Gabriel García Márquez was born on 6 March 1927 and passed away on 17 April 2014
I hadn’t journeyed to the Colombian city of Cartagena de Indias to seek a Caribbean utopia (of which there are many) to sun myself upon; I had come in search of the world I had previously inhabited through the literature of Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez. Gabo (as he is affectionately known in his homeland), in case you were wondering, is Colombia’s most celebrated writer and export beyond its more inglorious industries of cocaine, emeralds and, erm … Shakira. Choosing to ignore the alarmist embassy warnings about the country’s shifty international rep as the kidnapping capital of the world (clinging to the intrepid, “I’m from South Africa, nothing scares me” motto), I had set off. My research confirmed that under the leadership of former president Alvaro Uribe, the nation’s priorities had turned from terrorism to tourism, and travel brochures had all adopted consoling catch phrases like: The only risk you’ll encounter in Colombia is never wanting to leave.
It was with a great sense of relief that I was finally able to abandon the prosaic dictates of the Lonely Planet in favour of calling upon Maestro Márquez (all 22 of his novels stacked in my backpack) to inform and shape my daily itinerary. In preparation for my entrance into the coastal city of Cartagena, I had honed my focuses on two of Márquez’s novels set in Cartagena – Love in the Time of Cholera (the city provided the locations featured in the film version) and Of Love and Other Demons – while using his autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale, to gain further insight into the Colombian storyteller’s infinitely beautiful and boundless mind.
Despite Gabo’s continual references throughout his books to the Caribbean heat (in my research I compiled a list of adjectives that soon reached more than three pages), I had arrived in Cartagena unperturbed. I suppose, being a Durbanite, I had rather foolishly hoped that the humidity of my native East Coast would render me immune. But stepping out of an air conditioned taxi out into the midday torpor, I found myself mentally running through the checklist. Devastating – yes! Overwhelming – most definitely. Impossible, infernal, interminable, intolerable, incandescent and implausible, reverberating ,splendid, shameful, savage, stolid and torrid – abso-bloody-lutely!.
Ambling through the deserted back alleys of the colonial quarter, I discovered a vacant city, its population hidden indoors, shielding themselves from what Gabo calls ‘the shameful infection from the sun’. This midday abandonment perfectly evoked one of the many descriptive passages from the early chapters of Love in the Time of Cholera.
‘After Independence from Spain and the abolition of slavery, the great old families sunk into their ruined palaces in silence. Along the rough cobbled streets that had served so well in surprise attacks and buccaneer landings, weeds hung from the balconies and opened cracks in the whitewashed walls of even the best-kept mansions, and the only signs of life at two o’clock in the afternoon were languid piano exercises played in the dim light of the siesta.’
Upon my arrival in the forted city, I experienced the strange sensation of having wondered these cobblestoned streets before. The insufferable heat, turkey buzzards turning in the thermals, chestnut tree-shaded parks, tolling cathedral bells and bougainvillea-infested balconies all adding to that exhilarating familiarity that comes with wondering into a once vicarious realm – a world previously inhabited between the covers of a book, now manifest and teeming before my awe-struck eyes. So persuasive and consummate is Márquez at evoking a sense of time and place in his literature that it’s easy to forget that it was in fact this landscape that had imagined the author long before he had set about reimagining it.
In search of a bench to rest my book-burdened shoulders, I settled on the shaded oasis of the Plaza Bolivar. At its centre looms the imposing equestrian statue of the emancipator Simón Bolivar. I plonked myself beneath his pedestal boots, politely refusing the advances of watermelon-hawking mulatto women in cascading fruit headdresses, and turned my attentions instead to the colonial splendour of the surrounding neighbourhood.
Here Márquez’s literary landmarks proved instantly identifiable – so much so, that through his prose I was able to fill in any anachronistic gaps left by the boutique stores and tourist offices now situated within the historic facades. From this vantage point, one need not possess a lively imagination to conceive themselves in shoes of Love in the Time of Cholera’s protagonist Florentino Ariza – the hapless telegraph operator who, sitting beneath the shade of a similar park, waits to glimpse his love, Fermina Daza, in her bedroom window. (Here, any one of the surrounding bougainvillea-festooned balconies will do.) After such extended periods of lovesick doting, Florentino launches himself into a lifelong (50 years, nine months and four days to be exact) and mostly unrequited seduction. Márquez later confessed that the premise of the novel was inspired by his parent’s recollections of their own drawn-out and equally tragic-comic courtship.
