfully crooked streets, eight to ten feet wide, and shut in on either aide by the high mud-walls of the gardens.  At last we got to where lanterns could be seen flitting about here and there, and knew we were in the midst of the curious old city.  In a little narrow street, crowded with our pack-mules and with a swarm of uncouth Arabs, we alighted, and through a kind of a hole in the wall entered the hotel.  We stood in a great flagged court, with flowers and citron trees about us, and a huge tank in the centre that was receiving the waters of many pipes.   We crossed the court and entered the rooms prepared to receive four of us.   In a large marble-paved recess between the two rooms was a tank of clear, cool water, which was kept running over all the time by the streams that were pouring into it from half a dozen pipes.  Nothing, in this scorching, desolate land could look so refreshing as this pure water flashing in the lamp-light; nothing could look so beautiful, nothing could sound so delicious as this mimic rain to ears long unaccustomed to sounds of such a nature.  Our rooms were large, comfortably furnished, and even had their floors clothed with soft, cheerful-tinted carpets.  It was a pleasant thing to see a carpet again, for if there is any thing drearier than the tomb-like, stone-paved parlors and bed-rooms of Europe and Asia, I do not know what it is.  They make one think of the grave all the time.  A very broad, gaily caparisoned divan, some twelve or fourteen feet long, extended across one side of each room, and opposite were single beds with spring mattresses.  There were great looking-glasses and marble-top tables.  All this luxury was as grateful to systems and senses worn out with an exhausting day’s travel, as it was unexpected–for one can not tell what to expect in a Turkish city of even a quarter of a million inhabitants.

I do not know, but I think they used that tank between the rooms to draw drinking water from; that did not occur to me, however, until I had dipped my baking head far down into its cool depths.  I thought of it then, and superb as the bath was, I was sorry I had taken it, and was about to go and explain to the landlord. But a finely curled and scented poodle dog frisked up and nipped the calf of my leg just then, and before I had time to think, I had soused him to the bottom of the tank, and when I saw a servant coming with a pitcher I went off and left the pup trying to climb out and not succeeding very well.  Satisfied revenge was all I needed to make me perfectly happy, and when I walked in to supper that first night in Damascus I was in that condition.  We lay on those divans a long time, after supper, smoking narghilies and long-stemmed chibouks, and talking about the dreadful ride of the day, and I knew then what I had sometimes known before–that it is worth while to get tired out, because one so enjoys resting afterward.

In the morning we sent for donkeys.  It is worthy of note that we had to send for these things.  I said Damascus was an old fossil, and she is.  Any where else we would have been assailed by a clamorous army of donkey-drivers, guides, peddlers and beggars–but in Damascus they so hate the very sight of a foreign Christian that they want no intercourse whatever with him; only a year or two ago, his person was not always safe in Damascus streets.  It is the most fanatical Mohammedan purgatory out of Arabia.  Where you see one green turban of a Hadji elsewhere (the honored sign that my lord has made the pilgrimage to Mecca,) I think you will see a dozen in Damascus.  The Damascenes are the ugliest, wickedest looking villains we have seen.  All the veiled women we had seen yet, nearly, left their eyes exposed, but numbers of these in Damascus completely hid the face under a close-drawn black veil that made the woman look like a mummy. If ever we caught an eye exposed it was quickly hidden from our contaminating Christian vision; the beggars actually passed us by without demanding bucksheesh; the merchants in the bazaars did not hold up their goods and cry out eagerly, ‘Hey, John!’ or ‘Look this, Howajji!’  On the contrary, they only scowled at us and said never a word.

The narrow streets swarmed like a hive with men and women in strange Oriental costumes, and our small donkeys knocked them right and left as we plowed through them, urged on by the merciless donkey-boys.  These persecutors run after the animals, shouting and goading them for hours together; they keep the donkey in a gallop always, yet never get tired themselves or fall behind.  The donkeys fell down and spilt us over their heads occasionally, but there was nothing for it but to mount and hurry on again.  We were banged against sharp corners, loaded porters, camels, and citizens generally; and we were so taken up with looking out for collisions and casualties that we had no chance to look about us at all.  We rode half through the city and through the famous ‘street which is called Straight’ without seeing any thing, hardly.  Our bones were nearly knocked out of joint, we were wild with excitement, and our sides ached with the jolting we had suffered.  I do not like riding in the Damascus street-cars.

We were on our way to the reputed houses of Judas and Ananias.  About eighteen or nineteen hundred years ago, Saul, a native of Tarsus, was particularly bitter against the new sect called Christians, and he left Jerusalem and started across the country on a furious crusade against them.   He went forth ‘breathing threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord.’

‘And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus, and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven:

‘And he fell to the earth and heard a voice saying unto him, ‘Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?’

‘And when he knew that it was Jesus that spoke to him he trembled, and was astonished, and said, ‘Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?”

He was told to arise and go into the ancient city and one would tell him what to do.   In the meantime his soldiers stood speechless and awe-stricken, for they heard the mysterious voice but saw no man.  Saul rose up and found that that fierce supernatural light had destroyed his sight, and he was blind, so ‘they led him by the hand and brought him to Damascus.’  He was converted.

Paul lay three days, blind, in the house of Judas, and during that time he neither ate nor drank.

There came a voice to a citizen of Damascus, named Ananias, saying, ‘Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas, for one called Saul, of Tarsus; for behold, he prayeth.’

Ananias did not wish to go at first, for he had heard of Saul before, and he had his doubts about that style of a ‘chosen vessel’ to preach the gospel of peace.  However, in obedience to orders, he went into the ‘street called Straight”‘(how he found his way into it, and after he did, how he ever found his way out of it again, are mysteries only to be accounted for by the fact that he was acting under Divine inspiration.)  He found Paul and restored him, and ordained him a preacher; and from this old house we had hunted up in the street which is miscalled Straight, he had started out on that bold missionary career which he prosecuted till his death.   It was not the house of the disciple who sold the Master for thirty pieces of silver.  I make this explanation in justice to Judas, who was a far different sort of man from the person just referred to.  A very different style of man, and lived in a very good house.  It is a pity we do not know more about him.

I have given, in the above paragraphs, some more information for people who will not read Bible history until they are defrauded into it by some such method as this.   I hope that no friend of progress and education will obstruct or interfere with my peculiar mission.

The street called Straight is straighter than a corkscrew, but not as straight as a rainbow.  St. Luke is careful not to commit himself; he does not say it is the street which is straight, but the ‘street which is called Straight.’  It is a fine piece of irony; it is the only facetious remark in the Bible, I believe.  We traversed the street called Straight a good way, and then turned off and called at the reputed house of Ananias.   There is small question that a part of the original house is there still; it is an old room twelve or fifteen feet under ground, and its masonry is evidently ancient.   If Ananias did not live there in St. Paul’s time, somebody else did, which is just as well.  I took a drink out of Ananias’ well, and singularly enough, the water was just as fresh as if the well had been dug yesterday.

We went out toward the north end of the city to see the place where the disciples let Paul down over the Damascus wall at dead of night–for he preached Christ so fearlessly in Damascus that the people sought to kill him, just as they would to-day for the same offense, and he had to escape and flee to Jerusalem.

Then we called at the tomb of Mahomet’s children and at a tomb which purported to be that of St. George who killed the dragon, and so on out to the hollow place under a rock where Paul hid during his flight till his pursuers gave him up; and to the mausoleum of the five thousand Christians who were massacred in Damascus in 1861 by the Turks.  They say those narrow streets ran blood for several days, and that men, women and children were butchered indiscriminately and left to rot by hundreds all through the Christian quarter; they say, further, that the stench was dreadful.  All the Christians who could get away fled from the city, and the Mohammedans would not defile their hands by burying the ‘infidel dogs.’  The thirst for blood extended to the high lands of Hermon and Anti-Lebanon, and in a short time twenty-five thousand more Christians were massacred and their possessions laid waste.   How they hate a Christian in Damascus!–and pretty much all over Turkeydom as well.  And how they will pay for it when Russia turns her guns upon them again!

