Among critics there is a generally accepted notion that you’re lacking in literary background, that you write only from your personal experiences, your imagination. What can you tell us in that regard?
(García Márquez’s eyes light up. As if we had pushed a hidden button, the character—who inevitably brings to mind the figure of Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek—manifests himself in a torrent of laughs, gestures, shouts. The magic word has been uttered. We’ve touched on his Achilles’s heel: literature.)
Yes. With my joshing I’ve probably contributed toward the idea that I lack literary education, that I write only from personal experiences, that my sources are Faulkner, Hemingway, and other foreign writers.
Little is known about my knowledge of Colombian literature.
No doubt, my influences, especially in Colombia, are extra-literary.
More than any book, I think what opened my eyes was music, vallenato songs.
I’m talking about many years ago, at least thirty years ago, when vallenato music was hardly known outside a corner of the Magdalena valley.
What called my attention most of all was the form the songs used, the way they told a fact, a story … All quite naturally.
Then, when vallenato was commercialized, what mattered more was the feeling, the rhythm … Those vallenato songs narrated as my grandmother used to, I remember… . Later, when I started studying the Spanish ballads of the Romancero, I found that it was the same esthetic, and found it all once again in the Romancero.
Couldn’t we talk about music?
Yes, but afterwards, and not for the record … No, it’s not that I can’t talk about music.
But I get caught up in a tangle that doesn’t end. It’s … something very intimate, even more of a secret when the people whom you’re talking to know about music …
For me, music is anything that makes sound.
And I change a lot … Bartok, for instance, who’s an author I really like, is hell to listen to in the mornings.
One gets more easily into Mozart in the morning.
But afterwards, I’m calm … I’ve got all of Daniel Santos, Miguelito Valdés, Julio Jaramillo and all of the singers who’re so discredited among intellectuals.
You see, I don’t make distinctions, I recognize that everything has its value.
The only thing where I’m all-embracing is in musical matters.
Somehow I listen to no less than two hours of music a day. It’s the only thing that relaxes me, puts me in the right mood …
And I go through all kinds of phases.
Home is where your books are, they say, but for me it’s where my recordings are.
I’ve got more than five thousand of them.
Which of you guys listens to music?
You know, as a habit?
For how long?
How far can you go?
For example, have you gotten to the Orquesta Casino de la Playa? Is Miguelito Valdés and the Casino de la Playa a reference for you?
Yes, of course. And, starting out there with the boleros?
Yes. Daniel Santos from 1940.
With the Cuarteto Flórez?
Yeah! … The Farewell, at the Serranía …
That’s the origin of salsa, the Casino de la Playa Orchestra.
The pianist was Sacasas, who was most famous for his solos called montunos.
It’s a quarrel I’ve had with the Cubans, an old fight, especially with Armando Hart … Hey! … Is that thing [the tape recorder] running?
Yeah … It’s running.
Turn it off!
My literary background was basically in poetry, but bad poetry, since only through bad poetry can you get to good poetry.
I started out with that stuff called popular verse, the kind that was published in almanacs or on loose sheets of paper. Some of them were influenced by Julio Flórez.
When I got to high school I started out with the poetry that appeared in grammar books.
I realized that what I most liked was poetry and what I most hated was Spanish class, grammar.
What I liked was the examples.
There were mostly examples from the Spanish Romantics, which were probably the closest thing to Julio Flórez– Nuñez de Arce, Espronceda.
Then, the Spanish classics. But the revelation comes when you really get into Colombian poetry: –Domínguez Camargo. At that time the first thing you learned was World Literature.
It was terrible!
There was no access to the books.
The professors said that they were good because of this or that.
Much later I read them and thought them incredible. I’m referring to the classics.
But they were incredible not because of what the professor said, but because of what went on: Ulysses tied to the mast so he won’t succumb to the sirens’ song … All that stuff that happens.
Afterwards, we’d study Spanish literature, and Colombian literature only in the last year of high school.
So when I made it to that class I knew more than the professor did.
It was in Zipaquirá.
I had nothing to do and, to avoid getting bored I’d hole up at the school library, where they had the Aldeana collection.
I read the whole thing! … From volume one to the last! I read El carnero, memoirs, reminiscences … I read it all!
Of course, when I reached my last year in secondary school, I knew more than the teacher did.
That’s where I realized that Rafael Núñez was the worst poet in the country …
The National Anthem! …
Can you imagine that the lyrics to the National Anthem were chosen because they were a great poem by Núñez?
That it was first chosen as an anthem you might accept, but what prompts horror is that it was chosen as Anthem because it was poetry.
As far as literature was concerned, the Caribbean coast didn’t exist.
When literature gets separated from life and seals itself off in closed circles, then a gap appears and it’s filled by the provincials …
They save literature when it’s become rhetoric.
At age twenty I already had a literary background that was enough for me to write everything I’ve written … I don’t know how I discovered the novel.
I thought that what interested me was poetry … I don’t know … I can’t remember when it was I realized that the novel was what I needed to express myself …
You guys can’t imagine what it meant for a scholarship kid from the Coast enrolled at the Liceo de Zipaquirá to have access to books ..
Probably Kafka’s The Metamorphosis” was a revelation …
It was in 1947 …
I was nineteen …
I was doing my first year of law school …
I remember the opening sentences, it reads exactly thus: “As Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” … Holy shit! When I read that I said to myself, “This isn’t right! … Nobody had told me this could be done! … Because it really can be done! … So then I can! … Holy shit! … That’s how my grandmother told stories … The wildest things, in the most natural way.”