Gabriel García Márquez, who died, at the age of eighty-seven, at his home in Mexico City last week, has left an immense literary legacy behind.
Gabriel García Márquez, who died, at the age of eighty-seven, at his home in Mexico City last week, has left an immense literary legacy behind. Few authors have been as widely translated and as widely read by so many people of different cultures. “He showed us a new way of seeing,” said Ian McEwan, last Friday. Less well known to García Márquez’s legion of readers was his quick-witted sense of humor, a quality known in his native Colombia as mamar gallo (literally, “to suck rooster,” but meaning, in essence, to joke around). Gabo, as he was known to his friends and his fans in Latin America, was a master mamador de gallo. I was reminded of this on the day he died, when Ariel Palacios, a Brazilian friend who lives in Buenos Aires, sent out a string of Gaboisms, including my favorite: “The day when shit becomes worth something, the poor will be born without asses.” There are many more where that came from. Some are simple funning nonsensicalisms, like, “I’ve conspired for peace in Colombia since before I was born”; others are folksy, Twainish one-liners, like, “Life is the best invention of them all.” Exaggeration was a key element in Gabo’s imaginative approach to life, both in his writing and in person. He claimed, for instance, that his novella “Of Love and Other Demons” was inspired by a real-life event that he had covered as a reporter in Cartagena, Colombia, in 1949: the discovery, by workers, of the skull of a dead girl with a seventy-foot-long trail of blond hair in the crypt of the Santa Clara convent. He liked to tell the story of how Fidel Castro had once eaten twenty-six scoops of ice cream in his presence. The first time I made contact with him, by telephone, hoping to interview him for a Profile for The New Yorker, in 1999, he answered the telephone himself. When I said my name, the Nobel laureate exclaimed, warmly, “Anderson! Damn it, I’ve been looking all over for you for ages; where have you been hiding yourself?” That was classic Gabo. We hadn’t yet met, and he’d already turned our encounter into a great story. And, once he had uttered or written one of these gothic pronouncements, however true it was, it was how he remembered it ever after. When we met a few days later, in the Barcelona office of his literary agent, Carmen Balcells, he eyed me up and down and asked, “How old are you?” I told him, “Forty-two.” Hearing this, he spun around and called out to Balcells’s bevy of middle-aged female assistants, “Do you hear that? Forty-two! Can you imagine being that age again?” Turning back to me, he said, “How wonderful. What I would give to be forty-two again.” That, too, was classic Gabo: warm, embracingly matey, always seeking to shed his celebrity status in order to be at one with you. In Colombia, President Juan Manuel Santos decreed three official days of mourning for Gabo, and declared him “the best Colombian to have ever lived.” I doubt there are many Colombians who would disgree. Gabo was truly beloved. For a country best known for its violence and drug trafficking, his contribution was cherished, and he was adored by people of every social class, race, and age group. Ever since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1982, many Colombians have referred to Gabo simply as El Nobel. Everyone knows who they are talking about.