shall we all slow down, sit down and read?
a tune… a haiku… an infrared loop
shall we all slow down, sit down and read?
He first saw the whale nearly 20 years ago, in Mexico. He was standing watch, so to speak, and the dark ocean exploded in foam and spray and there in front of him was the monster he’d been pursuing, the source of all the violence and corruption he’d seen. It scared the hell out of him and he turned away. He didn’t go after it.
Then, a few years later, the whale came back and killed a friend of his, and Bowden blames himself for this. If he would have fought the whale in the beginning, he believes, his friend would still be alive.
“I was a coward,” he says.
It didn’t happen quite like that. The whale is an allegory, because I promised I wouldn’t write the real names and places. But his friend did die and the thing that killed him is the thing Bowden saw, and it was like a horrible monster. The allegory fits. Bowden is Ahab and he’s going after Moby Dick.
He’s 69 years old, in fair shape from lifting weights and going on long walks, but he’s losing some teeth and is pretty much penniless. His possessions consist of a sleeping bag, a cot, a stove for coffee, a Honda Fit and a pair of Swarovski binoculars — high-quality glass. This is the way he wants it, having nothing to lose. He knows his only real asset is more than 40 years’ experience as an investigative reporter, and also he knows that the whale is not Evil, that Ahab was wrong. The whale, for Bowden, is part of nature, our nature.
He’s speaking in the tone of a scientist but describing violence and violent acts, signs and sightings left in the wake of the whale. There was the man who was tortured and killed and his body was found without a head. A few days later the head was delivered to his family in a cooler. There was the baby’s blood splattered on the wall above the bathtub. There was the girl who was raped for a week by 10 policemen. There was the arm with a tricep as thick as a truck tire that strangled hundreds of men. The list is endless, stretching back decades. Even before he first saw the whale, Bowden was finding evidence of something he couldn’t explain, something dark beyond his imagination.
“I didn’t choose this course,” he says. “It chose me.”
Bowden’s last report, for instance, was a confession by a member of the Chihuahua State Police who tortured and killed hundreds of people for a Juárez drug cartel. El Sicario, the assassin, describes in detail how there was no separation between the police and the cartel, how he was just following orders, and how he found himself in Hell. For instance, he became an expert at boiling people alive in a big kettle of water, keeping them alive for a day, long enough to get them to talk — you have a hook and you keep pulling them out and slicing off the dead flesh because they can’t feel that, and you have a doctor there pumping them with adrenaline so they won’t die. Bowden talked to the sicario for months before he would open up, and then the more Bowden listened, the more he came to see the man as a normal human being, not evil. And then Bowden began to like him. They became friends.
That was two years ago and since then Bowden has been silent. Reclusive. Back at headquarters there grew some concern — was he perhaps traumatized, drinking too much, unable to work? And so I was sent to find him and measure his sanity, his health and well-being.
He knows why I’ve come. This morning, before I arrived, in order to prove he’s been working, he emailed a new book to an editor in New York. It’s called Rhapsody and he says it’s a love story about wild things and wild places. I wonder what this has to do with the whale, but I don’t ask the question. Instead I ask him if it’s true he’s been hiding out.
“I just got tired of talking to stupid people on the phone,” he says. “I wanted to strip everything down and start over.”
He knows I understand the feeling and lets it sit for a moment with the crickets.
“I got trapped on a path,” he says.
Bats are dive-bombing bugs above our heads.
“I wanted to write about nature, about animals, what it’s like to be an animal, but I went into murder reporting and now I’m recovering.”
I can’t see him but I know he’s lying on his back with his hand on a cup of red wine, looking up at the stars.
“Everything you see out there is constantly re-inventing itself,” he says. “We call it evolution. It’s all one big yes.”
The crickets agree.
“I want to write something that matters. In order to do it you have to get rid of yourself. The lion on the hunt ceases to be the lion and becomes the deer.”
I know what he’s saying, but I’m wondering how to describe it to the folks back at headquarters.