It is soothing to the heart to abuse England and France for interposing to save the Ottoman Empire from the destruction it has so richly deserved for a thousand years.   It hurts my vanity to see these pagans refuse to eat of food that has been cooked for us; or to eat from a dish we have eaten from; or to drink from a goatskin which we have polluted with our Christian lips, except by filtering the water through a rag which they put over the mouth of it or through a sponge! I never disliked a Chinaman as I do these degraded Turks and Arabs, and when Russia is ready to war with them again, I hope England and France will not find it good breeding or good judgment to interfere.

In Damascus they think there are no such rivers in all the world as their little Abana and Pharpar.   The Damascenes have always thought that way.  In 2 Kings, chapter v., Naaman boasts extravagantly about them.  That was three thousand years ago.  He says: ‘Are not Abana and Pharpar rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?  May I not wash in them and be clean?’  But some of my readers have forgotten who Naaman was, long ago.  Naaman was the commander of the Syrian armies.  He was the favorite of the king and lived in great state.  ‘He was a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper.’  Strangely enough, the house they point out to you now as his, has been turned into a leper hospital, and the inmates expose their horrid deformities and hold up their hands and beg for bucksheesh when a stranger enters.

One can not appreciate the horror of this disease until he looks upon it in all its ghastliness, in Naaman’s ancient dwelling in Damascus.  Bones all twisted out of shape, great knots protruding from face and body, joints decaying and dropping away–horrible!”   Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad; Chapter XLIV, pp.332-341, about Damascus, 1869

church mexico desert

Numero Dos“Gabriel García Márquez was interviewed in his studio/office located just behind his house in San Angel Inn, an old and lovely section, full of the spectacularly colorful flowers of Mexico City.  The studio is a short walk from the main house.  A low elongated building, it appears to have been originally designed as a guest house.  Within, at one end, are a couch, two easy chairs, and a makeshift bar—a small white refrigerator with a supply of acqua minerale on top.The most striking feature of the room is a large blown-up photograph above the sofa of García Márquez alone, wearing a stylish cape and standing on some windswept vista looking somewhat like Anthony Quinn.

García Márquez was sitting at his desk at the far end of the studio.   He came to greet me, walking briskly with a light step.  He is a solidly built man, only about five feet eight or nine in height, who looks like a good middleweight fighter—broad-chested, but perhaps a bit thin in the legs.  He was dressed casually in corduroy slacks with a light turtleneck sweater and black leather boots.  His hair is dark and curly brown and he wears a full mustache.

The interview took place over the course of three late-afternoon meetings of roughly two hours each.  Although his English is quite good, García Márquez spoke mostly in Spanish and his two sons shared the translating.  When García Márquez speaks, his body often rocks back and forth.  His hands too are often in motion making small but decisive gestures to emphasize a point, or to indicate a shift of direction in his thinking.  He alternates between leaning forward towards his listener, and sitting far back with his legs crossed when speaking reflectively.

 

INTERVIEWER

How do you feel about using the tape recorder?

GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

The problem is that the moment you know the interview is being taped, your attitude changes.  In my case I immediately take a defensive attitude.  As a journalist, I feel that we still haven’t learned how to use a tape recorder to do an interview.  The best way, I feel, is to have a long conversation without the journalist taking any notes.  Then afterward he should reminisce about the conversation and write it down as an impression of what he felt, not necessarily using the exact words expressed.  Another useful method is to take notes and then interpret them with a certain loyalty to the person interviewed.  What ticks you off about the tape recording everything is that it is not loyal to the person who is being interviewed, because it even records and remembers when you make an ass of yourself.  That’s why when there is a tape recorder, I am conscious that I’m being interviewed; when there isn’t a tape recorder, I talk in an unconscious and completely natural way.

INTERVIEWER

Well, you make me feel a little guilty using it, but I think for this kind of an interview we probably need it.

 GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

Anyway, the whole purpose of what I just said was to put you on the defensive.

 INTERVIEWER

So you have never used a tape recorder yourself for an interview?

 GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

As a journalist, I never use it.  I have a very good tape recorder, but I just use it to listen to music.  But then as a journalist I’ve never done an interview.  I’ve done reports, but never an interview with questions and answers.

 INTERVIEWER

I heard about one famous interview with a sailor who had been shipwrecked.

 GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

It wasn’t questions and answers.  The sailor would just tell me his adventures and I would rewrite them trying to use his own words and in the first person, as if he were the one who was writing.  When the work was published as a serial in a newspaper, one part each day for two weeks, it was signed by the sailor, not by me.  It wasn’t until twenty years later that it was re-published and people found out I had written it.  No editor realized that it was good until after I had written One Hundred Years of Solitude.

 INTERVIEWER

Since we’ve started talking about journalism, how does it feel being a journalist again, after having written novels for so long?  Do you do it with a different feel or a different eye?

 GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

I’ve always been convinced that my true profession is that of a journalist. What I didn’t like about journalism before were the working conditions. Besides, I had to condition my thoughts and ideas to the interests of the newspaper. Now, after having worked as a novelist, and having achieved financial independence as a novelist, I can really choose the themes that interest me and correspond to my ideas. In any case, I always very much enjoy the chance of doing a great piece of journalism.

 INTERVIEWER

What is a great piece of journalism for you?

 GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

Hiroshima by John Hersey was an exceptional piece.

 INTERVIEWER

Is there a story today that you would especially like to do?

 GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

There are many, and several I have in fact written. I have written about Portugal, Cuba, Angola, and Vietnam. I would very much like to write on Poland. I think if I could describe exactly what is now going on, it would be a very important story. But it’s too cold now in Poland; I’m a journalist who likes his comforts.

 INTERVIEWER

Do you think the novel can do certain things that journalism can’t?

 GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

Nothing. I don’t think there is any difference. The sources are the same, the material is the same, the resources and the language are the same. The Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe is a great novel and Hiroshima is a great work of journalism.

 INTERVIEWER

Do the journalist and the novelist have different responsibilities in balancing truth versus the imagination?

 GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

In journalism just one fact that is false prejudices the entire work. In contrast, in fiction one single fact that is true gives legitimacy to the entire work. That’s the only difference, and it lies in the commitment of the writer. A novelist can do anything he wants so long as he makes people believe in it.

 INTERVIEWER

In interviews a few years ago, you seemed to look back on being a journalist with awe at how much faster you were then.

 GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

I do find it harder to write now than before, both novels and journalism. When I worked for newspapers, I wasn’t very conscious of every word I wrote, whereas now I am. When I was working for El Espectador in Bogotá, I used to do at least three stories a week, two or three editorial notes every day, and I did movie reviews. Then at night, after everyone had gone home, I would stay behind writing my novels. I liked the noise of the Linotype machines, which sounded like rain. If they stopped, and I was left in silence, I wouldn’t be able to work. Now, the output is comparatively small. On a good working day, working from nine o’clock in the morning to two or three in the afternoon, the most I can write is a short paragraph of four or five lines, which I usually tear up the next day.

INTERVIEWER

Does this change come from your works being so highly praised or from some kind of political commitment?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

It’s from both. I think that the idea that I’m writing for many more people than I ever imagined has created a certain general responsibility that is literary and political. There’s even pride involved, in not wanting to fall short of what I did before.

