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The Hack

The journalistic education of Gabriel García Márquez
January 14, 2010

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.

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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.

García Márquez ended up leaving law school and working for a series of Colombian newspapers. He spent most of his early career writing movie reviews, human-interest stories, and a daily, unsigned column he shared with other reporters that resembled The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town”—a common feature of South American newspapers. Yet he aspired to cover more substantive issues, including politics and government corruption, and to pursue investigative projects.

When he was first hired at El Espectador, García Márquez hoped to impress an editor by the name of Jose Salgar. “It seems to me that Salgar had his eye on me to be a reporter,” he later recounted in his autobiography, “while the others had relegated me to films, editorials, and cultural matters because I had always been designated a short-story writer. But my dream was to be a reporter . . . and I knew that Salgar was the best teacher.” The editor taught him to how to communicate his ideas clearly and pare down his florid prose. Every time Salgar read one of García Márquez’s stories, he made “the strenuous gesture of forcing a cork out of a bottle and said, ‘Wring the neck of the swan.’ ”

Soon, García Márquez was assigned the kinds of projects he had dreamed of pursuing. He wrote numerous in-depth stories, including pieces about the corruption surrounding the construction of a port on the Caribbean coast, the neglect of war veterans by the government, and landslides that killed dozens of people in a slum neighborhood. He specialized in what Latin American newspapers called the refrito (“refried”): a detailed reconstruction of a dramatic news event, published weeks or months later with élan and great narrative skill. And then something new landed on his desk: the Velasco series.

After Luis Alejandro Velasco washed ashore, he was lionized by the press, decorated by the Colombian president, and became a national hero. García Márquez thought it was absurd the way the government held up Velasco as an example of patriotic morality. What’s more, he believed the sailor had sold out in a most unseemly manner—advertising the brand of watch he wore at sea (because it had not stopped) and the shoes on his feet (because they were too sturdy for him to tear apart and eat during his ordeal).

A month after his rescue, Velasco walked into El Espectador’s newsroom and offered the exclusive rights to his story. He had already told his tale to innumerable reporters as well as government officials, and the staff doubted he had anything new to add to the record. “We sent him away,” García Márquez recalls in his autobiography. “But on a hunch, [Salgar] caught up with him on the stairway, accepted the deal, and placed him in my hands. It was as if he had given me a time bomb.”

At first, though, García Márquez declined the assignment. He believed the story was not only a “dead fish,” as he later wrote, but “a rotten one”—which is to say, both dated and dubious. Salgar persisted. “I informed him,” García Márquez recounts, “that I would write the article out of obedience as his employee but would not put my name to it. Without having thought about it first, this was a fortuitous but on-target determination regarding the story, for it obliged me to tell it in the first-person voice of the protagonist.”

García Márquez proved the newspaper adage that there can’t be great writing without great reporting. Over the course of twenty consecutive days, he interviewed Velasco for six hours each day. To make sure his subject was telling the truth, he frequently interjected trick questions, hoping to expose any contradictions in Velasco’s tale. “I sincerely believe that interviewing is a kind of fictional genre and that it must be regarded in this light,” García Márquez wrote after his interviews with the sailor. He added:

The majority of journalists let the tape recorder do the work, and they think that they are respecting the wishes of the person they are interviewing by retranscribing word for word what he says. They do not realize that this work method is really quite disrespectful: whenever someone speaks, he hesitates, goes off on tangents, does not finish his sentences, and he makes trifling remarks. For me the tape recorder must only be used to record material that the journalist will decide to use later on, that he will interpret and will choose to present in his own way. In this sense it is possible to interview someone in the same way that you write a novel or poetry.

After 120 hours, García Márquez had a detailed, comprehensive account of Velasco’s ordeal. The challenge was how to involve the reader in a saga that featured a single character who was alone for ten days, floating aimlessly in a small raft.

The answer was a steady heightening of dramatic tension. In the first few pages of the book, he notes that before the destroyer shipped out of Mobile, Alabama, Velasco and some of his shipmates watched The Caine Mutiny, foreshadowing the disaster to come. The best part of the movie, Velasco tells García Márquez, was the storm. And the sheer realism of the sequence inevitably made some of the crew uneasy: “I don’t mean to say that from that moment I began to anticipate the catastrophe,” Velasco says, “but I had never been so apprehensive before a voyage.”

Not overly subtle, perhaps, but certainly effective. García Márquez concludes each section with a Dickensian cliffhanger. He ends chapter two, for example, with a dramatic description that compels the reader onward:

I started to raise my arm to look at my watch, but at that moment I couldn’t see my arm, or my watch either. I didn’t see the wave . . . . I swam upward for one, two, three seconds. I tried to reach the surface. I needed air. I was suffocating . . . . A second later, about a hundred meters way, the ship surged up between the waves, gushing water from all sides like a submarine. It was only then that I realized I had fallen overboard.

The next chapter begins with Velasco alone in the middle of the ocean. While García Márquez keeps his language relatively spare—he was writing for a newspaper, after all—there are frequent glimmers of the great descriptive powers that would later animate his novels. “Soon the sky turned red, and I continued to search the horizon,” recalls Velasco (or at least Velasco being channeled by the young reporter). “Then it turned a deep violet as I kept watching. To one side of the life raft, like a yellow diamond in a wine-colored sky, the first star appeared, immobile and perfect.”