“In the end all writing is about adding to life, not diminishing it. That’s what life is all about. There isn’t a plant out here that’s not trying to take all that chlorophyll and light and trying to add to life. The book I sent today I did 15 drafts, or I stopped counting at 15. I don’t know if it’s any good, I just know it about killed me and it’s the best I can do.”
He hands me his computer so I can read the book off the screen. He’ll let the work speak for itself. After one chapter I realize it’s a long poem, a song about being in a war. I tell him this and he takes back the computer and reads out loud from the second chapter:
… There is a door that opens to a room and in that room is a table, a round table, and at that table sits power. The head of the table belongs to the fist or paw or talon that grabs power. I want to go through that door and get in that room and sit at that table with that power and the wolf should be there, the elk also, the birds in the sky, the fish in the sea, the serpents and monsters of the deep, and this time when the waters come there will be no Noah and no rainbow, God help us, no rainbow.
He’s building a rhythm, rhapsodic. It is a song.
… wolves I say, more wolves, elk in the dusk, wolves in the night, and in the morning meadowlarks singing the grass into the light and suddenly one green teal drake attacks another and rams it with its bill and I don’t know why and that is the reason I must get through the door and into the room and sit at that table with the slime and slobber and tooth and fang and fin and feather and ask
why does life mean death
and who said my people were better than wolves
and why can’t I howl at the moon
and who do you love …
Who writes like this? It’s beautiful, but I wonder if he’s lost his mind.
No, he hasn’t lost his mind. This is his “big yes.” He’s written a love song to the whale. Ahab, alone on deck, throws his sextant into the sea, opens his heart, and begins to sing.
… I stare up, and stars are everywhere, there is no city on the horizon, the cold seeks my bones and no moon rises … the voices in my head are my father and his brothers and down the sweep of hill, past the two barns, the hog house, the limestone shed with a spring to cool the cans of milk, past the meadows and the creek and the woodlot the valley flows studded with quarries, refineries and coking mills and in the day the sky goes dark with plumes of smoke and in the night the gas venting off the refineries and the blazes off the coking mills fill the sky with flames and always there is the stench of fuels spent and lives incinerated and no one can tell me why and no one asks why because the money is good and life is hard and the women scrub and the game has fled and hardly a bone or hair remains to haunt us, and they say nothing, they play poker, drink, sit under the apple trees. There is no mention of another way.
“Yes,” I say, “That’s really good.”
And I mean it. I think he’s the best writer, or one of the best writers, we have, and I’ve felt this way since I read his early reports 30 years ago. But back at headquarters — behind the desks — there are going to be some questions. Bowden’s written more than 25 books and most of them were, let’s say, not financial successes — too grim, people don’t want to think about that stuff. He’s written hundreds of magazine articles, but no magazine editor in New York will talk to him anymore because he tells them straight up they publish garbage — lies and fluff to sell advertisements. I’m afraid they are not going to understand his new book, and if I describe it as a love song to a whale … they’ll call him a fool, write him off as a drunk. Maybe both of us.
So, before I go to sleep, I start laying out how I will present his defense, starting with an explanation of where he comes from and how he arrived at this place.
He was born four days after the first atomic bomb went off — a July 1945 test blast in New Mexico. This timing put him in lockstep to come of age with the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam War protests and the Monterey Pop Festival. He got arrested and beaten up by the cops in Madison, Wisconsin, for building a barricade on the street to protect some people who were burning down a grocery store, but he thought this was nothing compared to what he’d seen black protesters go through in the South in the fight for equal rights. They were Bowden’s early model, people who were willing to risk everything in order to be treated as equal human beings.
Bowden was a part of a cultural movement that seemed to be winning a revolution by speaking truth to power, and it was exhilarating. He rode the crest of the high and beautiful 1960s wave that gonzo writer Hunter Thompson described as “a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. … Our energy would simply prevail.”
But then the wave crashed into the shore and it was over.
