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Conversations with Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Gabriel García Marquez and Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza

Figure 1. Unknown photographer, "Gabriel García Márquez with Plinio Mendoza," 1974, black and white photograph, 10x8in. The University of Texas at Austin. © Unknown.

[The following originally appeared in River Styx 13: Vision & Forms in 1982.]

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Conversations with Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza
Translation by: Guillermo Gomez 


from The Scent of the Guayaba:

 The train, a train he later remembered as yellow, dusty and enveloped by a suffocating humidity, arrived every day at eleven in the morning after crossing the vast banana plantations. Near the tracks, progressing at a lazy pace along roads paved with dust were carts pulled by oxen and filled with bunches of green bananas. The air was stifling in its humidity, and by the time the train arrived at the town it was already very hot. Ladies waiting at the station protected themselves from the sun with colored parasols.

The first class cars had wicker seats while third class cars, where journalists sat, had rigid, pew-like benches. At times, coupled to the others, came a car with blue windows that was completely air conditioned. The United Fruit Company’s top employees rode in this car. The men who got off that car didn’t have the clothes, or the mustard seed skin color, or the sunny disposition of the people that one ran into on the streets of the town. They were red like lobsters, blond and heavy set and they dressed like explorers, with cork helmets and leggings. And their women when they brought them, appeared fragile: as if turned into shadows by the lightness of their muslin dresses.

“Norteamericanos,” his grandfather, the colonel, would explain with a touch of disdain—the same disdain that all the old families harbored for these people who did not belong.

When Gabriel was born, there was still lingering a remnant of the banana fever that years before had shaken the entire area. Aracataca was much like a town from the old west—not only because of the train, the old homes, and her dusty, baking streets—but also because of her myths and legends. Since 1910, when the United Fruit Co. had established itself in the heart of a tranquil banana plantation region, the town had experienced an age of splendor and excess. Money ran like gully washers after a violent storm. It was said naked ladies danced the cumbia before tycoons who used pesos to light their cigars.

These and similar legendary times washed over that forgotten town in the north coastal region of Colombia, bringing with them great hordes of adventurers and prostitutes ...



In response to the petitions of the colonel, Luisa gave birth to her first child in Aracataca. And perhaps to extinguish the last embers of resentment left by her marriage with the telegrapher, she left her newborn in the care of his grandparents. That was how Gabriel came to be raised in that house—the only male child among innumerable women: Dofia Tranquilina, who talked about the dead as if they were alive; aunt Francisca, aunt Petra, aunt Elvira—all fantastic women. These memories installed themselves in remote corners of his mind. All these women had surprising talents to predict the future and a degree of superstition that at times equaled the superstitious nature of the Guajira Indians who were the family servants. They would accept the extraordinary as absolutely natural. His aunt Francisca, for example, who was strong of body and indefatigable, sat down one day to sew her burial garments. “Why are you sewing burial clothes?” asked Gabriel.

“Because, child, I am going to die.” she responded. And in fact, when she finished the burial garments she laid down on her bed and died.

The most important personage of the house during that period to Gabriel was his grandfather. At meal time—which not only brought the women together but family friends also, and relatives brought in by the eleven o’clock train—the old man presided over the table. Blind in one eye due to glaucoma, with a great appetite, a plentiful paunch and a vigorous sexuality that had left its seed in the form of dozens of offspring throughout the region, the colonel Marquez was a liberal of principle who was highly regarded in the community. The only man to ever challenge his honor he dispatched with a single shot.

As a young man, the colonel had participated in the civil wars that the federalist liberals and the liberalist thinkers of the time had waged against the conservative government—whose support came from the great plantation owners, the clerics, and the military. The last of these wars—started in 1899 and finished in 1901—had left on the fields of battle one hundred thousand dead. A whole generation of liberal youth—taken as by a cult to the teachings of Garibaldi and French radicalism—went to battle with red shirts and flags and had been decimated. The colonel had earned his rank as a combatant along the coastal provinces where the war had been particularly bloody. He served under the command of the legendary liberal gentleman soldier, General Rafael Uribe Uribe (1)...

…Between this sixty year old grandfather who kept reliving in his mind the dream-like memories of that war and his five year old grandson—the only men in a house full of women—there was to develop a singular relationship.


1. Leader of the army of the Liberal party in Colombia, which rebelled against the Conservative party control of government in 1899.



Mendoza: Tell me about your grandfather. Who was he? What was your relationship with him?

Marquez: El Coronel Nicolas Ricardo Marquez Mejia, which was his full name, is the person with whom I have shared most a common understanding and with whom I have best communicated. But from a distance of fifty years I now feel that he was not aware of this. I don’t know why, but this supposition which surfaced in me during my adolescence, has come to be traumatic. It is a frustration: it is as if I were condemned to live with a great incertitude that begs clearing up. I will never see this clarity because El Coronel died when I was eight years old.

I didn’t see him die, because I lived in another village by then—far away from Aracataca. I didn’t even learn of his death directly, but by overhearing a conversation. I remember it didn’t move me at all back then. But in my life as an adult there is a bit of emptiness I feel—especially when happy. I feel as if my happiness would be complete if my grandfather knew of it. In any case, my moments of joy as an adult have been and will continue to be perturbed by this seed of inquietude.

Mendoza: Is there someone in your books that would approach being like this person?

