In 1955, eight crew members of a Colombian naval destroyer in the Caribbean were swept overboard by a giant wave. Luis Alejandro Velasco, a sailor who spent ten days on a life raft without food or water, was the only survivor. The editor of the Colombian newspaper El Espectador assigned the story to a twenty-seven-year-old reporter who had been dabbling in fiction and had a reputation as a gifted feature writer: Gabriel García Márquez.
The young journalist quickly uncovered a military scandal. As his fourteen-part series revealed, the sailors owed their deaths not to a storm, as Colombia’s military dictatorship had claimed, but to naval negligence. The decks of the Caldas had been stacked high with television sets, washing machines, and refrigerators purchased in the U.S. These appliances, which were being ferried to Colombia against military regulations, had caused the ship to list dangerously. And because the Caldas was so overloaded, it was unable to maneuver and rescue the sailors.
In addition, the life rafts on board were too small and carried no supplies, and the Navy called off the search for survivors after only four days.
By the time the series ended, El Espectador’s circulation had almost doubled. The public always likes an exposé, but what made the stories so popular was not simply the explosive revelations of military incompetence. García Márquez had managed to transform Velasco’s account into a narrative so dramatic and compelling that readers lined up in front of the newspaper’s offices, waiting to buy copies.
After the series ran, the government denied that the destroyer had been loaded with contraband merchandise. García Márquez turned up the investigative heat: he tracked down crewmen who owned cameras and purchased their photographs from the voyage, in which the illicit cargo, with factory labels, could be easily seen.
The series marked a turning point in García Márquez’s life and writing career. The government was so incensed that the newspaper’s editors, who feared for the young reporter’s safety, sent him to Paris as its foreign correspondent. A few months later the government shut El Espectador down. The disappearance of his meal ticket forced García Márquez into the role of an itinerant journalist who sold freelance stories to pay the bills—and, crucially, continued to write fiction.
The relatively spare prose of the Velasco series bears little resemblance to the poetic, multilayered, sometimes hallucinatory language that would mark García Márquez’s maturity as a novelist. Still, the articles—which were published in book form as The Story of A Shipwrecked Sailor in 1970, and translated into English sixteen years later—represent a milestone in his literary evolution. “This is where his gifted storytelling emerges,” says Raymond Williams, a professor of Latin American literature at the University of California, Riverside, who has written two books about the author. Prior to the series, he suggests, García Márquez had been writing somewhat amateurish short stories. Now, says Williams, he was rising to the challenge of constructing a lengthy narrative: “The ability he has to maintain a level of suspense throughout is something that later became a powerful element of his novels.”
In fact, it was the reporter’s capacity to anatomize human behavior—rather than simply pass along the facts—that first drew García Márquez to the newsroom. He was a young law student with little interest in journalism when an acquaintance named Elvira Mendoza, who edited the women’s section of a Bogotá newspaper, was assigned to interview the Argentinean actress Berta Singerman. The diva was so arrogant and supercilious that she refused to answer any questions. Finally, her husband intervened and salvaged the interview.
For García Márquez, this was a revelation about the possibilities of journalism. As he wrote in his autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale, which appeared in English in 2003:
Elvira did not write the dialogue she had foreseen, based on the diva’s responses, but instead wrote an article about her difficulties with Berta Singerman. She took advantage of the providential intervention of the husband and turned him into the real protagonist of the meeting . . . . The sangfroid and ingenuity with which Elvira . . . used Singerman’s foolishness to reveal her true personality set me to thinking for the first time about the possibilities of journalism, not as a primary source of information but as much more: a literary genre. Before many years passed I would prove this in my own flesh, until I came to believe, as I believe today more than ever, that the novel and journalism are children of the same mother . . . . Elvira’s article made me aware of the reporter I carried sleeping in my heart and I resolved to wake him. I began to read newspapers in a different way.