Revered worldwide for having placed Latin American literature on the global stage through his mastery of magical realism, Colombian writer and Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014) is best known for his bestselling novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). Thus far unsurpassed in its critical and commercial success by any other text from Latin America, its magnum opus status is constantly reinforced through translations, re-editions, scholarly studies, and individual praise coming from some of the most influential people on the planet (Barack Obama called the book “one of my favorites from the time I was young”). In 1970, upon the publication of the novel in English translation, writer William Kennedy went so far as to anoint it as “the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race” (23). Perhaps even more unsettling than the hyperbole was the fact that Kennedy failed to identify García Márquez as a Colombian writer and the review appeared under the indelible title “All of Life, Sense and Nonsense Fills an Argentine’s Daring Fable.”¹
Half a century later, with the rights to the screen adaptation of the novel finally secured by Netflix, it is no wonder that One Hundred Years of Solitude continues to cast a long shadow over the rest of Garcia Marquez’s otherwise prodigious oeuvre comprising various other novels of equally epic scope (The Autumn of the Patriarch, 1975; Love in the Time of Cholera, 1985; The General in His Labyrinth, 1989), several novellas (Leaf Storm, 1955; The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother, 1972; Chronicle of a Death Foretold, 1981), a handful of short stories (“Big Mama’s Funeral,” 1962; “Eyes of a Blue Dog,” 1974; “Strange Pilgrims,” 1993), nonfictional accounts (The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, 1970; Clandestine in Chile, 1986; News of a Kidnapping, 1996), and a memoir (Living to Tell the Tale, 2002).
The enormous critical acclaim and popular interest in García Márquez’s writings in places as diverse and distant from his native Aracataca as Kazakhstan, Poland, or Japan cannot be attributed solely to the magical lure of priests and young women levitating amidst swarms of yellow butterflies in the village of Macondo, García Márquez’s reinvention of Yoknapatawpha. To dispel any doubts about the power—both real and magical—of One Hundred Years of Solitude, I would like to share a personal anecdote. I was living in Warsaw in the 1980s when everything, from food to furniture, was in short supply. In an attempt to find bookshelves for my newly acquired apartment and my growing collection of Latin American literature, I ended up in a place rumored to offer a somewhat rickety but functional type of shelving, custom-made from wooden slats. When I arrived, I encountered a small office and a man reading a newspaper. “I’d like to order some bookshelves,” I ventured. “So would everybody else,” he retorted. Undeterred, I went on: “But, you know, I have tons of books. I teach Latin American literature at the University.” He folded his newspaper and gave me an inquiring look: “So,” he paused, “García Márquez?” “You bet,” I was quick to reply. “Have a seat,” he gestured to a chair. “Perhaps you could tell me if I’m on the right track…” And he proceeded to expound his interpretation of One Hundred Years of Solitude. As he went on I nodded enthusiastically and when he finished I gave the appropriate feedback. (He really was on the right track!). At last, he glanced at his calendar and asked: “So, would the day after tomorrow work for you? I will send the guys over to take the measurements for those shelves.” Having waited for ten years for a room of my own, sure, I could wait two more days for the shelves. As of last summer, the bookshelves were still there, though my 1972 Polish edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude did look a little dusty and a bit lonely.
The enormous critical acclaim and popular interest in García Márquez’s writings in places as diverse and distant from his native Aracataca as Kazakhstan, Poland, or Japan cannot be attributed solely to the magical lure of priests and young women levitating amidst swarms of yellow butterflies in the village of Macondo, García Márquez’s reinvention of Yoknapatawpha.
The Scandal of the Century and Other Writings (2019) redirects the spotlight from One Hundred Years of Solitude and García Márquez’s narrative fiction onto his lifelong commitment to journalism as a profession, a vocation, a passion, and an art form. Through a compilation of fifty articles spanning more than three decades (1950-1984) editor Cristóbal Pera succeeds in demonstrating how the ongoing cross-pollination between imaginative (con)fabulation and factual reporting has shaped García Márquez both as a fiction writer and as a journalist. In The Scandal of the Century we meet a versatile writer, an avid reader, a keen observer, and a fearless reporter who improvises and contrives as much as he investigates, a man who admits to being “a convinced materialist” (243) while, almost in the same breath, professing his belief in ghosts (“Tales of the Road”; “Ghosts of the Road”; “Horror Story for New Year’s Eve”). It appears that as a beginning journalist he wrote at an unnerving pace about almost anything he could get his hands on employing a dizzying cast of characters, from ordinary men and women to bishops, politicians, writers and celebrities (“Topic for a Topical Piece”; “An Understandable Mistake”; “The Postman Rings a Thousand Times”; “The Aracataca Tiger”). His personal take on the slogan “All the News That’s Fit to Print” might have been unorthodox but it earned him a living and a reputation as a writer long before the success of One Hundred Years of Solitude catapulted him into literary stardom.
