The Eternal Present
In 1981, when I went to Siberia to become acquainted with ice, I was nineteen years old. I traveled for twenty-seven days, by boat and train, from Havana to the city of Novosibirsk, in a time zone twelve hours different from my home. Many months later, besieged by thoughts of an all-too-foreseeable future as an engineer, which I did not want, I went out one winter for a walk in the snow. My stroll took me to a square at the center of the city where I came headlong upon a vision that assaulted me and left me riveted. It was a vast Kremlin or walled citadel built from great blocks of ice: high walls of ice, battlements of ice, towers of ice. Still deep in my astonishment, and without taking my ecstatic eyes from this wonder, I walked toward the dazzling castle and put my hand on its white masonry, exclaiming under my breath: “It’s the largest diamond in the world.” At that time in my life, I had more García Márquez in my bloodstream than anything else, and the phrase from the famous moment of the discovery of ice in a circus tent in Macondo came to me immediately at the sight of that impossible edifice, that fortress built in precise accordance with the principle of construction outlined in One Hundred Years of Solitude.
What I understood then, as I wandered through that Kremlin of ice, looking into the cloudy interior of ice floes sawed from Siberian rivers, was that the wonders of that book are to be taken literally; that it is, paradoxically, the greatest travel book imaginable, the best description of Siberia that can be conceived, indispensable for understanding the snowy landscapes, the magical unreality of the long nights, the amazing existence of cities built of ice, like the one imagined by José Arcadio Buendía, my namesake.
Except that I’d left that book behind in Havana on purpose, because I’d read it so many times it had begun to exert a hypnotic influence on me. It was both a book, and a unique language—García Márquez’s Spanish—from which I had to detach myself. But the vision of that evening made me go back to it and read it again in the only version available to me in Siberia—Russian. I spent months reading it in that language with the same obstinacy that the last of the Buendías dedicates to unraveling the writing of Melquíades, watching the snow fall through the window, amazed by the exact description of the life outside (the city of ice), by the disturbing presence of adolescent love, the epic binges of Aureliano Segundo (so precisely repeated in the drunken sprees of my Russian friends), the inventors’ nostalgia, the brutality with which men dedicate themselves to their mutual extermination.
Only by going back to it from so far away and with the blazing, hypnotic presence of its unmistakable style—those glittering walls of mirrors undiminished by translation—did I manage to break the enchantment the book had cast over me. I stopped attributing the existence of the book to an inexplicable miracle, and embarked little by little on a task I still haven’t completed: coming up with a personal explanation for the operating principle of one of the books I love most, which is also one of the most important and intimate books not only for its millions of readers but also for any writer, in Spanish or any other language. I believed that its structure was like a Greek frieze, the eternal present of the stela, which allows the author to move easily across the surface of the work and find the feature, the detail, either past or present (since all the parts of the frieze are always there) that best allows him to speak of a character and explain his current motives, which already exist in what he will do tomorrow or in what he did many years earlier.
In the years since then, I’ve never stopped going back to García Márquez, to all his work, moved by a deep gratitude for the unique force of his Spanish. He is a magician, a hypnotist, a maker of books so marvelous they managed to inoculate me against the inordinate ambition of imitating him and creating hypnotic devices of my own. After a life of reading and hand-to-hand combat with writing, I now have before my eyes a lesser frieze, in which Gabriel García Márquez has never ceased to be present, like a great rhapsodist of antiquity. It is to those realms of feeling, those regions of infinite astonishment, those great landscapes of admiration without measure, that I’ve gone to seek these words this evening.