November 26, 2014
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s letters go to Harry Ransom Center
by Sal Robinson
Though Gabriel García Márquez once said that writers should destroy all their drafts, so that, like magicians, they wouldn’t give away how the trick was done, it turns out that García Márquez didn’t follow his own advice all that closely (in the grand tradition of advice-giving…). Because it has just been announced that the great writer’s papers, including typescripts of One Hundred Years of Solitude and his last unfinished novel, We’ll See Each Other in August, have been sold to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin.
The Ransom Center was very happy to get this archive: their director, Stephen Enniss, called it in their press release “an important extension of the Center’s literary holdings,” and UT’s president, Bill Powers, said, slightly more effusively, that it was “a very important collection” and Texas was its “natural home.”
Other English-language media generally followed the same line: the Márquez papers have gone to the Ransom Center, this is a fait accompli, ok, here’s a slideshow.
But I’ve just spent the past few months working on a collection of Márquez’s interviews, which will be coming out in Melville’s Last Interview series in January. (In fact, the quote mentioned at the start of this piece comes from the collection, which nine out of ten babies recommend you buy here. And the other baby is a known abuser of the Amazon 1-Click function, so.) Since that practically makes me Gerald Martin (Márquez’s biographer, author of Gabriel García Márquez: A Life) at this point, here is my expert take on the points to pay attention to in this story:
–Much was made of Márquez’s papers now being in the same place as James Joyce’s. An example of this is Colin Dwyer’s article on NPR, and to be fair, he’s just following Enniss’s line about Márquez being as important to the literature in the second half of the twentieth century as Joyce was to the first. But there was surprisingly little discussion of the fact that Márquez’s papers will also now be in the same place as William Faulkner’s, who was crucial for Márquez and many other writers of the Latin American Boom. Has Faulkner’s star faded so profoundly in the public consciousness? (Probably not, but that was just my attempt at stoking a TNR “Who’s Afraid of William Faulkner?” piece. I’m counting down.)
–Tech-talk: the bequest includes two Smith Corona typewriters and an unspecified number of Apple computers. Márquez was in fact an early and enthusiastic adopter of computers, another thing that I learned from working on the aforementioned collection. This is just about as charming as Leo Tolstoy’s early (though late in life for him, as was also true of Márquez) embrace of the bicycle, and you know the only reason that there isn’t a Tolstoy-on-a-bicycle video circulating on YouTube is because Henry Ford destroyed it. Or Putin watches it at home before karate matches.
–Historical ironies: Many news outlets have pointed out that how disappointing it is that Márquez’s papers didn’t stay in Colombia. And also that it’s ironic that they ended up in the United States, which for many years would not let Márquez into the country because of his close ties to Fidel Castro. According to a Guardian article by Joanna Scutts and Ashifa Kassam, Márquez’s son Gonzalo García Barcha said the Colombian government never made a concerted effort to get it. But that’s not what they say:
Consuelo Gaitán, the director of the National Library of Colombia, denied that claim. “The government did show interest,” she insisted to Blu Radio. “[The family] never spoke to us about any kind of economic offer.” Her stance was echoed on Twitter by the country’s ministry of culture. “They said it was too soon after his death to speak about this. Colombia didn’t receive any proposal,” the ministry tweeted.
I too think they should have stayed in Colombia, while being entirely aware of the good reasons for them to be at the Ransom Center, which will take spectacularly good care of them and make them available to scholars forever and ever. And yet. And yet. If there was ever a Colombian whose papers should have stayed in Colombia, Gabriel García Márquez is it.
A couple of days after the outcry that followed the announcement of the sale, the National Library of Colombia responded, indicating that not everything had been lost. From a New York Times article by Jennifer Schuessler:
On Monday evening, the National Library of Colombia posted on Twitter a statement from the author’s family saying that his Nobel Prize medal, the typewriter on which he wrote “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and some books from his own collection would be donated to the library.
That’s great, but these are really trinkets, minor emblems in the life of a man who experienced writing as a physical compulsion and deep pleasure (also something I learned from the collection, where Márquez describes the sense of physical discomfort he experienced when he didn’t write every day). Not to mention a man who used his Nobel speech as an occasion to talk about politics, self-determination, and the complicated relationship between Latin America, Europe, and the United States. Márquez always saw that the under-estimation of Latin America—and its ability to prize and safeguard its great achievements—had nothing to do with Latin America, truly. From his speech:
It is only natural that they insist on measuring us with the yardstick that they use for themselves, forgetting that the ravages of life are not the same for all, and that the quest of our own identity is just as arduous and bloody for us as it was for them. The interpretation of our reality through patterns not our own, serves only to make us ever more unknown, ever less free, ever more solitary.
Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.