At that time, in the early ’70s, Bowden had a tenure-track position teaching history at the University of Illinois in Chicago. He was a young rising star in the field, but he couldn’t take the competitive, small-minded bullshit that comes with academia. So he dropped out of the system and disappeared from the screen, living on a bicycle, sleeping on the side of the road around Tucson, Arizona, where he’d gone to high school.
He got good on the bike and started racing. When he won a 300-miler across the desert he thought he should buy a better bike, a Colnago, for $1,500. To earn some money, he took a job writing for a local daily, The Tucson Citizen, and then he fell in love with newspapers — writing for newspapers, the whole idea of being a fierce watchdog against power and corruption. The reigning desert scribe, Edward Abbey, lived in Tucson at that time, Abbey and Bowden were friends, and this is how Abbey explained it in a piece called A Writer’s Credo:
It is my belief that the writer, the free-lance author, should be and must be a critic of the society in which he lives. … That is all I ask of the author. To be a hero, appoint himself a moral leader, wanted or not. I believe that words count, that writing matters, that poems, essays, and novels — in the long run — make a difference. If they do not, then in the words of my exemplar Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the writer’s work is of no more importance than the barking of village dogs at night.
Bowden followed Abbey’s credo and won awards. Politicians lived in fear of his pen. Then, when nobody else at the paper wanted the job, Bowden took the crime beat. And that’s when things changed.
For three years in the early ’80s, he covered crime and learned about violence and the results of violence — dead babies, raped women, the men who did it, men who killed. Gradually, as will happen with cops and crime reporters and public defenders, he began “to lose the distinction between the desires of criminals and the desires of the rest of us.”
… I’d quit the paper twice, break down more often than I can remember, and I’d have to go away for a week or two and kill through violent exercise the things that roamed my mind. It was during this period that I began taking 100 or 200 mile walks in the desert, far from any trails. I would write these flights from myself up and people began to talk about me as a “nature writer.” (Bowden reading aloud from his 1998 Harper’s piece, “Torch Song: At the Peripheries of Violence and Desire.”)
Nature writer sounded better to Bowden than crime reporter, as a career move. He liked writing about nature. He was tired of violence and wanted to find out what it’s like to be a lizard or a bat. So, like Abbey and Thoreau, Bowden went into the wilderness, trying to leave civilization behind.
But when Bowden got to the desert, he found a war zone. Instead of writing about animals and what it’s like to be an animal, he ended up covering the drug trade and the other smugglers who assisted one of the largest human migrations in history — lots of dead bodies, some murdered and dismembered with body parts rearranged as conceptual art, some lying in the hot desert getting eaten by birds and javelina.
Bowden wrote the hard truths behind these facts, these dead bodies. It was our demand for illegal drugs that fueled the violence in Mexico. It was our free trade policy that broke Mexican farmers and started the mass migration north where they became like slaves, our slaves, if they made it alive. There was no getting away from this part of our civilization, it spilled over into the wilderness, it was part of the wilderness.
Nobody wanted to hear these truths. Often his editors didn’t believe what he wrote because they’d never heard it before. If it hadn’t been in The New York Times, it didn’t exist. Eventually, after a lot of arguing, his reports would get published and then be ignored, met with silence. Readers, common unsuspecting folk, also had never heard such horrors before and didn’t know whether it was fact or fiction or what, and they especially didn’t like how Bowden would bring these faraway horrors into their homes, even into their minds and bodies, and leave them there. People usually don’t want that to happen to them. Something like that we try to forget as soon as possible.
Not Charles Bowden.
“Not on my watch,” he would always say, back then.
And he seemed fearless. In the mid-’90s, for instance, he published the name of the leader of the Juárez cartel, with a photo, presenting evidence that tons of illegal drugs were being flown into Juárez on commercial aircraft where they were unloaded by the Mexican military. A month later the leader of the cartel, Amado Carrillo, died on the operating table while having his face redesigned by plastic surgeons. The surgeons were tortured and killed. Somehow, for reasons that remain a mystery, Bowden stayed alive.
