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Burrowing inside the solitude and camaraderie of author Gabriel García Márquez

Michael Barnes
Austin 360
Alvaro Santana-Acuña, curator for "Gabriel García Márquez: The Making of a Global Writer," discusses material at the Ransom Center with Gonzalo García Barcha, the famous author's son, in February 2020. The exhibit closed earlier in the pandemic, but it has reopened and will continue through early 2022.

"In 1967, Sudamericana Press published 'One Hundred Years of Solitude,'" wrote Alvaro Santana-Acuña in The Atlantic magazine in 2017, "a novel written by a little known Colombian author named Gabriel García Márquez. Neither the writer nor the publisher expected much of the book.

"They knew, as the publishing giant Alfred A. Knopf once put it, that 'many a novel is dead the day it is published.' Unexpectedly, 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' went on to sell over 45 million copies, solidified its stature as a literary classic, and garnered García Márquez fame and acclaim as one of the greatest Spanish-language writers in history."

The Nobel Prize-winning author followed with, among other novels, "Autumn of the Patriarch" (1975), "Love in the Time of Cholera" (1985) and "The General in His Labyrinth" (1989). Yet García Márquez considered his earlier novella, "No One Writes to the Colonel" (1961), his best book.

García Márquez died in 2014 at the age of 87.

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"Cien años de soledad (One Hundred years of Solitude)," 1966.

Later that year, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas agreed to pay $2.2 million — at first the price was kept a secret — for the archives of the author, who lived in Mexico City during the latter years of his life.

As reported in the American-Statesman at the time, the archives contained more than 75 boxes of documents, and researchers now have access to draft manuscripts of published and unpublished works, correspondence, 43 photograph albums, 22 scrapbooks, research material, notebooks, newspaper clippings, screenplays and ephemera.

A museum show, "Gabriel García Márquez: The Making of a Global Writer," opened on Feb. 1, 2020. More than 8,000 people filed through to examine the books, papers, photos, posters, clippings and other effects of the master, before the show closed abruptly because of the pandemic in March 2020.

Despite the limitations imposed by the pandemic, after reopening in late August, roughly 3,000 people have visited.

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After seeing the mind-boggling show in September, I talked with Santana-Acuñathe writer of that article in The Atlantic and a professor of sociology at Whitman College, who curated the Ransom Center show.

I wondered what it was like to bury oneself for more than a decade in the thinking, writing and personal belongings of one great writer.

Our exchange has been edited for length and clarity.

Mercedes and Gabriel García Márquez, from left, with their sons, Gonzalo and Rodrigo.

American-Statesman: How did you first become acquainted with the work of Gabriel García Márquez? Had you read him since childhood? What attracted you to his writing?

Alvaro Santana-Acuña: My story with "Gabo," as many people like to call Gabriel García Márquez, started in the Canary Islands, where I encountered his work. In high school, I first read his short story, “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World,” along (with) classic works by Borges, Kafka and Poe. Beyond the title, the tale did not impress me at the time.

But shortly after, I read "No One Writes to the Colonel," and many years later, I still remember the moment I got to know the tragic story of the colonel. What attracts me (to) Gabo’s writing is that it has the rare quality of being accessible to popular audiences across cultures and languages, and at the same time is praised and studied by critics, generation after generation. 

Tell us about your relationship to the material acquired by the Ransom Center.

In 2017, the Ransom Center selected me as one of the first recipients of a Mellon Foundation fellowship in order to study García Márquez’s archives, which the center had recently opened. At the time, I had been writing for seven years my book "Ascent to Glory," which is a biography of how Gabo’s most famous novel, "One Hundred Years of Solitude," was written and became a global classic.

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To my surprise, after a couple of days working with Gabo’s papers, I realized that I had to rewrite "Ascent." There were too many unknown facts waiting to be discovered and too many legends waiting to be debunked. It took me another four years to finish the book and, in the middle of it, the Ransom Center invited me to curate the exhibition on Gabo, which gave me another opportunity to study Gabo’s papers more closely.

Gabriel García Márquez used his fame and moral standing to influence global affairs. Here he asks President Jimmy Carter in 1977 to pardon Puerto Rican Andrés Figueroa Cordero. He was pardoned and released in 1978.

Your formal training is in sociology, history and social sciences. How did those fields influence your view of the material?

History is a discipline that investigates the past from the present, and sociology is a discipline that studies the present, keeping an eye on the near future.

As I worked on my book, and later as I designed the exhibition, being a historian helped me to insert García Márquez in his time, which is crucial to understand why he became such an important global figure.

Also, becoming an international writer is not the result of pure chance or genius. Sociology can help to explain this. There are social forces that intersect and help transform a writer from a remote village in Colombia into one of the most beloved writers in the Spanish language after Miguel de Cervantes, the author of "Don Quixote." 

In your compelling show now at the Ransom Center, I was surprised by García Márquez’s extensive career as a journalist. How did that affect his fiction?

In 1947, García Márquez finished high school. His family — of humble origins — wanted him to become a lawyer, so he could move up the social ladder. But he dropped out of college. He told his father he wanted to be a writer, and his father, who knew how hard it was to make a living as a professional writer, told Gabo in anger: “You will eat paper.”

In the Latin America of 1947, those who wanted to be writers had to start as journalists. Gabo’s real professional school was journalism; it taught him the basic skills he needed to master in order to work as a professional writer, from finding ideas for his fiction to writing stories with his readers in mind to careful editing of his own prose.

