Interview with Gabriel García Márquez (1980)
REPRINTED FROM 1980 MARCH ISSUE
Gabriel García Márquez was born in Colombia in 1928. His No One Writes to the Colonel and Other Stories was published in America in 1968. One Hundred Years of Solitude followed in 1970; Leaf Storm and Other Stories in 1972; The Autumn of the Patriarch in 1976; Innocent Erendira and other Stories in 1978; and In Evil Hour in 1979.
The following interview was arranged by Adam Nossiter, and took place on December 2, 1979.
This is a direct transcription from the Spanish; The Advocate is grateful to Rodrigo Garcia for his kind service as interpreter.
Advocate: I’ll begin by asking how you started writing.
García Márquez: By drawing.
Advocate: By drawing?
García Márquez: When I was very little, before I could read or write, I would draw stories in cartoons.
Advocate: You then went on and became a journalist. How do you feel your training in journalism affected your writing?
García Márquez: I think they’re complementary activities. Working in journalism on an every-day basis lets you get loose and lose that timid respect you have toward writing, in the beginning, that is, when you begin doing journalism or fiction. Then you get to a point where journalism has done exactly that: enabled you to get used to writing, easily and every day. And then fiction gives you ideas for your journalism. So they are complementary activities. And, very important, journalism was a way of living, to make money while writing. In the long run, fiction has enabled me to improve the literary quality of my journalistic work, and journalism has helped me to be aware of every-day events, or every-day life, which is helpful for my fiction. With time, literature and journalism—which so far have been parallel activities—with time they will converge. Right now I am looking for a synthesis, similar to what Truman Capote did with In Cold Blood. That’s simply an example; I don’t consider it an influence. The ideal thing right now would be to find an event in every-day life that I could deal with from a literary point of view, in order to prove that there is very little difference, a very small gap, between journalism and literature. Also to prove that every-day events, that reality has the same literary value as, for example, poetry.
Advocate: Is that actually what you are working on now?
García Márquez: Right now I still haven’t come across that event to work on. So what I am doing is writing short stories based on true experiences of Latin Americans living in Europe. I am dealing with these events, these experiences not from a journalistic point of view, or as memoirs, but simply from a literary point of view, giving them a literary value. In any case, in all my books, in my entire work, I can demonstrate that there is not one single line, not one single sentence, that is not based on real life. I consider my great problem to be that I lack imagination. If life doesn’t give me a fact, I am unable to invent one. I am perfectly willing and able to prove that, line by line, sentence by sentence, in every single one of my books. If I had the time, I would consider writing a book in the form of memoirs, talking about the origins of every single fact and adventure in my books. This book would let me make fun of all the critics and analysts of my books, who come up with facts that have nothing to do with what is written.
Advocate: How did the extraordinary popularity of One Hundred Years of Solitude affect your writing? I think there’s a certain break there: The Autumns of the Patriarch is very different in style and theme.
García Márquez: Do you know Leaf Storm?
García Márquez: I’m not sure if people have noticed this, but I feel there is a very close relationship between Leaf Storm and The Autumn of the Patriarch my first and last books. A lot has been said to the effect that One Hundred Years of Solitude was the culmination, the climax, of all the books that came before. I feel that the culmination of my work thus far has been The Autumn of the Patriarch. The book I was looking for from the very beginning was The Autumn of the Patriarch. I’d even started The Autumn of the Patriarch before One Hundred Years of Solitude, but I’d found there was a sort of wall, something stopping me from actually getting into the book. The thing that stopped me was One Hundred Years of Solitude. I have the impression that every book is an apprenticeship for the next. There’s a progression from book to book—but it’s a progression that can be in one direction or another. Not really a progression, in fact, but an investigation, which takes place from book to book. In parentheses, within my own process of investigation and evolution, I believe that one book is the best of them all, and that is No One Writes to the Colonel. I say sometimes, jokingly, but I do believe it, that I had to write One Hundred Years of Solitude so that people would read No One Writes to the Colonel.
And with respect to the change in style between One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Autumn of the Patriarch, I found it easy for two reasons—no, three reasons. First of all, there was the relaxation created by my having written One Hundred Years of Solitude. I was less scared of any literary adventure. Secondly, The Autumn of the Patriarch was a very expensive book to write. I wrote for seven years practically every day. On lucky days, I’d be able to finish three lines the way I liked them. So in fact One Hundred Years of Solitude financed The Autumn of the Patriarch. The third reason for the different approach in The Autumn of the Patriarch was that the theme demanded it. Written in the rather linear fashion of One Hundred Years of Solitude or the other books, The Autumn of the Patriarch would have turned out to be just another story of a dictator. It would have been a very long story, and much more boring than it actually is. All the literary resources I used in The Autumn of the Patriarch, among which were flagrant violations of Spanish grammar, enabled me to say more in a shorter space and penetrate more deeply into all aspects of the book, because you don’t go down straight as in a lift, but in a sort of spiral.
