The great Gabriel García Márquez will write no more. Early in July his brother Jaime informed students in their native Colombia that Gabo, as the family knows him, has dementia. While he retains his zest for life, Jaime continued, it is most unlikely that he will complete the second part of his autobiography.
That may not be the worst aspect of this sad news. The first part of the memoirs, Vivir para contarla (Living to Tell the Tale), is such a brilliant evocation of the time and place that formed the writer that it would be difficult for a sequel to equal it. When it came out in 2002 it took me back to the banana lands of Santa Marta where García Márquez grew up. He recalls returning with his mother Luisa to the town where he had lived as a boy, and treading the dusty, deserted streets in the midday heat. They are streets I once knew.
Half a lifetime ago, as a young student, I set off to find Macondo, the fictionalised town at the centre of the outstanding novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. It was the summer of 1970 and I was a postgraduate in Latin American studies at Oxford. Months earlier my tutor, Malcolm Deas, had suggested that if I wanted to understand more about Colombia I should read the book, then relatively unknown. It had been published in Spanish in 1967 and had yet to be translated into English.
At the local Spanish language bookshop I found Cien años de soledad. A fabulous saga of the Buendía family with an extraordinary cast of characters whose rise, decline and fall mirrors that of their isolated inland town, it is a rolling, poetic, imaginative tour de force. Credited with marking the start of magical realism as a form of the novel, it was instrumental in winning García Márquez the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. I devoured it the weekend I bought it, and decided there and then that my thesis subject would be its historical background.
I did find Macondo, but the documentary record was another thing entirely. I was to learn an unforgettable lesson about the relationship of fiction to historical truth. And that perhaps gives a very personal journey some wider interest. In those far-off days when the British government was still handing out grants for research in the humanities, funding was available for a field trip to the Americas in the long vacation between the two years of my course (a Bachelor of Philosophy, not a doctorate). My proposed itinerary was detailed and tightly costed, and I got the money.
The pivotal event in the novel is the 1928 massacre of banana plantation workers casually employed by the United Fruit Company. Soon afterwards the company withdrew from the area, leaving it desolate. It was known that this had indeed happened, but nothing much had been published in the way of historical research. Before setting off I found some references to the events in British consular reports at the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane, now moved to the National Archives at Kew.
The first stop on my trip was Boston in the United States, headquarters of the United Fruit Company. I arrived on a student charter flight and went to stay with friends in the anti-war movement. The next day I pitched up at the company’s imposing offices to a decidedly frosty reception. They had no records on Colombia, a tight-lipped PR person told me, but after some time he came up with the Florida address of a retired former manager from Santa Marta.
Next I took a Greyhound bus down to New York, to spend a few days in the Public Library going through American published books and journals. I found out something about Colombia, and rather more at night about Greenwich Village.
Another bus took me to Washington, where I struck gold. The US State Department’s consular records were the single best source of material, with reports on the build-up to the conflict of 1928 and the diplomatic difficulties of its aftermath. For a week I didn’t miss an hour in there and went away with armfuls of notes.
The Greyhound this time took me through William Faulkner country to white-bread territory in Florida. I got off the bus in sweltering heat and followed my map to the former manager’s street of suburban bungalows, clipped gardens and terminal boredom. Years later, arriving on the Gold Coast in Australia, I would have a moment of déjà vu. The old man, pasty-faced and overweight, invited me in cordially enough. He lived in chilly air conditioning with the blinds drawn against the sun. As I put my questions the air grew even cooler. ‘I don’t remember anything about all that,’ he said. ‘I was just the manager, you know.’
I was soon back on the bus. Miami airport was bedlam, but I found my flight to Calí in Colombia. It was a lot cheaper than flying to Bogotá, the capital, and it had looked near enough on the map. At Calí in the early morning I shoved my way through the crowds and miraculously found the right bus. How long will it take, I asked the driver. Oh, he said, we’ll be there by ten o’clock tonight. I hadn’t allowed for the mountain roads in between.
But what a great introduction to Colombia the trip turned out to be. I sat next to a woman with a cage full of chickens, while a man with a sharp-looking scythe stood swaying beside us. We passed through streets plastered with election posters, two road blocks where everyone had to dismount while armed soldiers searched for fighters of the FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces), and villages where we were besieged by women and children selling skewers of chicken, cold drinks and fruit. By the time we reached Bogotá in the dark my remaining fellow passengers had consulted each other and come up with the name of a cheap but decent hotel where a foreign student might reasonably stay.