INTERVIEWER

How did you start writing?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

By drawing. By drawing cartoons. Before I could read or write I used to draw comics at school and at home. The funny thing is that I now realize that when I was in high school I had the reputation of being a writer, though I never in fact wrote anything. If there was a pamphlet to be written or a letter of petition, I was the one to do it because I was supposedly the writer. When I entered college I happened to have a very good literary background in general, considerably above the average of my friends. At the university in Bogotá, I started making new friends and acquaintances, who introduced me to contemporary writers. One night a friend lent me a book of short stories by Franz Kafka. I went back to the pension where I was staying and began to read The Metamorphosis. The first line almost knocked me off the bed. I was so surprised. The first line reads, “As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. . . .” When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing short stories. They are totally intellectual short stories because I was writing them on the basis of my literary experience and had not yet found the link between literature and life. The stories were published in the literary supplement of the newspaper El Espectador in Bogotá and they did have a certain success at the time—probably because nobody in Colombia was writing intellectual short stories. What was being written then was mostly about life in the countryside and social life. When I wrote my first short stories I was told they had Joycean influences.

INTERVIEWER

Had you read Joyce at that time?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

I had never read Joyce, so I started reading Ulysses. I read it in the only Spanish edition available. Since then, after having read Ulysses in English as well as a very good French translation, I can see that the original Spanish translation was very bad. But I did learn something that was to be very useful to me in my future writing—the technique of the interior monologue. I later found this in Virginia Woolf, and I like the way she uses it better than Joyce. Although I later realized that the person who invented this interior monologue was the anonymous writer of the Lazarillo de Tormes.

INTERVIEWER

Can you name some of your early influences?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

The people who really helped me to get rid of my intellectual attitude towards the short story were the writers of the American Lost Generation. I realized that their literature had a relationship with life that my short stories didn’t. And then an event took place which was very important with respect to this attitude. It was the Bogotazo, on the ninth of April, 1948, when a political leader, Gaitan, was shot and the people of Bogotá went raving mad in the streets. I was in my pension ready to have lunch when I heard the news. I ran towards the place, but Gaitan had just been put into a taxi and was being taken to a hospital. On my way back to the pension, the people had already taken to the streets and they were demonstrating, looting stores and burning buildings. I joined them. That afternoon and evening, I became aware of the kind of country I was living in, and how little my short stories had to do with any of that. When I was later forced to go back to Barranquilla on the Caribbean, where I had spent my childhood, I realized that that was the type of life I had lived, knew, and wanted to write about.

Around 1950 or ’51 another event happened that influenced my literary tendencies. My mother asked me to accompany her to Aracataca, where I was born, and to sell the house where I spent my first years. When I got there it was at first quite shocking because I was now twenty-two and hadn’t been there since the age of eight. Nothing had really changed, but I felt that I wasn’t really looking at the village, but I was experiencing it as if I were reading it. It was as if everything I saw had already been written, and all I had to do was to sit down and copy what was already there and what I was just reading. For all practical purposes everything had evolved into literature: the houses, the people, and the memories. I’m not sure whether I had already read Faulkner or not, but I know now that only a technique like Faulkner’s could have enabled me to write down what I was seeing. The atmosphere, the decadence, the heat in the village were roughly the same as what I had felt in Faulkner. It was a banana-plantation region inhabited by a lot of Americans from the fruit companies which gave it the same sort of atmosphere I had found in the writers of the Deep South. Critics have spoken of the literary influence of Faulkner, but I see it as a coincidence: I had simply found material that had to be dealt with in the same way that Faulkner had treated similar material.

From that trip to the village I came back to write Leaf Storm, my first novel. What really happened to me in that trip to Aracataca was that I realized that everything that had occurred in my childhood had a literary value that I was only now appreciating. From the moment I wrote Leaf Storm I realized I wanted to be a writer and that nobody could stop me and that the only thing left for me to do was to try to be the best writer in the world. That was in 1953, but it wasn’t until 1967 that I got my first royalties after having written five of my eight books.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that it’s common for young writers to deny the worth of their own childhoods and experiences and to intellectualize as you did initially?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

No, the process usually takes place the other way around, but if I had to give a young writer some advice I would say to write about something that has happened to him; it’s always easy to tell whether a writer is writing about something that has happened to him or something he has read or been told. Pablo Neruda has a line in a poem that says “God help me from inventing when I sing.” It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.

INTERVIEWER

Whom were you writing for at this point? Who was your audience?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

Leaf Storm was written for my friends who were helping me and lending me their books and were very enthusiastic about my work. In general I think you usually do write for someone. When I’m writing I’m always aware that this friend is going to like this, or that another friend is going to like that paragraph or chapter, always thinking of specific people. In the end all books are written for your friends. The problem after writing One Hundred Years of Solitude was that now I no longer know whom of the millions of readers I am writing for; this upsets and inhibits me. It’s like a million eyes are looking at you and you don’t really know what they think.

INTERVIEWER

What about the influence of journalism on your fiction?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

I think the influence is reciprocal. Fiction has helped my journalism because it has given it literary value. Journalism has helped my fiction because it has kept me in a close relationship with reality.

INTERVIEWER

How would you describe the search for a style that you went through after Leaf Storm and before you were able to write One Hundred Years of Solitude?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

After having written Leaf Storm, I decided that writing about the village and my childhood was really an escape from having to face and write about the political reality of the country. I had the false impression that I was hiding myself behind this kind of nostalgia instead of confronting the political things that were going on. This was the time when the relationship between literature and politics was very much discussed. I kept trying to close the gap between the two. My influence had been Faulkner; now it was Hemingway. I wrote No One Writes to the Colonel, In Evil Hour, and Big Mama’s Funeral, which were all written at more or less the same time and have many things in common. These stories take place in a different village from the one in which Leaf Storm and One Hundred Years of Solitude occur. It is a village in which there is no magic. It is a journalistic literature. But when I finished In Evil Hour, I saw that all my views were wrong again. I came to see that in fact my writings about my childhood were more political and had more to do with the reality of my country than I had thought. After The Evil Hour I did not write anything for five years. I had an idea of what I always wanted to do, but there was something missing and I was not sure what it was until one day I discovered the right tone—the tone that I eventually used in One Hundred Years of Solitude. It was based on the way my grandmother used to tell her stories. She told things that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness. When I finally discovered the tone I had to use, I sat down for eighteen months and worked every day.

INTERVIEWER

How did she express the “fantastic” so naturally?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

What was most important was the expression she had on her face. She did not change her expression at all when telling her stories, and everyone was surprised. In previous attempts to write One Hundred Years of Solitude, I tried to tell the story without believing in it. I discovered that what I had to do was believe in them myself and write them with the same expression with which my grandmother told them: with a brick face.

INTERVIEWER

There also seems to be a journalistic quality to that technique or tone. You describe seemingly fantastic events in such minute detail that it gives them their own reality. Is this something you have picked up from journalism?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

That’s a journalistic trick which you can also apply to literature. For example, if you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants flying in the sky, people will probably believe you. One Hundred Years of Solitude is full of that sort of thing. That’s exactly the technique my grandmother used. I remember particularly the story about the character who is surrounded by yellow butterflies. When I was very small there was an electrician who came to the house. I became very curious because he carried a belt with which he used to suspend himself from the electrical posts. My grandmother used to say that every time this man came around, he would leave the house full of butterflies. But when I was writing this, I discovered that if I didn’t say the butterflies were yellow, people would not believe it. When I was writing the episode of Remedios the Beauty going to heaven, it took me a long time to make it credible. One day I went out to the garden and saw a woman who used to come to the house to do the wash and she was putting out the sheets to dry and there was a lot of wind. She was arguing with the wind not to blow the sheets away. I discovered that if I used the sheets for Remedios the Beauty, she would ascend. That’s how I did it, to make it credible. The problem for every writer is credibility. Anybody can write anything so long as it’s believed.

