On Colombian literary giant Gabriel García Márquez as journalist

When his groundbreaking piece, The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, was published in 1955, Gabriel García Márquez, who was 28 years old at the time, had not yet become one of Latin America’s most celebrated literary icons. He was rather a bohemian journalist who had been relentlessly writing articles and stories for diverse Colombian newspapers for almost 10 years.

In his autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale (2002), Márquez wrote extensively about his early journalistic experiences, the setbacks he faced and his few achievements during his time as a journalist, which began when he started working at El Universal newspaper at the age of 18. He lived at the time from hand to mouth, stumbling from one newspaper to the next in a perpetual quest to find a medium for his literary ambitions. Before his breakthrough in 1967, money had always been a problem. At times, he could not even afford to pay rent for the shabby lodges he lived in, and he stayed for some time in a brothel among sex workers who would share their food with him.

It was not until 1950 that Márquez started to build a readership, when he began writing a whimsical column for El Heraldo newspaper, titled “Giraffa.” He picked the name because “the giraffe has a long neck that enables her to [overcome] distances and see the full picture.” It is also said that it was the nickname he chose for his girlfriend Mercedes Barcha, who he later married. Márquez wrote the column under the pen name Septimus, inspired by a character in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925). It is a pseudonym which is also thought to have political connotations, deriving meaning from the street where liberal presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was assassinated in 1948: Carrera Septima. The subsequent political riots, which reverberated through the entire country, are estimated to have resulted in the death of 300,000 Colombians.

In El Heraldo, Márquez was given plenty of space to choose the themes he covered. His first column was about Winston Churchill and his importance as a 20th Century figure, while the second was on Dionysus, the ancient Greek God of wine. His columns, which were often satirical and fantastical, showed early signs of the magical realism that would later define his literature. In his fifth column, for example, Márquez invented a story about the death of a thief and the honorary funeral held for him by fellow criminals before his arrival in hell.

In his memoirs, Márquez says it was often difficult for him to find interesting topics to write about. The fascist regime of dictator Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, who came to power after a military coup in 1953, was no friend of the free press. Constant tensions simmered between journalists and censors, who were planted in every office to limit any criticism of the government. In El Espectador, Colombia’s oldest newspaper, Márquez and his colleagues used to misdirect and bully the censor posted in their office, on one occasion causing him to storm out of the newsroom crying.

The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor

In 1955, El Espectador`s editor-in-chief commissioned Márquez to interview the Colombian sailor Luis Velasco, the only survivor of the naval destroyer “Caldas,” which sank that same year. Velasco had clung to a raft for 10 days in the Caribbean Sea, until he was washed ashore.

At first, the authorities barred Velasco from speaking to the media. Then they used him in propaganda, portraying him as a national hero until the buzz died down. When Velasco agreed to grant El Espectador an interview a few months later, Márquez declined at first, arguing that the story was no longer relevant. When he agreed to the interview, he was rewarded during his first encounter, when he learned the real reason behind the sinking of the destroyer: It sank because it was overloaded with smuggled goods the sailors bought for themselves.

The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, which was published as a series over 14 consecutive days, caused an immediate political and social uproar. Within a few days, sales of El Espectador had doubled. Márquez and his colleagues were rather surprised that the government did not shut down their office or confiscate the paper. Although Márquez didn’t publish the articles under his real name, it soon became known in journalistic circles that he was the author.

Márquez spent three “exhausting” weeks with Velasco, according to his autobiography, interrogating him about every detail of his miraculous survival at sea. He wrote the story from Velasco’s perspective, in the first person. This was a style common in such reports, to eliminate the voice of an intermediary narrator, so that readers could directly identity with the protagonist.

Discovering that Velasco possessed a nearly photographic memory was a windfall for Márquez, as he could recall the smallest details of his ordeal. Thanks to his watch, which kept working during his 10 days at sea, he recollected with precision when the the wind and weather changed, the sharks that showed up punctually every day at exactly 5 pm and the moment he spotted an airplane in the sky, which he thought would come to his rescue.

Márquez gave a thorough account of Velasco’s hardships on the raft: his struggle with the cold at night and heat during the day, his hunger and thirst, his remorse after killing a seagull and his attempt to eat a shoe out of despair. At times, The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor reminded me of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1951), particularly the section in which Velasco recounts his struggle with a big shark chasing a fish that accidentally jumped on his raft.

It is difficult, however, to judge the quality of this story today. In 1970, when Márquez was asked to publish it in the form of a book, he reluctantly agreed. In the prologue, he voices his concern that the publishing house was interested in the book only because he was a writer who was popular in the moment.

