The poetic reporter



Journalism equipped the Colombian master Gabriel García Márquez with formative tools in his august literary career



García Márquez: The Man and His Work, 2nd edition
Gene H. Bell-Villada
2010, University of North
Carolina Press
360 pages

Reviewed by Isabel O’Toole

IT SHOULD come as no surprise that Gabriel García Márquez acknowledges the influence of journalism on the novelist: the daily practice of writing with discipline, the attention to key details.

This acuity not only makes his prose plausible, it confirms his status as a man of the people and the author closest to everyday reality, what Gene Bell-Villada describes in his classic study of the Colombian author as “the poet of plebeian and street life”.

García Márquez started his writing career as a journalist and although his talent pushed him naturally towards fiction he retained strong links with the profession, among other things heading a foundation dedicated to the professional improvement of journalists.

His relationship with journalism helps to explain his interest in and commitment to the everday, and his ability to make the deeper themes that the everyday conceals visible for the reader. It is a relationship with a long and esteemed pedigree in Latin America that in some ways accompanies the region’s transition to modernity as the unstoppable processes of urbanisation and national integration push the roots of media literacy deep into a culture. At over 80 and now in a profoundly reflective stage of his life, García Márquez’s lifetime fashioning narratives that reflect the history and politics of Latin America – but also the story of love in the sub-continent – has meant that his work no longer belongs just to Colombia, but to the Americas.

In García Márquez’s case, journalism also provides an investigative edge that has sharpened his sense of social commitment and allowed him to use fact itself as a suitable bludgeon against those who do wrong: Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Crónica de una muerte anunciada), for example, recreates a murder that occurred in Sucre in 1951 and combines journalism with the suspense of a detective novel.

Classic study

Bell-Villada’s classic study of the man and his work, here updated in a second edition that takes the reader on into work and personal developments published since 1988, is an eloquent and faithful study of such themes, and it is to the researcher’s credit that he explores such influences on both the approach of Latin America’s most important living writer but also his preoccupations. Bell-Villada writes:

“Reading the journalism of the young García Márquez one encounters a twenty-year-old whose attitudes, temperament, and worldview are fully formed and not terribly different from those of the man in his sixties and seventies… Even in his youthful columns García Márquez used to get in his digs at Western anticommunist obsessions.” [p. 65]

Thus, Bell-Villada points out, the author would cloak his politics in human-interest accounts, such as those about Colombia’s defrauded Korean War veterans. His articles were models of scrupulous, factual presentation conveying a sharp political message. At the same time, it could be this journalistic that explains the open mind with which he has approached themes and enamours him to a wider liberal audience. His “reportorial” views of communist Eastern Europe as a journalist, for example, were balanced with first-hand knowledge about what terrors could lurk in the “free world” and made little attempt to demonise a system that, though flawed, had brought genuine progress. Bell-Villada writes:

“Having experienced, and even taken his lumps from, ‘Free World’ Lain American dictatorships, he naturally would not be given to pious and utopian laments about the absence of constitutional liberties in an Eastern Europe never know for such benign traditions. The articles show his best qualities as a writer; they are good journalism above all, left-wing though neither partisan nor celebratory, genuinely objective rather than loftily churlish, facile, or denunciatory.” [p. 67]

This book in its first edition established itself as the essential primer and reference work on the Colombian author, and its second edition extends that reputation by examining recent works, made more important as a source of literary reference by García Márquez’s successful battle against cancer in 1999 after which he turned in earnest to writing his memoirs.

Bell-Villada returns to the thenme of journalism towards the end of the book, devotiong an entire chapter to García Márquez as journalist and memoirist and noting that he once told an interviewer that he had never stopped being a reporter. At different moments in his life he had returned to writing for the media, usually about themes that he held dear such as the case of Elián González, the Cuban boy reunited with his father after a long and controversial legal battle. His most celebrated work of journalism is Noticia de un secuestro (News of a Kidnapping), which Bell-Villada argues is “worthy of any sleeves-rolled-up, tobacco-consuming, streetwise reporter from a city newsroom” yet bears the unmistakable imprint of a literary master. The book recounts the grubby and terrifying tale of ten men and women kidnappd at the height of the drug cartels’ war against the Colombian state to secure guarantees against extradition to the US in the event of capture. The book is, above all, a study in human emotion and relationships but putting it together involved significant amounts of journalistic spadework including research on Pablo Escobar that involved reading his correspondence which, García Márquez noted, were written in lucid prose.

Another work of non-fiction, albeit autobiographical, emerged from the author’s own struggle with cancer. Because of the intimate and labyrinthine insights it gives us into the author’s life and relationships, Vivir para contarla (2003, Living to Tell the Tale) is, according to Bell-Villada, his richest and most multilayered piece of writing. The book provides an unmissable inights into both the narrative of García Márquez’s life – often ribald, and always humorous – but also his emotions, and is an essential read for students of this writer who want to understand how his mind – and heart – work. Bell-Villada writes:

“What distinguishes the book’s contents, aside from its greater wealth of details, is their evocative quality and the attention given to personal emotions. As the epigraph to the volume suggests, how one remembers one’s life matters more than the raw data of the life itself.” [pp. 275-76]

Perhaps most interesting of all, the researcher observes, is that politics is relatively absent from Vivir para contarla, in apparent defiance of the notable stances that García Márquez has often taken. Bell-Villada attributes this to the author’s discretion, but points out that, despite the many myths about him, García Márquez is not, and never was, a strictly political writer: “He is rather a writer who happens to be left-wing.” [p. 279]

Isabel O’Toole is a freelance contributor

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