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Journey Back To The Source Essay

TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: The following interview was conducted in 1977 for publication in El Manifiesto—a now-defunct Colombian leftist journal. Chatting with the magazine’s staff writers, García Márquez opens up remarkably and bares his most nostalgic and personal side, even swearing on occasion. (The author can be surprisingly, spontaneously foul-mouthed when in the right company.) And he’s unusually frank about his spotty education, his days of poverty, his youthful days residing in brothels, and his having been accidentally cured of boils by putting No One Writes to the Colonel to paper. Naturally the conversation brims with Hispanic references: the Romancero (Spain’s medieval ballad tradition), the vallenato (a native music genre from Valledupar, consisting of narrative songs with accompanying accordion, percussion, and bass), Rafael Escalona (the most celebrated writer and singer of vallenatos), Caribbean crooners such as Daniel Santos, and the Colombian literary classic El carnero (literally “The Ram”—a fanciful mock-chronicle from the Colonial era). He reflects on the decisive impact that Kafka had on his development, and admits to how much he needed to work at not being like Faulkner when he drafted Leaf Storm. Finally, he notes the colloquial, Caribbean flavor of The Autumn of the Patriarch—a trait much valued and savored by Hispanic readers of that book. The interview appears here for the first time in English and will be included in my edition of Conversations with Gabriel García Márquez, forthcoming from the University Press of Mississippi in December 2005. — Gene H. Bell-Villada

Among critics there is a generally accepted notion that you’re lacking in literary background, that you write only from your personal experiences, your imagination. What can you tell us in that regard?
(García Márquez’s eyes light up. As if we had pushed a hidden button, the character—who inevitably brings to mind the figure of Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek—manifests himself in a torrent of laughs, gestures, shouts. The magic word has been uttered. We’ve touched on his Achilles’s heel: literature.)

Yes. With my joshing I’ve probably contributed toward the idea that I lack literary education, that I write only from personal experiences, that my sources are Faulkner, Hemingway, and other foreign writers. Little is known about my knowledge of Colombian literature. No doubt, my influences, especially in Colombia, are extra-literary. More than any book, I think what opened my eyes was music, vallenato songs. I’m talking about many years ago, at least thirty years ago, when vallenato music was hardly known outside a corner of the Magdalena valley. What called my attention most of all was the form the songs used, the way they told a fact, a story … All quite naturally. Then, when vallenato was commercialized, what mattered more was the feeling, the rhythm … Those vallenato songs narrated as my grandmother used to, I remember… . Later, when I started studying the Spanish ballads of the Romancero, I found that it was the same esthetic, and found it all once again in the Romancero.

Couldn’t we talk about music?
Yes, but afterwards, and not for the record … No, it’s not that I can’t talk about music. But I get caught up in a tangle that doesn’t end. It’s … something very intimate, even more of a secret when the people whom you’re talking to know about music … For me, music is anything that makes sound. And I change a lot … Bartok, for instance, who’s an author I really like, is hell to listen to in the mornings. One gets more easily into Mozart in the morning. But afterwards, I’m calm … I’ve got all of Daniel Santos, Miguelito Valdés, Julio Jaramillo and all of the singers who’re so discredited among intellectuals. You see, I don’t make distinctions, I recognize that everything has its value. The only thing where I’m all-embracing is in musical matters. Somehow I listen to no less than two hours of music a day. It’s the only thing that relaxes me, puts me in the right mood … And I go through all kinds of phases.

Home is where your books are, they say, but for me it’s where my recordings are. I’ve got more than five thousand of them.

Which of you guys listens to music? You know, as a habit? You do? For how long? How far can you go? For example, have you gotten to the Orquesta Casino de la Playa? Is Miguelito Valdés and the Casino de la Playa a reference for you?

Yes, of course. And, starting out there with the boleros?

Yes. Daniel Santos from 1940.
With the Cuarteto Flórez?

Yeah! … The Farewell, at the Serranía …
That’s the origin of salsa, the Casino de la Playa Orchestra. The pianist was Sacasas, who was most famous for his solos called montunos. It’s a quarrel I’ve had with the Cubans, an old fight, especially with Armando Hart … Hey! … Is that thing [the tape recorder] running?

Yeah … It’s running.
Turn it off!

