Paper presented at the Litteratur Huset, Oslo Norway, on April 14, 2008, during the event García Marquez’s Colombia, organized by Golden Colombia Foundation.
Gabriel García Márquez and Cartagena de Indias:
A Love Story
A Love Story
One of the greatest pleasures literature has to offer is found in the smallest details. After reading several books by the same author, it is possible to feel the emotion of the explorer when some recurrences and subtleties begin to be visible to the faithful eye. Some of them are as visible as Edgar Allan Poe’s purloined letter, hidden in the open.
A question I have asked myself for a while is why did Gabriel García Márquez repeated the word Love (amor) in two of his book tittles: Love in the Time of Cholera, and Of Love and Other Demons.
Writers usually don’t like to be caught in repetition, it is like a minor sin, like a symptom of lack of resources. Today I want to tell you what I have been thinking about this little fact.
García Márquez said that he has three different kinds of lives: his public life, his personal life and his intimate life. We could try to guess what that repetition means for each one of those lives. But it’s fair to restrain ourselves to the public life.
We all are these days in the mood of loving Love in the Time of Cholera. Although the film version has been criticized to death, the book has been resurrected from a short period of oblivion. Two years ago, it was almost impossible to find the book in the United States. But this changed in 2007, a year of many anniversaries: the sixtieth of the publication of García Márquez first short story, the fortieth of the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude, a quarter of century of the Nobel Prize, and García Márquez’s eightieth birthday.
In the middle of the celebrations Love in the Time of Cholera came back to the front, even as a part of the mainstream of the American culture, when it was included in the Oprah Winfrey’s Book of the Month Club: the swiftest road to big sales.
Garcia Marquez’s novel did not need to be part of that club to be popular –but it doesn't resent it. Published in 1985, when its first English edition appeared, in 1988, the book placed itself in the coveted New York Times Best-seller List, and remained there for more than a year.
García Márquez name has been traditionally associated with One Hundred Years of Solitude. The success of that novel is unprecedented in the Hispanic world. A few weeks after being published, in 1967, the saga of the Buendía family had become a best seller and a classic. It has been published in every written language in the world, and has sold more than a hundred million copies (including illegal editions). For the critics, A Hundred Years of Solitude is like the bible of Latin American culture.
But many times García Márquez has said that Love in the Time of Cholera is his best book. Perhaps it is time now lo listen to him.
(Actually it is time to listen to Shakira, singing one of the songs she composed for the film based on Love in the time of cholera. Please pay attention to the locations where the film was made, most of them are located in the Cartagena de Indias)
Love in the Time of Cholera has not been an underestimated novel. The story of a love that survived, against all odds, for more than fifty years, is the favorite of many readers. With this novel García Márquez confirmed once again that commercial success and literary quality sometimes can be found in the same place.
Last year, the story of Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza received a second chance and, perhaps, we are now beginning to see the image that García Márquez will have for posterity.
A Hundred Years of Solitude will continue being a classic and a necessary reading for every one interested in the culture and history of Latin America. With its universal themes, it will keep mirroring all the societies in the world. In that book, García Márquez’s style is the one of a dedicated artist that has mastered his art.
But Love in the Time of cholera is a novel written by someone who knows the human heart.
There are many reasons to explain why Love in the Time of Cholera would be García Márquez’s most important book for the years to come. Its intimate tone is more appealing, than the epic tales, for the loners of this times. Love is, and always will be, an interesting subject, particularly when it is everlasting. But besides of being a love story, Love in the Time of Cholera is an ethical story. It is a book about the word given, about promises and vows, those things we are very afraid of making, or we just make them lightly, because we don’t believe enough in ourselves.
García Márquez was very fond of the success of Love in the Time of Cholera in the United States. Not because of the sales themselves (his books have sold in magic-realistic terms), but because of the meaningful fact of having placed the underdog Hispanic culture in the forefront. For him, leading the Hispanic culture’s conquest of the United States is one of his main responsibilities as a public figure.