INTERVIEWER

What was the origin of the insomnia plague in One Hundred Years of Solitude?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

Beginning with Oedipus, I’ve always been interested in plagues. I have studied a lot about medieval plagues. One of my favorite books is The Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, among other reasons because Defoe is a journalist who sounds like what he is saying is pure fantasy. For many years I thought Defoe had written about the London plague as he observed it. But then I discovered it was a novel, because Defoe was less than seven years old when the plague occurred in London. Plagues have always been one of my recurrent themes—and in different forms. In The Evil Hour, the pamphlets are plagues. For many years I thought that the political violence in Colombia had the same metaphysics as the plague. Before One Hundred Years of Solitude, I had used a plague to kill all the birds in a story called “One Day After Saturday”. In One Hundred Years of Solitude I used the insomnia plague as something of a literary trick, since it’s the opposite of the sleeping plague. Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry.

INTERVIEWER

Can you explain that analogy a little more?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

Both are very hard work. Writing something is almost as hard as making a table. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood. Both are full of tricks and techniques. Basically very little magic and a lot of hard work are involved. And as Proust, I think, said, it takes ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration. I never have done any carpentry but it’s the job I admire most, especially because you can never find anyone to do it for you.

INTERVIEWER

What about the banana fever in One Hundred Years of Solitude? How much of that is based on what the United Fruit Company did?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

The banana fever is modeled closely on reality. Of course, I’ve used literary tricks on things which have not been proved historically. For example, the massacre in the square is completely true, but while I wrote it on the basis of testimony and documents, it was never known exactly how many people were killed. I used the figure three thousand, which is obviously an exaggeration. But one of my childhood memories was watching a very, very long train leave the plantation supposedly full of bananas. There could have been three thousand dead on it, eventually to be dumped in the sea. What’s really surprising is that now they speak very naturally in the Congress and the newspapers about the “three thousand dead.” I suspect that half of all our history is made in this fashion. In The Autumn of the Patriarch, the dictator says it doesn’t matter if it’s not true now, because sometime in the future it will be true. Sooner or later people believe writers rather than the government.

INTERVIEWER

That makes the writer pretty powerful, doesn’t it?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

Yes, and I can feel it too. It gives me a great sense of responsibility. What I would really like to do is a piece of journalism which is completely true and real, but which sounds as fantastic as One Hundred Years of Solitude. The more I live and remember things from the past, the more I think that literature and journalism are closely related.

INTERVIEWER

What about a country giving up its sea for its foreign debt, as in The Autumn of the Patriarch?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

Yes, but that actually happened. It’s happened and will happen many times more. The Autumn of the Patriarch is a completely historical book. To find probabilities out of real facts is the work of the journalist and the novelist, and it is also the work of the prophet. The trouble is that many people believe that I’m a writer of fantastic fiction, when actually I’m a very realistic person and write what I believe is the true socialist realism.

INTERVIEWER

Is it utopian?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

I’m not sure if the word utopian means the real or the ideal. But I think it’s the real.

INTERVIEWER

Are the characters in The Autumn of the Patriarch, the dictators, for example, modeled after real people? There seem to be similarities with Franco, Perón, and Trujillo.

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

In every novel, the character is a collage: a collage of different characters that you’ve known, or heard about or read about. I read everything that I could find about Latin American dictators of the last century, and the beginning of this one. I also talked to a lot of people who had lived under dictatorships. I did that for at least ten years. And when I had a clear idea of what the character was going to be like, I made an effort to forget everything I had read and heard, so that I could invent, without using any situation that had occurred in real life. I realized at one point that I myself had not lived for any period of time under a dictatorship, so I thought if I wrote the book in Spain, I could see what the atmosphere was like living in an established dictatorship. But I found that the atmosphere was very different in Spain under Franco from that of a Caribbean dictatorship. So the book was kind of blocked for about a year. There was something missing and I wasn’t sure what it was. Then overnight, I decided that the best thing was that we come back to the Caribbean. So we all moved back to Barranquilla in Colombia. I made a statement to the journalists which they thought was a joke. I said that I was coming back because I had forgotten what a guava smelled like. In truth, it was what I really needed to finish my book. I took a trip through the Caribbean. As I went from island to island, I found the elements which were the ones that had been lacking from my novel.

INTERVIEWER

You often use the theme of the solitude of power.

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

The more power you have, the harder it is to know who is lying to you and who is not. When you reach absolute power, there is no contact with reality, and that’s the worst kind of solitude there can be. A very powerful person, a dictator, is surrounded by interests and people whose final aim is to isolate him from reality; everything is in concert to isolate him.

INTERVIEWER

What about the solitude of the writer? Is this different?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

It has a lot to do with the solitude of power. The writer’s very attempt to portray reality often leads him to a distorted view of it. In trying to transpose reality he can end up losing contact with it, in an ivory tower, as they say. Journalism is a very good guard against that. That’s why I have always tried to keep on doing journalism, because it keeps me in contact with the real world, particularly political journalism and politics. The solitude that threatened me after One Hundred Years of Solitude wasn’t the solitude of the writer; it was the solitude of fame, which resembles the solitude of power much more. My friends defended me from that one, my friends who are always there.

INTERVIEWER

How?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

Because I have managed to keep the same friends all my life. I mean I don’t break or cut myself off from my old friends, and they’re the ones who bring me back to earth; they always keep their feet on the ground and they’re not famous.

INTERVIEWER

How do things start? One of the recurring images in The Autumn of the Patriarch is the cows in the palace. Was this one of the original images?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

I’ve got a photography book that I’m going to show you. I’ve said on various occasions that in the genesis of all my books there’s always an image. The first image I had of The Autumn of the Patriarch was a very old man in a very luxurious palace into which cows come and eat the curtains. But that image didn’t concretize until I saw the photograph. In Rome I went into a bookshop where I started looking at photography books, which I like to collect. I saw this photograph, and it was just perfect. I just saw that was how it was going to be. Since I’m not a big intellectual, I can find my antecedents in everyday things, in life, and not in the great masterpieces.

INTERVIEWER

Do your novels ever take unexpected twists?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

That used to happen to me in the beginning. In the first stories I wrote I had a general idea of the mood, but I would let myself be taken by chance. The best advice I was given early on was that it was all right to work that way when I was young because I had a torrent of inspiration. But I was told that if I didn’t learn technique, I would be in trouble later on when the inspiration had gone and the technique was needed to compensate. If I hadn’t learned that in time, I would not now be able to outline a structure in advance. Structure is a purely technical problem and if you don’t learn it early on you’ll never learn it.

INTERVIEWER

 Discipline then is quite important to you?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

I don’t think you can write a book that’s worth anything without extraordinary discipline.

INTERVIEWER

What about artificial stimulants?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

One thing that Hemingway wrote that greatly impressed me was that writing for him was like boxing. He took care of his health and his well-being. Faulkner had a reputation of being a drunkard, but in every interview that he gave he said that it was impossible to write one line when drunk. Hemingway said this too. Bad readers have asked me if I was drugged when I wrote some of my works. But that illustrates that they don’t know anything about literature or drugs. To be a good writer you have to be absolutely lucid at every moment of writing, and in good health. I’m very much against the romantic concept of writing which maintains that the act of writing is a sacrifice, and that the worse the economic conditions or the emotional state, the better the writing. I think you have to be in a very good emotional and physical state. Literary creation for me requires good health, and the Lost Generation understood this. They were people who loved life.