He kept investigating the drug trade. Everybody in Mexico knows the Mexican government and the Mexican military are involved in the drug trade, but proving it is difficult. Reporters in Mexico are often threatened and sometimes killed. There is no rule of law — policemen become killers, judges are paid to let people out of jail, reporters are paid to be silent. Those in power remain invisible. Bowden wanted to see them, clearly, and know their nature, what it’s like to be them, the people who run the killing machine.
He made friends with people who wanted to tell the truth about what they’d seen and what they’d lost, people on both sides, all sides, of the drug war. He told their stories and he got it right and he built a wide network of reliable informants, people who trusted him. He was putting the pieces together slowly and carefully.
Then one day the whole thing unfolded in front of him, emerged like Moby Dick surfacing from the depths of the ocean, and what he saw frightened him. It was too big, too powerful for him to fight.
A few years later, in the mid-’90s, another reporter named Gary Webb saw the same whale, and he didn’t turn away. Webb wrote about it, but then Webb was ruined for what he wrote. His report — charging that profits from the ’80s crack epidemic in Los Angeles were funneled to a Latin American guerrilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency — was quickly denounced by The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. Webb became a pariah. But Bowden met Webb and investigated Webb’s sighting of the whale. He retraced all Webb’s steps and found no flaw in his methods or findings. In fact he found more evidence to support Webb’s claim, and wrote an 11,000-word magazine article about it. But it wasn’t enough. Webb lost his job, his marriage, his home, his money … and then he shot himself in December 2004. That was the experience that left Bowden feeling alone, a coward.
In 2008, Juárez exploded in a wave of violence that lasted four years and left somewhere around 15,000 dead bodies. There were periods when it was more dangerous to be in Juárez than anywhere in Afghanistan or Iraq. The wave of violence was said to be a war between the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels, but the people doing the killing often wore uniforms of police and the military, and the dead people were often innocent bystanders. Also, there was so much killing that the killers started to “sign” their work by arranging the body or body parts in a particular fashion, such as hanging the body from an overpass in morning rush hour traffic with a threat written on a poster board, or cutting off the head and placing it between the legs facing the crotch wearing a Santa Claus hat, or hanging the body, face covered with a pig mask, like Christ crucified on an iron fence. Things like that, and worse.
Bowden filed his reports, and always the reaction was the same — nobody cared, nothing happened, the killing continued. One of his reports during this period described how killing is fun. There were something like 500 separate street gangs in Juárez and the initiation was always the same — kill someone. Young boys joined the gangs knowing their lives would be short and violent, but also knowing that for a brief period they would have money and girls and cars and drugs — better than working like a slave in a maquiladora assembling televisions and vacuum cleaners to be sold in America — and they’d get to kill people, which made them feel real and alive like nothing they’d ever experienced. And then they would, in turn, get killed and it would be over, no more fear. Bowden wrote this up and handed it in and the response was silence. The paychecks from headquarters kept coming, but they stopped publishing what he wrote.
In 2010, Bowden was sitting in a restaurant with a man who happened to mention that he knew an assassin, a sicario, who had been a state policeman in charge of investigating kidnappings in Juárez, but instead he kidnapped, tortured and killed people for the cartel. Recently he’d gone into hiding and found Jesus Christ as his lord and savior. He wanted to confess everything.
Bowden pounded his fists on the table and said, “I want him!”
He thought if the sicario would talk then he’d be able to say who was ordering the killings. This would be hard evidence implicating those who were in charge, a way to make them visible.
So he met the sicario and got to know him for several months, never asking a question about his former life. He knew that when the time was right he wouldn’t have to ask a question, and until then it would be pointless. People don’t tell you anything worth knowing until they trust you.
Eventually the man opened up and the truth poured out of him like a rare flood in a desert wash — how he did it, tortured and killed, how he became good at it and took pride in his work. Unfortunately, the sicario never knew who he was working for. His phone would ring and a voice would give him an order, and he would follow the order. He was a good soldier, doing his job as best he could, never asking questions that could get him killed.