In 1994, García Márquez published Of love and Other Demons, a golden age prose poem of 160 pages, inspired by the sweet sufferings of Garcilaso de la Vega and the awe inspiring abysses of Thomas de Aquinas.
Perhaps, after a few decades admiring Love in the Time of Cholera, posterity will discover that the real masterpiece is Of Love and Other Demons. This is a novel written by a wise man that has discovered, after years and years of fidelity to his art, that “poetry is more visible when style is transparent”.
The first thing to be noticed when we consider the two love titled novels is the fact that their setting is inspired by a real place, Cartagena de Indias.
Stealing a sentence by García Márquez, Cartagena de Indias is a city so beautiful that it seems to be a lie.
Cartagena was one of the first cities founded by the Spaniards in the Caribbean Coasts of South America.
A few years earlier, Santa María la Antigua del Darien –the first Spanish settlement in South America- had succumbed to the rigors of the jungle and a decimating pest of modorra (drowsiness), a rare illness whose victims are incapable of being awake and starve to death.
The Spaniards decided to move to the north, and found a group of islands leaning to the continent. The natives called the place Kalamary (the squid) because from the birds perspective it resembled the shape of that animal.
The new city grew fast, and soon it became the center of trade and the seat of the viceroyalty of Nueva Granada.
Its peaceful bay was the ideal refuge for the galeones. The harvest of gold began to fly to Europe and the African slaves began to come to hell.
Merchants arrived, religious people, soldiers of fortune; and each traveler contributed to give to the city its rambunctious appearance.
By the way, that newly born place where diverse worldviews are colliding is the city in which Of Love and Other Demons takes place.
It didn't take long to Spain to perceive the necessity of exercising some control over its most important city in South America.
The inquisition came, military castles and fortified walls sprouted when the news of the prosperity began to be divulged, and the city began to be the objective of pirates and other nations.
Many years before World War I, Cartagena was the stage of another world war.
In 1741 British troops, leaded by Admiral Edward Vernon, besieged the city decided not to fail. Even before the formidable attack, they coined commemorative medals celebrating the acquisition of those lands. But the city, defended by Blas de Lezo, a one legged one handed warrior, resisted for weeks while thirst and an army of mosquitoes were doing their part.
For us, it is possible to see that war from the defeated side. Tobias Smollet, one of those unbounded English writers of the 18th century, like Fielding and Sterne –by the way, many of them inspired by Cervantes in their dare- wrote in Roderick Random his view of the episode:
"(Some) swore that no other cause could be assigned for this undertaking, than that which induced Don Quixote to attack the windmill (…). Such was the economy in some ships, that, rather than be at the trouble of interring the dead, the commanders ordered their men to throw their bodies overboard, many without either ballast or winding-sheet; so that numbers of human carcasses floated in the harbor, until they were devoured by sharks and carrion crows, which afforded no agreeable spectacle to those who survived. At the same time the wet season began, during which a deluge of rains falls from the rising to the setting of the sun, without intermission; and that no sooner ceases, than it begins to thunder and lighten with such continual flashing, that one can see to read a very small print by the illumination. The change of the atmosphere occasioned by this phenomenon, conspired, with the stench that surrounded us, the heat of the climate, our own constitution impoverished by bad provisions, and our despair, to introduce the bilious fever among us, which raged with such violence, that three- fourths of those whom it invaded died in a deplorable manner; the color of their skin being, by the extreme putrefaction of the juices, changed into that of soot (190-1)."
If the coins with the Spaniards on their knees in front of the Admiral Vernon had become accurate, it is possible to imagine that a big part of today’s Spanish America would be an English speaking region.
Cartagena remained a small city, sometimes devastated by attacks, by fires and plagues. The seat of the viceroyalty didn't stay long because the heat and the wet air made it difficult to rule from that place. It was also impossible to keep the archives out of reach from the moth, and Santa Fe de Bogotá became the center of Nueva Granada.
By the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon was in rise, and Cartagena was the first city to utter the word independence. The King Fernando VII was in prison, Napoleon’s brother was ruling Spain, and if it wasn’t for the revolt, a big part of Latin America would be speaking French.
