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Close-ups of Gabriel Garcia Marquez: in a visit with this world-renowned Colombian novelist, our author snapped highlights of his typical workday.

The most celebrated author in the Americas is waving to us, beckoning us into his studio, which sits outside his tasteful, two-story colonial house, across a grassy interior courtyard. Once inside he greets us warmly, chuckling at our Old Testament names: an encounter, he says, between an archangel, a prophet, and the first person to enter the Promised Land. While offering us some coffee he expresses regret that he couldn't give us a formal interview. "If I do, all the people I've turned down will kill me," he says.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez has been in the news of late due to the publication last October of the first volume of his memoirs, Vivir para contarla [Living to Tell It, Knopf, Fall 2003]. (See our review on page 60 and excerpt on page 64.) The 1982 Nobel laureate from Colombia began the work in 1999, after a close scrape with lymphatic cancer, and completed the 579-page manuscript in just three years. Since its release, the Spanish-language edition has sold more than two million copies (not counting pirated editions), and many more copies will reach eager fans worldwide when translated versions become available later this year.

Throughout his career Gabo, as he is affectionately called, has been a public figure who has given lectures, readings, and interviews about his own work and offered sought-after opinions regarding important moral issues. Only in recent years has he lived a more cloistered existence in order to devote all of his time and energy to the three volumes of his memoir. These days, at his home in the San Angel district of Mexico City, he writes with iron discipline for six hours each day. Despite this regimen, early last January, upon returning from holidays in Havana, he graciously submitted to a brief session on behalf of Americas. It was not a full-fledged interview, but while my son Joel and I photographed Gabo during a typical workday, he commented on a variety of topics.

Extending the traditional welcome, "mi casa es tu casa," he then returned to his desk where still-fresh words of his memoirs emanated from the monitor of his Macintosh. He explained that the computer is linked to others in his several homes so that he can work seamlessly on projects regardless of locale.

While Joel began firing away from close range with his Mamiya, I explained to Gabo that his old friend Tomas Eloy Martinez years before had suggested the idea of a photo essay, perhaps something like "un dia en la vida de Gabo." "Ah yes, Eloy. When Cien anos first came out in Buenos Aires, he hosted me on his television program, Telenoche, also put my portrait on the cover of Primera Plana, a literary supplement he edited. But you're not going to make me pose in the shower, are you?" he asked with an impish grin.

He then went on to sketch his typical day: up at five, books, newspapers, correspondence to be read and answered by seven, a shower and breakfast, and then invariably at work by nine in order to write for at least six hours, until mid-afternoon. "If I don't write, I get bored!"

When Joel explained that normally he works in film and television, Gabo responded that one of his sons, Rodrigo, is in the same field. "He went to Harvard, then the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. He does serialized telenovelas for television, but most recently he directed his first feature-length film." (Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her [2000], written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia, features Glenn Close, Calista Flockhart, and Cameron Diaz among others, cost a mere $2 million, and has enjoyed critical acclaim at Sundance, also Cannes. Garcia Marquez has another son, Gonzalo, a graphic designer who lives in Mexico City.)

As I focused my old Canon SLR, the ever-observant Gabo took note of its battered case. When I then changed the subject to inquire about his health, he replied, "I still go to Los Angeles for periodic checkups, but I am feeling fine." His secretary, Monica Alonso Garay, confirmed he is in good health, and indeed he looked very fit: lean, a healthy tone to his face, with that trademark twinkle in his eyes. I asked about his exercise regimen. "I play tennis, with my coach. He doesn't get paid unless I win!"

It was a gray day, the temperature only in the low fifties, considered cold by local standards. Gabo, always careful about his appearance, wore a thick wool shirt over his business shirt, warm pants, and English boots. "All my life I've worn boots," he proclaimed.

"And how was Cuba? Did you see Fidel?" "Of course! I also attended a festival at a film institute I support. It's located at San Antonio de los Banos, five kilometers outside La Habana. It offers only practical training, hands-on experience, no theory! I go there twice a year. I raise funds for the school from sources worldwide."

As Gabo took a phone call, I prowled the room to get some sense of his surroundings, especially his persona] library filling shelves on two sides of the workroom. The books were arranged in alphabetical order with colored "stickees" dividing the sections. One shelf directly behind him held volumes bound in red, black, and gold, his own substantial body of work. "More are to come; I am not finished!" he said as an aside as he witnessed me eyeing the collection. Much of his library was in English with plenty of Graham Greene, Eugene O'Neill, and Franz Kafka, but whole shelves were devoted to Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, the two writers he admires most. Their privileged status was further confirmed by the presence of two small, framed likenesses on a side counter, the only literary figures from the past so honored within the office. They stood next to two photographs of Garcia Marquez receiving his Nobel Prize in Stockholm. On an opposite wall, a photo dated 21 October 1982, the day he got the call from Sweden, showed him celebrating with his close friends Alvaro Mutis and Alejandro Obregon. But for two silver statues on a shelf, Ariels for scripwriting from La Academia Mexicana de Ciencias y Artes Cinematograficas (the equivalent of an Oscar in Mexico), Gabo's many other awards, prizes, and honorary degrees were nowhere to be seen.

