Passion, pride and blind faith: the Colombia that inspired Gabriel García Márquez

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A report by Sarah Marshall for London’s Telegraph.

After skimming the peeling spines of dusty books crammed into an antique cabinet, Luz Marina Tovar finally plucked a paperback from the shelf. Pages curled by Cartagena’s corrosive Caribbean humidity, it looked much older than its 43 years.

 

“1974,” she proclaimed, reading the publication date. “It’s not the first edition, but it’s an early one.”

Tovar’s sister, Maria Claudia Sandrock, is a keen traveller who has amassed a collection of more than 100 works by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, with translations in 22 languages. All are on display at the siblings’ hotel, The Alfiz, in Cartagena’s colonial pastel print old town. But this book, One Hundred Years of Solitude, is a particular favourite.

Only the Bible has sold more copies in the Spanish language.

Chronicling the fortunes and repeated failings suffered by seven generations of the Buendia family, Márquez’s landmark novel delves into the Colombian psyche, exploring an exhilarating passion, blind faith and savage pride that has coloured the South American country to this day.

Historical facts swirl with fantasy in a story where self-destructive characters eat dirt, inbred babies are born with pig tails, and blood from a murdered man crosses streets, climbs curbs and turns corners to reach the victim’s mother.

The colourful city of Cartagena

On May 30, it will be 50 years since the first copies of Marquez’s Nobel Prize-winning book rolled off a printing press in Buenos Aires in 1967. Only the Bible has sold more copies in the Spanish language, and when Márquez died in 2014, aged 87, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos declared three days of mourning.

Exploring the origins of One Hundred Years of Solitude is a journey through Colombia’s past and present.

Cartagena, where the writer worked as a journalist for the newspaper El Universal, seemed an obvious place to start.

“My books couldn’t have been written if I wasn’t a journalist,” he once told Associated Press in an interview. “Because all my material was taken from reality.”

In the 16th century, every day at 6pm a drawbridge would raise from the city walls, separating wealthy Spanish families from slaves and workers.

Hundreds of years later, it was at this class crossroads, now marked by a spired banana-yellow clock tower, where Gabo would spend most of his time wondering through galleries filled with giant sweetie jars and chatting to shoe shiners in the hope of securing story leads.

After strolling through the now institutional candy corridor, I climbed the city ramparts, passing vendors peddling toxic pink candyfloss and palenqueros with fruit bowls deftly balanced on their heads.

Young lovers wrapped arms, legs and tongues around each other, midnight-black grackles trilled from the top of canons aimed at the now calm Caribbean Sea, and sunset rays appeared to ignite empty lampposts with flames of orange light. In such a colourful setting, Gabo would have had no trouble finding personalities to fill his books.

One of his bestsellers, Of Love and Other Demons, started life in the Sofitel Santa Clara hotel, a former convent and hospital.

While reporting on the hotel’s restoration work, the author learnt about the discovery of a skeleton of a young girl with exceptionally long copper hair. Fact blurred with fiction and she became a 12-year-old marquis’s daughter sent for exorcism after being bitten by a rabid dog.

The novel was published a year before the hotel opened in 1995, and the crypt where the girl’s body was found can still be accessed through a glass gate in Santa Clara’s El Coro bar.

For political reasons, Márquez moved to Europe in 1955 and later settled in Mexico City, but he always felt at home in Cartagena, where he purchased a property in the Eighties.

When I walked past his house, a high-walled, angular modernist building next to the Santa Clara, a security guard hinted it might be transformed into a museum.

Gabo’s ashes are preserved beneath his bust in El Clausto de la Merced, a university building which will also open to the public – eventually.

But nothing happens quickly in this country, as I discovered on a trip to Mompox, a riverside gem of a colonial town in the swamps of Bolivar province, reached only with patience and determination. Travelling by road and ferry (essentially a raft stacked with cattle lorries), it took me 11 hours but I was told the journey can be done in seven if the current of the River Magdalena isn’t too strong.