But soon the criollos realized that they weren’t Spaniards anymore, and decided to have the place for their own. Some of them stayed in paradise, surrounded by poor mestizos and people of African descent, while other cities were growing inland.
At the beginning of the 20th century (by the way, that’s a central moment in Love in the Time of Cholera) Cartagena de Indias was in decline. A hundred kilometers to the north, a new city was growing. Barranquilla had the privilege of being settled at the mouth of the Magdalena River, a strategic path of water easily navigable far inside the country, and Cartagena became a city of ghosts and abandoned houses, now and then awaken by the visit of travelers and artists.
That was the city Gabriel García Márquez saw for the first time in April of 1948, a place out of time that seemed created by a delirious God.
García Márquez was 21 years old, and he came to the city running from the violence that devastated Bogotá and other cities, after the assassination of the political leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitan, on April 9th.
He wanted to continue his studies of law at the local University, and the city made an immediate impact on him.
The young writer had published two short stories in the newspaper El Espectador, of Bogotá, and was fascinated by this place where the whole history of humankind seemed to be still alive. He never had seen a place like that before. Entering to that place was like stepping in some imaginary land.
His testimony of that moment is eloquent.
“Me bastó con dar un paso dentro de la muralla para verla en toda su grandeza a la luz malva de las seis de la tarde, y no pude reprimir el sentimiento de haber vuelto a nacer”. (Vivir para contarla, 367)
"It was enough for me to take a step inside the wall to see it in all its grandeur in the mauve light of six in the evening, and I could not repress the feeling of having born again." (306)
Allow me to stop for a moment at this sentence. It is kind of lost in the middle of García Márquez’s last tour de force, his book of memories, Living to tell the tale.
As I mentioned before, he was 21 years old and came to Cartagena running from the violence that besieged the country. His life until that moment can be easily summarized: Born in March 6th, 1927, in Aracataca, another ghost town that had its time of glory when the United Fruit Company took over the place with the banana plantations, García Márquez lived there his first eight years: far from his parents, under the powerful influence of his grandfather, Nicolás, a war veteran, his grandmother Tranquilina, a natural storyteller, and a court of magical aunts that would provide him with a treasure of experiences against all logic and reason.
Then, exile began. After the death of his grandfather, García Márquez went to a boarding school in Barranquilla. His first literary pieces were written at that time. He published several chronicles in the school journal, about trips to the ocean, about parties at the school, and signed them with the name Gabito, the name he always has considered his own.
Barranquilla wasn’t Aracataca, but still it was part of the Caribbean. The real exile began six years later when, at fourteen, Gabito (and allow me to use this name for the rest of the story) was sent to Zipaquirá, a cold, gray, gloomy town lost in the Andes, where people had to deal with clouds when walking by the street.
There are many testimonies of how this change affected Gabito. His own writing mirrors the state of his soul. The lack of color, the lack of warmth, the lack of music and sounds, nurtured stories influenced by Franz Kafka, plenty of death, and stagnation.
After graduating from high school Gabito went to Bogotá, and the setting was almost the same, with the only advantage of having found there more Caribbean friends and writers who encouraged him to follow his inclination to literature. At twenty he published his first short story in El Espectador, and knew for the first time the ironies of the glory, for he didn’t have the money to buy the newspaper.
He was a student at the law school in Bogotá when Gaitán was assassinated and the world around turned apocalyptic. After weeks of fear and uncertainty, his family advised him to go to Cartagena. And that was the moment of rebirth.
It is possible to say that without that experience of exile in the Andes Gabito would have never discovered his own Caribbean culture as he did. He was now ready to live and grow to be the writer we know.
For a period of twenty months Gabito had decisive experiences in Cartagena, most of them associated with his work as a journalist for the liberal newspaper El Universal. His life, at that time, was plenty of first times.
By the end of 1949, after his first and longest stay in Cartagena, Gabito went to Barranquilla, a more worldly city, determined to make a living from his own writing.
But he always returned to Cartagena, and made of that city the center of his personal and public life.