My literary background was basically in poetry, but bad poetry, since only through bad poetry can you get to good poetry. I started out with that stuff called popular verse, the kind that was published in almanacs or on loose sheets of paper. Some of them were influenced by Julio Flórez. When I got to high school I started out with the poetry that appeared in grammar books. I realized that what I most liked was poetry and what I most hated was Spanish class, grammar. What I liked was the examples. There were mostly examples from the Spanish Romantics, which were probably the closest thing to Julio Flórez– Nuñez de Arce, Espronceda. Then, the Spanish classics. But the revelation comes when you really get into Colombian poetry: –Domínguez Camargo. At that time the first thing you learned was World Literature. It was terrible! There was no access to the books. The professors said that they were good because of this or that. Much later I read them and thought them incredible. I’m referring to the classics.

But they were incredible not because of what the professor said, but because of what went on: Ulysses tied to the mast so he won’t succumb to the sirens’ song … All that stuff that happens. Afterwards, we’d study Spanish literature, and Colombian literature only in the last year of high school. So when I made it to that class I knew more than the professor did. It was in Zipaquirá. I had nothing to do and, to avoid getting bored I’d hole up at the school library, where they had the Aldeana collection. I read the whole thing! … From volume one to the last! I read El carnero, memoirs, reminiscences … I read it all! Of course, when I reached my last year in secondary school, I knew more than the teacher did. That’s where I realized that Rafael Núñez was the worst poet in the country … The National Anthem! … Can you imagine that the lyrics to the National Anthem were chosen because they were a great poem by Núñez? That it was first chosen as an anthem you might accept, but what prompts horror is that it was chosen as Anthem because it was poetry.

As far as literature was concerned, the Caribbean coast didn’t exist. When literature gets separated from life and seals itself off in closed circles, then a gap appears and it’s filled by the provincials … They save literature when it’s become rhetoric.

At age twenty I already had a literary background that was enough for me to write everything I’ve written … I don’t know how I discovered the novel. I thought that what interested me was poetry … I don’t know … I can’t remember when it was I realized that the novel was what I needed to express myself … You guys can’t imagine what it meant for a scholarship kid from the Coast enrolled at the Liceo de Zipaquirá to have access to books .. Probably Kafka’s The Metamorphosis” was a revelation … It was in 1947 … I was nineteen … I was doing my first year of law school … I remember the opening sentences, it reads exactly thus: “As Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” … Holy shit! When I read that I said to myself, “This isn’t right! … Nobody had told me this could be done! … Because it really can be done! … So then I can! … Holy shit! … That’s how my grandmother told stories … The wildest things, in the most natural way.”

And next day I set out, just like that, next day at eight o’clock in the morning, to try to find out what the hell had been done in the novel from the beginnings of humanity up to myself. So I latched onto the novel in rigorous order, let’s say from the Bible up to what was being written at that time. Beginning then, for six years, I didn’t do literature by myself, I stopped studying and dropped out of everything. I started writing a series of stories that were completely intellectual. They were my first stories, published in El Espectador. The chief problem I had when I began writing those stories was that of other writers: what to write about.

But after the April 9 riots in Bogotá, when I had nothing left except the clothes on my back, I left for the Coast and started work there, at a newspaper. And then the subjects started to invade me. I started encountering an entire reality I’d left behind, on the Coast, which I couldn’t interpret because of a lack of literary grounding. That was the first invasion, to such an extent that I’d write as if in a fever.

I’ve a great deal of affection for Leaf Storm. Even lots of compassion for that guy who wrote it. I can see him perfectly. A 22- or 23-year-old kid who feels he’s not going to write anything else in life, feels it’s his only chance, and he tries to throw in everything he remembers, everything he’s learned about literary technique and sophistication from every author he’s seen. At that time I was catching up, I was into the English and North American novelists. And when the critics start finding my influences in Faulkner and Hemingway, what they find—it’s not that they’re not right, but in some other way—is that when I’m confronted with that whole reality on the Coast, and I start connecting with my experiences literarily … the best way to tell it, I realize, isn’t Kafka’s … I realize the method is precisely that of the American novelists. What I find in Faulkner is that he’s interpreting and expressing a reality that looks a lot like Aracataca’s, like the banana zone’s. What they give me is the instrument …

When I re-examine Leaf Storm, I find exactly the readings that went into that work … I mean just like that! … It’s when I leave behind all those intellectual stories, when I realize that it was in my hands, in everyday life, in the brothels, the towns, the music … Precisely, I rediscover the vallenato songs. That’s when I met Escalona, you know. We started working together, we took one hell of a trip through La Guajira, where there were experiences I can now rediscover with the utmost naturalness. There’s a journey by Eréndira that is the journey I took through La Guajira with Escalona … There’s not a single line in any of my books that I can’t tell you which experience from reality it corresponds to. Always, there’s a reference to a concrete reality. Not a single book! And someday, with more time, we could verify that, we could start playing this game, to wit: this corresponds to such-and-such, that to another, and I can remember the day and all, exactly …

It would be interesting to do that with The Autumn of the Patriarch.
Autumn … is the one I can most do it with, because as a book it’s completely coded.