The relationship between Leaf Storm and The Autumn of the Patriarch is that they are both basically on the same theme: they are both monologues around a corpse. When I wrote Leaf Storm. I had had very little literary experience, writing experience. I wanted to find a way of telling a story that happened within someone. At that time I found only two models to help me with this. One was Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. The book is a series of monologues, in which each monologue is preceded by the name of the character it belongs to. I liked Faulkner’s method, but I didn’t like the fact that he had to pinpoint each of the characters; I think character has to identify itself in the course of the monologue. The second model was Mrs. Dalloway, though I realized that the technique of interior monologue in Virginia Woolf’s work required an extraordinary literary training, which I didn’t have at the time. I found a compromise between these two models, a formula for monologue that lets you recognize the characters without having to be given their names. That of course is a limitation, because in order to avoid confusion I had to deal with only three characters. I chose an old man, whose voice was recognizable because hew was old, his daughter, whose voice is easily recognized. Mixing together these monologues and leading the reader around, that was my approach in structuring the novel. Twenty-five years later, with five books behind me, and with the security from every point of view which One Hundred Years of Solitude had given me, I could plunge into the adventures of The Autumn of the Patriarch without fear of breaking my head. It’s a multiple monologue, where it no longer matters who is speaking. It arrives at what I’d been looking for for twenty years, which is a social monologue. What is talking in the books is the whole of society; it’s everyone. They just simply pass the words from one to another: it does not matter who is speaking.
Advocate: Which suits the subject, because it is to such a large extent a political novel.
García Márquez: I feel a theme like that cannot be treated in any other way. I can tell you about the other formula I had for The Autumn and the Patriarch, which I didn’t use.
Advocate: Please do.
García Márquez: Many years before writing One Hundred Years of Solitude I started writing The Autumn of the Patriarch as a very long, single monologue, that of the dictator as he was being put on trial. The first line of the book was “Before we begin, take those lights away from here!” That monologue enabled me to explore the whole of the dictator’s life, but it had many problems. First, I was subject to only one point of view—that of the dictator. I was also subject to the style of the dictator, and worst of all, to the cultural level of the dictator, which is very low, like that of all dictators. So of course that didn’t work for me, because I was not so much interested in what the dictator thought as in what the whole of the society under the dictator thought.
Advocate: What is in Latin American history, od you feel, that lends itself to literary transmutation? All your works are set very specifically in the Latin American experience, and yet they’ve been internationally popular. To what do you attribute that?
García Márquez: I am an enemy of all theoretical speculation. What is amazing about critics is how from one point, which they declare a starting point, they draw all sorts of conclusions. For example, the critics tell me that my books have a universal value. The fact that the books are very popular throughout the world the world probably proves this is so. But if one day I realize why my books are internationally popular, I will not be able to keep on writing, or I will have to keep on writing for purely commercial reasons. I feel that literary work has to be done honestly and in order to write honestly you have to have an enormous unknown, unconscious zone. Hemingway talked of what he called the iceberg, because above the water you can see only a tenth of an iceberg, but that tenth is there only because the other nineteenths are underneath, holding it up. Even if I could explore what all the unconscious factors in my work are, I wouldn’t do it. I feel there is something intuitive that partly accounts for my popularity. When a writer writes about things that actually happened to people, then people all over the world want to hear about them, regardless of culture, race, or language. I feel that man is the center of the universe, that he is the only thing that matters. I remember reading, when I was very young, an interview with Faulkner in which he said that he believed man was indestructible. At that time I didn’t exactly understand what he meant, but now I am convinced he was right. When you think in terms of an individual, you realize that the individual has an end with death, but if you think in terms of a species, you realize that the species is eternal. This conviction obviously leads to a political belief and it also leads to a literary belief and whoever has this conviction can write literature of universal value.
Advocate: Are your books—I know you say they are based on reality—at all influenced by folklore and fairy tales> In structure, at least, there is a resemblance.
