I'm Not Here to Give a Speech
Gabriel García Márquez, Viking, 2018
Perhaps it is a sign of his tenacity that, nearly five years after his death, Gabriel García Márquez has published another book. Compiled by Márquez’s editor, Cristóbal Pera, and rendered in concise, lyrical English by Edith Grossman, this book of 22 speeches by one of South America’s most celebrated novelists depicts in brief but intimate detail both the range of Marquez’s passions and the evolution of his literary life. To suggest that I’m Not Here to Give a Speech has succeeded in extending that life beyond the writer’s death would be no exaggeration, since the anthological form of the book has endowed each of its separate parts with fresh significance. From eulogies for fellow writers to sermons on Latin American cinema, this extraordinary collection invites us to read these speeches as episodes in the story of his life.
This holistic approach is surprisingly rewarding, since it highlights the development of his celebrated style, and unearths recurring motifs, artistic consistencies and alterations. A theme emerges, and it becomes clear that each lecture, toast and panegyric is in its own way a homage to the ‘constant surge of insatiable creation’ that produced it. Here is the hallmark of Márquez: a zest for writing fuelled by the wonders of life in Colombia that is as present in his descriptions of Aztec legends as it is in his prophecies of nuclear annihilation, and which achieves full salience in his final lectures. As he declares in the penultimate speech,
‘by the grace and works of our creative imaginations…we have known how to be fakirs in India, English teachers in New York, or camel drivers in the Sahara. As I have tried to show in some of my books – if not in all of them – I trust more in these absurdities of reality than in theoretical dreams.’
This faithfulness to depicting the ‘absurdities of reality’ – as opposed to grounded fantasies – prevails as the raison d’être of Márquez’s work, whether it be his fiction, his articles or, incidentally, his speeches. His method is that of a literary gold panner, extracting wonders out of the silt of day-to-day life. For this is a man attuned to the ‘supernatural throbbing’ of the news stream, who reads graffiti as words ‘shouted with a broad brush on the walls of buildings’, and who proffers questions ‘like bottles thrown into the sea in the hope they reach the god of words.’ And yet, for Márquez, there can be no such thing as hyperbole when it comes to describing the linguistic, political and climatic reality of Latin America, so that perhaps as much credit is owed to the ‘disordered reality’ of ‘Promethean president’s and railways made of gold that inspired him as is owed to the man himself.
The question then becomes one of where to apportion praise. There is, of course, the man himself. Márquez was an innovator; but he was also the heir to an entire tradition of magical realist writing in Latin America. Some of the leading figures from this tradition – Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortázar – appear throughout I’m Not Here to Give a Speech, inflecting the drift of certain speeches to reveal Márquez’s gratitude to these writers. Certainly, the collection would not be the same without them.
Then there is Grossman’s translation, which captures both the clarity of Márquez’s words and the rhythmic lilt of his voice; one can almost hear it as an accompaniment to the written words. Pera’s efforts in collecting these speeches, as well as locating the more elusive ones, must also be acknowledged, as should the initiative of undertaking such a compilation in the first place. Collections of speeches are rare things, partly because few writers have delivered so many as Márquez. Even then, however, the book remains a short one, and one cannot help but think it might have benefitted from a longer introduction, or a few footnotes to immerse readers in the colourful world of Márquez, which teases on nearly every page but is never quite unveiled. And if the theme of enduring creativity marks this volume out from other, more transitory works by Márquez, it owes its shape primarily to his maturation as a writer, and only secondarily to the book’s efforts to circumscribe it, since the contours I’m Not Here to Give a Speech form a rough biography.
On the other hand – and, indeed, for this very reason – the speeches also provide a unique insight into Márquez’s private and public life, making it an essential read for all followers of his work. Personal details and anecdotes abound, often rivalling the intrigue and intensity of his fictions. The collection ends, for instance, with the suspenseful tale of the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which ‘could have been the inspiration for another, better book’. Márquez narrates how the novel, which by the time of the occasion of his speech has sold fifty million copies, was composed in a state of poverty; of how his wife, Mercedes, had to pawn her jewellery to pay for the postage of the manuscript to Buenos Aires; and how, being able only to afford to send half of the novel, the couple afterwards realised that they had sent the second half and not the first. Needless to say, the novel was still published; the story has its happy ending.
Episodes such as these remind us of the essential humanity of a man revered for his place among the pantheon of world literature, and reflects a journalistic technique for lending stories authenticity espoused by Márquez in The Fragrance of Guava – that is, that a mere ounce of realistic detail can ground any flight of fancy. Cunningly, Márquez is alerting us here to two qualities that would in any other circumstance cancel each other out: first, that by sharing with us his more modest characteristics, he is by extension confessing to an honest and humble nature; and second, that by wielding such techniques in the pursuit of sympathy, he is flaunting one of the most valuable abilities a writer can have. To be humble, after all, is to be relatable.