Getting back to the matter of your influences, what did the “Barranquilla Group” mean for your literary education?
It was the most important aspect because, while I’d been here in Bogotá, I studied literature in an abstract way, through books. There was no correspondence between what I was reading and what was out on the street. The minute I’d go down to the corner for a cup of coffee, I’d find a world that was completely different. When I was forced to leave for the Coast by the circumstances of April 9, it was a total discovery: that there could be a correspondence between what I was reading and what I was living and had always lived. For me, the most important thing about the “Barranquilla Group” is that I had all sorts of books available. Because Alfonso Fuenmayor, Alvaro Cepeda, and Germán Vargas were there, and they were voracious readers. They had all the books. We’d get drunk until sunrise talking about literature, and one night there might be ten books I didn’t know, but next day I had them. Germán would bring me two, Alfonso, three … The old man Ramón Vinyes would let us get involved in all sorts of reading adventures; but he wouldn’t let go of the classic anchor-line, the old guy. He’d say: “Fine, you guys might read Faulkner, the English, Russian, or French novelists, but remember—always with ties to this.” And he wouldn’t let you do without Homer, without the Romans, he wouldn’t let us run wild. What was amazing was that those drinking binges we’d get into corresponded exactly to what I was reading. There was no gap there. So I began to live and I’d realize just what I was living, that it had literary value and how to express it. And so you find in Leaf Storm that I had the impression that I wouldn’t have enough time, that I needed to throw everything in there, and it’s a baroque novel and all complicated and all screwed up … I was trying to do something that I’ll later do much more serenely in The Autumn of the Patriarch. If you pay attention, the structure of Patriarch is exactly the same as that of Leaf Storm; they’re points of view organized around a dead man’s body. In Leaf Storm it’s more systematized because I’m 22 or 23 years old and don’t dare fly solo. So I adopt a little the method of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Faulkner, in fact, of course, he assigns names to the monologues. So I, simply so as not to do the same thing, I tell it from three viewpoints that are easily identifiable because they’re an old man, a boy, and a woman. In Autumn of the Patriarch I’m cracking up with laughter throughout, at the time I can do whatever I want. I don’t care who’s talking and who isn’t talking, I care about expressing the reality that’s there. But it’s not gratuitous, let me say. It’s not by chance that at bottom I keep trying to write the same first book. It shows clearly in Patriarch how one goes back to the structure, and not just the structure but the same drama.

And that’s it. It was amazing because I was living the same literature that I was trying to create. They were fantastic years because, you see … There’s one thing that the Europeans especially hold against me—namely, that I don’t manage to theorize about anything I’ve written, because every time they ask a question I’ve got to answer them with an anecdote or with a fact that fits reality. It’s the only thing that allows me to support what’s written and what they’re asking me about ..

I remember that I was working at El Heraldo. I’d write a piece and they’d pay me three pesos for it, and maybe an editorial for another three. The fact is I didn’t live anywhere, but right near the newspaper there were some hotels for transients. There were prostitutes around the place. They’d go to some little hotels that were right above the notary offices. The notaries were downstairs, the hotels upstairs. For a peso and fifty cents they’d let someone in and that gave you admission for 24 hours. And then I started making the greatest discoveries: hotels for one peso fifty that were unknown! It was impossible. The only thing I needed to do was take care of the drafts in progress of Leaf Storm. I’d carry them in a leather bag, I’d tote them everywhere, under my arm … I’d arrive every night and pay a peso fifty, and the guy would give me the key. And I should mention that the doorman was a little old guy and I know where he is now. I’d arrive every afternoon, every night, and pay him the peso fifty.

Of course, after two weeks it became mechanical. He’d grab the key, always to the same room, I’d give him the peso fifty … One night I didn’t have the peso fifty … I arrived and said to him, “Look, you see this here? They’re some papers, it’s what most important to me and it’s worth much more than a peso fifty. I’ll leave them with you and tomorrow I’ll pay.” It became almost routine, when I had the peso fifty, I’d pay, when I didn’t, I’d go in … “Hello, good evening!” and “Splat!” … I’d put the folder on his desk and he’d give me the key. I spent more than a year that way. What used to surprise that guy was that once in a while the governor’s chauffeur would come for me because, since I was a reporter he’d have the car pick me up. And the old guy didn’t understand anything about what was going on!

