Gabo and Me

 

For Cristóbal Pera, PhD ’91, reading and editing the work of Gabriel García Márquez was life-altering. Pera, who recently revisited campus for the opening of the García Márquez archive at the Ransom Center, reflects on how the famed novelist known as Gabo shaped his world.

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How could he bring me here again? This is the question that keeps coming back when I consider how reading García Márquez, then meeting him, and then working with him changed the course of my life. Which makes me think about how his works have changed the lives of so many others.

One of the most influential writers of the 20th century, the writer whose most popular book has sold over 50 million copies and is the subject of 9,866 academic papers and almost 7 million entries in Google, was responsible for my decision to come to the University of Texas at Austin to pursue a PhD in Latin American literature in 1987. Other writers I blame for this decision were his dear friend Julio Cortázar and Jorge Luis Borges.

One of the first papers I wrote while a graduate student was about the clash of cultures in One Hundred Years of Solitude. It took me to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where I read it at a student conference. Reading Gabo brought me across the Atlantic and took me to places, as I know other readers have found, to find the echoes of his stories, the people, and the language of his novels.

Reading him was enough for me. But one day, after I traded in my academic career for one in publishing, I got a call from literary agent Carmen Balcells. It was August 2001. Gabo had just finished his memoirs and Carmen needed an editor to work on the manuscript. That day changed my life. Dealing with a memoir and not with a novel helped me focus and devote my editorial work to fact checking. Chapters of the manuscript would arrive by fax or mail every week with Gabo’s handwritten corrections and I would send back a list with suggested revisions. Sometimes we would talk. I remember his joy over the phone after he read my note about Borges not being the translator of The Metamorphosis, as he mentioned when remembering the crucial influence of Kafka in his writing. As a journalist, the fact that he was not going to be caught with the wrong information made all the difference.

My biggest reward was to witness his creative process in real time. One of the main chapters of the memoir was devoted to the bogotazo, the 1948 Bogotá street riots that followed the assassination of Colombian presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. It was a dramatic testimony of the events as told from the streets where Gabo wandered at the time as a young student. But before he handed in the final version of the manuscript, he decided to rewrite the chapter, adding a point of view from the presidential office that transformed the chapter into a multifaceted masterpiece. After the book was in galleys, and before it was sent to print, a last message from Gabo left another trace of his genius: the title should be changed from “Vivir para contarlo” to “Vivir para contarla.” By switching a pronoun from masculine to feminine, with the change of just one letter he was able to shift the allusion from “tale” to one about “life.”

Fate—I don’t think he believed in coincidences—brought me even closer to him a few years later when I arrived in Mexico City as editorial director of Random House Mondadori. Although I had met him and his wife Mercedes in a restaurant in Barcelona with Carmen, I had decided not to intrude on his life. It was again Carmen who sent me a collection of some of his public speeches to prepare a new book and told me that he was waiting for me to call. Working with him side by side on that project, in his studio, in that happy house where he was surrounded by so much love, is the most cherished memory of my career as an editor.

Just as García Márquez recognized how reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis had changed his view of literature, many authors have written about the impact of One Hundred Years of Solitude on their own work. From world-famous authors, like Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan, to obscure ones, like the Uzbeki novelist Hamid Ismailov, they all recognize the influence of Gabo’s works on their own. McEwan went so far as to describe García Márquez’s “extraordinary persuasive powers over whole populations.” The burden of his influence was such in Latin America that a whole generation of young writers felt compelled to officially reject him as a model when they realized that the weight of his works was too imposing.

So I return to the beginning. How could a writer affect the course of so many people’s lives merely with the power of fiction?

I had seen Gabo in his car in Cartagena surrounded by dozens of tourists trying to touch him, yelling through the window about how they traveled there only in the hope of seeing him. I had seen him unable to finish his meal at a restaurant, his fellow customers hurrying to the nearest bookstore to buy his books so that he could sign them with a smile. After his death, Flavia Wagner, an aid worker kidnapped in Sudan, wrote a moving piece in The New York Times about how the only book she was carrying in her backpack at the time of her kidnapping was One Hundred Years of Solitude, and how Gabo’s words, his stories, and his picture on the flap of the book helped her carry on day after day while hostage:

On certain forsaken days, Gabo sat by my side like a benevolent ghost to keep me company, his unfettered imagination inspiring my own wild fantasies. In troubled times he popped right off the page like a genie, his jovial face and words of encouragement cheering me on. In the midst of my greatest suffering, he wrapped his arms around me, pressing me protectively to his heart. Gabo’s presence was earthly impossible, I knew, and yet I swore that if I reached out I would feel the soft folds of his grandfatherly face that I knew so well.

In the last year of García Márquez’s life, a Polish woman stood guard outside his house in Mexico City holding fresh yellow roses every day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. for many months. Sometimes she would knock at the door and hand them in, saying, “I bring flowers for him.” When he traveled for a couple of months to Cartagena, she followed him and did the same at the door of his house in the old city. What would drive an apparently deranged woman to act like this after reading a book?

And so, he has brought me back here, to UT, my alma mater—where I became a professional reader and where I met my wife and began a new life—to celebrate the opening of his archive at the Harry Ransom Center. I hope that other readers will now experience the thrill of witnessing the creative process of a genius, a very human one, when they examine what he has left behind in his manuscripts and notes—the trail of his works, of his life, in our own.

Photo via Muldar News on Flickr

 

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