Born in the Colombian village of Aracataca in 1927, Gabriel García Márquez made his mark as a master of the modern novel with the publication of Cien años de soledad in 1967 (published in English as One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1970). His reputation was cemented with the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. García Márquez's other major works published in English include No-one Writes to the Colonel, (1963), The Autumn of the Patriarch (1976) and Chronicle of a Death Foretold, (1983). His most recent work is Love In the Time of Cholera.
Interview with Gabriel García Márquez
Born in the Colombian village of Aracataca in 1927, Gabriel García Márquez made his mark as a master of the modern novel with the publication of Cien años de soledad in 1967 (published in English as One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1970). His reputation was cemented with the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. In this interview he speaks of his personal vision of Latin America and evokes some of the principal themes of his work, in which elements of fantasy and the marvellous mingle with the most banal reality to give everyday life a mythical and universal dimension.
Interview conducted by Manuel Osorio, Peruvian journalist
In Latin America different cultures have come together to create something new and rich. Are Latin Americans aware of this intermixing?
Speaking for myself, I only became aware of it a few years ago, even though my experience as a writer and my frequent contacts with different societies and political systems have increased my understanding of other aspects of Latin American culture. When I was travelling in Africa, I noticed similarities between some forms of popular art there and those of various Caribbean countries. That gave me a clearer understanding of our own cultural situation as well as of the relationship between elements of different cultures generally.
Through such insights, you can discover both what is unique and what is universal in a culture. There is a whole network of links between peoples that they may not necessarily be aware of.
Isn't that the starting-point of your novels? Their main theme, even?
I wasn't really conscious of the multicultural influence when I was writing them. It came to me of its own accord. It was only afterwards that I realized that almost unintentionally there were elements of this cultural mingling in my work, elements that had crept in gradually as I was writing.
In Latin America various influences have mixed and spread across the continent: Western culture, the African presence, even some Oriental elements, all added to the native, pre-Columbian tradition. That's why I don't think one can talk of a Mexican or Colombian culture as such. Speaking personally, I no longer think of myself as Colombian; first and foremost I am Latin American, and proud of it.
I should add that it's a mistake to think of the history of Latin America as starting with the Spanish conquest. That's a colonial viewpoint. We must never forget that the nations forged by the Spanish viceroys were the results of arbitrary decisions from outside, not of our own special needs.
To understand our current problems, we have to go back to the time before the Conquest. The borders that were drawn between the Latin American countries were only created to manipulate us, and still, whenever there's a need for it, the cry of nationalism goes up. Obviously, that only sets us against one another, stops us from seeing and feeling the problems that we have in common. Each country has its own special circumstances, but what really matters is our underlying common identity.
So is there such a thing as a Latin American culture?
I certainly don't think one can say there is a homogeneous Latin American culture. For example in Central America, the Caribbean region, there is an African influence that has resulted in a culture different from that of countries with a sizable indigenous population, like Mexico or Peru. You could make a similar point about many other Latin American countries.
In South America, Venezuela and Colombia have more in common with the Caribbean than with the Andean Indians, even though both countries have an Indian population of their own. In Peru and Ecuador, there is a divergence between the coastal regions and the mountains. Similar situations exist throughout the continent.
These diverse influences come together to give Latin American civilization its special flavour, its uniqueness in relation to the world's other cultures.
What part does Spanish influence play in this context?
There's no denying the strength of Spanish influence in Latin America, and of Portuguese influence in Brazil. It is there in every aspect of our lives. We even speak Castilian Spanish.
It is a very rich influence, if also a controversial one that is often disparaged. Even though the heritage is part of our cultural personality, there is a mistrust of everything Spanish in Latin America that complicates everything and seems to me to be excessive and dangerous. As far as I'm concerned, I am proud to have inherited that culture, I'm not ashamed of it in any way. Spanish colonization is no longer a problem today. It's true that we were created in a way from a European overflow, but we're no mere copy of Europe. Latin America is something else again.
Where did the urge to write come from, the storytelling inspiration that gave us One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Autumn of the Patriarch, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Love in the Time of Cholera...?
I think it all comes from nostalgia.
Nostalgia for your childhood? For your country?
Nostalgia for my country and for life itself. I had an extraordinary childhood, surrounded by highly imaginative and superstitious people, people who lived in a misty world populated by phantasms. For instance, my grandmother used quite unselfconsciously to tell me stories at night that would make my hair stand on end.
Your grandfather seems to have been something of a family legend. Did he play an important part in your childhood?
He was an enormous old man who seemed to be suspended in time and in memory, and I was very fond of him. He died when I was eight years old, and I was deeply upset. He used to tell me about his life and everything that had happened in the village and the surrounding district since time immemorial. He described in detail the wars he had fought in and the terrible massacres in the banana plantations the year I was born, massacres that left a lasting trace on Colombian history.
Did your mother also influence you as a writer?