I lived there, and of course, when I’d get up next day, the only other people still around were the prostitutes. We were good friends, and we’d make breakfasts that I’ll never forget. They’d lend me soap. I remember that I’d always run out of soap and they’d lend it to me .. And that’s where I finished writing Leaf Storm.

The problem with all that stuff about the “Barranquilla Group is … well, I’ve said a lot about it, and it always comes out wrong; I can’t manage to get it right! For me it was a time when I was completely dazzled, it’s truly a discovery … Not of literature, but of literature being applied to real life, which ultimately is the big problem of literature. Of a literature that truly matters, applied to a reality.

I was so much aware of what I was doing that I realized I had to take off and travel down the Magdalena River as far as Riohacha, as far as the Guajira peninsula. It was a route precisely the opposite of the one traveled by my family, because they were from Riohacha, and from La Guajira they’d moved to the banana country … It was like their return trip, … like their journey back to the source. What I’d gotten into my head was to do that return journey because in it I kept finding other points of reference, all the things that spoke to me about my grandparents. It was a world that had been nebulous to me, and when I’d arrive in the towns—Valledupar, La Paz—I’d find, this is what they used talk about, that’s why they used to tell me about this …

My grandfather had killed a man, and I remember the screwiest thing happening … I was in Valledupar, and suddenly a tall guy, really tall, with a cowboy hat, introduced himself to me. And he said, “Are you Márquez?” I said, “Yeah!” Then … he … stares at me like this, … and says to me, “Your grandpa killed my grandpa!” And I shit my pants! I looked him and didn’t know what to say … He ordered … I’d sort of settled in, leaning against the wall … and he started telling me. His name was José Prudencio Aguilar! And I’ll say no more.

It was all like that. Do you know how I financed that whole trip lasting over a year, when I was roaming this way and that through the entire region? Ultimately it was on that journey that I found all the roots for One Hundred Years of Solitude and everything else. I was selling encyclopedias! I sold the Enciclopedia Utea. It has medical books. Books for everything!

When I left La Guajira I moved to El Espectador. What I want to say is that when I did the move, I didn’t need to read any more or do anymore to write everything I’ve written. My education was complete. Since then I’ve had another kind of development, ideological, if you will … which is another matter, a way of digging deep into the interpretation of all that stuff. But I was completely formed. And I arrived in Paris, arrived in Europe, was in Europe … Holy shit! I wrote No One Writes to the Colonel in a Paris hotel. And that thing has all the smells, the tastes, the temperature, the heat, everything. It was written during winter, with shitloads of snow outside and cold inside and me wearing my overcoat, and that book has the heat of Aracataca. ‘Cause if I didn’t succeed in making it hot in the book I felt it wasn’t right. .. . It was lots of work!”

And what about your experience as journalist, as regards your literary education? What can you tell us about it? As an example, the series “La Marquesita de la Sierpe” (The Little Marchioness of La Sierpe) stands out. It’s a report on a region of the country that looks completely unreal.
Well, it is unreal, in the sense that it’s not verified, they’re not proven events. They’re told as if they were verified. They’re things I told with utter naturalness. Don’t know if I explain … That is … I know La Sierpe, I was in La Sierpe, but of course I didn’t see the “gold gourd” or the “white crocodile” or any of those things. But it was a reality that lived inside the consciousness of the people. The way they told it you felt no doubt that that’s how it was. In a certain way it’s the method of One Hundred Years of Solitude.. And then you can’t be a writer without having tricks. What’s important is the legitimacy of those tricks, up to what point they’re used and to what degree.

I remember perfectly when I was in Mexico, writing, describing Remedios the Beauty’s ascent to heaven. It was one of those paragraphs. I was aware, first, that without poetry she couldn’t rise. I’d say: she’s got to rise to poetry—and yet, with poetry and all she wouldn’t rise either. I was getting desperate because it was a reality within the book. I couldn’t dispense with it because it was a reality within the guidelines I’d imposed on myself. Because arbitrariness has rigid laws. And once I impose them on myself I can’t break them. I can’t say the rook moves this way and then, when it suits me, make it move another way. If I established how the rook and the knight move, I was screwed! … Because whatever I may do they’ve got to continue that way. Otherwise, it all turns into a holy mess. Within the reality of the book, Remedios the Beauty rose to heaven, but she wouldn’t rise even with poetry. I remember being desperate one day, ‘cause I was all caught up and stuck in it. I went out to the patio, where there was a big and beautiful black woman who did the housework, who was trying to hang the sheets with one of those clothes pins … And there was wind … And so if she hung the sheet this side, the wind blew it off that side … And she was completely crazy with those sheets … until she couldn’t take it any more and Aaaaahhhh! Aaaahhhh! … She cried out desperately! … Wrapped up in the sheets! … And up she went … And that’s how it was with everything.