As Bowden got to know the sicario, he began to see him as a highly intelligent person who’d been trapped in the killing machine. He’d done evil things, but he was not evil. They became friends … and oh, the horror.
Bowden came to this house in the trees next to the stream to strip everything down and start over. Writing the new book, finding a new way to write, has been his therapy. It makes perfect sense to me.
Bowden gets up at dawn and pours birdseed into two feeders and fills four hummingbird tubes with sugar water. He’s been doing this wherever he lives, for decades. The birds are waiting for him, and within a minute there are 40, 60, 80 … too many to count. I ask him what kind of birds we’re looking at.
“Broad-billed hummingbirds, white-winged doves, cardinals, brown-headed cowbirds, thick-billed kingbirds, lesser goldfinch, black-headed grosbeaks, Inca doves, mourning doves, violet-crowned hummingbirds, black-chinned hummingbirds. … I go through 100 pounds of birdseed a month.”
He makes some coffee and we sit down in the same places as last night and he continues where he left off. I don’t have to ask a question. He knows why I’ve come.
“I’ve always felt alone,” he says. “I have a consciousness that separates me from other people. I’m an animal, full of lust and desire. If people knew who I really am they wouldn’t like it.”
I’m thinking that’s how we all feel, sometimes, but never say it out loud.
All in all, Bowden appears to be doing fine. He’s going after the whale, and I hope he catches it.
Postscript from Bowden’s Blood Orchid, 1995: Imagine the problem is not physical. Imagine the problem has never been physical, that it is not biodiversity, it is not the ozone layer, it is not the greenhouse effect, the whales, the old-growth forest, the loss of jobs, the crack in the ghetto, the abortions, the tongue in the mouth, the diseases stalking everywhere as love goes on unconcerned. Imagine the problem is not some syndrome of our society that can be solved by commissions or laws or a redistribution of what we call wealth. Imagine that it goes deeper, right to the core of what we call our civilization and that no one outside of ourselves can affect real change, that our civilization, our governments are sick and that we are mentally ill and spiritually dead and that all our issues and crises are symptoms of this deeper sickness … then what are we to do?
Scott Carrier is a writer and documentarian based in Salt Lake City; his books include Running After Antelope, published in 2001, and his radio pieces have been aired on radio shows including Hearing Voices, This American Life, and All Things Considered.
Just as the proverbial Phoenix rose from death smoke and embers in rebirth so has el museo Sibley and other buildings such as the workshop and the coop (formerly chicken coop apartment lived in by famous dirtbag climbers for 50 years) on Marshall Road. Stopped by this weekend for an official inspection and the Acres was well along in its metamorphosis …
~~~ Some old stories of Macho Acres ~~~
Gabriel Garcia Marquez is the most widely-read Latin American author alive today. The writer, a winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, is a master at spinning tall tales with the details of his own life. That proved to be a challenge for Gerald Martin, who has spent the past 17 years working on the just published biography, Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life.
LYNN NEARY, host:
Gabriel Garcia Marquez is the most widely read Latin-American author alive today. Winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, the Colombian writer is best know for the novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” He’s also well known for being a teller of tall tales when it comes to his own life, which made him a singular challenge for his biographer, Gerald Martin.
Mr. Martin spent the past 17 years working on the just-published biography “Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life.” And Mr. Martin joins us now from our New York bureau. Good to have you with us.
Mr. GERALD MARTIN (Author): Thank you very much. Good to be here.
NEARY: He was writing as a journalist for a number of years before his most – probably his most famous novel, “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” was published.
Mr. MARTIN: Yeah.
NEARY: And that book was very highly anticipated. I didn’t realize it until I read your book just how much people were already sort of heralding it as a great novel before it was even published. Why was there so much expectation for him and for that book?
