My Close Encounter With The (Angry) Master of Magical Realism
It’s October 29, 1982. The master of magical realism – Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez has just won the Nobel Prize. Playboy magazine has in its inventory a recently concluded interview with him, conducted by the veteran journalist, Claudia Dreifus. The interview has been transcribed from hours and hours of time Ms. Dreifus spent talking with García Márquez in his Paris apartment. It has been edited and ready to go – almost. Playboy has promised García Márquez that it would show him the edited version, mainly to check facts and to point out inaccuracies. As a matter of policy and editorial integrity, the magazine does not give the interview subjects right of approval. Normally, Playboy closes most of its issues three to four months in advance. García Márquez would make the trip to Stockholm in December to accept the Prize. The interview must appear as close to the Nobel ceremony as possible. This means, the scheduled February interview had to be pulled and be replaced by García Márquez interview. The problem is; the elusive Nobel laureate is nowhere to be found. Several frenetic phone calls from Playboy editors to his house in Mexico City are answered again and again by his maid. He has gone away on a month long vacation, leaving behind strict instructions that he didn’t wish to be reached.
The executive editor G. Barry Golson has drafted me to hand carry the interview to Mexico and do whatever was necessary in trying to track down the suddenly disappeared author and get his seal of approval. With then editor of Playboy’s Mexican edition, Miguel Arana and I drive over to García Márquez’s home in the ritzy southern suburb of the city. I encounter the maid face-to-face. She is polite, but firm in telling us that she couldn’t indulge to us where we could find the master of the house. After initial conversation, I tell her that I was going to park myself right outside the house in the fashion of passive resistance, until she could tell me his whereabouts. She just couldn’t. But she promises to mention to García Márquez of our being camped out at the front gate of his house, when and if he calls in. An hour or so later, she hands me a piece of paper. Written on it is a phone number of Hotel El Quijote in San Luis Potosi, a dusty town in north-central Mexico, some 225 miles out of Mexico City, reachable only through mostly unpaved country roads. After all day of calling the hotel and leaving messages that are never answered, I finally hear his voice on the other side of the line. He sounds congenial but tired. He agrees to meet with me the next afternoon at his hotel in San Luis Potosi. I leave very early in the morning to make it in time for our rendezvous.
He is not in his room. Not in the hotel restaurant or the lobby bar either. I patiently pace the hotel property. I circle the large swimming pool and admire his shiny BMW parked outside his room. Eventually, I plunk myself down in the lobby bar overlooking the entrance to the hotel. I sit there in excess of four hours, observing every single person entering and leaving the lobby — drowning beer after beer and munching on tortilla chips and salsa. I don’t even once wonder why we had to go through what I am going through, just so our interview subject can look at the transcript. I think to myself that’s one of the many reasons why Playboy Interview and its format and depth have become ultimate yardstick against which all the journalistic efforts in the question and answer format are measured.
It is getting to be late. I am beginning to lose my patience. I am exhausted and have consumed all the beer I could manage that day. And I am absolutely famished! I am trying to decide whether I should order something to eat when I suddenly notice short and stocky frame of Garbriel García Márquez entering the lobby. With him is a young lady I perceive to be in her mid-thirties, who I find out later is Marilise Simons, the Mexican correspondent to The New York Times. I rush to greet him. He apologizes for making me wait so long, while Marilise comes to his aid with “it was all my fault. My car broke down on the way over.” Doesn’t matter. Like an answered prayer, Gabriel García Márquez is standing in front of me face-to-face. He asks me and Marilise to accompany him to his suite. The front room is littered with the magazines, newspapers and loose manuscript pages piled next to a manual typewriter perched atop a cabinet in vertical position. He is in San Luis Potosi to help with the screenplay of his book Innocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother, being filmed there with Greek actress Irene Papas in the leading role. And also following him on the location is the French television crew, making a documentary of his life. Now at last he has a moment to pause and catch a breath.
As the three of us settle around the large round table in the middle of the room, he still looks harried and exhausted. I hand him the galley. The cover letter from Barry states that we needed to have his comments within three days and that he should restrict his changes to the facts and the possible distortion in translation. As he reads on, I see the congenial expressions of his face slowly turning, first into disgust and then into visible anger.
