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22 April 2014

Surprised by García Márquez

First, Gabriel García Márquez changed my life. Then, he ordered a hamburger.

In August 1989 Gabriel García Márquez changed my life. I had recently arrived from England at the University of Delaware to begin an M.A. in English Literature, and one of my first classes offered a mix of great modern novels from a variety of cultures. At the head of the reading list was One Hundred Years of Solitude, in the marvellous translation by Gregory Rabassa.

In part, the M.A. was an opportunity for travel. I had spent the previous summer on the trail of Jack Kerouac, heading from New Jersey to New England, and then hitch-hiking: through Maine to Quebec, all the way across Canada, down the west coast via Berkeley to Los Angeles, and back. My plan for the next summer was to explore the South of William Faulkner. After forty pages of García Márquez, my plan had changed. I had to visit Latin America.

To be able to recite the opening of That Novel, and to praise the book’s capacity to generate wonder, have of course become clichés, and I was no different from millions of readers in falling captive to the magic of its prose. Yet for me the magic induced an escape not only figurative but literal. Nine months later I crossed the border into Mexico. Except for several interludes in the USA, I have been here ever since.

The novel’s politics had little to do with it. To the average European or U.S. reader, the massacre of banana workers that constitutes its angry centre is too fantastic to stir one’s sense of injustice; it almost belongs on the same plane as a levitating priest. Rather, what drew me was the depiction of a world quite alien to my own: a place both mythic and contemporary, violent and beautiful, endlessly contradictory. A place crying out to be explained. A place of surprises. The Colombia of the novel was one such country; Mexico seems to me to be another.

Seven years later, while I was working for Variety, I met him. García Márquez had written the screenplay for Oedipus Mayor, which resets Sophocles’ tragedy in modern Colombia, and the film’s Mexican producer, Jorge Sánchez, arranged for me to interview him at a café at the Churubusco Studios.

What does one order when about to interview a Nobel Prize winner? I requested a cappuccino; García Márquez ordered a burger and fries. What did he think of telenovelas? He thought they were a magnificent vehicle for communicating to wide audiences. Had he liked any recent American film? Apollo 13, he said. “Why? Because they made it an adventure about the people who stayed behind. The only theme that exists in the world is the suffering and the joys of people”.

The ability to surprise is not usually considered a high literary art. García Márquez himself once admitted – in a dialogue with Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza – that he was embarrassed at having filled One Hundred Years of Solitude with all sorts of tricks and devices. He later said that his favourite among his novels was Love in the Time of Cholera.

But for this reader, at least, surprise was the heart of the fascination. It was not a gimmick, nor was it an invitation to think of Latin America as merely “exotic”. It was a prompt to think differently and to inquire.

Note: My interview is reproduced in the book Conversations with García Márquez.

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