The best is enemy of the good.
The profoundest truths are paradoxical.
Friday, April 25, 2014
"Joking With Gabo." The New Yorker's Jon Lee Anderson Reflects On García Márquez
Gabriel García Márquez, who died, at the age of eighty-seven, at his home in Mexico City last week, has left an immense literary legacy behind. Few authors have been as widely translated and as widely read by so many people of different cultures. “He showed us a new way of seeing,” said Ian McEwan, last Friday.
Less well known to García Márquez’s legion of readers was his quick-witted sense of humor, a quality known in his native Colombia as mamar gallo (literally, “to suck rooster,” but meaning, in essence, to joke around). Gabo, as he was known to his friends and his fans in Latin America, was a master mamadero de gallo. I was reminded of this on the day he died, when Ariel Palacios, a Brazilian friend who lives in Buenos Aires, sent out a string of Gaboisms, including my favorite: “The day when shit becomes worth something, the poor will be born without asses.” There are many more where that came from. Some are simple funning nonsensicalisms, like, “I’ve conspired for peace in Colombia since before I was born”; others are folksy, Twainish one-liners, like, “Life is the best invention of them all.”
Exaggeration was a key element in Gabo’s imaginative approach to life, both in his writing and in person. He claimed, for instance, that his novella “Of Love and Other Demons” was inspired by a real-life event that he had covered as a reporter in Cartagena, Colombia, in 1949: the discovery, by workers, of the skull of a dead girl with a seventy-foot-long trail of blond hair in the crypt of the Santa Clara convent. He liked to tell the story of how Fidel Castro had once eaten twenty-six scoops of ice cream in his presence. The first time I made contact with him, by telephone, hoping to interview him for a Profile for The New Yorker, in 1999, he answered the telephone himself. When I said my name, the Nobel laureate exclaimed, warmly, “Anderson! Damn it, I’ve been looking all over for you for ages; where have you been hiding yourself?”
That was classic Gabo. We hadn’t yet met, and he’d already turned our encounter into a great story. And, once he had uttered or written one of these gothic pronouncements, however true it was, it was how he remembered it ever after.
When we met a few days later, in the Barcelona office of his literary agent, Carmen Balcells, he eyed me up and down and asked, “How old are you?” I told him, “Forty-two.” Hearing this, he spun around and called out to Balcells’s bevy of middle-aged female assistants, “Do you hear that? Forty-two! Can you imagine being that age again?” Turning back to me, he said, “How wonderful. What I would give to be forty-two again.” That, too, was classic Gabo: warm, embracingly matey, always seeking to shed his celebrity status in order to be at one with you.
In Colombia, President Juan Manuel Santos decreed three official days of mourning for Gabo, and declared him “the best Colombian to have ever lived.” I doubt there are many Colombians who would disgree. Gabo was truly beloved. For a country best known for its violence and drug trafficking, his contribution was cherished, and he was adored by people of every social class, race, and age group. Ever since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1982, many Colombians have referred to Gabo simply as El Nobel. Everyone knows who they are talking about.
Gabo loved to conspirar, as they say in Spanish, which means “to conspire,” but which carries a less malevolent connotation than its English counterpart. One of the main reasons for his affection and long friendship with Fidel Castro had to do with the fact that Fidel, of course, is one of the greatest conspiradores of the modern age. With great relish, Gabo told of his time as a personal intermediary between the Cuban leader and Bill Clinton, in talks aimed at improving relations between the two countries. He was proud to have been so entrusted, but he loved, more than anything else, the whispered confidences, the behind-the-scenes statecraft—the conspiracy of it all.
Once Gabo had decided to share his trust, he did so without filters. We began a series of long conversations for the Profile I eventually wrote, and I questioned him, over and over again, about his lifelong fascination with power and powerful men such as Fidel, both in his life and in his literature. He would draw himself closer in his chair, touch my knee, and say, “Look, O.K., but you have to leave me something for my memoirs, O.K.?” And in this way, of course, he drew me in, as he did with so many others who became his adorers, by making me his co-conspirator.
For all of his achievements, Gabo, who described himself as “the telegraphist’s son from Aracataca,” a poor, backwoods town on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, could never quite believe his good fortune. He was always happy to share it with others. In 2007, I was invited to his eightieth birthday party, in Cartagena. One day, in a private room at a restaurant he liked, Gabo was noticed by a large group of young women who had come in for lunch. They became visibly giddy with excitement, pointing and smiling and waving, and soon, the maître d’ was sent in to ask on their behalf if Gabo would oblige them with a photograph. Gabo immediately agreed and went out, and for about ten minutes he was lost to us as he posed for picture after picture. The women hugged and kissed him, and Gabo preened and beamed like a lad who had won Most Handsome at the county fair.
We had several such meals, together with his wife, Mercedes, who survives him, and several local friends. One evening, we ended up back at his house for a drink. Built next to the old Santa Clara convent, it overlooks the city’s stone ramparts and out to the Caribbean Sea. Soon after we arrived, Gabo beckoned me away from the rest of the group, wearing a conspirator’s smile, as if he wanted to impart a secret.Â He motioned me out onto the terrace. We looked out together; it was a misty night, and a little sand swirled off the beach across the avenue. A lone youth walked. The night air was warm. Gabo nodded toward the youth and said, “I used to walk along there when I was young, and dream about one day owning a house here.” He clapped his hand on my shoulder and, with a delighted expression, said, “And now I do. Can you believe it? I still can’t!”
Ever a peacock, Gabo liked to dress up, and to Mercedes’s affectionate despair he insisted on choosing his own outfits. She called him Trapoloco (Crazy Rags). His evening attire in Cartagena on that visit was a yellow-and-green-checked blazer that, at a guess, had last seen its fashionable days in the mid-seventies; it was the kind of thing one might have seen on a dance floor when “Kung Fu Fighting” was topping the charts. But Gabo loved that jacket, and he felt good in it.
The last time I saw Gabo was last year, at his home in Mexico City. He and Mercedes and I and a friend of hers had lunch together. Typically, Gabo had dressed up for the occasion, in a sober but elegantly tailored three-piece grey suit and his usual ankle boots with Cuban heels. (Gabo was not a tall man.)
We ate and chatted and took a picture together, and then, when it was time for me to go, Gabo insisted on walking me outside to where my taxi was waiting. The driver smiled in awe when he realized whom he was looking at. A gardener working across the street stood up and waved. Gabo smiled and waved at everyone. I embraced him to say goodbye. “Cuando vuelves?When are you coming back?” he asked. I demurred. “May it be soon,” he smiled. It was what Gabo always said.