INTERVIEWER

Blaise Cendrars said that writing is a privilege compared to most work, and that writers exaggerate their suffering. What do you think?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

I think that writing is very difficult, but so is any job carefully executed. What is a privilege, however, is to do a job to your own satisfaction. I think that I’m excessively demanding of myself and others because I cannot tolerate errors; I think that it is a privilege to do anything to a perfect degree. It is true though that writers are often megalomaniacs and they consider themselves to be the center of the universe and society’s conscience. But what I most admire is something well done. I’m always very happy when I’m traveling to know that the pilots are better pilots than I am a writer.

INTERVIEWER

When do you work best now? Do you have a work schedule?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

When I became a professional writer the biggest problem I had was my schedule. Being a journalist meant working at night. When I started writing full-time I was forty years old, my schedule was basically from nine o’clock in the morning until two in the afternoon when my sons came back from school. Since I was so used to hard work, I felt guilty that I was only working in the morning; so I tried to work in the afternoons, but I discovered that what I did in the afternoon had to be done over again the next morning. So I decided that I would just work from nine until two-thirty and not do anything else. In the afternoons I have appointments and interviews and anything else that might come up. I have another problem in that I can only work in surroundings that are familiar and have already been warmed up with my work. I cannot write in hotels or borrowed rooms or on borrowed typewriters. This creates problems because when I travel I can’t work. Of course, you’re always trying to find a pretext to work less. That’s why the conditions you impose on yourself are more difficult all the time. You hope for inspiration whatever the circumstances. That’s a word the romantics exploited a lot. My Marxist comrades have a lot of difficulty accepting the word, but whatever you call it, I’m convinced that there is a special state of mind in which you can write with great ease and things just flow. All the pretexts—such as the one where you can only write at home—disappear. That moment and that state of mind seem to come when you have found the right theme and the right ways of treating it. And it has to be something you really like, too, because there is no worse job than doing something you don’t like.

One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph, and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily. In the first paragraph you solve most of the problems with your book. The theme is defined, the style, the tone. At least in my case, the first paragraph is a kind of sample of what the rest of the book is going to be. That’s why writing a book of short stories is much more difficult than writing a novel. Every time you write a short story, you have to begin all over again.

INTERVIEWER

Are dreams ever important as a source of inspiration?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

In the very beginning I paid a good deal of attention to them. But then I realized that life itself is the greatest source of inspiration and that dreams are only a very small part of that torrent that is life. What is very true about my writing is that I’m quite interested in different concepts of dreams and interpretations of them. I see dreams as part of life in general, but reality is much richer. But maybe I just have very poor dreams.

INTERVIEWER

Can you distinguish between inspiration and intuition?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

Inspiration is when you find the right theme, one which you really like; that makes the work much easier. Intuition, which is also fundamental to writing fiction, is a special quality which helps you to decipher what is real without needing scientific knowledge, or any other special kind of learning. The laws of gravity can be figured out much more easily with intuition than anything else. It’s a way of having experience without having to struggle through it. For a novelist, intuition is essential. Basically it’s contrary to intellectualism, which is probably the thing that I detest most in the world—in the sense that the real world is turned into a kind of immovable theory. Intuition has the advantage that either it is, or it isn’t. You don’t struggle to try to put a round peg into a square hole.

INTERVIEWER

Is it the theorists that you dislike?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

Exactly. Chiefly because I cannot really understand them. That’s mainly why I have to explain most things through anecdotes, because I don’t have any capacity for abstractions. That’s why many critics say that I’m not a cultured person. I don’t quote enough.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that critics type you or categorize you too neatly?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

Critics for me are the biggest example of what intellectualism is. First of all, they have a theory of what a writer should be. They try to get the writer to fit their model, and if he doesn’t fit, they still try to get him in by force. I’m only answering this because you’ve asked. I really have no interest in what critics think of me; nor have I read critics in many years. They have claimed for themselves the task of being intermediaries between the author and the reader. I’ve always tried to be a very clear and precise writer, trying to reach the reader directly without having to go through the critic.

INTERVIEWER

How do you regard translators?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

I have great admiration for translators except for the ones who use footnotes. They are always trying to explain to the reader something which the author probably did not mean; since it’s there, the reader has to put up with it. Translating is a very difficult job, not at all rewarding, and very badly paid. A good translation is always a re-creation in another language. That’s why I have such great admiration for Gregory Rabassa. My books have been translated into twenty-one languages and Rabassa is the only translator who has never asked for something to be clarified so he can put a footnote in. I think that my work has been completely re-created in English. There are parts of the book which are very difficult to follow literally. The impression one gets is that the translator read the book and then rewrote it from his recollections. That’s why I have such admiration for translators. They are intuitive rather than intellectual. Not only is what publishers pay them completely miserable, but they don’t see their work as literary creation. There are some books I would have liked to translate into Spanish, but they would have involved as much work as writing my own books and I wouldn’t have made enough money to eat.

INTERVIEWER

What would you have liked to translate?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

All Malraux. I would have liked to translate Conrad, and Saint-Exupéry. When I’m reading I sometimes get the feeling that I would like to translate this book. Excluding the great masterpieces, I prefer reading a mediocre translation of a book than trying to get through it in the original language. I never feel comfortable reading in another language, because the only language I really feel inside is Spanish. However, I speak Italian and French, and I know English well enough to have poisoned myself with Time magazine every week for twenty years.

INTERVIEWER

Does Mexico seem like home to you now? Do you feel part of any larger community of writers?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

In general, I’m not a friend of writers or artists just because they are writers or artists. I have many friends of different professions, amongst them writers and artists. In general terms, I feel that I’m a native of any country in Latin America but not elsewhere. Latin Americans feel that Spain is the only country in which we are treated well, but I personally don’t feel as though I’m from there. In Latin America I don’t have a sense of frontiers or borders. I’m conscious of the differences that exist from one country to another, but in my mind and heart it is all the same. Where I really feel at home is the Caribbean, whether it is the French, Dutch, or English Caribbean. I was always impressed that when I got on a plane in Barranquilla, a black lady with a blue dress would stamp my passport, and when I got off the plane in Jamaica, a black lady with a blue dress would stamp my passport, but in English. I don’t believe that the language makes all that much difference. But anywhere else in the world, I feel like a foreigner, a feeling that robs me of a sense of security. It’s a personal feeling, but I always have it when I travel. I have a minority conscience.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that it’s an important thing for Latin American writers to live in Europe for a while?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

Perhaps to have a real perspective from outside. The book of short stories I’m thinking of writing is about Latin Americans going to Europe. I’ve been thinking about it for twenty years. If you could draw a final conclusion out of these short stories, it would be that Latin Americans hardly ever get to Europe, especially Mexicans, and certainly not to stay. All the Mexicans I’ve ever met in Europe always leave the following Wednesday.

INTERVIEWER

What effects do you think the Cuban Revolution has had on Latin American literature?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

Up until now it has been negative. Many writers who think of themselves as being politically committed feel obligated to write stories not about what they want, but about what they think they should want. That makes for a certain type of calculated literature that doesn’t have anything to do with experience or intuition. The main reason for this is that the cultural influence of Cuba on Latin America has been very much fought against. In Cuba itself, the process hasn’t developed to the point where a new type of literature or art has been created. That is something that needs time. The great cultural importance of Cuba in Latin America has been to serve as a kind of bridge to transmit a type of literature which had existed in Latin America for many years. In a sense, the boom in Latin American literature in the United States has been caused by the Cuban Revolution. Every Latin American writer of that generation had been writing for twenty years, but the European and American publishers had very little interest in them. When the Cuban Revolution started there was suddenly a great interest about Cuba and Latin America. The revolution turned into an article of consumption. Latin America came into fashion. It was discovered that Latin American novels existed which were good enough to be translated and considered with all other world literature. What was really sad is that cultural colonialism is so bad in Latin America that it was impossible to convince the Latin Americans themselves that their own novels were good until people outside told them they were.