Once I had checked into a hostel in the historic slave quarters of Getsemani, I returned at sunset to wonder the colonial quarter’s forted walls. From this vantage point, it’s easy to see how during the16th century the city‘s coastal proximity, combined with the Spaniards’ wealth of accumulated treasures (ransacked from the indigenous tribes across the continent), were viewed by the roving pirate galleons as an open invitation for a bit of the old rape, pillage and plunder – an inconvenience that would take the Spaniards more than 200 years to resolve through the erection of several kilometres of impenetrable walls (las Murallas). Ironically, it was these same walls that were to provide sanctuary to a young Márquez, who had come to Cartagena fleeing the political upheavals that had erupted at the University City of Bogota, where he was a student in 1948.
I strolled along the circumference of las Murallas, where rusty canons from the 16th century still point out to sea. It’s a suitably idyllic viewpoint – on one side the sun slinking into the misty Caribbean, while on the other the fairytale city is illuminated and resounding with off-key serenades and the uniform clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages. Flocks of low-flying pelicans merged with a mauve sunset as a full moon, egged on by cityscape steeples, rose to assume their place among accumulating surrealism of it all. Here I should acknowledge how difficult (or rather futile) it is trying to separate Gabo’s literature from real life, the magic from the realism, and fiction from the historic fact.
I took a moment to attend an evening mass at the Iglesia de Santo Domingo (the city’s oldest church), reading a chapter of Love in the Time of Cholera amid the soporific (yet hardly inappropriate) soundtrack of lugubrious hymns before heading out to the gateway of El Reloj, which extends across the (now defunct) drawbridge. Márquez writes in his autobiography that the drawbridge used to be raised each evening out of the colonialists’ fear of that the poverty-stricken masses would sneak across from the slums at midnight and slit their throats.
Unlike the immaculately kept colonial quarter, Getsemani, the outlying slave quarter, has not been accorded the same loving lick of restorative paint or brass polish. Rather, it exists as the city’s subterranean flip side – the grimy pair of undies that the old colonial dame (try as she might) can’t adequately conceal beneath the new folds of her petticoat. It’s a more honest portrait, altogether less Disneyfied, and practically unchanged from the streets Márquez recalls carousing with his journalist drinking buddies in his youth.
Against choruses of, “Cocaina, mi amigo. Cocaina”, I saw women emptying latrines from rotting wooden balustrades and passed the ubiquitous putas (prostitutes) who were being accosted by street preachers who insisted on laying hands to impure flesh and praying for their salacious souls. The district is a maze of pool bars, divey discos and brothels (what Gabo affectionately refers to as “transient hotels”) overflowing with burly sailor types. I passed internet cafes and incongruous religious stores whose windows displayed diminutive armies of catholic saints – figurines featuring a karma sutra of Christs contorted in varying (each more horrific and bloody than the last) configurations on the cross.
Under the sea-rusted signage of their respective crafts, I watched tailors, barbers and chemists with wax-tipped moustaches slaving late into the night, each of their trades still relying on the vestiges of an antique world: Singer sewing machines, Sweeny Todd barber chairs and hand-operated tills that insist on a purchase simply for the thrill of the “cha-ching” sound they make for a sale.
On returning to my hostel, I avoided the dull chit-chat one is obliged to partake in with fellow travellers out in the courtyard in favour of reading in my room. It’s not that the hostel guests were uninteresting, just that Gabo proved such an engrossing companion that I didn’t wish to spend a moment away from his company. I scoured his body of work, circling references, street names, any clues, and returning daily to the highlighted locations with a renewed sense of curiosity and purpose.
One such rediscovery was the Portal de los Dulces, situated by the entrance of the old city, what was also once known as the Arcade of Scribes (Portal de los Escribanos). It was under these “rotted canvas awnings” that both Márquez’s father, Gabriel Eligio García, and the character of Florentino Ariza from Love in the Time of Cholera used to sit and pawn their love poetry to the illiterate. Márquez recalls in his autobiography that in this instance his father failed to prosper as either poet or scribe because most of his destitute clients asked not only that he write their letters out of charity but be kind enough to help them pay for the postage.
It is in this same arcade that “amid the clamour of shoeshine boys and bird sellers, the hawkers of cheap books, and sweet vendors” (who still line the arcade selling their handmade fudges and coconut candies) that Florentino Ariza is brutally rebuffed for the first time by Fermina Daza.