Colombia’s national records yielded a little about landholding patterns and population movements, but nothing much about the conflict with the fruit company. Once again it was my off-duty time that proved more interesting. A couple of students I met took me to talk to some young prostitutes from the coastal area. Sold into the sex trade by their families, knowingly or not, for a pitifully small amount of cash, these fourteen- or fifteen-year-olds were living four to a windowless concrete cell of a room. They were miserable and frightened—‘melancholy whores’ indeed, nothing like the lissom Caribbean sex workers in García Márquez’s fiction.
Finally a day-long train journey took me from the cold, misty Andean capital to the tropical heat of Santa Marta, the port that was the administrative centre of the old banana zone. I stayed on the rocky point there at a marine institute known to my tutor. There didn’t seem to be a lot of marine research happening but the young manager and his wife were very welcoming, showed me where to swim and wanted to know all about my project. Only this year, so long afterwards, a friend with intelligence contacts told me of his firm belief that the place had been funded by the CIA.
I worked through local records at the Santa Marta town hall, where beautiful black girls leant through the windows selling lychees and loquats. I found the little town fascinating, with its street stalls of avocadoes and guavas—so exotic to a Lancashire-born girl that it was two days before I realised I could afford them.
At a fruit stall in the street one day I met Fermín Ahumada Arrieta, a young doctor, and we became friends. He turned out to be from Aracataca—the ghost town on which Macondo was based. Before I went there, he suggested we go to Barranquilla, the bigger port along the coast, where he had some business. There he could help me contact Alberto Durán, one of the few surviving union leaders from the time of the massacre. An old communist, the man was wary of new contacts but agreed to meet me.
In Barranquilla as a young journalist García Márquez had discussed ideas late into the night in bars and cafés, and first read Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. The place was bustling compared to Santa Marta. As evening fell there was a brisk trade in street food, and we had oyster shots and roast corn. The next morning I met Durán, and over two hours slowly coaxed out of him his recollections of the terrible days of 1928 when thousands of United Fruit banana workers and their families, protesting over brutal conditions and low pay, were gunned down by the military in the square at the village of La Cienaga. The old man was pretty cagey and didn’t want to say too much on the record—he was clearly still afraid of the consequences. But he did confirm that many people had been killed. I took it all down, as much as he would allow, on my trusty old tape recorder.
That afternoon, walking back from the bus at Santa Marta to the marine station, I was mugged by a man who leapt down onto the track and dragged the tape recorder from my shoulder until the strap broke. He was gone in a flash. Building workers from the nearby port rushed to help me, and took me to the marine station where the manager insisted on calling the police. Which didn’t help. The police chief, a corpulent forty-something with a paunch and a greasy moustache, took personal control of the case and invited me to lunch next day, where it became clear that he was more interested in getting some post-prandial action than in finding the thief. He offered me a lift in his car but I declined.
Looking back, none of this is surprising. I was twenty-two, I looked like a gringa and I was wandering around Colombia on my own in a mini-skirt. The worst thing about the tape recorder episode was that I couldn’t get back to Durán to reinterview him. I tried ringing, but there was never an answer. He’d gone to ground. But with Fermín’s help I could go to Aracataca, kilometres away in the hinterland. His practice was in town, but his family still lived in the old place. He would meet me there and show me around.
It was late morning when I stepped off the bus into blistering heat. The township was deserted—a few streets of white-walled, single-storey houses, a few palms, their fronds hanging limp in the still air—but from somewhere far off came the sounds of a Caribbean steel band. Fermín was waiting, and welcomed me to his home. I thought I’d stepped into the Buendía compound. Around a central courtyard, whitewashed rooms divulged children, aunts and grandparents. Toddlers chased chickens around in the dust. Fermín’s mother grabbed one of them—a chicken, not a baby—and promptly wrung its neck in honour of my arrival. Half an hour later we all sat down to lunch. I learned everyone’s names and they asked about my family.
When everyone else retired for the siesta, Fermín took me exploring under the relentless sun. Even the cicadas had fallen quiet. We came to a deserted house, and he pushed open the big street door. Inside there was nothing much to see—the place was abandoned, the walls in disrepair, a few weeds in the old courtyard. This was the home of García Márquez’ grandparents, where the stories of old colonels from bygone wars seized the child’s imagination and his cast of characters was born. Since I saw it the place has been partially restored, to be shown to visitors; back then it was as derelict as though it had been swept by the leaf storm at the end of the novel.
