Books & Ideas

Cultural Cannibal

The journalism of Gabriel García Márquez

June 24, 2014

“Would I want to read the young García Márquez’s journalism if it didn’t happen to be written by García Márquez?” I asked myself while speedwalking toward Bocars Libros in the Barracas neighborhood of Buenos Aires, and again while shelling out 150 pesos for the three-volume Obra periodística with an introduction by Jacques Gilard. Back home, reading his work, my anxiety was quickly dispelled. Gabriel García Marquez (1927–2014) is known in the English-speaking world for his lyrical, densely descriptive novels, but as a journalist he was acerbically funny, charming, and slightly bizarre. The young García Márquez devoured what surrounded him. Everything was raw material for his newspaper columns—film adaptations of Faulkner, nudism, dancing bears, the letter X, a woman he saw in an ice cream parlor who may have been the “ugliest I’ve ever seen in my life, or, on the contrary, the most disconcertingly beautiful.”

At twenty-one, he joined El Universal in Cartagena, and at twenty-three began writing an impressionistic column called “The Giraffe” for El Heraldo in Barranquilla under the pseudonym Septimus. At 25 he moved to Bogotá and started writing for El Espectador, mostly cinema reviews but also long pieces of in-depth reportage. The three volumes of the Obra periodística cover García Márquez’s productive early working years, from 1948 to 1960. But this is far from a complete collection. G.G.M., as he would begin to sign his pieces, continued to write for newspapers until his death earlier this year, and much of his later work is incompletely catalogued, with an overlap and omission of years. In English his complete journalistic work is not on the radar.

Even in his less brilliant moments, when he couldn’t rustle up a topic and wrote about not having anything to write about, García Márquez’s personality comes through clearly, in prose described by a colleague as “transparent, exact, nervous.” He frequently admitted to writing his column with a hangover: “If what’s written above seems confusing, the guilt lies not with the author but with Holy Saturday.” Elsewhere he “vaguely recalls that he didn’t spend his previous night like a saint.” His greatest concern was to live fully; nothing annoyed him more than abnegation, whether religious or vegetarian. Even his occasional valorization of the “virile” and “macho” was less anti-feminist reactionism than an expression of his frustration with the bloodless, flowery poetry written in Colombia at the time.

Gabo’s early creativity—thought-provoking, incendiary, and juvenile by turns—had much to do with his own personality, but in part it may also have been a defense against the demands of the job. Once he moved to the city, he began to be assigned pieces, and here, as Gilard notes dryly, “one notes some rough patches in quality inherent to the necessities of journalism; even García Márquez had to write about themes lacking in interest.” His example is an article assigned on “cycling fever” in Bogotá, a fad far from unique to our century.

Given the size of these books and the lushness of their contents, it’s tempting to skip around, plucking out pieces based on their titles—García Márquez was very good at titles. But there are rewards to reading chronologically. One sees how Gabo’s style, interests, and cultural references changed as he moved through his twenties, and how around 1952 his work began to shift from light-hearted commentary toward criticism and reportage.

• • •

Apart from the linguistic pleasures it provides, García Márquez’s nonfiction plays a vital role in the cultural history of Colombia. Not just in its style—these works have an ironic sense of humor, conversational tone, and attractive snark often lacking in his novels—but also in its influence, both on the way journalism has been written and on the formation of a national cinema. For a long time, Colombian journalism operated under G.G.M.’s shadow. As Gilard put it, writing in 1993, “Until the end of the ’70s, all Colombian reportage followed García Márquez’s pattern, imitated just as much in journalism as in literature. His at times suffocating omnipresence didn’t show itself only in narrative; it was as real, and perhaps stronger, in news writing.”

Does narrative journalism encourage one to lie, bend the facts, or depart from the truth? García Márquez toed the line.

In the second volume of the Obra periodística, two fourteen-part installments of particular importance appear: Relato de un náufrago, the tale of a shipwrecked sailor published as “La verdad sobre mi aventura” in El Espectador in 1955; and El triple campeón revela sus secretos, on the experiences of the great Colombian cyclist Ramón Hoyos, published in the same newspaper the same year. Both were adapted from interviews and rewritten so as to be told entirely in the first person. And both show García Márquez beginning to work impressionistic fragments like the ones he’d been writing for years into something resembling a narrative structure.