INTERVIEWER

Are there some lesser-known Latin American writers you especially admire?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

I doubt there are any now. One of the best side effects of the boom in Latin American writing is that publishers are always on the lookout to make sure that they’re not going to miss the new Cortázar. Unfortunately many young writers are more concerned with fame than with their own work. There’s a French professor at the University of Toulouse who writes about Latin American literature; many young authors wrote to him telling him not to write so much about me because I didn’t need it anymore and other people did. But what they forget is that when I was their age the critics weren’t writing about me, but rather about Miguel Angel Asturias. The point I’m trying to make is that these young writers are wasting their time writing to critics rather than working on their own writing. It’s much more important to write than to be written about. One thing that I think was very important about my literary career was that until I was forty years old, I never got one cent of author’s royalties, though I’d had five books published.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that fame or success coming too early in a writer’s career is bad?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

At any age it’s bad. I would have liked for my books to have been recognized posthumously, at least in capitalist countries, where you turn into a kind of merchandise.

INTERVIEWER

Aside from your favorites, what do you read today?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

I read the weirdest things. I was reading Muhammad Ali’s memoirs the other day. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a great book, and one I probably would not have read many years ago because I would have thought it was a waste of time. But I never really get involved with a book unless it’s recommended by somebody I trust. I don’t read any more fiction. I read many memoirs and documents, even if they are forged documents. And I reread my favorites. The advantage of rereading is that you can open at any page and read the part that you really like. I’ve lost this sacred notion of reading only “literature.” I will read anything. I try to keep up-to-date. I read almost all the really important magazines from all over the world every week. I’ve always been on the lookout for news since the habit of reading the Teletype machines. But after I’ve read all the serious and important newspapers from all over, my wife always comes around and tells me of news I hadn’t heard. When I ask her where she read it, she will say that she read it in a magazine at the beauty parlor. So I read fashion magazines and all kinds of magazines for women and gossip magazines. And I learn many things that I could only learn from reading them. That keeps me very busy.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think fame is so destructive for a writer?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

Primarily because it invades your private life. It takes away from the time that you spend with friends, and the time that you can work. It tends to isolate you from the real world. A famous writer who wants to continue writing has to be constantly defending himself against fame. I don’t really like to say this because it never sounds sincere, but I would really have liked for my books to have been published after my death, so I wouldn’t have to go through all this business of fame and being a great writer. In my case, the only advantage in fame is that I have been able to give it a political use. Otherwise, it is quite uncomfortable. The problem is that you’re famous for twenty-four hours a day and you can’t say, “Okay, I won’t be famous until tomorrow,” or press a button and say, “I won’t be famous here or now.”

INTERVIEWER

Did you anticipate the extraordinary success of One Hundred Years of Solitude?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

I knew that it would be a book that would please my friends more than my others had. But when my Spanish publisher told me he was going to print eight thousand copies I was stunned, because my other books had never sold more than seven hundred. I asked him why not start slowly, but he said he was convinced that it was a good book and that all eight thousand copies would be sold between May and December. Actually they were all sold within one week in Buenos Aires.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think One Hundred Years of Solitude clicked so?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

I don’t have the faintest idea, because I’m a very bad critic of my own works. One of the most frequent explanations that I’ve heard is that it is a book about the private lives of the people of Latin America, a book that was written from the inside. That explanation surprises me because in my first attempt to write it the title of the book was going to be The House. I wanted the whole development of the novel to take place inside the house, and anything external would be just in terms of its impact on the house. I later abandoned the title The House, but once the book goes into the town of Macondo it never goes any further. Another explanation I’ve heard is that every reader can make of the characters in the book what he wants and make them his own. I don’t want it to become a film, since the film viewer sees a face that he may not have imagined.

INTERVIEWER

Was there any interest in making it into a film?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

Yes, my agent put it up for one million dollars to discourage offers and as they approximated that offer she raised it to around three million. But I have no interest in a film, and as long as I can prevent it from happening, it won’t. I prefer that it remain a private relationship between the reader and the book.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think any books can be translated into films successfully?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

I can’t think of any one film that improved on a good novel, but I can think of many good films that came from very bad novels.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever thought of making films yourself?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

There was a time when I wanted to be a film director. I studied directing in Rome. I felt that cinema was a medium which had no limitations and in which everything was possible. I came to Mexico because I wanted to work in film, not as a director but as a screenplay writer. But there’s a big limitation in cinema in that it’s an industrial art, a whole industry. It’s very difficult to express in cinema what you really want to say. I still think of it, but it now seems like a luxury which I would like to do with friends but without any hope of really expressing myself. So I’ve moved farther and farther away from the cinema. My relation with it is like that of a couple who can’t live separated, but who can’t live together either. Between having a film company or a journal, though, I’d choose a journal.

INTERVIEWER

How would you describe the book on Cuba that you’re working on now?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

Actually, the book is like a long newspaper article about what life in Cuban homes is like, how they have managed to survive the shortages.  What has struck me during the many trips that I’ve made to Cuba in the last two years is that the blockade has created in Cuba a kind of ‘culture of necessity,’ a social situation in which people have to get along without certain things.  The aspect that really interests me is how the blockade has contributed to changing the mentality of the people.  We have a clash between an anticonsumer society and the most consumption-oriented society in the world.  The book is now at a stage where after thinking that it would be just an easy, fairly short piece of journalism, it is now turning into a very long and complicated book.  But that doesn’t really matter, because all of my books have been like that.  And besides, the book will prove with historical facts that the real world in the Caribbean is just as fantastic as in the stories of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any long-range ambitions or regrets as a writer?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

I think my answer is the same as the one I gave you about fame.  I was asked the other day if I would be interested in the Nobel Prize, but I think that for me it would be an absolute catastrophe.  I would certainly be interested in deserving it, but to receive it would be terrible.  It would just complicate even more the problems of fame.  The only thing I really regret in life is not having a daughter.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any projects now underway you can discuss?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

I’m absolutely convinced that I’m going to write the greatest book of my life, but I don’t know which one it will be or when.  When I feel something like this—which I have been feeling now for a while—I stay very quiet, so that if it passes by I can capture it.”   Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “The Art of Fiction–No. 69;” Paris Review, 1981


Numero Tres“Every hegemonic power in every historical period establishes the limits of what is normal and, consequently, of what is natural.  Thus, the power that ordered patriarchal society reserved for itself (reserves for itself) the unquestionable right to define what was a man and what was a woman.  Every time some exalted man resorts to the mediocre argument that ‘things have been like this since the beginning of the world,’ he situates the origin of the world in a recent period of the history of humanity.Like any system, patriarchy fulfilled an organizing function.  Probably, at some moment, it was an order convenient to the majority of society, including women.  I don’t believe that oppression arises from patriarchy, but instead when the latter attempts to perpetuate itself by imposing itself on processes that range from the survival to the liberation of humankind.  If patriarchy was once a logical system of values for an agricultural system of production and survival, today it no longer means anything more than an oppressive, and for some time now, hypocritical tradition.

