(Originally published in New Yorker magazine, Oct 6, 2003)
“In any case, that story already belongs to the past,” he concluded. “What matters now is the next one.”
I never imagined that, nine months after I had completed secondary school, my first story would be published in Fin de Semana, the weekend literary supplement of El Espectador, in Bogotá, and the most interesting and demanding literary publication of the time. Forty-two days later, my second story was published. The most surprising thing for me, however, was an introductory note by the editor of the supplement, Eduardo Zalamea Borda (whose pen name was Ulises), the most lucid Colombian critic at the time, and the one who was most alert to the appearance of new trends.
The way in which all this happened was so unexpected that it is not easy to recount. In February of 1947, I matriculated in the faculty of law at the Universidad Nacional of Bogotá, as my parents and I had agreed. I lived at the very center of the city, in a pensión on Calle Florián which was occupied for the most part by students who were, like me, from the Atlantic Coast. On free afternoons, instead of working to support myself, I read either in my room or in the cafés that permitted it. The books I read I obtained by chance and luck, and they depended more on chance than on any luck of mine, because the friends who could afford to buy them lent them to me for such limited periods that I stayed awake for nights on end in order to return them on time. But, unlike the books I had read at school, in Zipaquirá, which belonged in a mausoleum of consecrated authors, these were like bread warm from the oven, printed in Buenos Aires in new translations after the long publishing hiatus caused by the Second World War. In this way, I discovered, to my good fortune, the already very much discovered Jorge Luis Borges, D. H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley, Graham Greene and G. K. Chesterton, William Irish and Katherine Mansfield, and many others.
For the most part, these new works were displayed in the unreachable windows of bookstores, but some copies circulated in the student cafés, which were active centers of cultural dissemination for university students from the provinces. Many of those students reserved their tables year after year and received mail and even money orders at the cafés. Favors from the proprietors or their trusted employees were instrumental in saving a good number of university careers, and quite a few professionals in the country may owe more to their café connections than they do to their almost invisible tutors.
My favorite café was El Molino, the one frequented by older poets, which was only two hundred metres or so from my pensión, on the corner of Avenida Jiménez de Quesada and Carrera Séptima. Students were not allowed to reserve seats at El Molino, but we could be sure of learning more from the literary conversations we eavesdropped on as we huddled at nearby tables and learning it better than in textbooks. It was an enormous café, elegant in the Spanish style, and its walls had been decorated by the painter Santiago Martínez Delgado with episodes from Don Quixote’s battle against the windmills. Though I did not have a reserved place, I always arranged for the waiters to put me as close as possible to the master León de Greiff—bearded, gruff, charming—who would begin his tertulia, his literary talk, at dusk with some of the most famous writers of the day, and end it with his chess students at midnight, awash in cheap liquor. Very few of the great names in the country’s arts and letters did not sit at that table at least once, and we played dead at ours in order not to miss a single word. Although they tended to talk more about women and political intrigues than about their art or work, they always said something that was new to us.
The most attentive of us were from the Atlantic Coast, united less by Caribbean conspiracies against the Cachacos—people from the sierra—than by the vice of books. One day Jorge Álvaro Espinosa, a law student who had taught me to navigate the Bible and made me learn by heart the names of Job’s companions, placed an awesome tome on the table in front of me and declared, with the authority of a bishop, “This is the other Bible.”
It was, of course, James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which I read in bits and pieces and fits and starts until I lost all patience. This was premature brashness. Years later, as a docile adult, I set myself the task of reading it again in a serious way, and it not only resulted in the discovery of a genuine world that I had never suspected inside me but also provided me with invaluable technical help in freeing language and handling time and structure in my own books.
One of my roommates at the pensión was Domingo Manuel Vega, a medical student who had been my friend ever since our boyhood days in the town of Sucre and who shared my voracity for reading. One night, Vega came in with three books that he had just bought, and he lent me one, chosen at random, as he often did, to help me sleep. But this time the effect was just the opposite: I never slept with my former serenity again. The book was Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”—in the translation published by Losada in Buenos Aires—and it determined a new direction for my life from its opening line, recognized today as one of the great devices in world literature: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
These were mysterious books whose dangerous precipices were not only different from but often contrary to everything I had known until then. They showed me that it was not necessary to demonstrate facts: it was enough for the author to have written something for it to be true, with no proof other than the power of his talent and the authority of his voice. It was Scheherazade all over again—not in her millenary world, where everything was possible, but in an irreparable world, where everything had already been lost.