In 1951, Gabito’s parents and a crowd of siblings came to live to Cartagena, and he often returned to the city. But Barranquilla was more attractive for him at that time because that city gave him the feeling of progress in his literary career.
Then Gabito began a long journey to Bogotá -where he worked as a journalist-, to Europe -where he wrote No One Writes to the Colonel-, to Venezuela, to the United States -as a correspondent of the Cuban news agency Prensa Latina-, and finally to México, where he and his wife Mercedes, and his two sons, Rodrigo and Gonzalo, settled down, in 1961.
There were many returns to Cartagena. In 1966 Gabito was part of the mexican delegation to the prestigious Film Festival that takes place in the city. He had written the script for Arturo Ripstein’s film “Tiempo de matar” (Time to kill), and was about to change the history of Latin American literature.
A year later, in September of 1967, right after the first success of One Hundred Years of Solitude he returned to the city being a continental celebrity, and at that time nothing seemed to announce the importance that Cartagena would have in his literary work.
The imaginary town Macondo was his most relevant literary space. But Macondo had disappeared from earth taken by a biblical hurricane and now he was in need of another place.
In my opinion, during his many returns to Cartagena, Gabito began to realize how important that place had been for his life, and became aware of the possibility of setting his new novels in that “old city of viceroys and buccaneers”.
It might sound a little obvious, but it is necessary to point out that the city that appears in The Autumn of the Patriarch, Love in the time of cholera , Of Love and other demons, and some short stories, is not the real Cartagena de Indias. The “city of the viceroys”, the denomination he most uses, is never identified directly as Cartagena, in spite of the similarities and the repetition of some proper names. The city of the viceroys bends itself to the necessities of the stories, sometimes it has a landscape of mountains, sometimes it has cliffs over the ocean, and almost all the time Gabito clarifies in the text that it is not Cartagena.
But it is licit to see Cartagena in those stories. Gabito has said that some of his experiences had taken twenty years or more to appear on his books. Almost twenty years after being born again in Cartagena, “the most beatiful city in the world”, as he describe it in Love in the time of Cholera (la ciudad más bella del mundo”) (El amor, 290), began to have a presence that no other real city has had in his literary work.
At the beginning of the eighties Gabito was back in Cartagena and he seemed decided to stay. But in 1981 he abandoned Colombia after being informed of a plot from the government against him.
In 1982, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize of Literature, Gabito said in an interview that he wanted to build a house in Cartagena, in front of the sea. By that time, it was evident that he had for the city the same “maniatic love” (25) that Juvenal Urbino, one of his characters, had.
It was at that time when Gabito began to write Love in the Time of Cholera. Many of the spaces in the text are easily identifiable with actual places. We can see the big mansions of Manga, la Bahía de las Ánimas (or Bay of the Spirits), the strait of Boca Chica, the portals and buildings of the colonial city and even the sunk galleons filled with gold and skeletons.
But if we follow the texts literally, the only novel in which he mentions Cartagena, for obvious reasons, is The General in his Labirynth, the historical novel about Simon Bolivar. In this book, fiction invades the space of reality, a practice of which Gabito is very fond.
As a curious fact, the arrival of Bolívar to Cartagena, as described in the novel, resembles Gabito’s first impression of the city, in April of 1948. The words used in the novel and in the memories are almos the same.
The texts that have as a setting the city of the viceroys are interconnected in many ways. The characters of the early twenty century novel live in the house where the characters of the seventeenth century novel lived. The dog that bit Sierva María de Todos los Angeles was, apparently, an ancestor of the dog that was biting people hundreds of years later in the novel about Bolívar. In The General in His Labyrinth, el Libertador held in his arms one of the characters of Love in the Time of Cholera, León XII Loayza, when he was a toddler. I could continue giving examples but I don’t want to kill you with the pest of modorra drowsiness.
Let’s go back to the chronology.
By the end of the eighties, Gabito tried to settle down again in Cartagena. And when he finally did it, Cartagena was and has been his city. Many of his family members still live there. He was an active participant in the Film Festival, and thanks to his connections the event had the most prestigious visitors.
Cartagena is everywhere in his books.