“Then he went to the chestnut tree, thinking about the circus, and while he urinated he tried to keep on thinking about the circus, but he could no longer find the memory. He pulled his head in between his shoulders like a baby chick and remained motionless with his forehead against the trunk of the chestnut tree … ” [from One Hundred Years of Solitude]
The episode was foreordained, from before I had One Hundred Years of Solitude. I always knew there was a character, an old general from the civil war. who died urinating under a tree. That’s what I knew. I didn’t know how or which way it was going to work out. That’s how the personality of Colonel Buendía took shape.

There was a moment in One Hundred Years of Solitude when I thought Colonel Aureliano Buendía would seize power. And that would’ve been the dictator of The Autumn of the Patriarch. But it would’ve completely messed up the book’s structure, making it into something else. Besides, within the trajectory of the character and the reality of the book, what really mattered to me was for him to sell the war, sell it … from … an ideological point of view, if you will. The guy doesn’t dare keep fighting for power except because of some stuff from the Liberals, who’d shit their pants in all the last century’s civil wars in this country.

And I’d keep writing the book, and suddenly I’d remember that in the middle of all those things there was a problem waiting: Colonel Buendía and his little gold fishes. And I didn’t know when I’d have to kill him. I was afraid of that moment. Probably one of the toughest times I’ve had in my life was when I wrote the death of Colonel Aureliano Buendía. I remember perfectly … One day I said, “Today’s when he gets it!” … I’ve always wanted to write a story that would describe, minutely, a person’s every moment in an ordinary day, until he dies. I tried to give that literary solution to the death of Colonel Aureliano Buendía, but I found that if I took that path, the book would change on me. So I threw out that possibility, and I started spinning the deal of the Colonel in my mind, until … (He pounds the table.)

(Gabo turns silent. He looks at his hands and slowly, very slowly, starts speaking.)

I went up. In one of the rooms upstairs Mercedes was taking a nap … I lay down at her side and said to her, “He’s dead!” … And I cried for two hours.

But there’s something that’s more curious about the Colonel. For five years I had boils. Do you know what boils are? Nothing would cure them. I was given all kinds of treatments. At a New York hospital they removed them, they drew blood on one side and gave me shots on another, all sorts of stuff. And never during five years could anything be done about it. The boils would be gone and then I’d get them again. Well, when I was writing One Hundred Years of Solitude, I got it into my head about Colonel Aureliano Buendía, a character I detested and have always detested, because the bastard could have seized power if he’d wanted to, and he didn’t out of sheer pride. So I said, Well, what disease could I give this s.o.b. that’ll bug him without killing him? … So I gave him boils. You know, from the moment when Colonel Aureliano Buendía got stuck with sores, I got cured of them. This was ten years ago, and I’ve never gotten them again.

The other case is Úrsula’s. In my initial plans, Úrsula had to die before the civil wars. Besides, within a strict chronology, by then she was getting to be a century old. If she died then, though, the book would fall apart. So I realized I had to hold on to her until a time when the book did fall apart but it wouldn’t matter because inertia would carry it to the end. That’s why she had to keep at it up to hell’s end. You know, I didn’t dare take Úrsula out of the picture. I had to shuffle her around, do everything possible to follow her to wherever she might go.

You did with the sores the same thing that Dostoevsky did with epilepsy.
Yeah, but he didn’t get cured. Isn’t it true that one of the most unforgettable scenes in world literature is when Smerdyakov falls down the steps? Besides, we never find out if it’s true or not, or if it was a real attack or just make-believe. It’s unforgettable.