When not seeking out such fabled landmarks (the entire city feels like a living monument to Love in the Time of Cholera), I set about visiting Cartagena’s abundance of museums. One such museum is the Palacio de la Inquisicion, which charts the Spanish Inquisition in Cartagena during the 16th century – a grisly purge that saw the torture and demise of several thousand slaves and alleged heretics. The English-speaking guide who showed me around the museum’s gallows and chambers delivered a supine Wikipedia-learnt spiel, routinely listing and indicating (without a hint of expression, regret or revulsion) how a barbaric array of instruments – including the breast shredder, disembowelling rake, head squasher, thumb crusher, collar of nails and fork of the heretic – was used to coax the required confessions. He made a lacklustre storyteller, but it was nothing a re-reading of Márquez’s Of Love and Other Demons, set during Cartagena’s Inquisition, couldn’t rectify.
In the novel, Márquez tells the story of the marquis’ 12-year-old daughter Sierva Maria, who after contracting rabies is admitted to the convent of Santa Clara under the diagnosis that she is being plagued by demons. During Sierva Maria’s incarceration, a young priest, Cayetano Delaura, is summoned to exorcise her virulent demons, but, as a Márquez novel, the exorcism is complicated by the priest falling head over heels in love with the girl.
On the final morning of my stay, I went on an excursion into the old city to track down the Convent of Santa Clara – the same convent Márquez was commissioned to write article on for the El Universal newspaper during its renovation in 1949. Needless to say, he not only returned with the said article but also the inspiration for Of Love and Other Demons. While the labourers had set about emptying of the convent’s burial crypts, Márquez had observed the exhumation of a child (named Sierva Maria de Todos los Angleles), whose 200-year-old head of hair had continued to grow after her death to reach a length of 22m.
I arrived anticipating the novel’s description of the convent: innumerable windows facing the sea, a gallery of semicircular arches surrounding a dark and overgrown garden, but I was perturbed to discover it operating as a swanky five-star hotel – probably the only irreconcilable disappointment in my otherwise prosperous literary treasure hunt. In my dishevelled and perspiring state, the deprecatory look on the doorman’s face denied me entry before I’d even had the chance to ask, so instead I had to make do with stealing glimpses from a side window facing the street.
I was horrified to discover that what was once the rabid Sierva Maria’s convent now gives respite to and provides luxury for moneyed tourists; Speedoed Germans idle the afternoon away in the very place where once cloistered nuns clutched crucifixes and prayed in silent terror, and obese Americans wallow in a swimming pool on the spot where little Sierva Maria, straightjacketed and hair shorn, was given enemas of holy water to expel the demons that writhed in her belly. “I hope their tormented ghosts keep you all up at night,” I muttered indignantly while shouldering my library of a backpack and climbing aboard a bus bound for Aracataca, now in search of Márquez’s mythical banana plantation town of Macondo.
It’s not easy finding the road that leads into the fabled Colombian town of Aracataca despite its reputation as Márquez’s birthplace and settlement that was to inspire and shape his literary plantation town of Macondo.
I was on the verge of giving up, of supposing that the town – if it had in fact existed at all – had suffered the same fate as its literary counterpart – those familiar with Márquez’s masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude will recall that Macondo is obliterated in the novel’s catastrophic and concluding windstorm. It was while poring over a map of the Caribbean coast at a backpackers in the coastal city of Santa Marta that I finally caught sight of it. Eureka, Aracataca – an insignificant and suitably obscure blemish marooned in a swamp of green, which I assumed to be the banana plantations the author frequently refers to in his novels. After a few telephone calls, I discovered that the town is situated in Colombia’s Magdalena Province, just two hours south of Santa Marta.
And so, the following morning, with a day pack of Márquez reading material in tow, I boarded a bus bound for the elusive Aracataca, finally, one step closer to unravelling literary myth from verifiable fact, the maestro’s magic from inseparable realism. Just how much truth would I discover behind Márquez’s frequent claims that within the Latin American reality, surrealism is as much the norm as banality? Only time would tell.
As my bus arrived in what I assumed to be Aracataca, I was abandoned on the fringes of a remote banana thicket. Feeling more than a little forsaken, I waved down a kid on a pedal bike rickshaw, who, for a minimal fee, agreed to escort me to my fist port of call – the Gabriel Garcia Márquez Museum.
It was on Gabo’s – then an aspiring young writer – first return pilgrimage to Aracataca that he found himself bombarded with a torrent of childhood memories that would provoke him to write his earlier novels set in Macondo – The Leaf Storm and In Evil Hour, which was originally titled This Shitty Town but was renamed after its religious editor considered it too risqué.
Although both novels were deemed financial and critical failures, they enabled the author to lay the first of Macondo’s legendary literary foundations; the blueprints, if you will, for an expansive and near incomprehensible mythology that would later dazzle the world through the publishing of One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967.