Foto Eduardo Herrán.
Probably, the place of the city with the most important role in his novels is the old convent of the Clarisas nuns. In the nineteen forties the place was a hospital, and Gabito went there many times as a reporter. We can see how the place was by reading the prologue to Of Love and Other Demos. The building was abandoned for many years until fifteen years ago, when a luxurious hotel was built there.
Right next to the convent, Gabito finally had the house of his dreams, a fortified castle facing a sea in which chickens and hens fly to the horizon.
In 1995, while living there, Gabito created the Fundación para un Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano, a foundation dedicated to promote excellence in journalism among young writers of Latin America. As a notable fact, the Foundation has its offices in the same street where Gabito has his first job as a journalist in the late forties.
Of Love and other Demons was the last novel in which Cartagena had a central role. After that book he published Noticia de un secuestro and his memories, Living to tell the tale, a book in which he confirmed the importance of those years in Cartagena for his future as a writer.
His most recent novel Memories of my Melancholic Whores might reveal itself as an encrypted confession about his life in Barranquilla in the early fifties.
I have made a recount of Gabito’s relationship with Cartagena de Indias, now we are ready to start the presentation (I’m kidding, we are almost finished). In my opinion, the meaning of the relationship between the writer and the city can be found in a condensed form during the first twenty months he lived in the city, in 1948 and 1949.
In the same way as each one of us is just the child we were, but covered with the dust of time, our experiences of places and people are just a series of layers in whose center lays, trembling and alive, the initial experience.
As an additional curiosity, Gabito –the newly born- spent in jail his first night in the city, in April of 1948. He wasn’t aware of the prohibition of being in the street after nine o’clock. But that first encounter with the city wasn’t bad at all. The policemen took him to eat to the public market before locking him in, and since he hadn’t been able to find a place to stay, prison was a blessing for him.
Many important things were about to happen in his life.
It was in Cartagena where Gabito had for the first time the experience of working in a newspaper. It was at that time when Gabito began to understand the entanglements of politics that we can see reflected, for example, in One hundred Years of Solitude.
At that time, El Universal was under the censorship of the conservative government and Gabito learned how to inoculate political commentaries in the middle of apparently innocent articles. One of his articles talks about the "pugilistic dictatorship" of the boxer Joe Louis, and any awaken reader could have understood the allusion to the regime of that time.
Through this contact between writing and politics, Gabito learned in Cartagena how substantial can be the consequences of the written word in real life. In another occasion, after a massacre in el Carmen, a town near Cartagena, Gabito published a series of articles asking for active efforts of the government to find and punish the people responsible of the crime. The threats began, and Gabito had to stop publishing those articles, learning by the way how writing can be sometimes a matter of life or death.
But perhaps the most curious anecdote, about this learning under the political pressure, refers to an article that I’m glad to mention today here.
And I say this because Norway is involved in the story.
On November 19th, 1949, Gabito wrote a review of John Steinbeck’s novel “The Moon Is Down”, the story of a Norwegian town invaded by a foreign army. Using always the references from the book, Gabito managed to comment about the political violence in Cartagena, the lack of civil liberties, and the abuses of the state.
Apparently, all what he said in that article was about the courageous Norwegian people and the town where the novel takes place.
Another curious thing about this article is that, after reading it, the censor assigned to El Universal said to the editor: “I know that this article is a criticism of the government, but I can’t prove that. Besides, it is so well written that I have to let it be published.”
The only suggestion the censor made was that the article didn’t appear with its author’s name. The review of The Moon is Down was published anonymously and was one of the most important findings I made while writing the book Un ramo de nomeolvides, the story of those years in Gabito’s life.
It was also in Cartagena where Gabito was a celebrity for the first time. In July of 1949 he was the main speaker during the coronation of Elvira Primera, a candidate for a Beauty pageant. Gabito’s words were transmitted by radio stations and then reproduced by the press. But those weren’t his own words. Gabito was reading a speech written by his friend Ramiro de la Espriella, and Dela Espriella would read a speech written by Gabito during the proclamation of another participant in the pageant.