Since we’re talking about characters, there’s something that makes me uneasy. In general your works typically have clearly defined characters that seem to fill every work, yet where the common people seem diluted, filling the work but on a secondary level, like extras.
Yes, the masses would need their writer, a writer who would create their characters. I’m a petit bourgeois writer, and my point of view has always been petit bourgeois. That’s my level, my perspective, even though my attitude of solidarity might differ. But I don’t know that point of view. I write from my own, from the window where I happen to be. About the masses I don’t know more than what I’ve said and written. I probably know more, but it’s purely theoretical. This point of view is absolutely sincere. And at no time have I tried to force things. There’s a sentence I’ve said and which even bugged my dad, he thought it a put-down. “What am I, ultimately? I’m the son of the telegraph operator of Aracataca.” And what my dad thought so pejorative, to me, by contrast, seems almost elitist within that society. ‘Cause the telegraph operator thought of himself as the chief intellectual of the town. Usually they were failed students, guys who dropped out of their studies and ended up doing that. In Aracataca, a town filled with peons.

But you’re insatiable. I’ve been talking about literature like I haven’t, oh, in years. And besides, I’m very shy when talking literature.

Yes, well, the thing is, there’s still The Autumn of the Patriarch. Sometimes it’s said you’re making a clean slate of your previous work.
Yes, it’s what I’ve said.

You also said in a report that it was your autobiography, secretly coded. In this regard it looks as if writing becomes more complex, less accessible to the mass public.
But over time it’ll make it to the mass public. The Autumn of the Patriarch is just sitting around waiting for people to catch up with it. You see, I think readers who’re caught unawares, who lack literary knowledge, can read Patriarch more readily than readers with literary backgrounds. I’ve seen it in Cuba, where the book exists out there on the streets. Uninformed readers aren’t put off, they’re put off less. The Autumn … is a completely straightforward novel, absolutely elementary, where the only thing I’ve done is break certain grammatical rules for the sake of brevity and concision, that is, in order to rework the matter of time. In a certain way, so that it won’t become something infinite. I don’t see anything odd about it. Besides, there are lots of works like that in the history of literature. I don’t see where the difficulty is.

But the impression one gets is of greater complexity. It seems like a book for the initiated.
In the structure, yes, it is. But its language is the most colloquial and popular of my novels. It’s more coded in the sense that it’s more restricted. It’s more of the people, for taxi drivers in Barranquilla, it’s closer to speech than to literary language. It’s filled with little phrases from songs, all sorts of proverbial expressions, tunes from the Caribbean.

So the difficulty derives from the fact that most readers who haven’t lived that experience lack those same references.
No, if that’s the case, then the book is wrong, because it should be accessible even if the reader lacks that information. If they need that previous information, then the book is wrong. I don’t feel that those who know the codes have easier access to it. Maybe they’ll enjoy it more. I think the book is intelligible even without the large number of quotes from Rubén Darío that are inside it, all over the place, because the whole book is written in Rubén Darío. If you need lots of information to read the book, then it’s wrong. But I don’t believe you do need it.

I think of it more as a poem than a novel. It’s elaborated more as a poem than as a novel. I could’ve written it without reading a single book, but not without having heard all the music I’ve listened to. That’s what made the critical curve of music while I wrote it. And for an absolutely basic reason: for the first time since One Hundred Years of Solitude I can buy all the records I want. Before, I had to listen to borrowed music. What’s more complex about Patriarch is the aesthetic. It’s not a new aesthetic, it’s much more complex.

I’ve worked on it more than if it were a poem. It’s a luxury that a writer who’s written One Hundred Years of Solitude can afford, who says, Well, now I’m going to write the book I want. I can play with it, make something, confess lots of things. You see, the solitude of power is a lot like the solitude of a writer.

It’s not that the book is coded, what’s coded is the events that serve as its foundation, just as some of the events in One Hundred Years of Solitude are. The rest is experiences I’ve had. When my mother reads the book she’s wonderful, because she goes through it saying, “This is such-and-such, this is that, that’s my buddy, the one people said was queer but really wasn’t.”

I think the problem with reading Patriarch is chiefly intellectual. You critics are the ones who don’t get it, because you’re looking for what’s there, and there’s nothing. It’s the most coastal of my books, the one most restricted to the Caribbean in a sectarian way, the one that’s most saying, Shit! Why do you guys have us all fucked up? This is a completely different country, another culture. It’s from a desire to draw from a bunch of things, that one gets the impression they don’t understand. And so, that brothel where I used to live was brimful of stuff from the Caribbean. And that port tavern where we’d go for breakfast when the paper came out, at four in the morning, where amazing fights and messes would break out. And the schooners that took off for Aruba, for Curaçao, loaded with whores … I don’t know, that left and came back with contraband … And Cartagena on Saturday afternoons, with the students, all that stuff. You see, I know the Caribbean, island by island, like that, island-by-island-by-island. And it can be synthesized in a single street, like the one that appears in The Autumn, which is the main street in Panama, in la Guaira. But above all it’s the business street in Panama City, filled with hawkers.

