With the passing of Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez April 17th, The City Paper reproduces its 2009 interview with the official biographer of ‘Gabo’, Gerald Martin.
Over breakfast in Cartagena, a few blocks from Gabriel García Márquez’s house, British academic and Latin American specialist Gerald Martin recalls how, as a boy growing up in South London in the post-war period, he became ineluctably drawn towards Latin America and to what would become a life-time’s work on the continent, its history and its literature – culminating in his 17-year project on García Márquez.
“All was grey: the streets, the weather, the state of the world … and yet my stamp collections, my good fortune in going to a school where I was taught Spanish, and a diet of Mexican films all pointed to the existence, colour and excitement of Latin America.”
As soon as he could, Martin travelled to the continent. These were extraordinary times: the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963, with Ché Guevara’s continental revolutionary attempts underway, and the approach of Allende’s period of socialist government in Chile. The winds of change were sweeping through Latin America, or so it felt.
Gerald Martin met his future subject, by this time an international figure and Nobel prizewinner drawing enthusiastic, adulatory crowds wherever he went, in Havana in 1990. ‘Gabo’, by then a close friend of Fidel Castro (a key figure, and Martin’s interviewee, in the biography), was in Havana for the annual film festival of the Foundation for New Latin American Cinema – a project which Gabo’s Nobel prize money helped to create.
Martin sought Gabo out, following the tip-off of a Zimbabwean man living in Havana who swore he had seen where Gabo was staying (one of many stories and coincidences surrounding the evolution of the biography worthy of the great author himself). To his amazement, “I was let into the house, met Gabo and proposed to write his biography. He agreed.”
17 years of exhaustive, painstaking work have followed, in which Martin has met and interviewed the author, his devoted wife Mercedes, his family and many friends on many occasions. On the publication of Gabo’s “Noticia de un secuestro” (News of a Kidnapping), in 1996, the author sent his biographer a signed copy affectionately dedicated to “el loco que me persigue” (the madman who chases after me).
The two men were also united by suffering from a bout of lymphoma within a few years of one another. “On rare occasions,” Martin reflects, “can a biographer and subject have experienced the same illness within such a close period. Gabo was immensely kind and concerned when I was affected; and did not hold it against me when, three years later, he was diagnosed with the same illness.”
Martin gives an amusing, affectionate account of the challenge of writing a definitive account of Gabo’s life, given the author’s delight in telling multiple versions of the same incident, varying between the accounts of favourite stories recalled by his friends in conversation; the author’s own memoir, “Vivir para Contarla” (published in 2002, and which Martin refers to and draws on in the book); and his memories as told to his biographer. Martin cites Gabo’s own epigraph in the memoir as a warning: “life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it”. He also revels in Gabo’s ‘mamagallismo’(‘piss-taking’): a sheer delight, again common on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, in providing ever more elaborate, possibly preposterous or elusive ways of describing people and events.
Martin is palpably a tender, kind, modest and funny man: qualities which must have endeared him to, and won him the confidence of, his unique subject. He speaks with a sense of ongoing wonder about Gabo’s remarkable life, expressing his fascination at how a boy such as Gabo, born in one of the most isolated small towns in Colombia, could in time become such an international figure, “loved across the world, whose work speaks to people’s experience and who defined a unique moment in Latin America’s literary, cultural and political life in the twentieth century.”
Martin speaks about Gabo’s work, in particular – inevitably – One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) in the context of the Latin American literary boom of the 1960s, and Gabo’s political vision and understanding of Latin America at the time.
He also relishes the intricacies of Gabo’s political and intellectual friendships throughout his life, which, in addition to Castro, have numbered Bill Clinton, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes and King Juan Carlos of Spain. He also recounts compellingly the long history of Gabo’s diplomatic interventions, private and public, in world affairs, the world’s relationship with Cuba, and – more recently – in the context of the Colombian conflict, where he has consistently supported the cause of a negotiated peace and an end to kidnapping, the conflict and the drugs war.
“It has been an enormous privilege,” says Martin, who speaks of the relief associated with bringing the project to fruition, and at having ensured that the final published version is a cogent distillation of the over 2500 pages of manuscript he had originally compiled.
That said, at least three more books remain to be written by him on his subject: one, a fuller life (making proper use of the complete material Martin has collected, much of which sheds novel light on 20th century Latin America and several of its most famous personalities); a book of literary criticism on Gabo’s work, in line with Martin’s life’s work as a professor and an academic critic on Latin American literature; and “a book about the book”, given that the process of writing the biography was in itself such a unique challenge and experience.
Martin also feels a sense of gratitude to the “hundreds of Colombians who have been unfailingly helpful and welcoming throughout the entirety of the project”; without their support, the process of writing the book would have been much more difficult. He awaits future Colombian biographies of Gabo with interest, and is preparing himself (with some trepidation) for the coming couple of years, in which the demands on his time – in Colombia and internationally – are set to be intense. Translations of the biography into 13 different languages are complete, such is the level of global fascination with Gabo’s work.
The phone never stops ringing, Martin tells me, and the inbox constantly full with requests for interviews. But perhaps that’s a small price to pay for having written what will remain the definitive biography of the Cervantes of our time.