But Fermín knew I was looking for documentation, too. So the next stop was the notary’s office. A huge old black man in a rather stained white suit, the lawyer sat behind his desk in a tiny room, swatting flies away and wiping his streaming brow with a handkerchief. I’m looking for records of the town’s history, I said. He waved at the walls, covered from floor to ceiling in stacks of yellowing paper. These are the old land titles from that time, he explained. We did a lot of business back then. But since the company went away, they’re all worthless. You wouldn’t find much. Try asking the mayor at the town hall. You’ll just catch him.
We did. He looked rather like the Santa Marta police chief, and he was just on his way out with his buxom secretary, all beehive hair and high heels. We have to go to lunch, he said. Is there anyone who can show me records from the 1920s and 1930s, I asked. Oh, he replied, there aren’t any. This place burned down twenty years ago and all the records went. But there is an old man who was town clerk back then. I can give you his address.
We set off once more through the sun-bleached streets. As we neared the house we saw movement, heard voices. Opening the door into the compound we found a throng of people, some sitting, some drinking and eating—they seemed to have set up camp. Hmm, said Fermín, this looks like a wake. The town clerk’s daughter came out to greet us. He’s very ill, she said. We don’t think he has long to go.
We gave our sympathy. I’m sorry about your father, I said, and told her why I was there. You know, she said, he does have some old papers. But they’re all in a box under his bed. You’ll understand that I can’t disturb him now to get at them. Try in a few days.
The days turned into a couple of weeks. I called twice from Santa Marta before I had to leave, but the old man was still holding on. And the wake was still in full swing.
There was one last visit we paid that day. We went back to Fermín’s place through the streets of abandoned banana workers’ lodgings—single-room concrete blocks, with a door and no windows, like the one those young Bogotá prostitutes lived in. A door halfway down the street was open, and inside was the oldest woman I’d ever seen, sitting there in the baking heat with a bowl of food someone had brought her. Her eyes were milky blue—she was blind. This is Señora Tomasina, said Fermín. She’s 120 years old and she remembers.
I thought I was meeting Ursula Buendía from One Hundred Years of Solitude—the woman who outlives almost everyone. I said hello, and asked if she remembered what happened in 1928. ‘Thousands of them,’ she said. ‘Thousands of them died. Men and women and children. They brought a train, a very long train, and took them all out to sea. They were all dead.’
That was all I was left with. Señora Tomasina’s words could have been those of Jose Arcadio Segundo, the character in the novel everyone said was crazy, because he remembered what happened that day. I went away with plenty of material about the 1928 conflict, but no proof of the massacre. The documentation had all turned to dust like the Sanskrit pages of the wanderer Melquíades that had, in the book, waited a hundred years to be read.
I wrote my thesis, got my degree and moved on. Somewhere in an eventful life I lost my copy, and after twenty-five years living in Australia I recovered it from Oxford’s Bodleian Library online service only a couple of years ago. Looking at it after all these years I hardly recognise it. For a while back then I probably knew more than almost anyone on the planet about landholding patterns, agricultural activity, development and population movements in the Santa Marta area, about the United Fruit plantations, the banana workers dispute and the consular records. But my thesis gathers dust in the Bodleian, unlamented even by me, and One Hundred Years of Solitude will be read as long as there are people who read.
A few years ago, in the bookshop of the excellent provincial museum of China’s ancient capital Xian, I was browsing through catalogues when I heard Spanish being spoken at the counter behind me. Turning round I saw a genial Chinese attendant assisting a group of tourists. When they moved off I walked over and complimented him on his Spanish. Where did you learn, I asked. Right here, he said, reading the works of Gabriel García Márquez.
I’m writing this from the Mani in Greece, fifty years ago as remote a place as Aracataca on the other side of the Atlantic. But below the surface you find a wealth of history, connections with the outside world and a passion for ideas that a casual observer would never suspect. García Márquez gave voice to a forgotten place and people, plundered, ravaged and abandoned, but forever alive in the pages of his great novel. Fiction proves stronger and truer than the writing of history. And though his pen may move no longer, the writer will always be with us. Viva Don Gabriel!