The account was extremely successful when it first appeared in El Espectador, as it challenged the regime’s narrative, which focused on portraying Velasco as a miraculous survivor. Márquez, however, was primarily concerned with representing the eternal struggle between man and nature, and Velasco’s cut-throat fight for survival.

Nevertheless, the pace of the story as it unfolded struck me as too slow and boring at times, as if I was watching an old black and white film. The language also seemed too factual, and lacked the magical realism and inventive metaphors Márquez mastered in his later writing. Like the author, I doubt that the account, which is still in print today, would be so widely read if it were published under a less well-known name.

Clandestine in Chile

Before the last instalments of The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor were published, Márquez had received numerous threats and his colleagues advised him to leave the country for a while. The news that police closed down the newspaper reached him months later when he was in Europe, where he lived in a state of acute financial need and instability.

His first novel, Leaf Storm (1955), and his second, No One Writes to the Colonel (1961), were neither well received by critics nor his readers. Spain’s most prominent literary critic at that time, Guillermo de Torre, advised him to quit writing and look for another job. Subsequently, Márquez abandoned literature for five years, before he ventured a comeback with his third novel. To focus on writing, Márquez, who was married and had a son at the time, sold his car and lived off his savings, and the help of his friends, for about a year and a half. The outcome was One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), which hit the publishing world like a bomb.

This instant success was followed by The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975) and Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981), before Márquez won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982. When Clandestine in Chile: The Adventures of Miguel Littín was published in 1986, the author had come a long way, and was considered by many to be Latin America’s most famous writer.

Clandestine in Chile goes back to Márquez’s emotional and ideological affinity for Salvador Allende (1908 –1973), Chile`s first leftist President, who was forcibly removed by his defence minister Augusto Pinochet (1915 –2006) in one of the bloodiest military coups in the modern history of Latin America.

The text follows Chilean director Miguel Littín, who escaped the manhunt for Allende’s supporters in the wake of the coup, and returned 10 years later to secretly shoot a documentary on life in Chile under military rule. After gathering hours of material, Littín traveled back to Europe, where he edited the footage and produced a four-hour long film.

As in The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, Márquez narrates the account of making the documentary from Littín`s perspective. The 112 pages read like a spy novel, as he uses suspense to depict Littín´s precarious cat and mouse game with the Chilean police. With the help of three European film crews and an assistant disguised as his wife, with whom he fought daily, as if they were really married, Littín gave the authorities the runaround.

The book’s weak point is that Márquez had never before set foot in Chile. I was therefore unmoved by the cities, streets and shops Márquez describes through the Littín’s eyes, as these passages rang hollow for me. The exception is a nostalgic visit Littín paid to the barber, during which he delves into melancholic memories. In another memorable episode, he shows up at his mother’s house, whom he has not seen in years, disguised as a stranger.

I was also quiet unconvinced by the portrayal of Littín. Márquez, who abhorred the regime, clearly sympathised with his protagonist, and constructed a very biased story based on his perception. He did not delve deep into Littín`s psyche, nor did he thoroughly examine his motives or any paradoxes in his character.

I found myself wondering why Márquez decided to write this book. My guess is that his motives were quite personal. After the coup, he had vowed in a moment of rage not to write another novel until the regime had fallen. With the book and its scathing portrayal of Pinochet, Márquez could rest his conscience. Pinochet’s regime crumbled only three years after Clandestine in Chile came out.

News of a Kidnapping

News of a Kidnapping (1996) is Márquez`s most ambitious journalistic oeuvre, at 291 pages. It is based on the political kidnappings that Pablo Escobar (1949 –1993), Colombia`s notorious drug lord, ordered in the early 1990s, to blackmail the government out of extraditing him to the United States.

Márquez spent three years conducting long interviews with the parties involved: abducted victims, their family members and politicians who negotiated with Escobar. After the first edition came out, Márquez slightly edited a few passages, as his sources objected to some of the details.

Many critics perceive this story as Márquez`s best non-fiction work, given the balanced portrayal of the political conflict that engulfed Colombia in the 80s and 90s, leaving thousands of Colombians dead. Between 1983 and 1991, four presidential candidates were assassinated and more than 26 journalists were killed by the drug cartels. In the first two months of 1991 alone, 2,200 people were killed, an average of 20 people a day. Escobar offered a bounty of five million pesos ‘per head’ for police personnel.

Márquez construes two parallel and alternating narratives. The first, and more interesting by far, focuses on the victims and the conditions of their detention. The second, which proves much more arduous and impedes the flow of the piece, deals with the numerous meetings of family members and politicians, who in turn negotiated with the kidnappers. One of the reasons I disliked this part was Márquez`s uncritical and diplomatic portrayal of some politicians. His depiction of President César Gaviria, for example, who comes across as a wise leader, was very biased. The text is also overflowing with characters, and I found it difficult at times to remember who was who. Although Márquez focuses on three abducted journalists (Dina Turbay, who was killed during a failed rescue operation, Maruja Castro and her sister-in-law Beatriz Villamizar) he nevertheless engages the reader in parallel stories of other abducted characters, who never fully come to life on the page.