In 1583, the reverend Fray Luis de León wrote La perfecta casada (The Perfect Wife) as a book of useful advice for marriage.  There, as with any other text of the tradition, it is understood that an exceptionally virtuous woman is a manly woman.   ‘What here we call woman of principle; and we might say manly woman (. . .) means virtue of spirit and strength of heart, industry and wealth and power.’   Then: ‘for a man to be gifted with reason and understanding does not make him worthy of praise, because having them is his own nature (. . .).  If the truth be told, it is a bouquet of dishonesties for a chaste woman to think that she could not be so or that in being so she does something for which she should be thanked.’  Then: ‘God, when he decided to marry man by giving him woman, said: ‘I will make him an help meet for him’ (Gen. 2); from whence it is understood that the natural place of woman and the end for which God created her is for her to be a helper to her husband.’  A hundred years before Sor Juana would be condemned for speaking too much and for defending her right to speak, the nature of woman was well defined: ‘it is right for [women] to pride themselves on being silent, both those for whom it is convenient to cover up their lack of knowledge, and those who might shamelessly reveal what they know, because in all of them it is not only an agreeable condition, but a proper virtue, to speak little and be silent.’  Then: ‘because, just as nature, as we have said and will say, made women remain in the home as its keepers, so also it obliged them to keep their mouths closed. (. . .)  Just as the good and honest woman was not made by nature for the study of the sciences or for negotiation of hardships, but for a simple and domestic profession, it also limited their understanding, and therefore it rationed their words and reason.’   But the moralizer of the day was not lacking in tenderness: ‘do not think that God created them and gave them to man only for them to keep the home, but also to console him and give him joy.  So that in her the tired and angry husband might find rest, and the children love, and the family piety, and all of them generally an agreeable refuge.’

By the next century, Francisco Cascales believed that woman had to struggle against her nature, which was not only determined but evil or defective besides: ‘The needle and the distaff’ — wrote the military man and university professor, in 1653 — ‘are the woman’s weapons and so strong that armed with them she will resist the most prideful enemy to tempt her.’  Which amounted to saying that the distaff was the weapon of an oppressive system.

Juan de Zabaleta, notable figure of the Spanish Golden Age, declared in 1653 that ‘in poetry there is no substance; nor in the understanding of a woman.’   And later: “woman is naturally gossipy,” the woman poet “adds more madness to her madness (. . .)  The woman poet is the most imperfect and abhorrent animal formed by nature (. . .)  If it were permitted of me, I would burn her alive.  He who celebrates a woman for being a poet, God should give her to him as a wife, so that he might know what he celebrates.”  In his following book, the lawyer wrote: “the word wife means comfort more than anything, pleasure the least.”  Nonetheless, a man “by adoring a woman takes adoration away from the Creator.”  Zabaleta at times goes so far as to create metaphors with a certain aesthetic value: a woman in church “with her fan in hand enlivens with its air the fire that encircles her” (1654).

In 1575, the physician Juan Huarte informed us that the testicles affirm the temperament more than the heart, while in the woman “the organ that is most gripped by the alterations of the uterus, according to all the physicians, is the brain, although there may be no grounds on which to base this correspondence.”  Hippocrates, Galeno, Sigmund Freud, and the most fanatical supporters of the Boca Juniors soccer team would all agree.  A wise and ingenious man, according to the Spanish physician, gets a son with opposite traits when the female seed predominates, and no wise son can come from a woman.  For this reason, when the man predominates, even when he is brutish and stupid, a clever son results.

In his book about Fernando, another renowned moralist, Baltasar Gracián, dedicates some final lines to Queen Isabel.  “What most aided Fernando” — wrote the Jesuit — “[was] doña Isabel, his Catholic consort, that great princess who, even though a woman, exceeded the limits of a man.”  Although there were noteworthy women, “commonly in this sex the passions reign in such a way that they leave no room for counsel, for patience, for prudence, essential parts of government, and with  power their tyranny is augmented.  (. . .)  Ordinarily, manly women were very prudent.”  Later: “In Spain manly females have always endured a position for males, and in the house of Austria they have always been respected and employed” (1641).

I believe that the idea of the manly woman as virtuous woman is consistent with the tolerance of lesbianism by the same patriarchal system of values that condemned masculine homosexuality to burn at the stake, whether in the Middle East, in Europe, or among the imperial Incas.  Where there was a greater predominance for matriarchy, neither the virginity of women nor the homosexuality of men was watched over with such fervor.

A famous woman — beatified, sainted and given a doctorate by the Catholic Church — Santa Teresa, wrote in 1578: ‘Natural weakness is very weak, especially in women.’  Recommending an extreme discipline for the nuns, the future saint argued: ‘I do not believe there is anything in the world that could damage a prelate more than to not be feared, and for his subjects to think they may deal with him as with an equal, especially for women, for once they understand that there is in the prelate such softness . . . governing them will be very difficult.’  But this deficient nature impeded not only the proper social order but mystical achievement as well.  Just like Buddha, in her famous book Las moradas the same saint recognized the natural ‘stupidity of women’ that made it difficult for them to reach the center of the divine mystery.

It is perfectly understandable that a woman at the service of the patriarchal order, like Santa Teresa, would have been beatified, while another religious woman who openly opposed this structure would never have been recognized as such.  I would sum up Santa Teresa’s slogan in just one word: obedience, above all social obedience.

Santa Teresa died an old woman and without the martyrdom proper to the saints.  Sor Juana, in contrast, was made to suffer psychological, moral and, finally, physical torture until she died at the age of forty-four, serving her neighbor in the epidemic of 1695.  But none of that matters for canonizing her as a saint when ‘the worst of all women’ committed the sin of questioning authority.  Why not propose, then, Santa Juana Inés de la Cruz, patron saint of oppressed women?”  Jorge Majfud, “The Imperfect Woman: Why Is Sor Juana Not a Saint?” Monthly Review, 2007

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Numero Cuatro“On the Danish 50-kroner banknote there’s a portrait of Isak Dinesen.   It’s signed Karen Blixen, which is how she is known in Denmark.  She’s shown at the age of 60 or so, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a fur collar, and looking very glamorous indeed.I first saw Dinesen when I was 10, in a photo shoot in Life magazine.  My experience then was similar to that of Sara Stambaugh, one of her bio-critics: ‘I well remember my own excitement around 1950, when, leafing through a used copy of Life magazine, I stumbled across an article on the Danish Baroness Karen Blixen, her identity not simply revealed but celebrated in big, glossy black-and-white photographs.  I still remember one in particular, showing her leaning dramatically from a window, striking, turbaned, and emaciated.

To my young eyes, this person in the pictures was like a magical creature from a fairytale: an impossibly aged woman, a thousand years old at least.  Her outfits were striking and the makeup of the era had been carefully applied, but the effect was carnivalesque – like a dressed-up Mexican skeleton.  Her expression, however, was bright-eyed and ironic: she seemed to be enjoying the show-stopping, if not grotesque, impression she was making.

Could Dinesen have been contemplating such a moment in Seven Gothic Tales, 25 years earlier?  In the story ‘The Supper at Elsinore,’ the De Coninck siblings are described as living memento mori: ‘ … as you got, from the face of the brother, the key of understanding to this particular type of family beauty, you would recognise it at once in the appearance of the sisters, even in the two youthful portraits on the wall.  The most striking characteristic in the three heads was the generic resemblance to the skull.’

Dinesen was already ill at the time of the 1950 pictures.  Nine years later she made a final triumphant visit to New York.  She was lionised; famous writers paid homage to her, including EE Cummings and Arthur Miller; her public appearances were packed; and there were more photos.  Less than three years later she was dead, as she must have known she would be.  Her flamboyant self-presentation takes on, in retrospect, a new meaning: in her place, other doomed sufferers might have stayed in seclusion, concealing from the camera the wreckage of a once striking beauty, but instead Dinesen chose the full public spotlight.  Was she incarnating one of her own dominant literary motifs – the brave but futile gesture in the face of almost certain death?  It’s tempting to think so.