During those days, in an article in which he was calling for temperance, because politics had began to mix with the celebrations, Gabito used by the first time the only pseudonym he has ever used: Septimus, the lord of men, a poor exhausted clerk plenty of eternal visions. The name comes from Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway, and a quick look to the character reveals a big deal about what was going on in Gabito’s mind at that time, about his fears and aspirations as an artist.
"So they returned to the most exalted of mankind; the criminal who faced his judges; the victim exposed on the heights; the fugitive; the drowned sailor; the poet of the immortal ode; the Lord who had gone from life to death; to Septimus Warren Smith, who sat in the arm-chair under the skylight (…)"
And in another passage, Septimus is described as:
"him who was the greatest of mankind, (…) the Lord who had come to renew society, who lay like a coverlet, a snow blanket smitten only by the sun, for ever unwasted, suffering for ever, the scapegoat, the eternal sufferer."
It was also in Cartagena where Gabito wrote his first film reviews and his first journalistic chronicles, and even the first draft of his first novel: Leafstorm. One of his chronicles was published in El Universal , on October 25 of 1949, just a day before the date he mentions in the prologue of Of Love and Other Demons. As in the prologue, the chronicle mentions the exhumation of a body, in this case found by a dog.
And since every time we talk about Gabito, mystery appears, I can’t let the opportunity pass without pointing another rare fact. Right next to the article, there was a crossword puzzle. I always have seen as a sign the fact that the first question of the puzzle asked for the name of a Swedish scientist all we know about.
The list of significant experiences in Cartagena is a long one. It was here where Gabito met legendary figures like the circus director Emilio Razzore and the magician Aben El Kady, who would contribute to shape the character of Melquiades, in One Hundred years of Solitude.
Gabito had his first own business in Cartagena, a very small newspaper, “Comprimido”, which only survived for a few weeks.
He even had the opportunity to live for a time in Cartagena as a bureaucrat. Thanks to family connections he received an official check for doing nothing, as a supposed employee for the census. But that dubious privilege didn’t last either.
And if we keep mentioning the list of first times, we have to say that it was in Cartagena where he signed for the first time a political manifesto, repudiating the deportation from Colombia of a Dominican student, Manuel Lorenzo y Carrasco, who was fighting against Trujillo’s dictatorship.
In Cartagena he lived at night, after finishing his work at the newspaper, he drunk and smoked a lot, among sailors and prostitutes, learning with insatiability about the world he wanted to commit to writing. He soon realized that he didn’t want to be a lawyer and never returned to classes at the university.
And finally, it was in that city where he had decisive encounters with writers such as Clemente Manuel Zabala, his editor, Héctor Rojas Herazo, an explosive poet that would help him to understand the symbols of the Caribbean, and Gustavo Ibarra Merlano, who taught him to read the Greek classics and the poetry of the Spanish Golden Age.
Gabito has been paying his debt with Clemente Manuel Zabala, mentioning now and then how important he was as a mentor. Using a red pencil Zabala took Gabito out of the literary darkness and showed him the possibilities of modern literature.
He has also mentioned hou much he learned Gustavo Ibarra Merlano, who also gave him to read Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables. The relationship between Hawthorne’s novel and One Hundred of solitude hasn’t been interpreted yet, but the influences are notorious.
With Héctor Rojas Herazo things were a little different. When Gabito arrived to El Universal, Rojas was a more mature writer, and a well known painter. In front of Rojas, Gabito felt insufficient, and weak. They both emulated each other, and that situation implies a mixture of love and hatred. But there is nothing reproachable about that friendship colored with rivalry. Any writer has been jealous in some way about some of his contemporaries. Those subtle rivalries are forces that sometimes move an artist to excel in his work.
There is a curious anecdote between Gabito, Rojas Herazo and Gustavo Ibarra. On certain occasion they decided to invent an imaginary writer, the Nicaraguan novelist César Guerra Valdéz. They did a full coverage of the supposed visit of the artist to Cartagena. They even published a polemic interview in which Guerra Valdez criticized the excess of landscape in Latin American literature at that time. The text of the interview appeared in the first page of El Universal and many were convinced that the author really existed. That interview allowed them to express their own ideas about what the role of the new novel should be.