A dry, semi-humorous narration of specific situations came to define García Márquez’s work. Often he liked to focus on the backstory of events rather than on the events themselves. What looked to be unimportant details took on symbolic weight when placed under his ultra-zoom lens, assuming a significance they wouldn’t have otherwise. In a piece on Colombian veterans returning from the Korean War, he wrote that “the tendency to generalize seems to have been one of the main obstacles to clarifying the problem.” Focusing on detail became for him an ethical stance against the glossing-over abstraction entails. Describing the glory days in Korea when a prostitute was twenty dollars, and comparing that to the substandard pension conditions and lack of work soldiers found on their return, was more effective than any government report.

Did this approach encourage fictionalization? Does narrative journalism encourage one to lie, bend the facts, or depart from the truth? Gilard hints that García Márquez stretched the details of what he wrote in order to enhance its capacity for entertainment or edification. In an early piece of speculative criticism, García Márquez wrote about the poet Jorge Artel without even having read his work. In Relato de un náufrago or El triple campeón the level of detail is occasionally so high as to be implausible. And even when every detail hits the mark, García Márquez’s rewriting of transcribed interviews into the first person entails a necessary kneading of perspective.

“Magical realism,” a term often used by North American and European critics attempting to make sense of García Marquez’s work, is a tempting conceptual crutch to lean on. It’s hard not to find something magical even in the real-life episodes Gabo describes, such as that of a man who goes looking for his missing donkey, only to find it in a queue at the local zoo about to be eaten by lions. But in his journalism the “magical” traits are less precious stylistic quirks than pragmatic ways of responding to political events.

• • •

García Márquez joined El Espectador eight months after Gustavo Rojas Pinilla took power, and was writing for the paper when ten students were killed by the military government during a peaceful protest on 8 and 9 June 1954. During this period García Márquez was a member of the Communist Party, paying monthly membership and meeting regularly with its leader Gilberto Vieira, who at the time was hiding out a few blocks from Bogotá’s downtown. The climate of mixed absurdity and violence in which García Márquez sent in his pieces is reflected in his work, not only as self-conscious artifice but also as a translation of his environment into language.

The political climate didn’t permit a straightforward style. More spirited Colombian journalism of the early ’50s displayed signs of a search for national identity and a desire to make sense of things after La Violencia of the ’40s. But though press laws in favor of free expression were passed, the political atmosphere remained suffocating. New episodes of violence would break out in 1954 under Rojas Pinilla and continue to do so over the next decade, even after the joint bipartisan National Front government led by Liberals and Conservatives assumed power. The journalistic atmosphere became one of conflict aversion: writers, anxious to foster agreement to prevent further bloodshed, found their hands tied by censorship, both external and self-imposed. (The views of minorities and minority parties were generally excluded from print journalism, with radio emerging as the preferred alternative news outlet.)

The indirect style of García Márquez’s crónicas managed to be political without being overly provocative; his playfulness toed the line without crossing it. Rojas Pinilla’s government frequently censored opposition newspapers such as El Tiempo, El Diario GráficoEl Siglo, and El Espectador, where García Márquez worked. The crónica—a playful narrative form without an equivalent in English—developed in part because it could give this blue pencil the slip. The ’50s and ’60s were the crónica’s golden age in Colombian journalism, and it was developed consciously by Gloria Pachón, Germán Castro Caycedo, Hernando Salguero, and Juan Gossaín, among others.

The influence of García Márquez, already recognized by his contemporaries as a talented journalist, didn’t prevent some peers from criticizing him for being insufficiently political. Few of his reports responded directly to the dictatorship. (The series on the Chocó, the piece on Korean War veterans, Relato de un náufrago, and the report on displaced children in Villarrica are notable exceptions.) In 1955, government heavyweights wanted to block the publication of his piece on the shipwrecked sailor, which explicitly condemned the Navy. El Espectador published García Márquez’s text anyway, but prudently decided afterward to post him to Europe as a foreign correspondent. Never again would García Márquez write so directly on Colombian politics.

Meanwhile, in the ’70s, journalistic currents began to shift in Colombia yet again. The desire for political justice and a more straightforward style began to take precedence. Though the model story may still have been patterned on the narrative, condensation and clear argument began to assume priority. Left-wing guerrilla groups’ responses to military government violence against local communities invited retaliation; narcotraffickers began to organize the sale of drugs seriously as left-wing cells sought a means to finance themselves. The civil war, a still-unfinished coda to—and escalation of—La Violencia, ratcheted up polemic in all its forms. Writing, in this climate, proceeded more often from argument than anecdote.

