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A Man With a Cosmic Talent

FIDEL CASTRO RUZ recalls an intimate late-night chat he and others with enjoyed with Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Havana over a decade ago

GABO and I were in Bogota on the sad day of April 9 1948 when they killed Jorge Gaitan [a progressive Colombian politician whose assassination sparked the Bogotazo riots and paved the way for the Farc insurgency].

We were both 21 and witnessed the same events. We were both studying law — at least we thought so. Nobody knew us and we didn’t know each other.

Almost half a century later, Gabo and I talked the day before our trip to Biran, a place in the east of Cuba wHere I was born, on the morning of August 13 1926.

The gathering — which we shared with a group of Gabo’s friends and some leading comrades of the revolution — had the character of one of those intimate family occasions where recollections and warm memories are exchanged.

That night images that were engraved in our memories resurfaced. “They killed Gaitan,” were the repeated cries in Bogota on April 9, where we — a groups of young Cubans — had travelled to organise a congress of Latin American students.

Perplexed and stunned, the people dragged the assassin through the streets, crowds set fire to shops, offices, cinemas and estate agents.

Some transported pianos and wardrobes on wheeled platforms from place to place.

Someone was breaking mirrors. Others attacked advertising hoards and shop awnings.

The rest took out their frustration and their pain on the street corners, on flower-decorated balconies and on steaming walls.

One man was venting his anger by bashing a typewriter, and to save him the solitary effort, I threw it in the air and it broke into pieces as it hit the ground.

As I spoke Gabo listened and probably felt confirmation of his certainty that in Latin America and the Caribbean writers needed to invent very little as reality surpasses any story that can be imagined.

His problem was perhaps in making his reality credible.

The thing with this story is that only towards the end did I learn that Gabo was also there at the same time — and I thought the coincidence revealing.

We’d probably been walking the same streets, experiencing the same shock, astonishment and impulse which lifted me to become part of that river suddenly overflowing from the hills.

I fired a question at him: “And you, what were you doing during the Bogotazo?”

And he, rooted in his surprising, vivid, wayward and exceptional imagination, answered smilingly and calmly, but categorically: “Fidel, I was the man with the typewriter.”

I’ve known Gabo forever and the first time could have been at any of those events or in any of those countries in that verdant, poetic, “Garciamarquesian” geography.

As he admitted himself, it was on his conscience to have initiated me into and kept me going with “an addiction to rapid-consumption bestsellers, as an antidote to official documents.”

To that needs to be added his responsibility for convincing me that not only in my next incarnation I would want to be a writer, but also that I would want to be like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, with all his obstinate and persistent attention to detail on which he bases — as if it was a philosopher’s stone — all the credibility of his dazzling exaggerations.

On one occasion, he assured me that I had just eaten 18 scoops of ice cream, which I denied with utmost conviction.

Later I remembered that in the early version of Of Love And Other Demons there was a man who rode an 11-month-old horse, and I commented: “Look, Gabo, add two or three years to the age of the horse because one of only 11 months is a but a foal.”

When I read the printed novel I remember Abrenuncio Sa Pereira Cao, who Gabo acknowledged to be the most notable, if controversial, medic in Cartagena de las Indias at the time of the narrative.

In the book, the man cries sitting on a boulder at the side of the road next to his horse which would have had its 100th birthday in October, but his heart had given way.

Gabo, as was to be expected, turned the age of the animal into a prodigious circumstance, into an event of undeniable veracity.

His writing is the verifiable proof of his sensibility and inalienable adherence to his origins, of his Latin American inspiration and loyalty to the truth of his progressive thinking.

I share with him the notorious theory, probably sacrilegious to academics and doctors of letters, on the relativity of words in a language, and I do it with the same intensity with which I feel a fascination for dictionaries and particularly the one he gave me for my 70th birthday, which is a true jewel because it contains — in addition to the word definitions — well-known phrases from Hispano-American literature, as examples of correct word usage.

As a public person I have the duty of writing speeches and describing events, and I agree with the illustrious writer that there is a delight in searching for the exact word — a kind of inexhaustible, shared obsession — until the sentence sits properly and is faithful to the feeling or idea we wish to express, but also the belief that it can always be bettered.

Above all else I admire him for quietly inventing words when the one he seeks does not appear to exist. How much I envy him this licence.

The publication of his autobiography Gabo By Gabo is rather the novel of his memories — a work, I imagine, of nostalgia for the afternoon thunder, the instant lightning strike and the magic of his mother, Luisa Santiaga Marquez Iguaran, cast far away from his native Aracataca, that hamlet without pavements, of torrential and eternal downpours, rituals of alchemy and telegraphy and sensational and turbulent love affairs — all of which populated Macondo, the little town in the pages of One Hundred Years of Solitude with all the dust and the spell of Aracataca.

Gabo always let me look at pages of early sketches — with that gesture of generosity and humility with which he sends drafts of his books to those he respects — a proof of that old and endearing friendship of ours.

With Gabo By Gabo he presents himself with sincerity, candour and vehemence in words that reveal him for what he is — a man with the kindness of a child, with a cosmic talent, a man of tomorrow to whom we are grateful for having lived this life in order to tell it.

This article was first published by Granma Internacional on December 12 2002 and republished on April 17 2014. Translation by Michal Boncza.

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