Sin valor comercial. no commerical value. Those were the words stamped on the cover of the 1967 first edition, in Spanish, of course, of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I still have in our library in Santiago de Chile—ironic words, for a novel that was to become one of the most sold on the planet and one of the greatest of all time.
They had been placed there to ensure that I would not resell the book, though I had no intention of doing so. As the literary critic of Chile’s main magazine, Ercilla, all I wanted to do was read it. I had been waiting for years to devour it, ever since rumors reached me that something special, something beyond special, was coming from the pen of an author whom I had already appraised glowingly in previous columns. When I arrived back home, I announced to Angélica, my wife, that I would not be available for the next twenty-four hours, not even to help with our 2-month-old baby, Rodrigo. It was reported that Gabriel García Márquez had said something similar to his wife, Mercedes, when he shut himself in his room to write this novel for nearly two years, and I modestly intended, though for a shorter interlude, to imitate him.
I consumed the book in one sitting, for hours and hours into the night and through dawn, not daring to stop, being fed sporadically by my dear Angélica. Like the last of the Buendía dynasty, I could not take my eyes off the text that was engulfing me, hoping against hope that the world that started with ice touched by a child in Paradise would not succumb to that other constellation of ice called death, desperate because death was indeed stalking each generation, each act of joy and exuberance. I could not cease my reading until I found out how all this would end, how the life of the family, the epic of Latin America, how my life embedded in the novel’s whirlwind, would end. And also desperate because I could not fathom how I, who was one of the first readers on earth to be privileged to receive this gift, would, in time for tomorrow’s deadline, have a review ready.
Incredibly, I was saved from that obligation by a strange twist of history. I rushed to the magazine to beg the culture editor to allow me 200 or 300 extra words to dedicate to this masterpiece and was greeted by his somber face. An interview that I had done the previous week with the black Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén had been censored, for racial and political reasons, by the publisher. I resigned in protest—and if I lost my job just when we most needed it, as our son Rodrigo was only a few months old, at least I did not have to rush 1,000 transitory words into print about those hundred years of solitude.
Years later, when I told Gabo (as his friends called him) about this incident, during our first meeting in Barcelona—it was March 1974, six months after the Chilean coup that had overthrown our democratically elected president, Salvador Allende—he laughed in delight and said it was lucky for him and for me that destiny had forced me, against my will, to be an ordinary reader, because it was for those readers that he wrote and not for critics or academics, who bored him and put him to sleep.
It was at the end of that bountiful lunch at his home that he suggested I go and visit the writer who was then his best friend (this was before their infamous falling out years later), Mario Vargas Llosa, who could contribute to returning democracy to Chile. I demurred; it was too far away and I had other things to do and—“I’ll take you,” Gabo said, leading me to his car. “If I hadn’t been a writer, I’d have loved to be a taxicab driver. Maybe it would have been a better choice: I could spend my days and nights listening to my passengers’ stories and navigating the streets of cities, instead of breaking my back behind a desk.”