On the other hand, the writer excels in transmitting the horrors of abduction tangibly to the reader. The three women, who were held for three months at an unknown location in Escobar`s stronghold in the city of Medellín, were subjected to a daily roller coaster of despair and hope. Márquez brilliantly captures their claustrophobia, nervous breakdowns, the sanitary issues and their fears of sexual violence, which felt particularly imminent when their adolescent captors watched pornographic films in an adjacent room.

In News of a Kidnapping, Márquez invests in the little details that, when woven together with the narrative, make for good literature. He recounts, for example, the obsession of one of the women with maintaining her physical appearance, as she shaves her legs and plucks her eyebrows in an attempt to keep her spirits up. In one particularly emotional episode, he depicts how Castro celebrated her birthday in the company of her kidnappers. In another, he describes the confrontation between the parents of a victim with the president, who they blamed for their daughter’s death.

I was particularly moved by the ending of the book, which was written in a rich, flowing prose style reminiscent of Márquez’s best novels.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

My favourite Márquez story is Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981). It revolves around the honor killing of a man that took place in Sucre, Colombia, in 1951. After a groom sends his bride back to her parents on their wedding night, after he discovers that she is not a virgin, her vengeful brothers point the finger at Santiago Nasar, a pseudonym Márquez gave to the real victim Cayetano Chimento, whose mother was a close friend of Márquez’s.

In his autobiography, Márquez writes that he wanted to write this story down as soon as it occurred. However, his mother intervened and asked him to put off his literary project as long as Chimento`s mother was alive, and Márquez promised that he would, in order to preserve the reputation of Chimento. Thus, Márquez waited for 26 years before returning to Sucre, where he had lived with his family in his youth. He did not entirely keep his promise to his mother, however, as he interviewed a woman who Chimento sexually assaulted, and included this account in his work.

Márquez spent endless hours documenting the memories and testimonies of living witnesses, including friends, relatives, domestic workers, neighbors, shop owners, the bride, and Márquez`s own family. He changed the names of the bride and groom, but included the real names of his family members and his future wife, who were acquainted with the victim. As the title reveals, all the witnesses knew of the impending murder, yet no one intervened to warn Chimento.

Like in Leaf Storm, No One Writes to the Colonel, The Autumn of the Patriarch and Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), Chronicle of a Death Foretold starts with a death, in this instance a murder. Despite this spoiler at the onset of the story, Márquez nevertheless reconstructs the murder with an accelerating and page-turning drive.

The text is a rare pairing of literature with journalism, and it is almost impossible to mark where the factual ends and the fictional begins, as Márquez rarely commented on his own work. Its strengths lie in the anecdotes and intimate stories Márquez gathered about the involved parties, such as Chimento’s obsession with trying to figure out how much the wedding cost, or the story about how the wealthy groom bought his house from a broken-hearted widower, who Marquez describes as dying from misery shortly after the purchase.

In the prologue, Márquez compares the memory of the murder to shards of a broken mirror that he painstakingly tried to put back together. Indeed, Márquez recounts the case in the manner of a shrewd investigator, gathering the missing pieces together to reconstruct the last 24 hours of Chimento’s life. With clipped, Hemingwayesque sentences and succinct language colored with the barest hints of his trademark magical realism, he constructs a compact narrative, and takes his time in giving the characters sufficient space to breathe and grow.

In 1994, the real groom, Bayardo San Román, filed a lawsuit against Márquez, claiming that the author based his character on him. The legal proceedings lasted for 17 years before ruling against San Román. Márquez’s lawyer, Alfonso Gómez Méndez, issued a statement to the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo at the time, saying that the verdict was significant for literature. He compared the protagonists, who were modelled after real people, to models who sat for paintings, in that, despite bearing their likeness, copyright permission was not always obtained. This was an inept comparison, perhaps, since Román did not willingly pose for Márquez.


Even though I admire Márquez, who regarded journalism as his true profession, I enjoyed his fictional works more than his reported stories. Despite this, there is no doubt that his journalistic work influenced his literature. In his autobiography, Márquez stresses the importance of the innumerable interviews he conducted throughout his life. Even though he sometimes questioned their efficacy, he regarded them as raw material for feature articles, which he valued as “the stellar format of the best profession in the world.” To Márquez, journalism and literature were irreversibly intertwined, both facets of the same mission: to document the lives of humans and make sense of their ordeals, their passions and death.

Sherif Abdel Samad 

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