When I finished reading “The Metamorphosis,” I felt an irresistible longing to live in that alien paradise. The new day found me at the portable typewriter that Domingo Manuel Vega had lent me, trying to write something that would resemble Kafka’s tale of a poor bureaucrat turned into an enormous cockroach. In the days that followed I did not go to the university for fear the spell would be broken, and I continued, sweating drops of envy, until Eduardo Zalamea Borda published in his pages a disconsolate article lamenting the lack of memorable names among the new generation of Colombian writers, and the fact that he could detect nothing in the future that might remedy the situation. I do not know with what right I felt challenged, in the name of my generation, by the provocation in that piece, but I took up the story again in an attempt to prove him wrong. I elaborated on the plot idea of the conscious corpse in “The Metamorphosis,” but relieved the story of its false mysteries and ontological prejudices.
Still, I felt so uncertain that I did not dare talk it over with any of my tablemates at El Molino. Not even with Gonzalo Mallarino, my fellow-student at the faculty of law, who was the only reader of the lyrical prose pieces I wrote to help me endure the tedium of my classes. I reread and corrected my story until I was exhausted, and at last I wrote a personal note to Eduardo Zalamea—whom I had never seen—of which I cannot recall even a single word. I put everything in an envelope and took it in person to reception at El Espectador. The concierge authorized me to go up to the second floor and hand the letter to Zalamea himself, but I was paralyzed at the mere idea. I left the envelope on the concierge’s desk and fled.
This happened on a Tuesday, and I was not troubled by any presentiments regarding the fate of my story. I was certain that, in the event it was published, it would not happen very soon. In the meantime, for two weeks, I rambled and roamed from café to café to allay my Saturday-afternoon apprehension, until September 13th, when I went into El Molino and collided with the title of my story printed across the full width of El Espectador, which had just come out: “The Third Resignation.”
My first reaction was the devastating realization that I did not have five centavos to buy the paper. This was the most explicit symbol of my poverty, because, in addition to the newspaper, many basic things in daily life cost five centavos: the trolley, the public telephone, a cup of coffee, a shoeshine. I rushed out to the street with no protection against the imperturbable drizzle, but in the nearby cafés there was no one I knew who could give me a charitable coin. And I did not find anyone in the pensión at that dead hour on a Saturday except the landlady, which was the same as not finding anyone, because I owed her seven hundred and twenty times five centavos for two months of room and board. When I went out again, prepared for anything, I encountered a man sent by Divine Providence: he was getting out of a cab, holding El Espectador in his hand, and I asked him straight out if he would give it to me.
And so I read my first story in print, with an illustration by Hernán Merino, the official sketch artist for the paper. I read it in a single breath, hiding in my room, my heart pounding. In each line I discovered the crushing power of print, for what I had constructed with so much love and pain as a humble imitation of a universal genius was revealed to me as an obscure, weak monologue, barely sustained by three or four consolatory sentences. Almost twenty years went by before I dared to read it a second time, and my judgment then—untempered by compassion—was even less indulgent.
The most difficult thing was the avalanche of friends who invaded my room with copies of the newspaper and glowing praise for a story that I was sure they had not understood. Among my fellow-students at the university, some appreciated it, others were puzzled by it, and others with more reason did not read past the fourth line, but Gonzalo Mallarino, whose literary judgment it was not easy for me to question, admired it without reservation.
My greatest uneasiness had to do with the verdict of Jorge Álvaro Espinosa, whose critical blade was dangerous even beyond our immediate circle. I had contradictory feelings: I wanted to see him right away to resolve my uncertainty once and for all, but at the same time the idea of facing him terrified me. He disappeared until Tuesday, which was not unusual for an insatiable reader, and when he reappeared at El Molino he began talking to me not about the story but about my audacity.
“I suppose you realize the trouble you got yourself into,” he said, fixing his green king-cobra eyes on mine. “Now you’re in the showcase of recognized writers, and there’s a lot you have to do to deserve it.”
His was the only opinion that could affect me as much as that of Ulises, and I was petrified. But before he finished speaking I decided to preëmpt him with what I considered then, and have always considered since, to be the truth: “That story is a piece of shit.”
He replied with immutable control that he could not say anything yet because he had had time only to glance at it. But he explained that, even if it was as bad as I said, it was not bad enough for me to sacrifice the golden opportunity that life was offering me.
“In any case, that story already belongs to the past,” he concluded. “What matters now is the next one.”
I was flabbergasted and foolish enough to look for arguments to the contrary, until I understood that no advice I heard would be more intelligent than his. He expounded on his unshakable idea that you had to conceive of the story first and then the style, but that each depended on the other in a kind of mutual servitude that was the magic wand of the classics. He also spent some time on his opinion, which he had often repeated, that I needed to read the Greeks in a profound, unbiased way, and not just Homer—the only one I had read, because I was required to for the baccalaureate. I promised I would, and I wanted to hear other names, but he changed the subject and began to talk instead about André Gide’s “The Counterfeiters,” which he had read that weekend. I never found the courage to tell him that our conversation might well have determined the course of my life. I stayed up all night making notes for my next story, which would not have the meanders of the first.
