From A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes
I walk upstairs and look into my father’s room. The day nurse takes notes while the aide reads a magazine. My father is perfectly still, in something like sleep, but the room feels different from the rest of the house. For all the tranquility, time now seems to move faster here, like it’s in a rush, impatient to make time for more time. It’s disconcerting.
Standing near the foot of the bed, I look at him, diminished as he is, and I feel like both his son (his little son) and his father. I am acutely aware that I have a unique overview of his eighty-seven years. The beginning, the middle, and the end are all there in front of me, unfolding like an accordion book.
It’s a dizzying sensation to know the destiny of a human being. Of course, the years before I was born are a concoction of things told to me by him or his siblings or my mother, or recounted by relatives, friends, journalists, and biographers, and embellished by my own imagination: My father as a boy of six playing goalkeeper in a soccer game and feeling that he was playing very well, better than usual. A year or two later, looking at a solar eclipse without a proper glass and forever losing the sight at the center of his left eye. Watching from the door of his grandparents’ house as men walked by carrying the dead body of a man, and the wife walking behind them holding a child in one hand and the husband’s severed head in the other. Spitting into his fruit gelatin or eating plantain chips from his shoe to discourage his many brothers and sisters from poaching his food. In adolescence, a trip up the Magdalena River toward boarding school, feeling miserably alone. From his time in Paris, an afternoon he visited a woman and tried to extend the visit so as to be asked for dinner, since he was broke and hadn’t eaten in days. After that failed, rummaging through her garbage on the way out and eating out of it. (He told this to others in front of me when I was fifteen, and I felt as embarrassed as an adolescent can feel by their parent.) There was also in Paris a melancholy Chilean girl, Violeta Parra, that he occasionally ran into at get-togethers of Latin American expatriates. She wrote and sang beautiful, heart-wrenching songs and eventually took her own life. One afternoon in Mexico City in 1966, he walked up to the room where my mother read in bed and announced to her that he had just written the death of Colonel Aureliano Buendía.
“I’ve killed the colonel,” he said to her, distraught.
She knew what that meant to him, and they sat together in silence with the sad news.
Even in the long period of great and rare literary acclaim, wealth, and access, there were ugly days, of course. The death of Álvaro Cepeda at forty-six from cancer, and the assassination of journalist Guillermo Cano by drug cartels at sixty-one. The deaths of two brothers (the youngest of sixteen siblings), the alienating aspect of celebrity, the loss of memory and the inability to write that came with it. He eventually reread his books in his old age, and it was like reading them for the first time.
“Where on earth did all this come from?” he once asked me. He continued to read them until the end, eventually recognizing them as familiar books by the cover but understanding very little of their content. Sometimes, when closing a book, he would be surprised to find his photograph on the back cover, so he would reopen it and attempt to read it again.
Standing there, at the foot of his bed, I’d like to think that his brain, despite the dementia (and perhaps aided by the morphine), is still the cauldron of creativity that it always was. Fractured, perhaps, unable to return to thoughts or to sustain story lines, but still active. His imagination was always prodigiously fertile. Six generations of the Buendía family make up One Hundred Years of Solitude, but he had enough material for two more generations. He decided not to include it for fear the novel would be too long and tiresome. He thought great discipline was one of the cornerstones of writing a novel, particularly when it came to framing the shape and limits of the tale. He disagreed with those who said it was a freer, and therefore easier, form than a screenplay or a short story. It was imperative, he argued, that the novelist draft his or her own rigorous road map in order to traverse what he referred to as “the treacherous terrain of a novel.”
The journey from Aracataca in 1927 to this day in Mexico City in 2014 is about as long and extraordinary a journey as a person can have, and those dates on a tombstone could never begin to encompass it. From where I’m standing, it looks like one of the most fortunate and privileged lives ever lived by a Latin American. He’d be the first to agree.
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