Garcia Marquez, who favors order and organization in his life, nonetheless seemed comfortable working with some confusion. Perhaps this comes from his many years as a newsroom journalist, or as he likes to say, "a journalist who writes novels on the side." Lively popular music from the Caribbean played during our visit (there were also CDs by Patsy Cline and Van Morrison on a desk), the phone rang several times, and Monica, from her post at the other end of the office, often interrupted him to discuss upcoming appointments or business matters. At one point, he processed a great stack of contracts prepared by his literary agent in Barcelona, Carmen Balcells, documents authorizing publication of his books in Portuguese, Hebrew, Czech, and Chinese. As he signed and initialed the pages, he commented philosophically that he would never see many of the royalties due him, especially in the case of China, where pirated editions abound. The problem of unauthorized editions has plagued the recent release of his memoirs. In Puerto Rico, for example, pirated copies appeared on the black market almost before legal versions hit bookstores.

Given the vast scale of his current project, I asked Gabo whether he has relied upon assistants to help research the near-countless events described in his memoirs. As Monica anticipated his answer by shaking her head from side to side, he said, "But for some checking with family members and old friends regarding details, it's been pura memoria." Monica tapped her forehead: "He has it all up here. He has a prodigious memory." He smiled, and much like his fellow Nobel laureate from Portugal, Jose Saramago, who once said, "we are the memories that we have," he declared, "If I can't remember something, it didn't happen."

As a writer, memory is everything to Garcia Marquez. "I was a chain smoker for thirty years, but at age fifty abruptly I quit after a doctor in Barcelona told me my habit would cause memory loss. For the dust jacket of my memoirs Knopf wanted to use an old photo of me at the typewriter with a cigarette dangling from my lips. I canceled that idea! Instead, we used a photo of me at age two taken by an itinerant photographer who returned to take my picture at age three and age four. I still have all three photos."

Gabo is pleased by the enthusiastic reception the first volume of memoirs has enjoyed, but with modesty or maybe the self-doubt that often haunts writers, even great ones, he said, "I just hope I can match its quality in the remaining two volumes." He had high praise for his English-language translator, Edith Grossman. "She is so good that we only have to check with one another on tiny details."

As I jotted these lines and others on a little note pad, Gabo reminded me that our session was still not to be perceived as a formal interview. When I explained I was just recording some phrases to complement the photos, he smiled and nodded good-naturedly, but I decided not to test his limits. Instead, I withdrew to the garden for a couple experimental shots through the window of Gabo at his desk lost in thought. But back inside, I heard him asking, "What's next?" of Joel, who responded, "How about a shot with Carlitos?"

"How do you know about him?" Garcia Marquez asked with mock gruffness.

"Oh, Monica told us you have a parrot." So out into the garden we went while Carlitos was retrieved from the garage because it had been too cold to leave him outside. Gabo, who obviously loves the bird, toyed with him with his glasses. "He's twenty-seven years old, but he still doesn't talk. He loves the camera!"

We then entered a special air-conditioned salon that offered splendid views of the garden through an expanse of plate glass on three sides. "It's my favorite room," he said as he settled down into one of the white sofas. I shared with him color snapshots of a twenty-foot long mural based on One Hundred Years of Solitude I had done many years earlier. He carefully studied the details: Colonel Aureliano Buendia tied to a tree; his wife, Ursula, the diminutive matriarch, alongside; Remedios the Beauty ascending to heaven; and Melquiades bringing ice to Macondo for the first time. Across the top he read the banner quoting the famous last words of the book: ... las estirpes condenadas a cien anos de soledad no tertian una segunda oportunidad sobre la tierra (... races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth). "May I keep the photos?" he asked. "Of course, that's the least I can do," I said. "You will never know how much your books have meant to me or how much I admire what you've done with your life." In a small voice (the only words uttered in English) he said, "Stop, you're going to make me cry."

We also shared with him an article from the literary supplement to La Nacion, the Buenos Aires daily, dealing with his memoirs. He did not know the piece but immediately began reading it, affording us an opportunity to photograph Gabriel reading "La memoria de Gabriel," which later Monica photocopied for their files. Gabo then wrote something in several books we brought along. For Joel, he signed a copy of Love in the Time of Cholera; for my wife's copy of Vivir para contarla, he penned an inscription that reads, "una flor para Claudia," complete with the drawing of a flower; and in a first edition of Cien anos de soledad he wrote, "para Caleb con la gratitud de su victima." As he handed me the books he looked quizzically at my white hair--at age seventy-six Gabo still has dark hair with only flecks of gray--"How old are you?" he asked. When I said sixty-three, he called me a jovencito. But then with a sigh, he said, "You know, I'm tired, but of course that's the first time I've even felt that way! But I keep writing so as not to die."

It is time for us to go. We gather up our equipment, and Gabo sees us to the street with parting abrazos. Before going back inside he reminds Joel to contact Knopf in New York. "Show them your photos. Maybe they can use them for publicity purposes when the memoirs come out in English late this year. See my editor. Tell him I sent you." This kind, thoughtful, dignified man who has enriched the lives of so many people the world over never forgets his own humble origins and struggle to give purpose to his life. It is his nature to help others, especially young people, as they set out on their own journey.
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Author:Bach, Caleb
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:3COLO
Date:May 1, 2003
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