If García Márquez had not become a journalist first, Gabo, the famous fiction writer, would have not been born.

Photographer Peter Badge took this picture of Nobel Prize-winning Gabriel García Márquez at his laptop in 2006.

I was also surprised by his active work in movies, not just as a critic, but as a screenwriter. Tell us more about that.

Gabo was obsessed with storytelling from an early age. Journalism — at least in the way he saw it — was about storytelling based on true facts.

Movies became one his passions at that time, because cinema is about storytelling, too. For years, while he was writing his journalistic pieces and his first novels and short stories, he went to movie theaters to understand the craft of cinematic storytelling.

He also studied montage, because it teaches you how to tell stories with moving images. In his 30s, Gabo was so much in love with cinema that he pursued a career as a professional (scriptwriter) and seriously considered quitting fiction writing all together. Yet a year later, he changed his mind and decided to sit down and write "One Hundred Years of Solitude."

Everywhere García Márquez landed, he fell in with groups of intellectuals, artists, filmmakers and writers. How did these social circles affect his writing?

Gabo’s decision to start writing "One Hundred Years of Solitude" happened a great deal because of his friends. In Mexico City, in 1965, he was part of a group of artists, who called themselves “La Mafia.” Members of this group encouraged him to finish a book he had been trying to write for more than ten years.

Some friends listened to him read, out loud, fragments of the book in progress. Others wrote him letters of support from distant countries. Several gave him money to pay the bills, because Gabo stopped working to finish the novel. And many gave him feedback about what he was writing.

Behind most great works of art, there is a constellation of social relations that makes such works of art possible. This was the case of several of García Márquez’s books before they were published. His friends and peers read them in advance and their feedback influenced how Gabo wrote them. 

Far from living a life of complete solitude, Gabriel García Márquez surrounded himself with moviemakers, intellectuals, journalists and authors, who advised him regularly on his writing. Pictured here is such a group in Barranquilla, Colombia in the 1940s.

You devote a big chunk of the show to “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” the novel that made García Márquez a world figure. What was it about that novel that made him a breakthrough artist?

The middle section of the exhibition is dedicated to "One Hundred Years of Solitude" because it cut Gabo’s life into two parts. There is clearly a before and after in his life once this novel came out.

My book, "Ascent to Glory," tries to answer your question. I needed over 300 pages to answer it, and what I can tell you here is that this novel was the culmination of many things — culturally, aesthetically, in the publishing sector — that were going on for at least 20 years.

In your book, you wrestle with the myths about how “One Hundred Years of Solitude” was written. What should we remember about the real story of its writing?

I open the book with the myth about how the first sentence of the novel occurred to Gabo when he was driving towards a tourist resort for a vacation with his family. Yet suddenly a cow crossed in front of his road. He stopped, got out of the car, and from nowhere, the sentence of the novel descended upon him. Once he realized what happened, he rushed to the car and drove back home, where he furiously wrote the novel for eighteenth months.

This story is of course a myth — part of it contains some truth and part of is pure fabrication. Yet one of the things I show in my book is that myths help works of art to become classics.

Think about the myths that surround the making of "Mona Lisa," Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or many of the Beatles’ songs.

So we cannot toss myths away as useless. Yet the real story behind myths is as fascinating and sometimes even more. In "Ascent," I show that the story behind the myth of the solitary genius, and what emerges, is an incredible story of friendship and perseverance.  

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Gabriel García Márquez and his wife, Mercedes, on the morning they learned that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Oct. 10, 1982.

García Márquez became a major public figure, a part of current affairs and politics as well as international culture. How do you think that part of his life will be remembered?

Gabo wrote about several of the most important social and political affairs of his time. He was also friends with influential leaders of his age, including his controversial friendship with Cuban ruler Fidel Castro, plus Bill Clinton and other presidents and heads of state.

Unfortunately, there are political affairs in which he got involved that are still current, such the interference of foreign powers in the lives of Latin American countries. And there are issues in which he was certainly a pioneer.

In 1992, he wrote for Time magazine a statement — shown at the exhibition — declaring that humanity may disappear in the 21st century due to the destruction of the environment. His words are becoming as prophetic as the final words of the gypsy Melquíades in "One Hundred Years of Solitude," who predicted that the Buendía family would be effaced from the face of the Earth.

It was an enormous coup for the Ransom Center to acquire García Márquez’s papers and other effects. Do you think this will encourage other Spanish-language writers to consider the Austin center as a steward of their legacies? Also, the Nettie Benson Latin American Collection at UT already has an excellent collection in this field. Does that create a special synergy?

The purchase of Gabo’s papers by a U.S. institution caused a lot of controversy in Latin America. Yet the Ransom Center is the best location for his papers.

The center preserves the archives of writers that influenced García Márquez as a writer, such as Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and Jorge Luis Borges.

As I was selecting the materials for exhibition, I realized it would be possible for visitors not only to see García Márquez’s works first hand, but also to put them alongside the works of other writers. Visitors can now see the manuscript of "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and next to it that of Cortázar’s masterpiece "Hopscotch." They can also (see) the galley proofs of Joyce’s "Ulysses" next to those of Woolf’s “Key Gardens” and Faulkner’s "As I Lay Dying."

Austin’s Ransom Center is one of the few places in the world where literary collections of this caliber can be put on display side by side.

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.

'Gabriel García Márquez: The Making of a Global Writer'

When: Through Jan. 22

Where: Harry Ransom Center on the University of Texas campus

How much: Free

Info: hrc.utexas.edu