I can recall the morning in 2012 when I read in a BBC report that Gabriel García Márquez was suffering from dementia. His brother, Jaime, spoke of it in Cartagena, where he was giving a lecture to students. It is true that García had not often appeared in public in recent years and there had been several unconfirmed rumours of his ill-health, but the latest news left me feeling quite saddened to know that there would probably be no more writing from the great man. He was then 85, and according to his brother, he would write no more. He died some two years later in Mexico City.
I first came across Gabriel García in 1996, when I was participating in a French course at Alliance Française in London. I was brushing up my rudimentary French, with a view to starting a venture in Europe, or at least obtaining a senior European position. As it turned out, it was the latter, as MD of a small Swiss company.
In the class we were asked to frame a general knowledge question, in French, relating to our country of birth. A young Colombian student asked us to name the Colombian author who had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. None of us knew the answer.
The first of García’s books that I read back in 1998, when I was based in Neuchâtel, was El General en su Laberinto (The general in his labyrinth), recounting the last days of Simón Bolívar. Years before I had been to Bolívar’s home in Caracas and the story left me with a lasting impression of how even the great can end in ignominy. Later I followed on with García’s collection of short stories, Doce Cuentos Peregrinos (Twelve Pilgrim tales), his great love story, El Amor en Los Tiempos de Cholera (Love in the time of cholera), his masterpiece, the mystic Cien Años de Soledad (One hunded years of solitude) and several others.
When I later learned of his death, sitting on my bookshelf, waiting to be picked up, was Vivir para Contarla (Living to tell the tale), the first part of his autobiography, covering his early years in Cartagena. When I eventually read it, I recalled that I once knew a Señora Garbàn and her family in Caracas. She was a talented artist and I attended one of her exhibitions in the late 1970s. I am almost certain that she was from Cartagena. And I sometimes wonder if she ever knew García, for he was a journalist of her era.
When reading García’s autobiography, it is obvious that many of his writings were based on his own intimate experiences: the small town, Aracataca, where he grew up, both his close and extended families, local and national historical events. For a ‘wannabe’ writer like me, there are rich lessons to be learned from his work.
But what a pity that the sequel to his autobiography will never now appear.