I suspected that those who talked to me about the story were impressed less by the story itself—which they had perhaps not read and had, I was sure, not understood—than by its being published with such unusual fanfare on so important a page. To begin with, I realized that my two great defects were the two greatest defects possible: the clumsiness of my writing and my ignorance of the human heart. And both were more than evident in my first story, which was a confused, abstract meditation made worse by my abuse of invented emotions.
Searching my memory for situations from real life for the second story, I remembered that one of the most beautiful women I had known as a child had told me she wished she could be inside the very handsome cat that she was caressing on her lap. I asked her why, and she answered, “Because it is more beautiful than I am.” This gave me a point of departure for the second story, as well as an attractive title: “Eva Is Inside Her Cat.” The rest, like the previous story, was invented out of nothing and, for the same reason—as we liked to say in those days—it carried within itself the seeds of its own destruction.
This story was published with the same fanfare as the first, on Saturday, October 25, 1947, and illustrated by the painter Enrique Grau, a rising star in the Caribbean sky. I was struck that my friends accepted this as a routine occurrence and me as a renowned writer. I, on the other hand, suffered over the errors, doubted the successes, but managed to keep my hope alive. The high point came a few days later, when Eduardo Zalamea, employing his usual pseudonym, Ulises, wrote a note in his daily column in El Espectador. It went straight to the point: “Readers of Fin de Semana, the literary supplement of this newspaper, will have noted the appearance of a new and original talent with a vigorous personality.” And farther on: “In the imagination anything can happen, but knowing how to show with naturalness, simplicity, and without fuss the pearl produced there is not something that all twenty-year-old boys just beginning their relationship with letters can accomplish.” And he concluded without hesitation: “In García Márquez a new and notable writer has been born.”
The note brought me a shock of happiness—how could it not!—but at the same time it disturbed me that Zalamea had not left himself any way out. Now that he had said what he had said, I was obliged to interpret his generosity as a call to my conscience that would last the rest of my life.
In spite of my chronic absenteeism and judicial negligence, I passed the easy first-year law courses thanks to overheated last-minute cramming, and the more difficult ones by using my old trick of eluding the question with clever devices. The truth is, I was not comfortable in my own skin and did not know how to continue groping my way along that dead-end street. I understood the law less and had much less interest in it than in any of the subjects I had studied at the liceo, and I felt I was enough of an adult to make my own decisions. In short, after sixteen months of miraculous survival, all I had gained was a group of good friends for the rest of my life.
My scant interest in the law was even scantier after the note by Ulises appeared. At the university, some of the other students began to call me Maestro and to introduce me as a writer. This coincided with my resolve to learn how to construct a story that was both credible and fantastic but had no cracks. I had several ideal distant models, such as Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex,” whose protagonist investigates the murder of his father only to discover that he himself is the murderer; “The Monkey’s Paw,” by W. W. Jacob, the perfect story in which everything that happens is accidental; Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif”; and so many other great sinners, may God keep them in His holy kingdom.
I was involved in this one Sunday night when at last something happened to me that deserved to be recounted. I had spent almost the entire day venting my frustrations as a writer with Gonzalo Mallarino at his house on Avenida Chile, and when I was returning to the pensión on the last streetcar a flesh-and-blood faun got on at the Chapinero station. No mistake: I said a faun. I noticed that none of the few passengers on the streetcar at midnight seemed surprised to see him, and this made me think that he was just one of the men in costume who sold a variety of things on Sundays in the children’s parks. But reality convinced me that I should have no doubts: his horns and beard were as wild as those of a goat, and when he passed by me I could smell the stink of his pelt. With the manners of a good paterfamilias, he got off before Calle 26, the street where the cemetery was, and disappeared among the trees in the park.
After half a night of being awakened by my tossing and turning, Domingo Manuel Vega asked me what was wrong. “It’s just that a faun got on the streetcar,” I told him, half asleep. He was wide awake when he replied that if it was a nightmare it must be due to the poor digestion typical of Sundays, but if it was the subject for my next story he thought it was fantastic. The next morning, I did not know if I had seen a faun on the streetcar or if it had been a Sunday hallucination. I began by admitting to myself that I had fallen asleep, tired at the end of the day, and had a dream that was so vivid I could not separate it from reality. But, in the end, the essential thing for me was not whether the faun had been real but that I lived the experience as if he were. And for the same reason, real or dreamed, it was not legitimate to consider this as a bewitchment of the imagination; it was, in effect, a marvellous experience in my life.