In the opening chapters of the novel, Macondo is depicted as a veritable utopia; a place where no one grows older than 30 and no one ever dies. But with the inevitable intrusions of time and history, the settlement’s idyllic isolation is eroded, and we read with regret as the state, military, church, technology and capitalism – in the form of the United Fruit Company – set about contributing to its boom and subsequent decline.
Citing his reasons for the change of name in his autobiography, Márquez claims that Aracataca simply wasn’t a mythical enough sounding name for the version he had reassembled in his head. “This word ‘Macondo’ had attracted my attentions ever since the first trips I had made with my grandfather, but I discovered only as an adult that I liked its poetic resonance. I had already used it in three novels as the name of an imaginary town when I happened to read in the encyclopedia that it is a tropical tree resembling the ceiba, that it produces no flowers or fruit, and that its light, porous wood is used for making canoes and carving cooking implements.”
Sitting at the back of the rickshaw, with my prepubescent driver now huffing away at the handlebars, we made our way through the centre of the town. Here I caught glimpses of familiar literary landmarks: dilapidated municipal buildings, dance halls, a parish church and conglomerations of tin-roofed shacks. Pool bars resounded with the firecracker clack of colliding balls, while elderly men sat out on stoeps, slugging beer and warring with dominoes.
Festooning the walls and houses throughout the town were banners and murals depicting Colombia’s beloved storyteller. To anyone unfamiliar with Gabo’s mischievous grin, hirsute brows and unkempt tufts of hair, it would be easy to presume – from the sheer ubiquity of his image – that he was in fact this settlement’s founding father, and in a certain sense such an assumption would not be altogether incorrect, for were it not for Márquez’s contribution, one could be certain that Aracataca would languor alongside its equally uneventful neighbours in complete and utter obscurity. The author’s influence is so great that the town’s mayor attempted to change its official name to the literary moniker – a proposal that, while met with a resounding enthusiasm from Aracataca inhabitants, flopped dismally when the town’s residents failed to turn out in sufficient numbers to cast the required number of votes.
At the museum, I found an unofficial little building containing the chaotic semblance of anything remotely connected to the author’s life and family. I glanced over tables scattered with an array of antiquated objects, photographs and first-edition paperbacks, while corkboards displayed photographs of the maestro with his bevy of famous and often contentious buddies: Grahame Greene, Fidel Castro and Carlos Fuentes. In the corner of the museum, a forlorn and rusted film projector stood as the vestige of Don Antonio Daconte’s enchanted Olympia Cinema – yet another memorable location frequented by Gabo’s eccentric assortment of Macondo inhabitants.
A visit to the author’s childhood home, a block away from the museum, proved to be a considerably more enlightening excursion, for it is this same ailing structure that was to inspire and house the six successive generations of the Buendía dynasty that features in the novel.
To those unfamiliar with One Hundred Years, the rambling property’s tides of prosperity and bankruptcy perfectly mirror the country’s own political and economic temperaments. If this is the case, then surely the building’s restoration at the time of visiting can be viewed as an encouraging sign.
But it was landmarks such as the melancholy chestnut tree out in the courtyard that sets me leafing through my paperback in an attempt to retrace certain characters’ converging footsteps. This was the same chestnut tree that ardent Gabo fans will recall the hapless Jose Arcadio Buendía – in his old age and insanity – was bound to, as well as the tree that his son – Colonel Aureliano Buendía, is reported to have died while urinating against.
Taking a desultory midday amble through the outlying Aracataca suburbs, I found the plantation town coming to more clearly resemble the Macondo I had imagined from Gabo’s prose. Here I found locals wallowing in the limbo of their daily siesta: Men snoozing in creaking hammocks while their ancient wives knitted (perhaps their own funeral shrouds?) beside them in patio rocking chairs.
In a fitting finale to my pilgrimage, I arrived at the Rio Aracataca – a river that runs beneath the shadows of the now defunct United Fruit Company railway bridge. Village children splashed blithely in the shallows, while above them officious military men patrolled the bridge’s many checkpoints. It was true to its immortal description: “clear water runs along a bed of polished stones – white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs”.
That evening in Santa Marta – after miraculously surviving a head-on bus collision on my return trip home – I went up to the roof of my hostel to enjoy a cold beer. Here I experienced the last of the day’s many magical manifestations – a motif that arrives in the form of a near biblical windstorm. It’s as if Márquez himself has conjured up these great destructive gusts – to prove an enduring point.
It is a gale that roars from every direction, tilting boats in the Santa Marta bay while swinging rusty hooks from harbour cranes. I watch as it tyrannises tin roofs and tears mercilessly at the fronds of promenade trees before blasting washing lines to opposite ends of the city. It is more than strong enough to uproot banana plantations and, with only a little literary liberty, eradicate entire family histories.