García Márquez: Not folklore. Folklore is a word that is badly baptized. It shouldn’t be used like that. Folklore is a word employed by the English to describe manifestations of other peoples, of other cultures, which probably aren’t manifestations of those people at all. It ends in tourism. I’d rather not talk about folklore at all. With popular legends, it’s different. My original influences, in fact, are from popular legend. Every popular legend has already had a literary evolution, and it incorporates two realities. All of my books have their source in reality, but definitely by way of those popular legends. I don’t know if it’s a reality or not that the dead sometimes come out of their tombs, but it’s a reality that people believe it. So what interests me is not whether it happens, but the fact that some people believe it does. And if you just add up these beliefs you can create a whole new universe.
Advocate: So the distinction between folklore and legend is that folklore has an element of condescension?
García Márquez: Worse than that, commercialization.
Advocate: When Americans think of Latin America, they see it as very religious, and I’m interested in what seems to me the small role that organized religion plays in your works.
García Márquez: Americans are right when they think of Latin America as very religious, but you’re wrong if you think of it as very Catholic, or very Buddhist, or any other official religion. People are very religious in Latin America because they live in such a state of forsakenness. For many years, they have been expecting the Coming- of some natural force. And the force they are waiting for is probably within themselves. But until they discover the force, they will have to fall back on all kinds of religious help. My books are charged with that sort of religiosity. In general, the main religion is Catholicism as you can see in my books, but also present is the inadequacy of the religion to answer the questions one asks oneself.
Advocate: You’ve chosen to leave Colombia, and you’ve led a somewhat nomadic life ever since. Why is this, and has the perspective gained helped [sic] your work?
García Márquez: I left Colombia for purely casual reasons. I didn’t decide to leave. When I was very young, after having finished my first book, I had political problems—the only ones I’ve ever had in Colombia. So little by little, I just stayed away from Colombia. It wasn’t a decision, ever, really. I just realized after many years that I’d been living abroad. The fact that I left Colombia had a great effect on me, not merely from a literary point of view, but also a personal one. From Europe I acquired a totally different perspective not only on what Latin America was but on what the whole of America was. From that perspective I realized that although I come from a specific country, the most important thing is to belong to the whole of the continent. From Europe I saw the whole of America, including the United States, like a huge ship, a huge ocean liner, with first class, economy class, cellars, sections for sailors, with great injustices between the different classes, and I have the conviction that if this ship sinks, everyone sinks with it in Colombia, I knew only Colombians. In Europe, sitting at a café, I met the whole continent. All frontiers of America and Latin America disappeared when regarded from abroad. All the countries across the ocean seemed the same.
Advocate: Can one take this one step further and transcend all national and geographical boundaries? Or is the American experience so very different from anyone else’s?
García Márquez: No, I can’t transcend. I can only go so far. I am always conscious that, in that ship, I belong to the tourist class. And Sartre said that class consciousness begins when you realize that you can’t change class—you can’t move from one to the other. But to go back to your question, the Americas are definitely coming together. It’s a historic process that cannot be stopped. And ultimately the continent will unite. There’s a very evident process of trans-culturalization. There are conscious efforts on the part of the United States to impose a certain culture on Latin America. I don’t like the ways in which this culture is being imposed, I also don’t like the aspects of this culture that are being imposed, rather than those that I consider more important. I like, for example, the influence Latin America music has gotten from jazz. I don’t like the way people say the spark of life is Coca-Cola. That’s what they say in Spanish ads. But you can’t create a wall to stop all flow of culture in Latin America. Similarly, the United States can’t create a wall to stop what is happening in the other direction. Even with the enormous resources the Untied States has, it hasn’t been able to stop Spanish from being spoken more and more within the United States. Candidates for presidency must have in mind, more and more each day, the Spanish and Latin American vote within the country. And when a Latin American author comes to this country, American journalists want to interview him. These are just symptoms of a fusion that will take place—speaking in very broad historical terms. This will be a very dramatic process, a very hard one for both countries, but one that is fated. Personally, I am happy it will happen like that. Europe interests me less and les every day.
Advocate: Although you are setting your latest stories there?
García Márquez: These stories will demonstrate what I am trying to say. After many years of experience in Europe, Latin Americans have realized that they can never actually get to Europe.
Advocate: One of the most important causes of this trans-culturalization has been the blossoming of Latin American writing in the last thirty years. Do you see yourself as part of this development in Hispanic literature, or, influenced by Faulkner and Woolf as you’ve said, do you like to think of yourself in a broader international context?
García Márquez: I consider Faulkner a Latin American writer.
García Márquez: Because he writes of the Gulf of Mexico, of Louisiana, and his books are filled with the black element. I don’t consider myself more international than other Latin American writers. All of us have been influenced by Faulkner more than by each other—those who haven’t ben influenced by Faulkner have been influenced by other writers, usually Hemingway.