Some of the pieces culled by Cristóbal Pera from the five-volume anthology of García Márquez’s Obra periodística (edited by Jacques Gilard between 1983 and 1984) are primarily observational but even those are steeped in wry humor rather than in dry facts. Interspersed with whimsical ruminations on the trials and tribulations of writing (“Topics for a Topical Piece”; “Misadventures of a Writer of Books”; “Okay, We’ll Talk About Literature”; “How Do You Write a Novel”), several of these texts traverse and retrace the porous boundaries between genres to such an extent that they end up resembling short stories rather than journalistic accounts (“María of My Heart”; “Horror Story of New Year’s Eve”; “Sleeping Beauty on the Airplane”). But in García Márquez’s hands even short stories inspired by and aspiring to replicate the genius of Edgar Allan Poe are remolded by the kind of shapeshifting that turns them into intricate metaliterary vignettes laced with irony and self-deprecating humor (“Like Souls in Purgatory”; “The Scandal of a Century”).
If many portions of The Scandal of the Century defy the reader’s expectations as to what constitutes journalism, perhaps we could settle any lingering debates about genres and definitions by adopting the label “Magic Journalism.” Coined by Adam Hochschild, this playful moniker attempts to capture the unorthodox style of “literary reportage” of the Polish journalist, Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007), a close friend of García Márquez. Regardless of labels, however, the majority of texts assembled in The Scandal of the Century beguile the reader by harnessing the raw power of eyewitness accounts through symbiotic interweaving of investigative reporting, intuition, and serendipity. A retrospective glance at these writings not only reveals the Colombian writer’s refined knowledge of the past and present of various Latin American countries but in some instances also brings to light his uncanny prescience about their future. Consider, for example, the fine-grain political analysis behind “June 6, 1958: Caracas without Water” (1958) or the proto-ecological standpoint of “The River of Life” (1981), which seem to have foretold the crisis-stricken Venezuela under the rule of Nicolás Maduro as well as the ecological devastation of the Amazon region.
It appears that as a beginning journalist he wrote at an unnerving pace about almost anything he could get his hands on employing a dizzying cast of characters, from ordinary men and women to bishops, politicians, writers and celebrities.
García Márquez’s trajectory in relation to the history of his country (and it is not Argentina) merits a quick retrospective glance as well. His coming of age as a journalist coincided with an escalation of political violence in Colombia into a brutal and prolonged civil war (1948-1958) that claimed the lives of an estimated two hundred thousand people and forced at least two million out of their homes and thousands into exile. The atrocities spawned by La Violencia left in their wake shattered communities, orphaned families, and unhealed wounds. To this day the phantom pains of those traumatic experiences reverberate throughout the massive archive of testimonies, reports, scholarly studies, and works of art and literature. Curiously enough, The Scandal of the Century does not include any explicit references to La Violencia. Instead, the predicament of the entire country gets distilled down to a handful of bloody family dramas and personal vendettas. In his account of a grisly homicide in the municipality of San Rafael in Antioquia (“Literaturism”), the young reporter deftly navigates between the Scylla of sensationalism and the Charybdis of a heavy-handed metacommentary: “There are still those who protest at the gruesomeness of those high-flying melodramas, in which there is more blood than there are protagonists per square mile… However, real life is on occasion even more gruesome.” (33) The fratricidal strife of La Violencia is shown through “the bloody drama of San Rafael [that] originated in a rivalry between families” (33) while the homicide itself is deemed too ordinary to be newsworthy at the national level: “The news has not earned—at the current exchange rate of the journalistic peso—more than two columns on the regional news page. It is a bloody crime, like any other. With the difference that these days there is nothing extraordinary about it, since as a news item it is too common and as a novel too gruesome.” (34)
“Literaturism” also brings into sharp focus an important thread that runs through a large portion of Garcia Marquez’s writing, both journalistic and literary: the challenge of capturing Latin American reality, whose “disorderly” richness defies the wildest imagination. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech (1982) he articulated this predicament as an intrinsic part of Latin American collective identity: “Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, soldiers and scoundrels, all we creatures of that disorderly reality have needed to ask little of the imagination, for the major challenge before us has been the want of conventional resources to make our life credible. This, my friends, is the nub of our solitude.” In The Scandal of the Century García Márquez expands on the idea that Latin American and Caribbean writers have no choice but to admit “hands on hearts, that reality is a better writer than we are.” (235) This said, administering just the right dose of suspension of disbelief is what it takes to mold an unlikely or trivial event into a credible story infused with the power to inform, enlighten, move, and entertain the reader (“Magic Caribbean”; “My Personal Hemingway”; “My Other Me”).
