Gabriel García Márquez, Journalist? A Book Revives the Novelist’s First Calling
Gabriel García Márquez, “Gabo” to his friends, lived for journalism. He wrote for newspapers and magazines his entire life, and he founded six publications himself. He once said, against the wisdom of the ages, “I do not want to be remembered for ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude,’ nor for the Nobel Prize, but for the newspapers.”
García Márquez (1927-2014) inhaled fresh ink the way the press critic A. J. Liebling did, as if it were cigar smoke. He called journalism “the best job in the world” and “a biological necessity of humanity.” He understood that newspapers and magazines not only deliver data but that they add, through commentary of all variety, to the gaiety of a society.
A resonant new collection of García Márquez’s journalism, “The Scandal of the Century,” demonstrates how seriously he took reportage and what’s now sometimes called (would Liebling approve?) long-form narrative.
There are intricate, involving stories here about the death of a young woman who seemed to lead a double life; about the 1978 political siege of Nicaragua’s Palacio Nacional by the Sandinistas; and about the international efforts to save a young boy who needed a hard-to-find rabies serum raced to him within 12 hours.
These are articles that, in their confidence and grace, put the reader in mind of “The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor,” the García Márquez book, first published in English in 1986, that was based on a series of articles he wrote for a Bogotá newspaper in 1955 in the voice of a Colombian sailor washed overboard from the deck of a destroyer.
Most of his journalism, like most of his fiction, is centered on his native Colombia. So many of the best pieces in “The Scandal of the Century,” however, are essays, unpretentious and witty meditations on topics like barbers and air travel and literary translation and movies.
You get the sense that, were he allowed to start one last magazine from beyond the grave, García Márquez would edit a version of one of those casual publications, like The Spectator, The New Statesman or The Oldie, that the British do better than the rest of the world. Magazines, that is, composed entirely of commentary, the combined contents of whatever is on their columnists’ minds.
“The Scandal of the Century” comprises 50 articles, published between 1950 and 1984. It’s one of two new books that deal with García Márquez’s work and life. The other is “Solitude & Company,” a charming and rowdy if slight oral history of his life edited by the Colombian journalist Silvana Paternostro and translated by Edith Grossman.
“Solitude & Company” isn’t meant to replace Gerald Martin’s authoritative 2009 biography of García Márquez. It’s a book that gathers his old friends together, as if around a table, and lets them talk. Few can believe what a big deal their old drinking buddy Gabo turned out to be, how he floated away from them on a nimbus of success. They aren’t quite willing to cast palm fronds in front of him just yet.
García Márquez wrote some of his early fiction on rolls of newsprint that he liberated from his day jobs. Perhaps this accounts, in some small way, for the manner with which his fiction and nonfiction can seem to bleed together.
The articles and columns in “The Scandal of the Century” demonstrate that his forthright, lightly ironical voice just seemed to be there, right from the start. (Irony was the fan that reliably cooled the intense projector of García Márquez’s mind.)
He wrote his journalism, he said, with “the same conscience, the same joy and often the same inspiration with which I should have written a masterpiece.” The sprinter and the long-distance runner in him were oddly in sync. He’s among those rare great fiction writers whose ancillary work is almost always worth finding; he didn’t know how to phone anything in.
He was a world-class observer. Watching President Dwight D. Eisenhower disembark from a plane in Paris in 1958, he noted not just his “wide smile of a good sport” but, better, “his long and sure Johnnie Walker strides.”
Airplanes figure often in García Márquez’s journalism. He hated to fly. About air travel after he became famous, he wrote: “I always fly so frightened that I don’t even notice how anyone treats me, and all my energy goes into gripping my seat with my hands to hold it up in order to help the plane stay up in the air, or trying to keep children from running in the aisles for fear they’ll break through the floor.”
He dilated on writers and their economic hardships. Take cigarettes, for example. “The best writers are the ones who tend to write less and smoke more,” he proclaimed, “and so it’s normal that they need at least two years and 29,000 cigarettes to write a book of 200 pages. What that means in good arithmetic is that just on what they smoke they spend more than what they’ll earn from the book.”
García Márquez’s journalistic influence is still felt. In 1994 he founded the Gabriel García Márquez Foundation for New Ibero-American Journalism, better known as the Gabo Foundation, in Cartagena, and it is still prospering.
In a foreword to “The Scandal of the Century,” the investigative reporter and foreign correspondent Jon Lee Anderson notes the “paradox that one of the most emblematic authors of the Latin American Boom in fiction should also be regarded today as the maximum godfather of a new boom in Latin American journalism.”
The humble García Márquez put it this way: “I am basically a journalist. All my life I have been a journalist. My books are the books of a journalist, even if it’s not so noticeable.”
He had a way of connecting the souls in all his writing, fiction and nonfiction, to the melancholy static of the universe.