Marquez: The only person that is like my grandfather is the colonel without a name in Leaf Storm. This is a small sketch of his image and personality although I suppose I am somewhat subjective in that he isn’t entirely described and the reader could be picking up another image—one different from my own. My grandfather lost his sight in one eye in a manner which to me seems too literary sounding to relate. He was watching a great white horse from his office window when he felt something in his left eye. He covered the eye with his hand and lost his sight without any pain.

I don’t remember the incident, but I heard of it often as a child. My grandmother always ended the story with: ‘‘... and all that remained in his hand were the tears.” This physical defect is transposed onto the character in Leaf Storm: the colonel is lame. I don’t remember if I say it in the novel, but I always felt that the lameness was the result of an injury of the war—the Civil War of a Thousand Days, which was the most recent one in those first years of this century and the one in which my grandfather obtained the rank of colonel for the Liberal army.

The strongest remembrance I have of my grandfather has to do with this: shortly before he died—I don’t know for what reason—the doctor was giving him an examination in bed. He stopped his examination when he happened upon a scar just below the groin on his upper thigh. My grandfather told him, “It is from a bullet wound.” He had talked with me often about the Civil War and from there grew the interest that is reflected in all my books about the historic epoch—but he had never told me that the scar was a bullet wound. When he told the doctor it was to me like a revelation of something legendary and heroic.

Mendoza: I always thought the character of Colonel Aureliano Buendia was like your grandfather ...

Marquez: No, Colonel Aureliano Buendia is just the opposite of the image I have of my grandfather. My grandfather was stocky and of strong physical features, and he was the most voracious eater that I ever knew, and—as I learned much later—the most outrageous fornicator. Colonel Buendia, on the other hand, not only corresponds more closely to the slender build of general Rafael Uribe Uribe, but has the same tendency toward austerity. I never saw Uribe Uribe, but my grandmother would tell of how he passed through the village before my birth and how he and other veterans of the Civil War drank beer together in my grandfather’s office. The image that my grandmother had of him is exactly the description that Adelaida, the wife of the colonel in Leaf Storm uses when she sees the French doctor for the first time. And as she says in the novel, he appeared to her as a military sort. It is not stated there but I know within my own being that she thought him to be general Uribe Uribe.

Mendoza: What was your aim when you began work on One Hundred Years of Solitude?

Marquez: To give literary expression within an integral framework those experiences that affected me in one way or another during my infancy.

Mendoza: Many critics see in the book a parable or allegory about the history of mankind.

Marquez: No, I only wanted a firm poetic expression about the world of my infancy, which as you know took place in a great, sad household with a sister that ate dirt and a grandmother that predicted the coming of events and numerous relatives with the same names who never made much distinction between happiness and lunacy... But I could not find a style that made the story credible to me. One day I was on the way to Acapulco with Mercedes (his wife) and the children, when the revelation struck me that I should narrate the story the way my grandmother would tell me her stories—starting from the afternoon on which the child is taken by his father to experience ice.

Mendoza: A chronicle.

Marquez: A chronicle into which with all innocence the extraordinary mingles with the everyday.



Mendoza: Before you write a novel, do you know in detail what will occur to your characters?

Marquez: I only know in a general sense. In the course of writing a book unforseeable things can occur. The first image I had of the colonel Aureliano Buendia was of a veteran of our Civil Wars who dies while urinating under a tree.

Mendoza: Mercedes told me you suffered a lot when he died.

Marquez: Yes! I knew at a given point that he had to die and I couldn’t bring myself to do it. The coronel was already old, making his golden fish. And one afternoon I thought: “Now he’s finished!” I had to kill him. When I finished that chapter I walked trembling up the steps to the second floor where Mercedes was. She knew what had happened when she saw my face: “The colonel is dead!” I lay down on the bed and cried for two hours.



Mendoza: I suppose as you write there are those characters that take a path other than that foreseen. Can you give us an example?

Marquez: Yes—one of these would be Santa Sofia de la Piedad. In the novel, as in reality, she should have left the house without saying goodbye to anyone upon discovering she had leprosy. Even though the entire character was built upon abnegation and the spirit of sacrifice, which made this action plausible, I had to change it. It was too truculent.

Mendoza: Is there any character that has gotten completely out of control?

Marquez: There were three of these in the sense that the character and his destiny were not what I preferred: Aureliano José, whose tremendous passion for his aunt Amaranta took me by surprise; José Arcadio Segundo who never became the union leader among the banana laborers that I wanted him to; and José Arcadio, his father’s apprentice, who became a decadent Adonis, removed from the rest of the story.



Mendoza: If it is true that a writer will in reality write in his lifetime only one book, what would yours be?

Marquez: ... The book of solitude ...

Mendoza: ... As with Aureliano Buendia and the patriarch?

Marquez: Exactly. Solitude is the theme in The Autumn of the Patriarch and, obviously, in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Mendoza: From where does the solitude of the Buendia come?

Marquez: For me it comes from the lack of love. In the book it is noted that the Aureliano born with the tale of a pig was the only of the Buendias that in a hundred years had been conceived with love. The Buendias were incapable of love. Here lies the secret of their solitude—of their frustration. Solitude, to me, is the opposite of solidarity ...

Mendoza: ... There must be a fundamental aspect about your book that the critics—the critics you detest so much—have overlooked. What would that be?

Marquez: Its most notable quality: the immense compassion of the author for all his poor characters.


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