Aracataca and Sucre
The Bogotazo sent García Márquez back to the coast, where he stumbled into a line of work and a group of friends that would prove the making of his vocation. A chance encounter introduced him to a newspaper editor familiar with his stories, who immediately drafted him onto his staff. Thus began a relentless apprenticeship in the arts of gathering facts and assembling them into convincing narratives. He wrote columns, editorials, unsigned articles, last-minute pieces and whatever else needed to be done--sometimes all in the same day. He learned about voice, tone and structure, how to find a story and how to give it imaginative volume. His journalistic work would continue throughout his career, running in symbiotic parallel to his fiction and eventually including three book-length pieces, The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, Clandestine in Chile and News of a Kidnapping. "The novel and journalism," he has said, "are children of the same mother."
In his case, journalism was the elder sibling. Discussions of magic realism too often stint the second term in favor of the first. García Márquez did not invent the mode, but he became its most celebrated practitioner as much through the firmness of his realism as through the buoyancy of his magic. His flying carpets soar because he keeps them tethered to the ground, and what enables him to do so is the respect for actuality, and skill in its handling, he developed as a journalist. Missing these, acolytes like Rushdie are flimsy by comparison. One Hundred Years of Solitude begins with a set of declarative statements; Midnight's Children, with a sequence of narrative postures. A master of rhetoric, García Márquez rejects the postmodern idea that the world is nothing but rhetoric. So magic and realism go hand in hand in his work, like fiction and journalism, legend and fact, Tranquilina's presentiments and the Colonel's definitions. We are back, in his art, to the world of his childhood, which can now be seen as expanding out, along with his growing experience of the world, in concentric circles of mutually invigorating antitheses: grandmother and grandfather, house and town, Aracataca and Sucre, coast and Bogotá--eventually, Latin America and El Norte.
Meanwhile, as he learned the newspaperman's trade, García Márquez was getting an education of a different kind. Not long after returning to the coast, he fell in with a group of slightly older literary bohemians who became his mentors in drinking, whoring, reading and talking. Under their tutelage, he not only completed his discovery of European Modernism--Virginia Woolf became a major influence, notwithstanding their polar differences in temperament, so much so that he began to sign his columns "Septimus," after the doomed World War I veteran of Mrs. Dalloway--but, crucially, was also introduced to the North Americans. His new circle of confident young costeño provincials, Martin tells us, was virtually unique in Latin America (and thus a quarter-century ahead of its time) in embracing the culture of the United States. Faulkner became a decisive example--Macondo descends from Yoknapatawpha--Hemingway an icon of craft. And craft itself--"carpentry," "the secrets of [the] trade," "the stubborn difficulties of learning to write"--became the writer's watchword, then and forever. The voracious dedication of García Márquez's early years, when he consumed whole libraries in search of instruction, subjecting books to "a kind of surgical disemboweling until I reached the most recondite mysteries of their structure," laid the foundation for his surpassing virtuosity as a narrative technician.
But that wasn't the only appetite he was indulging. In his memoirs of the time, the word "carouse" comes second in importance only to the word "write." He would work half the night, party the rest and somehow get up in the morning to go back to the newspaper. That is, if he wasn't sleeping there already. His energy was matched by his penury, and he often had no regular place to live, bedding down on rolls of newsprint, on park benches and for one year in a brothel (an experience he'd later give to Florentino Ariza). But though he was the most indigent even among his circle--and would remain in dire poverty for many years--he never asked for money and never complained about his lot, sustaining himself on the eternal foodstuffs of artistic achievement: discipline, fortitude, ambition and self-belief.
He needed every gram of that belief, for despite his growing reputation as a journalist and short story writer, his efforts in the novel were not prospering. He knew what his subject was to be--the manuscript he was tormenting was called The House--but he hadn't figured out how to make emotional contact with it. The Proustian moment finally came on a trip back to Aracataca with his mother a few weeks before his twenty-third birthday, his first return since boyhood. The town, they discovered, was a virtual ruin--United Fruit had long since pulled up stakes--but in that land of walking ghosts, amid the vultures and the strays, the young man found his past preserved in layers of memory and dust. He understood what he needed to do; time and consciousness must themselves become both subject and technique. The House had been a work in the nineteenth-century style. Now, with the encouragement of Joyce and Woolf and Faulkner, García Márquez saw that he needed to begin by resurrecting his own experience. Writing, which had been an ambition, became a hunger. As soon as he got back home, he launched himself on a new work, the story of a little boy, his mother and grandfather, and an unburied corpse--the past as palpable weight and urgent problem. The novel's setting was baptized after a United Fruit plantation whose name would become the most famous in the annals of postwar fiction. Aracataca had become Macondo. The House had become Leaf Storm. The young man had become a writer.
Of course, becoming a writer and making a living as one are not the same thing. Leaf Storm would not come out for five years and not earn much when it did. In the meantime, García Márquez honed his skills as a reporter, deepened the socialist commitments that had quickened in the Bogotazo and acquired a passion for film--in particular, the neorealism of Bicycle Thieves and other works, a spare, humane cinema of the poor and dispossessed. These last two developments soon led him down an artistic detour that must be counted as one of the most fortunate wrong turns in literary history. He now saw Leaf Storm as too inward and insufficiently engaged, and in the course of a three-year sojourn in Europe, produced No One Writes to the Colonel, that classic of white-lipped endurance, and began work on the precise, ironic stories of Big Mama's Funeral. But though he eventually turned back to an art of memory, subjectivity and myth, his neorealist phase left him with a permanent commitment to the idea of literature as public act. By writing about the lives of the poor costeños among whom he'd grown up--people oppressed by the wealthy, forgotten by the government and ignored by the country's official culture--he would restore them to dignity and visibility.
No One Writes to the Colonel drew on his grandfather's fruitless, interminable wait for a government pension but also on its author's experience of slow starvation in Paris. This time, however, he wasn't starving alone. Though he had left Colombia engaged to the girl he'd been courting for years--Mercedes Barcha, an exotic beauty from his Sucre days--he took up in Paris with a sophisticated young Spanish actress named Tachia Quintana. Tachia was bold, liberated, worldly, artistic--a woman unlike any he'd known before. The affair must have opened up new worlds, and certainly touched him very deeply (while the Spanish edition of Love in the Time of Cholera is dedicated to "Mercedes, of course," the French translation would be inscribed to his old girlfriend), but he refused in the end to follow the road it represented, returning instead to South America and the woman who became his Nora Joyce--the figure who stood for home and would carry it within her wherever they went.
That itinerary was soon shaped by the distant figure who eventually became one of García Márquez's closest friends. His years in Europe, which included several peeks behind the Iron Curtain, had relieved him of any attachment to the Soviet model. Castro's significance, for him, was precisely that he promised a new direction for Latin America. Fervent to join the cause, García Márquez went to work for Prensa Latina, Castro's news service--first in Bogotá, then, for five anxious, unhappy months, in politically hostile New York. But when his patrons were forced out of Prensa--romantic idealism giving way, as he saw it, to Moscow and bureaucracy--he found himself cut off from the revolution. Running out of options, the family made their way to Mexico City--there was a son by now, and would soon be another--a journey that included a fortnight by bus to New Orleans, through the heart of Faulkner country.