“I am furious at Playboy.” He is livid as he hurls the pages in his hands on the table with a loud thud. “I feel betrayed because Claudia (Dreifus) had promised that I would have the right to make any changes in the interview before its publication. And that I would be given enough time to be able to thoroughly go through it.” He continues on, telling me that the interview was concluded several months ago, why couldn’t they have sent him the typescript in the interim? In fact, he was given to understand that it was postponed indefinitely. “ Now just because I have won the Nobel Prize, Playboy suddenly wants to have it yesterday! Had I not won the Nobel, they probably would have killed it entirely.”
I am not quite prepared for his emotional outburst and the Latin temper. I am one of his biggest fans, I tell him, and he realizes that it comes from the heart. I tell him that the Nobel or not, he is one of the most important literary figures of our time. If Playboy thought any lesser of him, they wouldn’t have sent a personal emissary to hand carry it to him and to show him our goodwill. And I ask him, were he still reporting for El Tiempo or El Espectador, would he not want to run the interview with himself right now?
“But I don’t need any more publicity!” He says lamely. Still looking quite angry.
“Sr, García Márquez, if I may. This interview is not meant to publicize you. But to give your readers a deeper understanding of your ideas and your philosophy. As you know, Playboy has published many of your fictions. I have read all of them and have also read your books. I read our interview with you on my flight over here, and I must say, as one of your avid fans, it has enlightened me enormously of my understanding of you as a man and of your work, more than ever before. And I am sure, so would your readers around the world.”
I realize I am pontificating, but he could sense that I am being honest. It hits home and seems to calm him down somewhat. He promises to get back to us within the requested time frame of three days. Before I leave, he switches to a conciliatory tone in that we talk about insignificant things for a few minutes and then about the Indian Nobel winner, the poet Rabindranath Tagore. He then apologizes profusely for taking it all out on me, but then concludes with pragmatic “that’s what happens to the messengers!”
On my way over to see him, I had wanted to ask some additional questions to update the interview, but the way things turned out, it just wasn’t in the cards. At the very last minute all I could think of asking him was something I had read in that week’s Time magazine, in which he had said that to accept his award in Stockholm, he intends to wear the traditional Mexican guayabera, a light weight shirt worn outside the trousers. When Time asked, his answer: “To avoid putting on a tuxedo, I’ll stand the cold.” When I referred to it and asked him; why? His answer to me is: “Superstition.” More like it. Something a character of magical realism would say.
Before heading back to Mexico City, I decide to put something in my stomach. All I had all day long was huevos rancheros. I sit down, order another beer and some enchiladas verde and mull over my forty-five some minutes with the man who had just won the most prestigious literary prize in the world. His wrath has me unsettled for a while. But then I think of the interviewer Peter Ross Range and how CNN boss Ted Turner had turned violent during their interview, grabbing his tape recorder and smashing it on the aisle of the first class cabin of an airliner and how he had then snatched his camera bag and practically destroyed the tapes containing their conversation. How the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci would throw temper tantrums at her interviewer Robert Scheer when he turned the tables on her, confronting Fallaci with the questions she didn’t like. And how Alex Haley, the author of Roots endured the overt racism while the “führer” of the American Nazi party, George Lincoln Rockwell, outlined to him his intentions to ship “niggers” back to Africa.
At least, I had the pleasure of having encountered face-to-face one of my most favorite writers, and be able to tell him how much I admired his work. On my way over from Chicago, I had picked up brand new copies of two of his books, recently published in their quality paperback editions — the ones of which he had not yet even gotten author’s copies.
My hunger contained and the euphoric feeling of having mission accomplished, I just couldn’t make myself to get back to the car and head back to Mexico City. With my heart fluttering, I slowly walk back to his room. He himself answers the knock on his door.
“I am sorry, to bother you again, I almost feel like a teenager, but I just couldn’t bring myself to leave without asking you to autograph these books for me.” By now he looks like a different person. The interview transcript in form of the galley proofs is spread out all over the table. “Look, I am already working for Playboy,” he says with a wry smile pointing at the strewn pages. Marilise sitting behind his back smiles and flashes the thumb up at me. He sits down and writes in first of the two books I have brought: No One Writes to Colonel, Para Haresh, de su colerico amigo, Gabriel ’82 and in the second: Leaf Storm, he draws an olive branch on the title page inside and writes, “Para Haresh, con un lomo de olivos, and signs it.
© Haresh Shah 2013
Illustration: Jordan Rutherford