There’s an effort at trying to seize all that and synthesize it somehow. Maybe it didn’t come out right. The Autumn is the twelve links you get on a stroll through the central avenue in Panama, or on an afternoon in Cartagena, that whole shit-pile of the Caribbean. Because it’s a goddamned shit-pile, including Cuba today, what it is, what Havana was … I think there’s a poetical effort at trying to come out at the other end. I could’ve kept writing One Hundred Years of Solitude, the sequel, II, III, IV, like The Godfather. But it couldn’t be. If I wanted to go on writing I needed to see what the hell I could do—something that doesn’t worry me as much since Patriarch.

If I write stories again, the model now is Somerset Maugham. They’re quiet, autumnal stories, by a man who’s telling a series of things he lived and saw, in a form that’s … let’s not say “classical” because definitions screw everything up, let’s say “academic, formal.” ‘Cause Maugham wrote very good stories. Probably the best ones I know have a certain tone, they make no noise. They’re a good model for writing stories … So! … What else shall we say about The Autumn?

Which ones in the book are your personal experiences?
That’s harder to say. They’re all dissolved. Some day we could sit down and read a fragment and talk about it …

About Rubén Darío, for instance.
Yeah, well, Rubén Darío is the poet of the era, that is, the era of the book. You know, it’s said, the difficulties that all the translators have had with him. He hasn’t been translated as he should, as a great poet. He’s not known anywhere. And there are other problems that put the translators into a fucking mess. The translators of The Autumn of the Patriarch are going completely crazy. For example, they’ll ask, “What does ‘la manta de la bandera’ mean?’ [Literally “the blanket of the flag.” Ed.] And on the coast, I don’t know about here, “manta” means the cigarette paper that’s sold for rolling a marihuana joint. But at one time it came with the American flag. On the coast, it’s very simple. Whoever sees the phrase “manta de bandera” knows right off that it’s the paper with the U.S. flag for smoking pot. You can imagine the footnote that the translator has to put in order to explain “la manta de bandera.” What’s needed is to forget the antecedents’ connotations and find a formula.

There’s yet another wonderful item: it’s the “salchichón de hoyito.” [Literally “sausage with a little hole.”—Ed.] That’s a phrase totally for cab drivers in Barranquilla.

And what is it?
It’s a sausage that has a little hole on the tip. In Spain they say “la polla,” in other countries they say “la pinga” … But what the Barranquilla drivers say is “the sausage with a little hole.” So, every translator asks, “What does ‘sausage with a little hole’ mean?” What’s hermetic, then, isn’t the whole book, but all that stuff, right? The Caribbean stuff. For instance, in Cuba they don’t know what “salchichón de hoyito” is, but when a Cuban reads it, when a Dominican or a Puerto Rican reads it, they know immediately what it is. They figure it out because they know the mechanisms, the contexts, they know how you get there.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Gabriel García Márquez, a revered writer and Nobel Laureate in Literature, began to tell the story of his life in 2003 in Living to Tell the Tale (Knopf). His latest novel, Memories of My Melancholy Whores, will be published in an English edition translated by Edith Grossman in fall 2005 and a collection of interviews, edited by Gene H. Bell-Villada, will appear from the University Press of Mississippi in late 2005.

Gene H. Bell-Villada

Gene H. Bell-Villada is a leading expert on the work of Gabriel García Márquez. His work on the great Latin American author includes García Márquez: The Man and His Work (North Carolina, 1990), Gabriel García Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude: A Casebook (Oxford, 2001), and Conversations with Gabriel García Márquez (Mississippi, 2005). Bell-Villada’s other books include Art for Art’s Sake & Literary Life: How Politics and Markets Helped Shape the Ideology & Culture of Aestheticism 1790–1990 (Nebraska, 1996), a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, and his memoir Overseas American: Growing Up Gringo in the Tropics (Mississippi, 2005).

tutorial, comment, study resources, plot, and web links

Journey Back to the Source (Viaje al semilla) was written in 1944, but first published in 1963 in Havana, Cuba as part of the collection entitled The War of TimeGuerra del tiempo (1963). This was a group of stories all told in radically different styles, first published in English by Victor Gollancz in 1970 and translated from the original Spanish by the Bloomsbury Group diarist Frances Partridge.

