GABO (1927-2014)Saturday, April 19, 2014
The irresistible influence of Don Gabo
For the Herald
He was like one of those tidal rivers that imperceptibly go forming islands and deltas
Well, it was a chronicle foretold and widely expected. Don Gabo is dead — the literary beacon of my generation, Pisces in the zodiac (important to his superstitious mind) and surely the most extraordinary narrator in the Spanish language of the 20th century together with Jorge Luis Borges, if in a different key.
In a fateful year for Latin American poetry — in January Juan Gelman left us and the following month the Mexican José Emilio Pacheco — it has now been the turn of Colombia’s (and indeed the entire world’s) greatest story-teller.
His career is also the story of my life and of many, indeed thousands of authors in our Americas who were born into literary life thanks to his irresistible influence (some of them more aware of it than others). García Márquez was like one of those great tidal rivers that imperceptibly but irreversibly go forming islands and deltas. All of us who write in this continent (and in others, if truth be told) are in his debt as tributaries of that torrential force which pours from each one of his paragraphs.
I read him for the first time in my adolescence in the late 60s, almost by accident. I was then 20 years old and about to serve my sentence in military service. Somewhere I read that both the Sudamericana publishers of Buenos Aires and the magazine Primera Plana were defining One Hundred Years of Solitude as the masterly and revolutionary novel it in fact was.
One steamy hot night in Chaco I read the first paragraph of that novel and I felt a unique impact which I have never experienced since.
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village ...”
At that point — at once and forever — I knew two things for sure — that I was a writer beyond all remedy and that I would spend my life loving and respecting García Márquez but distancing myself from his imagination and his prose, as one should do with fathers.
When I finished the novel, I immediately reread it and then I found out like everybody else that Don Gabo came from Aracataca but was already living in Mexico (like so many Colombians) and that the story of the Buendía family was as representative of Latin America as the Obelisk is of Buenos Aires or Christ the Redeemer of Rio de Janeiro.
I was then writing my first little novel, which (as I now know today) was at the same time a gesture of love towards García Márquez and also taking my leave from him and all the so-called “boom” of Latin American literature. Now I also realize that it was then that I took the decision to plant some day that guava tree which I still have and which I look at every morning in my Resistencia house and which is called precisely Don Gabo and where every summer the meanest and most tenacious birds of Chaco eat its fruits.
I then read that narrative gem which is The Story of Shipwrecked Sailor and I was also Luis Velasco in the middle of the sea and after sharing his anguish, I started looking up and following the marvellous narrative of that unparalleled writer whose hand (although I did not know it then) I will never be able to shake nor meet in person although many other overlaps (both literary and ideological) would fortunately find us on the same page.
While the world was stunned because each new book of Don Gabo was a masterpiece, I read them as you should read García Márquez — with passion, feeling for his characters and jumping in my seat in the face of his imagery and his overwhelming adjectives. He won all the possible prizes, one by one, and I felt myself at his side each time — in France (1969); the Rómulo Gallegos in Caracas (1972) and, 10 years afterwards, the Nobel Prize. I celebrated in silence and at a distance each one of those deserved awards just as you celebrate the good deeds and kind words of a father and I enjoyed all the news about him and his foundation and his journeys while his prodigious books were translated into all the languages of the world in editions reaching 30, 40 or 50 million copies.
I went reading everything he wrote along with the rest of the world and I felt myself successively to be that likable dictator of The autumn of the patriarch (my favourite novel every time I have to teach how to master Spanish prose), and then I was Eréndira and the Colonel and Mamá Grande, as well as Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza. And each time I felt that literature was the best thing in life because it was the only thing which made my emotions leap, moved both to tears and to curse in admiration from the need to share phrases in the deep silence of solitary meditation.
But we never met and perhaps just as well. That is why it is barely worth now evoking a tiny anecdote — I once wrote a harsh, almost impertinent article about his misogyny in Love in the Time of Cholera, which he read with indulgence because both before and afterwards it was referred to me by mutual friends with generosity. In 1982, during the Malvinas war, I sent him a personal little note thanking him for his accurate words: “It is a just war bastardized by the wrong hands.”
I have not been able to avoid certain personal questions in this obituary but there was no other way to express the sadness of a reader at this time. Even knowing that he was gravely ill with no other horizon except death ahead of him, the news of this last journey of Don Gabo moves me now, like millions of his readers, in this grey autumn afternoon in Buenos Aires. I return to Chaco today and will surely water with tears the guava tree outside my house.