I wrote the story the next day in one sitting, put it under my pillow, and read it and reread it for several nights before I went to sleep and in the mornings when I woke up. It was a bare, literal transcription of the episode on the streetcar, just as it had occurred and in a style as innocent as that of a baptism announcement on the society page. At last, hounded by new doubts, I decided to submit it to the infallible test of print, not in El Espectador but in the literary supplement of El Tiempo. Perhaps this was a way for me to face a judgment different from that of Eduardo Zalamea, and not involve him in an adventure that he had no reason to share. I sent the story with a friend from the pensión, along with a letter for Don Jaime Posada, the new and very young editor of the Suplemento Literario of El Tiempo. But the story was not published and my letter was not answered.
The publications in El Espectador, on the margins of literary success, created other, more terrestrial and amusing problems for me. Misguided friends would stop me in the street to ask for the loans that would save them, since they could not believe that a writer presented with so much prominence had not received enormous sums for his stories. Very few believed me when I told them the truth: I had never been paid a centavo for the stories and had not expected to be, because that was not the custom in the country’s press. Even more serious was my papa’s disappointment when he realized I could not take over my own expenses at a time when three of his eleven children were in school. The family sent me thirty pesos a month. The pensión alone cost me eighteen, with no right to eggs at breakfast, and I always found myself obliged to dip into that money for unforeseen expenses. I do not know where I had acquired the habit of making unconscious sketches in the margins of newspapers, on the napkins in restaurants, on the marble tables in cafés. But a casual acquaintance from El Molino, who had enough influence at a ministry to be placed as a draftsman without having the slightest idea how to draw, proposed that I do his work for him and we divide the salary. Never again in my life was I so close to being corrupted, but not so close that I repented.
My interest in music also grew at this time, as the popular songs of the Caribbean—which I had taken in with my mother’s milk—were making their way into Bogotá. The radio program with the largest audience was “The Coastal Hour,” hosted by Don Pascual Delvecchio, a kind of musical ambassador from the Atlantic Coast. It aired on Sunday mornings and became so popular that we students from the Caribbean would go to the offices of the radio station to dance until late in the afternoon. That program was the origin of the immense popularity of our music in the interior of the country, and later in its most remote corners; it even provided students from the coast with a means of social advancement in Bogotá.
The only disadvantage for Caribbean students in the capital was the spectre of forced marriage. I do not know what wicked precedents had advanced the coastal belief that the girls in Bogotá were loose with boys from the coast and set traps for us in bed so that we would be obliged to marry them. And they did this not for love but because they hoped to live with a window facing the sea. I never believed it. On the contrary, the most disagreeable memories of my life are of the sinister brothels on the outskirts of Bogotá, where we would go to drain away our gloomy bouts of drunkenness. In the most sordid of them, I almost left behind the little life I had in me when a woman I had just been with appeared naked in the corridor, shouting that I had stolen twelve pesos from a drawer in her dressing table. Two thugs from the house knocked me down, and, not satisfied with emptying my pockets of the two pesos I had left after a session of ruinous lovemaking, they stripped me of everything, including my shoes, to search every inch for the stolen money. They had decided not to kill me but to turn me over to the police when the woman remembered that she had changed her hiding place the day before, and she found the money there, intact.
Not long after that, I decided at last not to go on wasting time in the faculty of law, but I did not have the courage to confront my parents once and for all. They told me they were so satisfied with the results of my baccalaureate and my first year as a law student that they sent me—in the care of my brother Luis Enrique, who had come to Bogotá and found a good job in February, 1948—the most lightweight and modern typewriter on the market as a surprise gift. It was the first typewriter I ever owned, and also the most unfortunate, because that same day we pawned it for twelve pesos in order to continue a welcoming party with my brother and my friends from the pensión. The next day, with aching heads, we went to the pawnshop to make certain that the typewriter was still there with its seals unbroken, and to insure that it would remain in good condition until the money to redeem it rained down on us from Heaven. We had a good opportunity with what my friend the false draftsman paid me, but at the last minute we decided to put off redeeming it. Each time my brother and I passed the pawnshop, together or alone, we would confirm from the street that the typewriter was still there, wrapped like a jewel in cellophane paper with an organdy bow, among rows of well-protected household appliances. After a month, the joyous calculations we had made in the euphoria of our drunkenness were still unfulfilled, but the typewriter was safe and sound in its place and could remain there for as long as we paid the quarterly interest. ♦
(Translated, from the Spanish, by Edith Grossman.)
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