Amidst these changes, García Márquez himself remained committed to the narrative approach. Decades later in 1994, he would set up the Fundación Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano, based in Cartagena de Indias, which aimed to “stimulate vocation, ethics, and good narration in journalism.” For all its laudable intentions, the foundation, which still exists today, is more a symbol of the importance of free expression than a producer of daring creative work. Perhaps one way to combat narrative dullness is to reread García Márquez’s own work, especially his early writings. Here one finds connections less interested in making an argument than in playfully registering the political and cultural impressions of a well-read, curious young man. These pieces do not imply political disengagement—García Márquez had strong views—but neither do they force the material toward black-and-white claims. Culture, not political stridency, was always Gabo’s overriding concern.

• • •

In 1954 García Márquez began to write as a film critic, his sole qualification at the time being a passion for movies. His column for El Espectador, envisioning a technologically and culturally independent national cinema capable of exportation, was the first of its kind in Colombia. Reviewing dozens of films from the United States, France, and Italy helped García Márquez figure out what he wanted from his own country, and give voice to a generational anxiety about the weakness of Colombian cinema.

"Magical realism" is a tempting crutch to lean on.

García Márquez’s ideal films—unlike those of Italy, which in an irritable moment he noted has the “worst cinema in the world”—would explore universal themes, while embedding them in realistic depictions of national social situations and landscapes. But just as in his journalism, he preferred a certain attention to detail over a burnished argument or polished production. “That debatable realism more technical than human, invented by the North Americans” rubbed him the wrong way; what he wanted was an earthy mixture of the psychological and the social. (This outlook, Gilard adds in a footnote, explains García Márquez’s love for that line in Alejo Carpentier’s El siglo de las luces, in which Sofía while reading “lifts her skirts to ventilate her c. . .”) He was particularly interested in how directors captured and portrayed female characters and children, whom he found especially full of life.

In general, he was disappointed with cinema from the United States. In his review of How to Marry a Millionaire he wrote that “man, whose problems are ultimately the only thing that interest art, is nothing else in Cinemascope but an inexpressive scarecrow,” adding that “Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, and Betty Grable were selected for this film not so much for their artistic merits as for others more superficial.” Dorothy Dandridge, he opined, was “one of the few women of flesh and blood that North American cinema has to offer.”

In Latin America he saw some hope in the Brazilian cinema prefiguring Cinema novo: “Alongside an Argentina sterilized by contradictory influences, economic difficulties, and political setbacks, a group of Brazilian filmmakers has solved for a moment the difficult problem of South American cinema.” García Márquez even took on a few cinematic projects himself. In 1954 he helped direct and write La langosta azul [The Blue Lobster], a surrealistic short film based in a city like Barranquilla. He spent a few months at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematographia in Rome, as part of a never-realized project to create a film school in Colombia, and also worked as a scriptwriter in Mexico.

Times have changed. After the ’70s vogue of pornomiseria—which García Márquez dismissed as the kind of overly simple “realist” cinema that romanticized poverty, mirroring period trends in journalism—directors began to experiment with more creative approaches. A period of relative prosperity and state support reigned until 1993, when cultural funding was cut. After a 2003 law reinstated funding for local film production, Colombian directors were able to make some headway on their own projects. But even today, many still collaborate with colleagues in other countries. Probably the best-known Colombian film of the last decade is Maria Full of Grace, coproduced in the United States; in Spanish-speaking countries, the TV-mini-series and narconovela Escobar, el patrón del mal has been a runaway hit. Productions successful abroad tend to be big-budget dramas focused on drug trafficking, with little involvement from independent filmmakers. The vision of an independent national cinema with international recognition remains unrealized; in many ways, Colombia’s cultural challenges remain those Gabo laid out.

• • •

After his death García Márquez was hailed in English-language obituaries as the archetype of the Great Latin American Writer. In Argentina and elsewhere in the Spanish-speaking world, however, a number of people—many of them themselves novelists and poets—offered more ambivalent responses. Gabo was “high school syllabus reading”; in later years he had become a type of “Gabriel García Marketing” decked out in that ridiculous white suit, a “bestseller” author out of tune with contemporary experimental writing.

There is some validity to these critiques, but they distract from a more nuanced appreciation. Why resort to easy dismissals when there are other ways to read García Márquez’s work with fresh eyes? One recurring image in Gabo’s books is that of a tree which grows up from a corpse, producing fruits that feed the living. Living culture emerges from a dead, possibly bullet-ridden past, incorporating history but also transforming it. We cannibals are lucky to be able to feed on García Márquez’s creation, even as we attempt to create something new.

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Comments

"out of tune with contemporary experimental writing."
 
That's actually one of the few positive things to be said for Marquez's writing.
 
"We cannibals are lucky to be able to feed on García Márquez’s creation, even as we attempt to create something new."
 
Rather than concerning yourself with "creating something new", try creating something good, instead--and notice that the former doesn't automatically imply the latter.

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