Gabriel García Márquez was a charmer.
The great Colombian novelist, who died April 17, called Mexico City home for much of his life, and it was there that I met him, at a chichi Mexican restaurant where he agreed to a sit-down with a half-dozen foreign correspondents and editors from the Los Angeles Times in 2004.
Behind his thick glasses and looking frail even then, the author treated us as if we were the celebrities at the table. He'd love to visit our newsroom in Los Angeles, he said. But he was afraid that if he entered, "I'd never leave." Like Hemingway, "Gabo" was a newspaperman. He'd worked as a columnist in Colombia, and his first book was born as a series of columns about a shipwrecked sailor. That thin little volume with an impossibly long title was the first book I read in Spanish, as a 19-year-old undergraduate studying the language of my immigrant parents: "The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor: Who Drifted on a Liferaft for Ten Days Without Food or Water, Was Proclaimed a National Hero, Kissed by Beauty Queens, Made Rich Through Publicity, and Then Spurned by the Government and Forgotten for All Time." The young García Márquez was a natural storyteller, a skill he attributed to his grandmother, and had a spare, lucid writing style.
In his greatest work, "One Hundred Years of Solitude," he took the memories of his youth in Aracataca and the stories of his grandmother and created "Macondo," a place where 20th century Latin American history unfolded as a series of magical and legendary happenings.
In one especially memorable scene, a group of traveling gypsies brings the first block of ice the locals have ever seen. To the people of Macondo, it's "an enormous, transparent block with infinite internal needles in which the light of the sunset was broken up into colored stars." One of the characters declares, "It's the largest diamond in the world." Dreams and ghosts fill the pages of "One Hundred Years of Solitude." A woman flies up to heaven. In a 1982 interview with The New York Times, García Márquez said that the "tricks you need to transform something which appears fantastic, unbelievable into something plausible, credible, those I learned from journalism. The key is to tell it straight. It is done by reporters and by country folk." My father grew up in a town like Macondo -- Gualan, Guatemala. Coincidentally, the same American company that dominated life in rural Colombia (and that was fictionalized in "One Hundred Years of Solitude") also dominated life in Gualan: the United Fruit Co.
"Macondo is Gualan," my father told me when I was in my 20s, after I'd recommended the book to him and he'd read it. In Gualan, for my father, it was not a block of ice that made the extraordinary seem real, but rather the first new American truck to drive into town. "It was so shiny and new and modern, I thought it looked like a spaceship," my father said. When I first visited Gualan as an adult -- on a battered old train that evoked many of García Márquez's novels -- I couldn't help but feel I was being transported into the realm of the "magic real."
Later, as a young journalist hoping to become an author, I studied García Márquez's technique and read interviews in which he discussed his work. What shined through was the same thing I'd see in person when I met him: his humility. To fill the gaps in an education that felt inadequate to him, García Márquez told us, he collected reference books. And he always expressed a deep respect for his craft and its traditions.
"Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry," he told the Paris Review in 1981. "Both are very hard work. Writing something is almost as hard as making a table. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood. Both are full of tricks and techniques. Basically very little magic and a lot of hard work are involved."
García Márquez, the "carpenter," built worlds that made the magical seem real. In so doing he sold millions of books in dozens of languages and won the Nobel Prize for literature. But more important, he brought the life and history of ordinary Latin American working people onto the stage of world art. And for that, this son of Latin America is deeply grateful.