Advocate: It’s been said that One Hundred Years of Solitude is the Don Quixote of South American literature, that one can look to a steady progression of Spanish literature. Do you agree with that, or do you think there is something unique in Latin American writing?
García Márquez: I’d like to make a correction. I didn’t mean Faulkner was a writer of Latin America; he is a writer of the Caribbean. Of course, I feel that Latin America literature is a branch of Spanish literature. I feel that that relation is more obvious in Latin America with regard to Span than it is in the United States with regard to England. There are moments in Hispanic literature when it is very difficult to distinguish who is Spanish and who is Latin American. In any case, we are all ultimately descendants of Cervantes, and of the heritage of Spanish poetry. And something that has always influenced this literature is that there are two ways to go. The Latin Americans influenced the Spanish writers as much as the Spanish influenced the Latin Americans. There is a unity in the development of Spanish literature, which starts with the first anonymous poetry, and which goes as far as today’s Latin American literature. Speaking in these terms, I am part of this big current, just as I am not part of a current beginning with Shakespeare or with Fielding, although I may have been influenced by them. I also believe I have been influenced by Greek classic theatre.
Advocate: You use an epigraph from “Antigone” for Leaf Storm.
García Márquez: I feel there’s something from Sophocles in all my books, because of what we were saying at the beginning, that every great writer’s main concern is what happens to people.
Advocate: I’m not sure this question can be answered, but can you say what characterizes or defines that current of Spanish literature?
García Márquez: It’s very complicated. For a complicated question I’ll give you a complicated answer. And for a grandiloquent question I’ll give you a grandiloquent answer. The main value of Spanish literature is the quest for true identity.
Advocate: What sort of differences do you see, then, between contemporary Latin American writers and Spanish writers? It’s been said that the Latin Americans are much more fertile and imaginative.
García Márquez: In any case, because of the development of two different geographies and of the two different countries—because what has happened to Spain and what has happened to Latin America is so different—there is a clear divergence. Spanish writers nowadays are still concerned with getting out of the drama of the Civil War and then out of the swamp which was the Franco regime. Whereas in Latin America, there’ve been many different political and social movements for many years—they’ve forced writers to ask themselves “Who the hell are we?” Literature is a social product, even if its elaboration is individual. I can’t think of a Latin American writer who today would think of writing “Hamlet”, for instance. Or for that matter a Spanish writer who could write Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo. In spite of the differences between Latin America and Spain that are due to certain political and historical events, Hispanic literature as a whole still has a certain continuity. Maybe Latin American literature is richer and more interesting than that in Spain. Although Spain had the Arabic influence in the Middle Ages—which is reflected still and will continue to be reflected forever in Latin America—Latin America has had the great black element, and the great contributions of immigrants from all the countries of the world. It’s been said that Latin American nations are made up of all the wastes of Europe. Of course, this makes Latin America different, but there can be no question that there is one single, united Hispanic culture.
Advocate: I’d like to ask a simpler question, and that’s merely what contemporary writers you admire?
García Márquez: There are many and varied ones, because there are many different reasons and motives for my admiration. Whenever I’m asked that question I have the fear, not of making mistakes with the ones I name, but of making the mistake of not naming many others. And sometimes I am scared that what I say about other writers might be more influential than I’m aware of. Within the Latin American context, the one I admire most is the one who has written the least, and that is Juan Rulfo from Mexico. What do you think of Graham Greene?
Advocate: I like some of his novels very much.
García Márquez: I mention him because he is the only living, great English novelist that comes to mind. I think he is one of the greatest novelists of this century. But there are not many good English writers now. Their ninetheenth-century [sic] achievement was what was most remarkable. No one’s ever equaled that. The Americans were the only people to come close. With Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, and el loco de Mississippi.
Advocate: Mark Twain?
García Márquez: Mark Twain. And the next generation, with Hemingway and Faulkner. But no one’s ever come up to the English.
Advocate: What about the nineteenth-century Russians?
García Márquez: There are simply more English novelists—the total mass is so much greater. And that means there is more flexibility, more variety. The Russians have surpassed the English on some themes, on some particular topics, but not in everything, or even most things. They’re like the Americans, specializing in certain things. Is Melville read in America, outside of schools? He is full of splendid things. I think he was the greatest writer America has had.
Advocate: Do you have any advice for people beginning to write?
García Márquez: The only possible advice is to keep on writing, to continue and continue to write.