I had been told he was in Havana but that, because he was sick, he didn’t want to see anyone. I knew where he usually stayed: in a magnificent country house far from the city centre. I called on the phone and Mercedes, his wife, eased my doubts. She said, warmly: “Not at all, that’s to keep the pests away. Come over, ‘Gabo’ will be happy to see you.”
In this column, Ignacio Ramonet, director of the Spanish language edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, writes about the last time he saw Colombian Nobel Literature laureate Gabriel García Márquez, who passed away on Apr. 17.
IPS – I had been told he was in Havana but that, because he was sick, he didn’t want to see anyone. I knew where he usually stayed: in a magnificent country house far from the city centre. I called on the phone and Mercedes, his wife, eased my doubts. She said, warmly: “Not at all, that’s to keep the pests away. Come over, ‘Gabo’ will be happy to see you.”
The next morning, in the humid heat, I climbed a palm tree-lined drive and knocked on the door of the tropical villa.
I knew he was suffering from lymphatic cancer and that he was undergoing exhausting chemotherapy. They said his health was delicate, and there was even talk of a heart-wrenching “farewell letter” to his friends and to life…I was afraid I would encounter a dying man.
Mercedes came to open the door, and to my surprise she said with a smile: “Come in. Gabo’s coming…He’s just finishing his tennis match.”
A little while later, sitting on a white sofa in the dim living room, I watched him come in, certainly looking fit, with his curly hair still wet from the shower, and his thick moustache. He was wearing a yellow guayabera shirt, wide white pants and canvas shoes. A character right out of a Visconti film.
Drinking a glass of ice coffee, he said he felt “like a wild bird that has escaped from its cage. In any case, much younger than I look.” And he added that “with age, I find that the body isn’t made to last as long as we would like to live.”
He then suggested that we “do like the English, who never talk about health problems. It’s impolite.”
A stiff breeze lifted the curtains on the huge windows up high and the living room started to feel like a flying ship. I told him how much I liked the first volume of his autobiography, ’Living to Tell the Tale’. “It’s your best novel,” I said.
He smiled and adjusted his thick-framed glasses. “Without a little imagination it’s impossible to reconstruct my parents’ incredible love story. Or my memories as a baby…Don’t forget that only the imagination is clairvoyant. Sometimes it is truer than the truth. Just think of Kafka or Faulkner, or simply Cervantes.”
In the background the notes of Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony flooded the room, creating an atmosphere at once joyous and dramatic.
I had met Gabriel García Márquez some 40 years earlier, in 1979, in Paris, with my friend Ramón Chao. Gabo, as he was affectionately known, had been invited by UNESCO, and along with Hubert Beuve-Méry, the founder of Le Monde Diplomatique, formed part of a panel chaired by Nobel Peace Prize-winner Sean MacBride, which was charged with producing a report on the north-south imbalance in the global media.
Back then, he had stopped writing novels, as part of a self-imposed ban that was supposed to last as long as General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) was in power in Chile. He had not yet received the Nobel Literature Prize, but he was already immensely famous. The success of One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) had made him the most widely read Spanish-language author since Cervantes.
I remember being surprised at his short stature and struck by his gravity and his serious demeanor. He lived like a recluse, only leaving his room, which had become a kind of cell where he did his work, only to go to UNESCO.
With respect to journalism, his other great passion, he had just published an account of the seizure by a Sandinista commando of the National Palace in Managua, Nicaragua, which had triggered the downfall of dictator Anastasio Somoza. He furnished a wealth of details that gave the impression that he himself took part in the event. I wanted to know how he had managed to do that.
He told me: “I was in Bogotá at the time of the assault. I called General Omar Torrijos, the president of Panama. The commando had just been given refuge in his country and still hadn’t talked to the media. I asked him to tell the guys to be wary of the press, because their words could be distorted. He responded: ‘Come. They’ll only talk to you.” I went and the leaders of the commando – Edén Pastora, Dora María and Hugo Torres – and I shut ourselves in a room in an army garrison.