A retrospective glance at these writings not only reveals the Colombian writer’s refined knowledge of the past and present of various Latin American countries but in some instances also brings to light his uncanny prescience about their future.
Some of the earlier texts in the volume hark back to an era when, with some luck, a reporter could serve as a lonely smuggler of images, words, and ideas across the borders as impermeable as the Iron Curtain. García Márquez’s adventurous travels throughout Eastern Europe in the summer of 1957 had rendered ten substantial articles, originally published in Venezuelan and Colombian newspapers. Transfixed by curiosity about the post-Stalinist brand of communism and frustrated by his inability to immerse himself fully in the “here and now” due to the language barriers and the reticence of his potential interlocutors, he built his dispatches from East Germany, the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary around images rather than voices, layering them over one another in a hasty, almost frantic manner.
In The Scandal of the Century there is only one brief fragment excerpted from those reports in which García Márquez describes his visit to Hungary as part of the first “delegation of Western observers” (112) that was allowed into the country ten months after the nationwide uprising against the Soviet-imposed regime had ended in bloodshed, destruction and pervasive atmosphere of fear. (117) In “I Visited Hungary” the author quite literally sets the stage for what appears to be an eyewitness account of an official event (“I was there, on the same stage as Kádár…” 112) only to fool his vigilant hosts and surprise his readers by venturing on his own into the forbidden territories of “real people”: the ruined buildings, the streetcars, and the taverns of Budapest. With a few judiciously chosen strokes of a seasoned reporter he etches out both the climate of fear and the signs of tacit resistance against the reinstated regime: “Nobody wanted to talk. But when the people are quiet—out of fear or prejudice—you have to enter the washrooms to find out what they’re thinking. There I found what I was looking for: in among the pornographic drawings, classics now by all urinals of the world, there was Kádár’s name, in an anonymous but extraordinarily significant protest.” (118)
Understandably, the thrill of witnessing history in the making is even more palpable in the accounts of Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutionary movements (“I Can’t Think of Any Title”; “The Cubans Face the Blockade”; “The Sandinista Heist: Chronicle of the Assault on the ‘Hog House’”). Elsewhere in the volume (“Misadventures of a Writer of Books”) García Márquez claims that the writer “has no other revolutionary obligation than to write well” (157) but there is no denying that the intricate nexus between poetics and political engagement underlies all of his work. Even if in his writings he does not display his political commitment as a badge of honor, he comes from a region where the very absence of democratic mechanisms and institutions almost by default forges literature into a political tool and turns writers into public intellectuals and activists. Authoritarian regimes have long understood the subversive power of art and literature and García Márquez did not end up spending part of his life in exile just because he fulfilled his revolutionary obligation to “write well” or hobnobbed with Fidel Castro.
Even if in his writings he does not display his political commitment as a badge of honor, he comes from a region where the very absence of democratic mechanisms and institutions almost by default forges literature into a political tool and turns writers into public intellectuals and activists.
In over thirty years of prodigious journalistic activity captured in The Scandal of the Century and Other Writings there is not much García Márquez has not witnessed, read about, investigated or invented. His style evolved and matured, but even his early writings never really feel like those of a young apprentice, crafted as they are with flair and a great deal of self-confidence. And even in the pieces written after he had reached the symbolic pinnacle of recognition with the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature the deeply congenial tone of his early newspaper columns from Barranquilla’s El Heraldo or Bogotá’s El Espectador continues to invite us, his readers, to embrace realms of strangeness and familiarity so enticing that we simply expect more wonders waiting for us as we turn the pages and even when we close the book.