Stuck in a sleepy, sweaty time warp, The Unesco World Heritage Site bears an uncanny resemblance to Macondo, the fictional setting for One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The Spanish came here looking for gold in 1537, and wealthy merchant families from Cartagena arrived to trade a safe distance from marauding pirates on the Caribbean coast.

Their crafts continue to this day: a calligraphy of wrought iron curls across doorways; after dusk, residents retire to handmade wooden rocking chairs on porchways; and family businesses thrive in the art of filigree.

I stayed in Hostal Dona Manuela, a house once owned by the Pinillos family, who lived here for several generations until drug cartels drove them away. Now it’s a simple hotel operated by the government, and a sprawling 140-year-old fig tree has swallowed the courtyard.

Myth and superstition twist through the streets of Mompox and stifling heat shrouds everything with a dreamy haze.

Standing below the wooden balcony of Santa Barbara church, where old women gather to pray during lightning storms, I fantasised about the ice brought to Macondo by Melquiades and his gang of gipsies. Iguanas scuttled into the shade of trees bowing into the river (a tributary of the Magdalena), where statues of Cristo Negro are presented to quell floods after heavy rains.

A few doors along the quiet river walk live Flor and Elisa Trespalacios, two elderly daughters of a famous jeweller who took care of Gabo’s wife, Mercedes Barcha, when she lived and schooled in Mompox for two years. I was invited into their cool, cavernous home which doubles as a bike rental shop.

A weighted pulley system used to flatten metals gathered dust in a courtyard along with their father’s other precious tools, arranged like a museum display. Around her neck, Flor wore two delicate gold-plated fish, very similar to those obsessively made, melted and remade by Macondo’s restlessly indignant Colonel Aureliano Buendia.

“My father made these by hand,” she explained, proudly stroking the creature’s fine scales. “Mercedes would have seen him working and perhaps she told that story to Gabo.”

I asked if the women were still in touch with Signora Marquez.

“She denies she’s ever been here,” Flor replied with sadness and disappointment. “We don’t know why.”

In fact, although Márquez once claimed to “know every village and every tree” on the Magdalena River, the sisters were adamant he’d never visited Mompox.

Márquez once claimed to “know every village and every tree” on the Magdalena River

Perhaps a more likely contender for Macondo is Márquez’s birthplace Aracataca, an equally steaming hot town 230km north in the Sierra Nevada.

Waves of leafy green banana plantations rolled into the horizon as we drove through a region once commanded by America’s United Fruit Company (who later became supermarket staple Chiquita).

In 1928, a year after Márquez’s birth, a workers’ strike resulted in the bloody Banana Massacre in nearby Cienaga, an episode later echoed in the author’s novel. The number killed is exaggerated in keeping with the story’s epic proportions, but the sense of injustice is the same.

Murals of Gabo and a statue of Remedios, the disquieting beauty who ascended to heaven, decorate otherwise unremarkable Aracataca, a town still clinging tightly to the legacy of its famous son.

In April, after the rains, hundreds of cornflower-yellow butterflies flutter through the simple streets, just like the sunny swarms following love-struck mechanic Mauricio Babilonia in the book.

The childhood home Gabo shared with his grandparents has been transformed into a museum, illustrating the mundane elements that shaped his stories, connecting fact with fiction.

Effigies of saints with shiny glass eyes terrorised both a young Márquez and children in the Buendia household; a ladies-only parlour was a breeding ground for fantastic tales; and a junk room filled with chamber pots provided a refuge for the ghost of Melquiades. The visionary gipsy who feared death’s solitude even has a resting place in Aracataca. An eccentric Dutch man called Tim Buendia (real name Tim Aan’t Goor) petitioned to have the tomb built during a seven-year stay in the town.

It’s nothing more than a showpiece, but swept up in a happy confusion of illusion and reality one local lady insisted to me it was real.

Although most of his adult life was spent overseas, Márquez’s books were always concerned with Colombia, often informed by stories he’d gleamed from the streets or his beloved “granny Mina”.

As my visit drew to a close I already knew I’d never find Macondo because it exists only in one place – within the Colombian people, as they revolve through similar cycles of highs and lows.

“It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality,” Márquez once told The Paris Review.

“The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.”

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