She's an enchanting woman. When someone asked her about me, what she attributed her son's talent to, she replied without batting an eyelid "Scott's Emulsion" [a children's tonic]. There's another revealing anecdote. I have several brothers. Well, whenever one of us takes a plane, she lights a candle and says a prayer that everything will be all right. But we're no longer all living at home, and the last time I saw her she told me, "Now I always keep a candle burning, in case one of you takes a plane without my knowing about it".
All my family are very important to me, and they all appear in one way or another in my writings. I never forget that I am the son of an Aracataca postal worker.
Originally you came from the Caribbean, and your books reflect the feverish, overflowing life of the region. Is that where you found the magical realism that has made your work so popular around the world?
In the Caribbean there's a perfect symbiosis – well, let's say one more evident than elsewhere – between the people, daily life and the natural world. I grew up in a village hidden away among marshes and virgin forest on the Colombian north coast. The smell of the vegetation there is enough to turn your stomach.
It's a place the sea passes through every imaginable shade of blue, where cyclones make houses fly away, where villages lie buried under dust and the air burns your lungs. For the Caribbean peoples, natural catastrophe and human tragedy are part of everyday life.
should add that the area is soaked in myths brought over by the slaves, mixed in with Indian legends and Andalusian imagination. The result is a very special way of looking at things, a conception of life that sees a bit of the marvellous in everything. You find it not just in my novels, but also in the works of Miguel Angel Asturias in Guatemala and Alejo Carpentier in Cuba. There's a supernatural side to things, a kind of reality that ignores the laws of reason, just like in dreams.
I once wrote a story about the Pope visiting a remote Colombian village, something that seemed quite impossible at the time. Well, a few years later the Pope visited Colombia.
In view of the influences you've described, the presence of the marvellous throughout your work, do you think critics are justified in describing you as a fantasy writer, as baroque?
In the Caribbean, and in Latin America in general, we consider so-called magical situations part of everyday life, like any other aspect of reality. It seems quite natural to us to believe in portents, telepathy, premonitions, a whole host of superstitions and fantastical ways of coming to terms with reality. I never try to explain or justify such phenomena in my books. I see myself as a realist, pure and simple.
The relationship between Europe and Latin America has always been full of unhelpful misunderstandings. Do you think it's necessary to clarify the relationship and to put ill feeling behind us if we are to reach a new equilibrium between North and South?
The problems our continent faces are so huge that they prevent us from seeing things clearly, even though we are right in the midst of the situation. So it's not surprising if Europe, absorbed by the spectacle of its own culture, lacks adequate means of understanding us. The Europeans have inherited a great rationalist tradition, and it is only to be expected that they should constantly judge us by their own criteria, without taking into account the differences that exist at other latitudes. It's not surprising either if they fail to see that the need for prosperity and a sense of identity is felt just as keenly in Latin America, or in Africa and Asia, as it once was in Europe, and still is today. Even so, any attempt to interpret one part of the world using the criteria of another is bound to lead to terrible misunderstandings, and can only entrap people more deeply in alienation, solitude and isolation.
Europe should try to see us in the light of its own past. It's as if the present imbalance has made it lose sight of the vicissitudes of its own history. Who remembers that it took 300 years to build a wall around London? That Rome wasn't built in a day but over many centuries, or that it was an Etruscan king who took Rome into the arena of history? That Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, was bigger than Paris when the conquistadors arrived?
Europeans of vision, people doing their best to create a more just and humane society across their continent, could really help us if they changed their way of judging us. Any real sympathy with our dreams and hopes should take the form of aid for people whose only ambition is to live their own lives in a world where there is a real sense of human brotherhood.
Why shouldn't the southern nations attempt to copy the solutions the Europeans are adopting in Europe, even if the conditions and methods are different?
Do the problems come from inside or outside the continent?
I think we have to stop pretending to ourselves that all the violence, misery and dissension that afflicts Latin America is the result of a plot hatched thousands of kilometres away, as if we couldn't imagine any other destiny for ourselves than being at the mercy of the global powers.
Confronted with inequality, oppression, exploitation and neglect, our answer must be life itself. Not even centuries of warfare have dimmed its obstinate affirmation. Forty years ago, William Faulkner refused to accept the possibility that mankind might come to an end. Today we know that what he feared is a straightforward scientific possibility. Given that terrible fact, and the knowledge that the links between nations are stronger than ever before and that a new era is dawning, I believe it's not too late to build a utopia that would allow us to share an Earth on which no one would take decisions for other people, and where people on the margins would be given a fresh chance. A world in which solidarity could become a reality.
It's an aspiration that is reflected in your work, bound as it is to Latin America and an awareness of its destiny.
That's right. I don't think one can live with such a nostalgia, try for so long to describe a country or understand a continent, without feeling deeply linked to them, and through them to the entire world.
Read also our interview Gabriel García Márquez: The writer's craft, published in February 1996. Click here.