I’ll begin by quoting the first paragraph of my review of One Hundred Years of Solitude when the book was first published in the United States thirty-two years ago. This novel, I wrote is “the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race. It takes up not long after Genesis left off . . . reporting on everything that happened since then with more lucidity, wit, wisdom, and poetry than is expected from a hundred years of novelists, let alone one man.”
That was a fairly prophetic paragraph. The book seems to have become second only to the Bible as a universal text, and I think the Bible is losing ground. However, I also must quote my next sentence in the review, which was about the man who wrote this wonderful book. “That man,” I said, “is Gabriel García Márquez, an Argentine of incredibly magical imagination.” This review appeared in 1970 in the National Observer under the headline “All of Life, Sense and Nonsense Fills an Argentine’s Daring Fable.” Well, the book jacket and publicity release had carried no biographical information—only a line that it had been written in Latin America. I thought the publishers were trying to pass Gabo off as an American (and a U.S. publisher connected to the book’s publication has since confirmed to me that I was correct: Latin America was someplace real in the public mind, but Colombia wasn’t). The book’s copyright page, however, noted its first Spanish-language publication was Buenos Aires, 1967; hence the author, to me and my editor, was an Argentine.
Two years later, the summer of 1972, I went to Spain to discover the author for America; for despite the ascending reverence for his book, García Márquez the man was still a well-kept secret. When we talked in Barcelona, I admitted my Argentine goof and he said, “Ah, so you’re the one.” My wife and I had been invited to Paris, and after that, I decided, we’d take the overnight train to Spain for the interview. Gabo’s and my agents talked, and a meeting was arranged. I was living in genteel poverty in those days and thought I’d enhance our bankroll with a magazine advance for a piece on the man I was about to bring out of illustrious anonymity, so I called three major magazines. One wasn’t interested. The second said the author should go out and get himself famous; then they’d do a piece. The third said they’d look at my story, but no advance. I said to hell with them all and decided I’d work on spec, which is the journalistic term for zilch.
In Barcelona I phoned Gabo and asked, “Do you speak English?” “Nada,” he said, which wasn’t true, but that was his pose. I spoke my rusty Spanish and he said we’d meet at five on La Rambla, old Barcelona’s great thoroughfare. Ten minutes later he called back—my Spanish was better than I thought —and he said we’d meet at noon instead of five. And here he came down La Rambla in a navy blue sports jacket, gray slacks, open-collared blue shirt, full head of curly black hair, and a lush goatee. His method, he later explained, was to meet interviewers in public, stay long enough to be civil, then leave. If the interview went well, he’d extend it. We were talking in two languages over street noise and I suggested someplace quiet. “It’s hard to find that in Spain,” he said. He pointed to a bar and said, “It’s American. Nobody goes there.”
We went there and talked quietly for two hours. I’ll quote only a question he asked out of the blue: “What do you think of Graham Greene?” I said I had a high opinion of Greene. “He teaches you how to write,” Gabo said. “His technique of narration is so good. Intellectuals would like to like Greene, but they don’t think they should. The intellectual is the worst thing there is. He invents things and then he believes them. He decides the novel is dead but then he finds a novel and says he discovered it. If you say the novel is dead, it is not the novel. It is you who are dead.” We talked for two hours and Gabo didn’t flee. He invited us to his home at five o’clock for more talk, and late dinner. We met his wife, Mercedes, their sons Gonzalo and Rodrigo, who were then ten and twelve; my wife, Dana, who is Puerto Rican and fluent in Spanish, translated for us. After a few scotches, Gabo was speaking English to me, and Dana was translating my Spanish to him, in English. Our conversation carried on for nine hours, until two A.M., at Barcelona’s best secret restaurant.
I offer only one story, which gave title to the piece I wrote, “The Yellow Trolley Car in Barcelona.” It appeared in the Atlantic in the United States and the Observer Sunday magazine in England in 1972, the first biographical articles on Gabo in either country. When our Paris train crossed into Spain at Port Bou, we picked up a brochure detailing the trolley lines in Barcelona by number and destination. I rode trolleys from adolescence through high school and have been a trolley-car freak ever since. (I didn’t know until someone pointed it out that trolleys appear in all my novels except Legs, and that one has a train, which is something like a trolley.) Dana and I looked for a trolley at Columbus Plaza and a coconut vendor said Barcelona hadn’t had trolleys in fifteen years. So why was Spain touting them in tourist brochures? The coconut man wasn’t sure. We took a bus instead and stood in the back looking out the large rear window at the receding canyon of splendid buildings, which reminded me of photographs of New York’s Fifth Avenue in the nineteenth century, and suddenly I said to Dana, “There’s a trolley.” She missed it. Its movement was perpendicular to ours, and it was visible only for a few seconds, no more, and three blocks back. Then it disappeared behind the canyon wall.
At his house, I eventually asked Gabo, “What trolleys still run in Barcelona?” He and Mercedes said there were no trolleys, only a funicular. I said I saw a trolley and it was yellow and old-fashioned in design. Mercedes said the funicular was blue. Gabo phoned his agent. “Is there a yellow trolley car in Barcelona?” he asked her. “I’m here having an interview with Kennedy and he saw a yellow trolley car.” she said all trolleys were yellow in the old days, then called back to report that two years earlier at a public ceremony, the last trolley in Barcelona had been formally buried. What had I seen? I have no idea, except that it was a trolley car. “To me this is completely natural,” Gabo said, and he told a story: “My wife and I were asleep and the doorbell rings. I open the door and a man says to me, ‘I came to fix the ironing cord.’ My wife, from the bed, says, ‘We don’t have anything wrong with the iron here.’ The man says, ‘Is this apartment two?’ ‘No,’ I say, ‘upstairs.’ Later my wife plugged in the iron and it burned up. This was a reversal. The man came before we knew it had to be fixed. This type of thing happens all the time. My wife has already forgotten it.”
A world in which ironing cords incinerate prematurely is the world we associate with García Márquez, not only in One Hundred Years of Solitude, but in The Autumn of the Patriarch, Innocent Eréndira, and much more. In Love in the Time of the Cholera, he moved into more realistic storytelling, but the embrace by writers of what has come to be called his magical realism—and I’m sure he loathes that phrase—has become as universal a tool for storytelling as Joyce’s interior monologue, and it no longer belongs only to Gabo. Of course it never did. Such writing is as old as Homer and as modern as Kafka. Even so, Gabo is stuck with it, and as such, his work was recently decreed passé by a new school of young Latin American realists, who have replaced, for their own satisfaction, Gabo’s mythic town of Macondo with their own mock town of McOndo—as in McDonald’s or McNuggets. Latin America, they say, is no longer cute; no more levitating priests or storms of butterflies. They want to write dirty realism about contemporary life—raw sex and violence in the apolitical lower depths. To some of us, that sounds like the place from which an earlier generation departed; but of course every world is valuable when the writer is navigating through the unknown.
Here is Gabo’s take on all this: “People believe I’m a writer of fantastic fiction when actually I’m a very realistic person and write what I believe is the true socialist realism.” I agree totally with that, and now that I think about it, I realize that it was a socialist yellow trolley car I saw in Barcelona. It’s the only possible explanation.