That is not to say that I’m Not Here to Give a Speech doesn’t betray a certain guardedness, as opposed to the open sincerity of his responses in Fragrance of Guava, which takes the more informal approach of an extended interview conducted by his friend Plinio Apuleyo Mendosa. Nor does the collection offer as much in the way of detail as the autobiographical Living to Tell the Tale, whose Penguin edition clocks in at 496 pages; I’m Not Here to Give a Speech has only 154. These works are certainly the correct port of call for those who seek the comforts of a complete narrative, and who wish to delve further into the mind of the writer rather than the environment of his prestige. Speeches are, by nature, succinct and manufactured. However, their advantage is mediatory, as they are never the product of a single author but the offspring of mismatched parents: the private writer on the one hand, and the public figure on the other. Only in speeches must the speaker confront no longer a ‘non-existent reader of [his] blank page’ but an array of human faces. And these were no small gatherings.
There is, therefore, an invariably conversational tone to these speeches, exposing a side to Márquez unseen perhaps anywhere else. At times, it emerges in the form of stark admonitions, as when he warns the leaders of the Group of Six countries about the potential catastrophe of nuclear war, that ‘cosmic disaster that can occur at this very moment’ – while at others it comes across in warmer tones. In the opening address, for instance, a valedictory speech to the class of the year above him, we are introduced immediately to the kind sensibility and precocious intellect of Márquez at seventeen, as he celebrates the qualities of his immediate elders. The epitaphs are brief but evocative, and the reader cannot help but envisage this urbane, dashing cast of schoolboys:
‘Henry Sánchez, the appealing d’Artagnan of sports, with his three musketeers, Jorge Fajardo, Augusto Londoño, and Hernando Roríguez … Miguel Ángel Lonzano and Guillermo Rubio, apostles of precision … Julio César Morales and Guillermo Sánchez, like two living pillars who bear on their shoulders the responsibility for my words when I say that this group of boys is destined to endure in the best daguerreotypes in Colombia.’
50 years, 15 books and a score of prizes, commendations and tributes later, Márquez’s gentleness and cordiality remained undiminished, evidenced by a string of speeches towards the end of the book dedicated to former President of Colombia Belissario Betancur, and the writers Álvaro Mutis and Julio Cortazar. In them, he recounts as only true friends can the marvellous qualities of these men, their influences on him and the adventures shared between them. There is something magical – but therefore implausible – about the stories of Álvaro Mutis in particular, exacerbated by Márquez’s characteristic laconicism. As if relating a trip to the beach, he describes to his audience how he and Mutis travelled to Istanbul ‘in a slow ship, as one must when defying fate’, for the simple purpose of thwarting a line of Mutis’ poetry in which he claimed he would never visit the Turkish metropolis. There is the time ‘he hypnotized Fellini, Monica Vitti, Alida Valli, Alberto Moravia, the cream of Italian cinema and literature, recounting his truculent stories about Quindío in an Italian of his own invention, without knowing a single word of the language’. But perhaps the most preposterous claim of all is that Mutis ‘[f]rom time to time, like someone who goes to see a cowboy movie…rereads Remembrance of Things Past in one sitting’. It could be exaggeration, or perhaps the lives of these men really were consistently incredible. Most likely, however, Márquez is merely blurring truth and fiction here into a vivid impasto that highlights the best of both: the whimsicalities of life, and the allure of baroque embellishment.
Of course, the intersection of truth and fiction is invariably controversial, capable of delighting and deceiving readers in equal measure. But it is no less than the oxymoronical tension that sustains an entire genre – magical realism. The term seems a contradiction until one traces its lineage back to the first major treatise on the subject by the Cuban author Alejo Carpentier, who proposed the term ‘marvellous realism’ as a more rational alternative. Following in the romanticist tradition of national literatures, Carpentier held up marvellous realism as Latin America’s equivalent to the various literary genres coming to be associated with the different regions of the world, and argued that the intensity of life in Latin America merited its own adjective. And if these marvellous depictions of reality did, on occasion, spill over into fantasy, then the justification lay in the fact that the genre largely confined itself to art, film and fiction.
Most of Márquez’s novels and short stories abide by these definitions in one way or another, and few would deny him his place as a master – perhaps the master – of the genre. The difficulty arises when Márquez extends this suspension of truth to the realm of non-fiction, where words take on a firm casing of authenticity. The speeches are no exception. Their charm owes in no small part to Márquez’s willingness to sacrifice veracity for a rhetorical flourish, a tendency that begins with the very apophasis of the book’s title.