Journey Back to the Source – critical commentary

The principal conceit of this tale is that it is a narrative in which time goes backwards. The main story starts with the death of Don Marcial and finishes with his birth. With one or two minor exceptions, Carpentier delivers this chronological illusion very successfully. Candles don’t burn, but regain their full size; a piano becomes a clavichord; Don Marcial gets younger and younger, until the very furniture in his house dwarfs him as a child.

In the penultimate section of the story this reversal of time accelerates very rapidly. Don Marcial as an infant re-enters his mother’s body; furniture reverts to trees in the forest; and then all animal and plant life returns to its origins.

But in fact the composition of the story is a little more complex than this conceit would suggest. The life-history-in-reverse is bookended by two brief sections in conventional chronological sequence, describing first the demolition of Don Marcial’s house after his death, and later the flat plot of land on which it once stood. The story is an amusing meditation on time and causality – but it is situated within a rational framework of normal temporality.

It is worth noting (particularly because it is so little acknowledged) that it was Carpentier who coined the term ‘magical realism’ (lo real maravilloso) in which the concrete, real world becomes suffused with fantasy elements, myths, dreams, and a fractured sense of time and logic. This story is a good example of the literary genre. For a more extended example of its kind, see his 1940 novel, The Kingdom of this World (El reino de este mundo).

Journey Back to the Source – study resources

Journey Back to the Source is one of five stories contained in the collection The War of Time. The other four stories are Right of Sanctuary (1967), The Road to Santiago (1948), Like the Night (1947), and The Wise Men (1967).

Journey Back to the Source – at Amazon UK – (text in English)

Viaje al semilla – at Amazon UK – (Text in Spanish)

Journey Back to the Source – at Amazon US – (Text in English)

Viaje al semilla – at Amazon US – (Text in Spanish)

Journey Back to the Source – plot summary

Part 1.   An old Negro sits in a garden where he watches an ancient house in the process of being demolished.

Part 2.   In a reversal of time, the house is re-assembled, and the man enters the house where Don Marcial, its owner, is lying on his death bed.

Part 3.   Don Marcial gradually recovers and retracts the dying confession he has made to his priest. His mistress gets out of bed, gets dressed, and leaves the house. He stands before the mirror and doesn’t feel well. He is oppressed by the legal documentation involved in the sale of his house.

Part 4.   He has taken a mistress following a period of mourning after the death of his wife. Relatives and friends gather to mark her passing. The house and its contents grow younger.

Part 5.   Don Marcial and the Marquesa get to know each other in the early days of their marriage. They move back into the city from their country estate and get married. Friends take their presents back home and Don Marcial lives in his house alone as a bachelor.

Part 6.   He feels under the weather after celebrating his minority with friends. They get dressed up in old clothes from the attic and hold a musical party where he flirts with a young girl. Earlier, along with his male friends, he has visited a dance hall.

Part 7.   Don Marcial only does moderately well in his college examinations, and then learns less and less at school. When he leaves the seminary he enters a period of spiritual doubt and emotional crisis.

Part 8.   The furniture in his house grows taller. He begins to play with toy soldiers, and takes to sitting on the floor and hiding under the clavichord.

Part 9.   He is given extra pastries one day, then sees servants carrying a coffin into the house. He visits his father who is ill in bed. He then recalls his father’s former talents and sexual misdeeds with a servant.

Part 10.   The infant Don Marciale has a close relationship with the household servant Melchor, with whom he shares secrets.

Part 11.   When Melchor is not there, his closest friends are the household dogs, with whom he shares his life. He begins using baby-talk.

Part 12.   He forgets his own name, and before his christening exists in a world of touch alone. Then the natural world around him turns back to its roots and origins, leaving a blank where his house once stood.

Part 13.   The next day the demolition crew return to find the house has gone, and time progressing in its normal manner.

Alejo Carpentier

Alejo Carpentier web links

Carpentier at Wikipedia
Background, biography, magical realism, major works, literary style, further reading

Carpentier at Amazon UK
Novels, criticism, and interviews – in Spanish and English

The Kingdom of this World
Lecture by Rod Marsh – University of Cambridge

Carpentier at Internet Movie Database
Films and TV movies made from his novels

Carpentier in Depth
Spanish video documentary and interview with Carpentier (1977)

© Roy Johnson 2015

Filed Under: Alejo CarpentierTagged With: Alejo Carpentier, Literary studies, The Short Story