Throughout the sailor’s ordeal, García Márquez touches on themes that would consistently interest him for the rest of his career. In his early short stories, he had already explored the interior life of his characters, probing their dreams and sometimes surreal reveries. Yet these explorations felt anomalous—youthful stabs at insight without any real connection to the plot. In the Velasco series, he felt free to reconstruct his subject’s interior monologues, and for the first time, they were actually integral to the narrative. And when the sailor sees mirages, or converses with imaginary companions, or struggles with the distortions of time, these passages presage the author’s mature fiction.

Here, as he did later on, García Márquez also affirms his belief that narrative plays a significant role in people’s lives. When Velasco finally washes ashore, after ten days in the open sea, a man wearing a straw hat comes upon him, with a donkey and an emaciated dog in tow. García Márquez relates the exchange between the two:

“Help me,” I repeated desperately, worried that the man hadn’t understood me.

“What happened to you?” he asked in a friendly tone of voice.

When I heard him speak I realized that, more than thirst, hunger, and despair, what tormented me most was the need to tell someone what had happened to me.

Countless literary critics have written about how Ernest Hemingway’s prose emerged from his journalism. Scholars have looked for a similar stylistic genealogy in the case of García Márquez. There are, of course, major differences between the two: García Márquez’s language is more complex and poetic. Yet even his inimitable passages of magic realism are influenced by his years as a reporter, says Robert Sims, a professor of Spanish literature at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of The First García Márquez: A Study of His Journalistic Writing from 1948 to 1955. The most surrealistic events are believable, Sims argues, because they are recounted in an objective, journalistic tone. And García Márquez first mastered this tone—in which magic always pays heed to realism—when he described Velasco’s ordeal. “It’s never melodramatic,” Sims says. “He never lets Velasco get overwrought or maudlin or sink into total despair. García Márquez always cuts it off before it reaches that point. The tone is even and neutral, just like in A Hundred Years of Solitude.”

Nor did he ever forget the reporter’s obligation to hook readers with the very first sentence. Some of García Márquez’s early newspaper leads read like fiction, and point directly to his later work. For example, he wrote a series for El Espectador about a swampy, disease-ridden area of Colombia near the coast, and opened with a lead guaranteed to intrigue any reader: “Several years ago a ghostly, glassy-looking man, with a big stomach as taut as a drum, came to a doctor’s office in the city. He said, ‘Doctor, I have come to have you remove a monkey that was put in my belly.’ ”

The reverse is true as well. In his novels and short stories, he often opens with indelible lines about death, many of which read like dramatic newspaper leads. Here he cuts to the chase and ensnares the reader with an elegant composure:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. (A Hundred Years of Solitude)

On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on. (Chronicle of a Death Foretold)

Since it’s Sunday and it’s stopped raining, I think I’ll take a bouquet of roses to my grave. (Someone Has Been Disarranging These Roses)

When Jose Montiel died, everyone felt avenged except his widow; but it took several hours for everyone to believe that he had indeed died. (Montiel’s Widow)

Senator Onesimo Sanchez had six months and eleven days to go before his death when he found the woman of his life. (Death Constant Beyond Love)

Hemingway and García Márquez also differed on how lasting ones’ journalistic apprenticeship should be. The former admitted that journalism was good training for a young novelist, but contended that it was important to get out in time, because newspapers could ruin a writer. García Márquez felt otherwise. “That supposedly bad influence that journalism has on literature isn’t so certain,” he has said. “First of all, because I don’t think anything destroys the writer, not even hunger. Secondly, because journalism helps you stay in touch with reality, which is essential for working in literature.”

García Márquez put this belief into practice: even after he attained great success as a novelist, he never abandoned journalism. He used the money from his 1982 Nobel Prize to purchase Cambio, a failing weekly newsmagazine in Colombia. He established the Foundation for New Ibero-American Journalism, where veteran reporters give workshops for young Latin American journalists. And during the past few decades, while writing novels, he has kept reality at close quarters, publishing numerous essays, opinion pieces, articles, and a masterful book of reconstructive journalism, News of a Kidnapping. In the latter, he chronicled the abduction of ten prominent Colombians by Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellin drug cartel, and his painstaking account of their eight-month ordeal might strike some readers as a protracted ensemble version of The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor.

In any case, his breakthrough series went on to be one of his most popular books, selling about 10 million copies, the majority of them in the original Spanish. To his readers, this apprentice work, with its early and exquisite balance of magic and realism, fit very comfortably into the author’s canon. The fact that it was told in the first person may have actually made it feel more literary rather than less—a feat of modernist ventriloquism.

As for García Márquez himself, he had mixed feelings about the transformation of his newspaper series into a bona fide work of art—or at least a hardcover book. And in a new introduction he wrote, he seemed to betray some nostalgia for the days when he was simply a semi-anonymous reporter rather than an international brand name. “I have not reread this story in fifteen years,” he wrote. “It seems worthy of publication, but I have never quite understood the usefulness of publishing it. I find it depressing that the publishers are not so much interested in the merit of the story as in the name of the author, which, much to my sorrow, is also that of a fashionable writer. If it is now published in the form of a book, that is because I agreed without thinking about it very much, and I am not a man to go back on his word.”

Miles Corwin , a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, teaches literary journalism at the University of California, Irvine. His novel, Kind of Blue, will be released in November.