The speeches themselves verge on the reinvention of history when he states that indigenous Americans endured on account of their ‘creative imagination intensified by magical means to survive the invader’, or that his conjectural novel ‘The General in His Labyrinth is historic testimony’. Particularly troubling in its foreshadowing of an era of ‘fake news’ is Márquez’s theory of journalism, offered in a speech entitled ‘Journalism: The Best Job in the World’. Márquez confesses that his priorities as a journalist were not truth or integrity, but ‘creativity and skill’, priorities apparently hindered by the introduction of technologies of precision. With longing nostalgia, he recalls a time when
‘before the teletype and the telex were invented, a radio operator with a martyr’s vocation captured in mid-flight the news of the world in sidereal whistles, and an erudite subeditor completed them with details and antecedents, just as the entire skeleton of a dinosaur is reconstructed on the basis of a single vertebra.’
Any biologist knows that such hypothetical endeavours will always fall short of their mark. But Márquez’s style was never empirical. Even as a journalist, he was first and foremost a poet in the tradition of Keats, for whom truth and beauty are one and the same. It is perhaps one of history’s lucky turns, then, that Márquez left behind his old profession, and discovered his vocation as a novelist.
Márquez was not oblivious to these issues. On the contrary, his novel The Autumn of the Patriarch addresses the problems and sinister motives of ‘fake news’ explicitly through the figure of the impossibly old president, who seeks to control his nation through false information. And the eleventh speech in I’m Not Here to Give a Speech addresses the ‘news that I’m not here’, discovered in an article for a European newspaper which, we are led to believe, incorrectly surmised that Márquez had died or vanished. But Márquez’s justification for his own blurring of fact and fiction comes in the collection’s fifth, and arguably most important, speech, ‘The Solitude of Latin America’. Delivered at the Stockholm Concert Hall upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, Márquez used ‘this great opportunity’ to elucidate the social subtext to his work, and to rebuke European and American critics who label his fictions under fantasy rather than realism:
‘They insist on measuring us with the same yardstick they use to measure themselves,’ he deplores, ‘not remembering that…the search for identity is as arduous and bloody for us as it was for them. The interpretation of our reality using foreign symbols only contributes to making us more and more unknown…Perhaps venerable Europe would be more understanding if it tried to see us in its own past.’
Despite his later claim that ‘Colombia entered the twentieth century almost half a century late because of poetry’, the ‘past’ Márquez is referring to here is almost pre-historical. He likens it to that of London before the Romans, and Rome before Romulus, denoting a remote period whose literature and legacy alike have only survived in the form of a crude mythology. The significance is not immediately apparent, but later speeches illuminate the meaning behind Márquez’s words, as he describes the culture of Latin America as something inchoate, struggling to find and define itself, and whose ‘Oedpial destiny is to continue searching for its identity for ever, a creative fate that would make us distinctive in the world’s eyes.’ A rejection of the European yardstick makes sense in these terms, but it also points towards the writer’s more questionable objectives.
Márquez’s vision of the future is no less romantic than his version of the past, but it is one he often returns to throughout the collection. Three of his speeches (‘Words for a New Millennium’, ‘Preface to a New Millennium’ and ‘Dreams for the Twenty-First Century’) revolve around this vision. The first of these was delivered at the same time as Italo Calvino was preparing his own ‘Six Memos for the Next Millennium’, a series of talks to be given at Harvard for the 1985 Norton Lecture series. But whereas Calvino prescribes a nuanced and universal appreciation for the imaginative faculties, and a renewed need for literature in particular, Márquez foresees that
‘in the world of the near future, nothing will be written ahead of time and there will be no place for any consecrated illusion. Many things that were true yesterday will not be true tomorrow…We are entering, then, the era of Latin America, the world’s leading producer of creative imagination.’
A far cry from the auguries of Melquíades in One Hundred Years of Solitude, Márquez’s vision boasts a bright future for his native land, but shies away from specificity. And yet the beauty of Márquez’s language lies in its ambiguity. What may seem to many readers as chauvinism or generalisation may merely be the symptoms of an enduring optimism, which maintains a brave face even when confronted with hardships:
‘Half the world will celebrate the dawn of the year 2001 as the culmination of a millennium, while we are barely beginning to catch the glimpses of the benefits of the Industrial Revolution… Fortunately, the determinant reserve of Latin America and the Caribbean is an energy capable of moving the world, [capable even of] leap[ing] over five alien centuries and enter[ing], with a firm step and a thousand-year horizon, the imminent millennium.’
It is, however, neither in describing the distant past nor the hypothetical future where Márquez is at his most astute, but in his attentive dissection of the present moment. These 21 speeches come together to present a man with vague ideals but a steady and precise commitment to them, acknowledging their role in defining Márquez’s appreciation for the world of his immediate environment, a world made vivid with literature, friendship and the vibrancy of life in Colombia. This is also what makes the speeches so unique: their ability to transport us to an exact moment, to bridge the gap between millennia and reaffirm the value of imagination for another generation of readers – a message of such importance that Gabriel García Márquez has defied time and death in the cause of publishing this book for us.
JOSH ALLAN reads for an MSt in World Literature at Mansfield – at least he does when he manages to find the damn books...
Art by Gina Yatsenko