Describing the impossibility of inventing a dictator whose cruel quirks could outdo twentieth-century precedent, Gabriel García Márquez simply shrugged: “Latin American and Caribbean writers have to admit, hands on hearts, that reality is a better writer than we are.” In that same 1981 column for the Spanish newspaper El País, he also framed the aesthetic of magical realism for which he is so famous as an accommodation to literary tastes trained on Europe, unprepared for the “disproportionate reality” of Latin America. Someone who thinks the Danube is long cannot imagine the enormity of the Amazon, he figured, and someone who thinks a “storm” means rain and thunder cannot imagine the full force of a hurricane. Literature is not for augmenting reality, then, but imitating it—which occasionally requires exaggeration.
This column, “Something Else on Literature and Reality,” is one of many of García Márquez’s musings on life and literature found in a recent anthology focused on his nonfiction, The Scandal of the Century and Other Writings. Selected by García Márquez’s former editor, Cristóbal Pera, and translated in witty, rhythmic prose by Anne McLean, the collection’s fifty pieces range from his early gig as a humor columnist in 1950 to the height of his literary career in 1984. Drawing exclusively from work that García Márquez published in periodicals, the book surveys an eclectic mix of genres, including investigative journalism, opinion pieces, literary commentary, and even a few stray short stories. Pera explains that he chose texts that “contain a latent narrative tension between journalism and literature” in order to “provide readers of his fiction a sample of his writings for the newspapers and magazines for whom he worked a great part of his life.” The relationship between journalism and fiction was a symbiotic one for García Márquez: he may have seen his journalism as an apprenticeship for his fiction, but he also used his literary fame to fund the journalistic enterprises that occupied the final stage of his career. From the limited-run zine he ran as a twenty-four-year-old (Comprimido, or “Cheat Sheet”) to the leftist biweekly magazine he cofounded (Alternativa) to the pro-democracy monthly he saved from bankruptcy with his Nobel Prize money (El Cambio), García Márquez had a lifelong commitment to supporting a free press that ultimately culminated in his creation of a foundation for emerging Latin American journalists in 1994. His role as a publisher and editor was so important to him that, as he famously said, “I do not want to be remembered for One Hundred Years of Solitude, nor for the Nobel Prize, but for the newspapers.”
Perhaps fortunately for García Márquez, the unflattering portrait painted by the literary commentary included in the anthology will make readers want to stick to his great novel. While two lovely fragments from the universe of One Hundred Years of Solitude first published in newspapers are included (“A Man Arrives in the Rain” and “The House of the Buendías”), neither provides substantial insight into his writing process. Instead, the collection dwells on his catalogue of literary influences, from Moby-Dick and Oedipus Rex to Faulkner and Hemingway, which is mainly interesting as proof that one cannot trust an author to analyze his own writing. The qualities he praises in others—tight plot structure, economy of expression—are the polar opposite of his own meandering, labyrinthine works. From there, his musings on literature devolve into the predictable rants of mid-century male literary genius: he jeers at “the interpretative mania” taking place in classrooms across the globe where his work is now being taught, which “eventually ends up being a new form of fiction.” He asserts that each era “does not have as many essential books as teachers who enjoy terrorizing their pupils claim, and you can speak of all of them in a single afternoon.” Surprisingly gratified by the appearance of fabricated quotes and forged autographs that lessened his publicity workload, he nonetheless complains that his alter ego “is the one who enjoys the fame, but I am the one who gets screwed by living it.” And wondering why he puts himself through it all, he demurs, “You’re a writer in the very same way you might be Jewish or black.” Hand on heart, reality has provided a better stereotype of successful male authorship here than any satirist might.