“We reconstructed the event minute by minute, from the planning stage to the final outcome. We spent the night there. Exhausted, Pastora and Torres fell asleep. Dora María and I continued till dawn. I returned to the hotel to write up the report. Later, I went back to read it to them. They corrected a few technical terms, the names of weapons, the structure of the groups, etc. The report was published less than a week after the assault. It drew the world’s attention to the Sandinista cause.”
I saw Gabo many times after that – in Paris, Havana, Mexico. We had an ongoing disagreement over Hugo Chávez. He didn’t believe in Venezuela’s comandante. I, on the other hand, thought he was the man who was going to usher Latin America into a new historical period. Apart from that, our conversations were always very (too?) serious: the future of the world, the future of Latin America, Cuba…
However, I remember that once I laughed till I cried. I was coming back from Cartagena de Indias, a sumptuous colonial city in Colombia; I had glimpsed his house behind its high walls, and I mentioned it to him. He asked me: “You know how I got that house?” No idea. “Since I was very young, I wanted to live in Cartagena,” he said. “And when I had money, I started looking for a house there. But it was always too expensive. A lawyer friend explained to me: ‘They think you’re a millionaire and they jack up the price. Let me look for one for you.’ A few months later, he finds this house, which at the time was an old print shop, nearly in ruins. He talks to the owner, who was blind, and they agree on a price.
“But the old man sets a condition: he wants to meet the buyer. My friend comes and tells me: ‘We have to go see him, but you mustn’t talk. Otherwise, as soon as he recognises your voice, he’ll triple the price…He’s blind, you’ll be mute.’ The day of the meeting arrives. The blind guy starts asking me questions. I answer in indecipherable grunts….But at one point, I make the mistake of saying ‘yes’ loud and clear. ‘Ah!’ says the old man, ‘I know that voice! You’re Gabriel García Márquez!’ He had figured out who I was.
“He immediately adds ‘We’re going to have to reconsider the price. Everything’s different now.’ My friend tries to negotiate. But the blind guy says again ‘No. It can’t be the same price. No way.’ ‘Ok, how much then?’ we ask him, resigned. The old man thinks for a minute and says ‘Half.’ We didn’t understand a thing…So he explains: ‘You know I have a print shop. What do you think I made a living from up to now? Printing pirate editions of García Márquez’s novels!’”
That fit of laughter still resonated in my memory when, in the house in Havana, I continued my conversation with a Gabo who was much older, although intellectually as quick as ever. I talked about my book of interviews with Fidel Castro. ‘I’m really jealous,’ he said, laughing, ‘you had the luck of spending over 100 hours with him.’
“‘I’m the one who is impatient to read the second part of your memoir,’ I responded. ‘At last you’re going to talk about your meetings with Fidel, who you’ve known much longer. You and he are like two giants in the Hispanic world. If you compare it to France, it would be like Victor Hugo meeting Napoleon…’ He roared with laughter, while smoothing back his bushy eyebrows. ‘You have too much imagination…But I’m going to disappoint you: there will be no second part…I know that many people, friends and adversaries are waiting for ‘my historic verdict’ on Fidel. It’s absurd. I’ve already written what I had to write about him. Fidel is my friend and he always will be. To the grave.”
The sky had gone dark, and the living room, even though it was the middle of the day, was very dim. The conversation was slowing down, and had become less lively. Gabo was gazing out into space, and I wondered: “Could it be possible that he won’t leave any written testimony of so many confidential things shared in friendly complicity with Fidel? Will he have left it for a posthumous publication, when neither of them are in this world anymore?”
Outside, torrential rain was pouring down from the sky with the force of a tropical storm. The music had gone silent. A heavy fragrance of orchids invaded the room. I glanced over at Gabo. He had the tired look of an old Colombian leopard. He was sitting there, silent and meditative, staring at the endless rain, the constant companion through all his solitudes. I slipped out quietly. Without knowing I was seeing him for the last time.
Translated by Stephanie Wildes