But Gabito’s friends in Cartagena lacked the ambition and practical sense that he found in other places. When he left Cartagena to go to Barranquilla, at the end of 1949, he chose a literary career in which he would be able to see the results of his work during his lifetime. Had he stayed in Cartagena, his literary work probably would have been completely different, less successful, probably open to other dimensions of life, and at the mercy of the uncertain posthumous validation, as is the case of the poetry of Gustavo Ibarra Merlano, and Rojas Herazo’s novels.
But there were other reasons to leave Cartagena at that time. The city still had the secluded colonial atmosphere, with its criollos still dreaming with the return of the viceroys. It was a place where nobility and names were still important. Beyond his small circle of friends, Gabito wasn’t accepted by that society. For them he always was a poor boy from the countryside.
His reaction to prejudice was visible. Gabito used to wear eccentric clothes and to assume irreverent postures. The father of one of his friend used to call him, “Valor Civil”, because, he said, it required a lot of civil courage to wear those dazzling yellows, those electric greens that could make people blind. In truth, at the end of the forties Cartagena looked at him just like a crazy lad, not to be taken seriously, and that was a burden he wasn’t interested in keep carrying.
What we have seen after that, in some sense, is a compensation against the discrimination he suffered at the beginning. Now that he is welcome in any social circle of the city, and even begged to visit them, Gabito seems to have received his payback from that society.
Entering in the field of metaphors, Cartagena de Indias is for Gabito like Fermina Daza, the character of Love in the Time of Cholera. She was for a long time the wife of the most prestigious doctor of the city, but she ended with an underdog that never ceased to worship her and kept, for more than fifty years, his promise of love. As Florentino Ariza, García Márquez “made a fierce decision to win fame and fortune in order to deserve her.” (“tomó la determinación feroz de ganar nombre y fortuna para merecerla”).
The end of this love story took place last year, when Gabriel García Márquez had the most important public act of his life. For his eightieth birthday, and the many anniversaries that took place that year, the Hispanic world paid to him a very emotional homage that included the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude in a commemorative edition that appeared simultaneously in all the countries in the Hispanic world, an honor that only Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote had had before.
The ceremony took place in a convention center built in the place where the public market used to be.
While he was reading an emotive and vacillating discourse, it was possible to discern under the layers of time, the long love story of the writer with Cartagena de Indias. That day, in some sense, the consummation of that love finally occurred, and at the center of that moment it was still happening the first “historic” night Gabito spent in the city, almost fifty years before.
The previous days had been a nightmare. Gabito had left like a fugitive a Bogotá devastated by riots. After descending from the plane in Barranquilla, he had taken an autobus to “La heroica”, “the heroic city”, where he was supposed to meet with some friends.
But his friends weren’t there and he didn’t find a place to spend the night. He had four pesos in his pocket and one cigar. He had been carrying for hours the hunger of a long trip.
The soldiers found him in the ghostly solitude of a park, and before taking him to jail, they stole his cigar and took him to a restaurant in the public market. There they found the few people allowed to be in the streets at that time. A mature couple of “disoriented” cartageneros invited him to eat. In the more nostalgic corner of the city, a cook of “uncomfortable beauty” with a carnation in his ear, who would end as a character in at least three of his books, gave him the first dinner of his new life. In front of the Bay of the Spirits, in that quagmire lost in centuries, at the exact place where years later his immortality would be proclaimed, Gabito soothed his hunger of newly born.
I dare to say that the remote happiness of his first night in Cartagena is still bigger that the many others that life has given to him.
Foto Eduardo Herrán
There are different kinds of love. Affection is the one we have for our families, for people and places with which we find together by chance. Friendship and eros are moved by affinities and desire. But agape is the best of loves, because is the willing love, the one that comes from freedom and choice.
Agape is a good word to name the relationship between Gabito, or Septimus, the poet of the immortal ode, and “la heroica”, the most beautiful city in the world.