By Miguel Salazar
- July 24, 2021
A FAREWELL TO GABO AND MERCEDES
A Son’s Memoir of Gabriel García Márquez and Mercedes Barcha
By Rodrigo Garcia
As dementia gripped Gabriel García Márquez, the writer known for his depictions of memory and time was on the verge of losing both. “Memory is my tool and my raw material. I cannot work without it,” García Márquez would repeatedly plead to his son Rodrigo Garcia. “Help me.”
In short, fragmented chapters, Garcia, a television and film director, provides an intimate portrait of his father as he has never been portrayed: forgetful, frustrated, despondent. García Márquez’s despair is agonizing to witness. He becomes unable to write or recognize familiar faces, and he loses the threads of his conversations as they are happening. He attempts to reread his own books — an act he previously avoided — and upon finishing them is surprised to encounter his face on the book jackets. He once asked, puzzled, “Where on earth did all this come from?”
Even as his dementia advanced, Gabo, as García Márquez was affectionately known, retained his wry humor: “I’m losing my memory,” he remarked, “but fortunately I forget that I’m losing it.” He was still able to recite poems from the Spanish Golden Age from memory and sing the lyrics to his favorite vallenato songs, his eyes beaming “with excitement at the opening accordion notes.” At one point, García Márquez asked to return home to his childhood bed in Aracataca, Colombia, where he slept on a mattress next to the bed of his grandfather Col. Nicolás Márquez, the inspiration for the beloved Col. Aureliano Buendía in “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
Then there is Mercedes, Gabo’s tireless co-conspirator, his “last tether.” Garcia recalls her tempered reaction at the moment of her husband’s death, when she worked swiftly with the nurse to prepare his body and let out only the briefest of cries before recomposing herself. She was fiercely independent: After Mexico’s president referred to her as “the widow” during a memorial service for García Márquez at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, she threatened to tell the first journalist she encountered of her plans to remarry. Even in the days before her death in August 2020, Garcia recalls, she remained “frank and secretive, critical and indulgent,” sneaking cigarette puffs despite suffering from respiratory problems at the end.
Garcia’s account is honest — perhaps to a fault, given the strict division his parents imposed between their public and private lives. In 1957, a full decade before the publication of “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” García Márquez destroyed all records of his correspondence with Barcha. Even with his father’s blessing — García Márquez told him, “When I’m dead, do whatever you want” — Garcia describes the disappointment and shame he feels of riding his father’s coattails: “I am aware that whatever I write concerning his last days can easily find publication, regardless of its quality.”
“A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes” is in large part carried by anecdotes about García Márquez’s life, but it is most telling when Garcia is prompted to reflect on his own, and reckon with his insecurities. Over the course of writing the memoir, he becomes aware that the wall his parents constructed around their private lives also extended, in part, to him. He spent 50 years not knowing that his father had no vision in the center of his left eye, and learned only toward the end of his mother’s life that she had lost two siblings as a child. “In the back of my mind is the preoccupation that perhaps I didn’t know them well enough,” Garcia writes. “I didn’t ask them more about the fine print of their lives, their most private thoughts, their greatest hopes and fears.”
At the memorial service in Mexico City commemorating his father’s life, Garcia recalled one of his father’s sayings: “Everyone has three lives: the public, the private and the secret.” As he watched the mourners assemble, he wondered whether any were from his father’s secret life. Life, García Márquez once wrote, is not what one lived but how one remembers it. Some of those memories will forever remain beyond reach.