Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Telling Part of the Tale: Gabriel García Márquez in La Candelaria

Avenida Jimenez in La Candelaria and the El Espectador building, where Gabriel Garcí Márquez once worked. The building, which now contains offices and a Crepes & Waffles restaurant, is curved one on the far right. 
I just read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's autobiography 'Vivir Para Contarla' ('Living to Tell the Tale'), only nine years after it was published. It's not exactly hot off of the presses...(but then I also recently reread Frank Norris's 'The Octopus,' only a century after it was published.)

Café Pasaje on Plaza El Rosario. Popular tradition holds that
Gabo used to frequent this historic cafe, altho he doesn't
mention it in his autobiography.
Living to Tell the Tale tells a lot about Márquez's formative years and Colombian history. And it also fills in a chapter of Márquez's life which has received little attention but undoubtedly influence him: his life and work in Bogotá's La Candelaria neighborhood.

I have to admit that I'm no great fan of Márquez's fiction, probably due to my own obtuseness. I rarely grasp the point of his inventions - or, maybe, insomnia epidemics, visiting gypsies and other fantasies are simply supposed to be entertaining in themselves. On the other hand, I have enjoyed Márquez's journalism and other non-fiction, which is informative and entertaining.

Márquez is of course a lively storyteller and seems to have a great memory - almost incredibly so - which, combined with his knack for witnessing some of the landmark events in Colombian history, makes this book a great education. And many of those events took place in La Candelaria.


The spot where Gaitan was assassinated in 1948 on Seventh Ave. just south of Jimenez.  Márquez recounts that he arrived on the spot just minutes after the assassination and saw a mysterious man apparently directing events.
A plaque commemorating
students massacred by
Rojas Pinilla's forces.
Márquez writes, for example, that he arrived on the scene just minutes after Jorge Eliecer Gaitan's 1948 assassination in downtown Bogotá, which triggered the bogotazo riots and deepened the political fratricide known as La Violencia. Márquez describes a man on the assassination scene apparently directing events, as tho the whole thing had been planned and choreographed. Márquez writes that six years later, in 1954, he happened upon the scene as dictator Gustavo Rojas Pinilla's forces massacred protesting students just a few blocks north along Seventh Ave. The following year, the dictatorship would briefly shut down both  El Espectador, Marquez's employer, and its competitor El Tiempo.


A streetcar burns on Plaza Bolívar during the bogotazo riots.
Márquez grippingly describes the murderous riots which followed Gaitan's assassination, as well as the killings of La Violencia. The violence forced Márquez to take temporary refuge on Colombia's more peaceful Carribean coast, where he eventually set most of his novels. It's interesting to speculate about what Márquez's fiction might have been like if he'd stayed in Bogotá - or whether he would have become a great writer at all without experiencing the history and magical atmosphere of Cartagena.

Plaza del Periodista (Journalists' Plaza) beside the old El Espectador building. Márquez  likely hung out here. 
As a reporter writing for various newspapers, including Bogotá's El Espectador, Márquez had a privileged viewpoint on the nation's politics and its authoritarian government. I enjoyed reading, for example, about the reporters' efforts to report events despite official censorship.

The view today from the window of the office of Guillermo Cano, El Espectador's director when Marquez worked for the paper.  Cano was assassinated in 1986 by cocaine king Pablo Escobar. 
All the while, Márquez was working on his fiction. From the start, he had a special talent, and editors recognized this. But getting published was still a challenge - encouraging for all of us with ambitions of inventing tales.

I found this old photo of an El Molino candy shop
on Jimenez and Carrera 8.
Might this have also been the location of the
El Molino cafe which Márquez frequented?
And it was heartening to read about a time when writing really mattered; when young intellectuals met in La Candelaria's cafes, got drunk and debated all night about novels and poetry.

Almost all of Márquez's debating companions, however, were also men, as were most of his co-workers and friends. In 'Living to Tell...,' we learn about Marquez's mother and sisters' struggles to keep the family afloat despite his father's philandering and business failings. But almost all of the many other girls and women in Márquez's life were sexual partners, many of them prostitutes. Nothing wrong with a healthy young man's lively interest in sex, but did Marquez really meet women only in bed? For that matter, were all of his lovers, particularly the prostitutes, really the happy, carefree, warm-hearted women he portrays? Or have six intervening decades and a little magical realism in memory erased their troubles?

Fidel Castro and Marquez chumming it up. 
The autobiography also left me more perplexed than ever about the origins of Márquez's political thinking. He's well known to be a socialist, which is one reason why he had to leave Colombia (he's lived for decades in Mexico City) and is close friends with Cuba's long-time dictator Fidel Castro. It's never made sense to me that a novelist and journalist, who even established his own political newsmagazine, Cambio, would support a dictator whose regime permits no free press. Márquez's own accounts of his struggles against government censorship just deepened that contradiction for me.

Of course, Living to Tell the Tale ends with Márquez at 29 and moving to Paris, his politics still nebulous. Most likely the City of Light's leftist intellectuals influenced the young Márquez...but how could the Soviet Bloc's repression of freedoms not have disillusioned him on the false promises of communism?

Maybe he'll give us the the answer in the next installment. Let's hope that he lives to tell more tales.

Related Blog Entry: Searching for Gabo

By Mike Ceaser of Bogotá Bike Tours

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