New York was a fitting choice for her swan song, since it was New York that had made her famous back in 1934 when Seven Gothic Tales took America by storm. Rejected by several publishers for the usual reasons – short stories didn’t sell, the author was unknown, the stories themselves were odd and not attuned to the zeitgeist – the book was finally picked up by a smaller American publisher, Harrison Smith & Robert Haas. There were conditions: the well-known novelist Dorothy Canfield Fisher must write an introduction, and the author was to receive no advance. Blixen gambled and took the offer. Then she won – for, much to the surprise of all, Seven Gothic Tales was chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club, which was a guarantee of wide publicity and large sales.

Now it was time for Blixen to make her own condition: she would publish under a nom de plume, Isak Dinesen. “Dinesen” was her maiden name, “Isak” was the Danish version of Isaac (which means “laughter”), the name picked by the elderly Sarah in the Book of Genesis for her late and unexpected child. Blixen’s American publisher tried to talk her out of using a pseudonym, but to no avail: she was determined to be multiple. (And, by the way, male, or at least genderless. Perhaps she did not wish to be thrust into the Lady Scribbler cage, suggestive of lesser merit.)

“Isak” was appropriate: Blixen’s emergence as a writer was indeed late and unexpected. She had returned to Denmark in 1931, stony broke – her marriage was finished; her African coffee farm had failed; her romantic lover, big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton, had died in a plane crash. Although she had written much earlier – her first stories were published when she was barely 20 – she’d chosen marriage and Africa over writing; but that life was now finished. At 46, she must have been feeling both desolate and desperate; but also, evidently, boiling with creative energy.

The stories in Seven Gothic Tales were written at speed and under pressure. They were also written in English: one reason usually given was that Blixen felt English would be more practical than Danish, since many more potential readers spoke it. But there were surely some deeper motives. She herself was fluent in English; so what, we might ask, could she have been reading in English during her formative years? What, that is, might have led her to write “tales” rather than “stories”? Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales? Old wives’ tales? Fairy tales? The Winter’s Tale, the Shakespeare play that lent its name to a later Dinesen collection?

The distinction between the two forms was well understood in Victorian times. The French distinguish between contes – from raconter, to relate, often intertwined with the notion of yarn-spinning, as in raconter des salades – corresponding roughly to our “tales”; and nouvelles, which are stories with their feet firmly on realistic ground. In a “tale”, a woman may change into a monkey before our very eyes, as one does in the Dinesen tale, “The Monkey”; in a mainstream short story, she cannot.

“Tales” have tellers and listeners within them, much more frequently than realistic stories do. The most famous tale-spinner of all is Scheherazade, narrating to stave off death, and that is the very first storytelling situation Dinesen offers us. In “The Deluge at Norderney”, a courageous group of aristocrats who have chosen to exchange places with a small peasant family waits out the night while a flood rises around them, telling stories to encourage one another and pass the time. Perhaps a boat will arrive at dawn to rescue them; perhaps they will be swept away first. Dinesen ends her story thus:

“Between the boards a strip of fresh
deep blue was showing, against
which the little lamp seemed to
make a red stain. The dawn was
breaking.
The old woman slowly drew her
fingers out of the man’s hand, and
placed one upon her lips.
À ce moment de sa narration,’ she
said, ‘Scheherazade vit paraître le
matin, et, discrète, se tut.'”

Seven Gothic Tales is filled with storytellers, and also with the kind of fractal exfoliation and multichambering structures so abundantly typical of more ancient tales, such as those in One Thousand and One Nights and Boccaccio’s Decameron. There is a “frame” – a couple of men on a boat, for instance, whiling away the time by telling about their lives, as in “The Dreamers”; then one of those stories leads into another, told by yet another person within it, which opens up into another, which then links back to the first, and so on. As with Scheherazade, much of this tale-telling (and indeed much of the action in the tales recounted) takes place at night.

But Seven Gothic Tales also echoed a more recent period in which writers drew on these older-time forms of tale-telling. Blixen was born in 1885, three years after Robert Louis Stevenson published his first collection, New Arabian Nights. That moment ushered in a rich period of late Victorian and Edwardian tale-telling, in both short and long forms, that stretched to the outbreak of the first world war. Not only Stevenson, but Arthur Conan Doyle, MR James, the Henry James of The Turn of the Screw and “The Jolly Corner,” the Oscar Wilde of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the early HG Wells of The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau, Bram Stoker of Dracula, the H Rider Haggard of She, the George du Maurier of Trilby, and a host of other English-language tale-spinners engaged with ghosts and possession and the uncanny were energetically publishing in those years. (Borges, Calvino and Ray Bradbury, among others, drank from the same well.)

Stevenson was possibly the most important of these for her. She kept a collected edition of his work in her library, and alludes to him overtly in the story “The Dreamers” by naming one of her characters, Olalla, after one of his. That particular story plays with many other motifs from the tale-telling tradition, not all of them English: the heroine of multiple identities, as in The Tales of Hoffman; the dark enchanter, a mirror reversal of the Svengali figure in Trilby, linked with an opera singer who has lost her voice.

Two motifs from Stevenson’s early work are particularly dominant throughout Seven Gothic Tales: the courageous act or last throw of the dice in the face of impending doom, as in (to give only one instance) Stevenson’s “The Pavilion on the Links”; and the controlling older person manipulating the sexual destinies of the young, as in his “The Sire de Maletroit’s Door”. In the Stevenson stories all turns out well, but in Dinesen’s various things do not go so smoothly. In “The Poet”, the old arranger gets shot and bashed to death by the two young innamorati with whose fates he has been toying, and who will now face execution themselves; in “The Monkey”, a marriage designed to cloak homosexuality is forced, not only by rape, but by a horrifying metempsychosis; in “The Roads Round Pisa”, the old arranger is deceived into fighting an unnecessary duel, then dies of a heart attack from the stress. In “The Deluge at Norderney”, the marriage stuck together by the elderly Baroness is not only invalid – the officiating Cardinal being in fact another person entirely – but all the participants may soon perish. Dinesen affirms the Romantic through her insistence on the spiritual validity of honour, but she also subverts it. Not so fast with the happy endings, she seems to be telling us.

As with the stories in New Arabian Nights, and indeed as with modern ‘Romantic”‘conventions, many of Dinesen’s tales are placed long ago and far away; but whereas with Stevenson the choice was primarily aesthetic, for Dinesen there is another layer of significance.  She was gazing back at that late Victorian and Edwardian golden age of tale-telling across a vast gulf: not only the years during which her own earlier life had ended up as wreckage, but also the first world war, which had smashed the social fabric of belief, status and social convention that had held sway in the two centuries before it.

Dinesen can see that vanished country as if through a telescope: she describes it in minute and loving detail, even the more unpleasant sides of it – the provincialism; the snobbery; the inturned, stifled lives – but she can’t return to it except through storytelling.  It’s lost to all but words.  There’s a vein of stoic, clear-eyed nostalgia running through her work, and, despite the ironic distance she often assumes, the elegiac tone is never far away.

Nevertheless, what pleasure she must have felt in the process; and what pleasure she has provided for her many readers, over time.  Seven Gothic Tales is the opening act of a remarkable writing career, one that placed Dinesen on the list of essential 20th-century authors.  As James Joyce invokes Daedalus the maze-maker at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – ‘Old father, old artificer’ – so many readers and writers might invoke Dinesen: ‘Old mother, old tale-spinner, stand me now and ever in good stead.’

And from those Life magazine photographs, her enigmatic, ornamented skeleton self with the living eyes gallantly returns our gaze.”   Margaret Atwood, “Margaret Atwood on the Show-Stopping Isak Dinesen;” The Guardian, 2013