Mr. MARTIN: I think, for a start, there was already this big movement that was just about to be called the boom in Latin-American fiction in the 1960s. There were lots of writers around who were going to be top writers who are known to anybody who reads these days, like Fuentes and Vargas Llosa and so on. But it wasn’t so clear that there was a movement, but there were people who wanted a movement. So that was the one thing. There was a need for an even bigger book. But I think the biggest thing of all is that the book made – I mean, I can still remember – I was a young man then. I was in Mexico City. I read the book six months after it came out. And you had to be there at the time. You had to be in the 1960s. You had to be in the world of the Beatles and Third World revolution, psychedelia, lots of things, to understand now what impact the first page of that book had.
It just seemed to be a kind of writing that everybody’d been waiting for. They didn’t know they were waiting for it till it came. It was just one of those zeitgeist things. The first two lines, the first time you read them, you just felt, I’ve read this before. Where does this come from? Which is what he felt when he first, himself, thought up the first line of the book.
NEARY: Can you remind us of what those lines are? Do you have them memorized?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MARTIN: More or less. It’s almost correct.
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia would remember that distant day when his father took him to discover ice.
It’s a very strange beginning of a book, and it’s also an incredible beginning to a book, because it’s circular. It’s got so many tenses in it. It’s so strange. And it just seemed what was needed. And then, people felt that, and they had such immediate confidence in the book that when Garcia Marquez had only half completed it, they started to publish chapters in newspapers around Latin America. I mean, this is something that just had never happened. And so, it’s almost as if he was seen as a bestseller writer at an era when no one in Latin American ever sold more than, you know, more than 2,000 copies of books.
So there was something we all say now – and, in a way, it sounds like hype. We all say there was something magical about the moment and the book. But certainly, this had never happened before, and it’s never happened since in Latin American fiction.
NEARY: Well, of course, Gabriel Garcia Marquez is known as the father of magical realism, which is a style of writing where the fantastic can happen, even in the most mundane circumstances. And in reading your book, especially the early part of the book, I was really struck by how, in his childhood, there seemed to be so many and even events that had that kind of fantastical element.
Mr. MARTIN: Yes. One of the problems, of course, is knowing whether they really did, or whether it’s the way he tells it. And I think there’s no doubt that it was an extraordinary place to be born. I think it was an extraordinary house to be born in that he was born in, and I think a town where so many things were happening and so many nationalities were coming through.
NEARY: Let’s talk about that town.
Mr. MARTIN: Yeah, sure. Okay.
NEARY: Let’s talk a little bit about that town and why it was such an extraordinary place and such a – to grow up.
Mr. MARTIN: Well, the town was out of Cataca. It was about between five and 10,000 people in the 1910s. And the American United Fruit Company moved in there around that time, just before his grandfather moved to the town. And so you had a small Colombian town in which almost nothing was happening or had ever happened, which suddenly had this big, outside world arriving. It was an extraordinarily active place for somewhere that was so small.
NEARY: Yeah. And he had this very close attachment to his grandfather, because he was raised in his early years by his grandparents, but a very close attachment to grandfather, the colonel. Tell us a little bit about that.
Mr. MARTIN: Well, his grandfather had been a colonel in the Colombian civil war at the end of the 19th century, which had a kind of magical realist name of itself. It was called the Thousand-Day War. So his grandfather, Colonel Nicholas Marquez, had been a hero of that war. He then moved to this new town where things were happening and became one of the big guys of the town. And when Garcia Marquez was left with him and his grandmother, the grandfather became the most important person in his entire childhood, and in one sense, at least, the most important person in his entire life.
NEARY: At one point, I think he told somebody my grandfather died when I was eight, and after that, everything was flat. Again, perhaps an exaggeration, but just an example of how important that man was to him.
Mr. MARTIN: Yes, it is an exaggeration in the sense that, for a start, he was actually 11 when his grandfather died. But it’s true that when the grandfather had the illness that lead his death, Garcia Marquez was eight. And it’s also true that he said that every time anything’s happened to him for the rest of his life, he’s had a kind of impulse to tell grandfather. And, of course, grandfather hasn’t been there for, well, quite a lot of years, now.
NEARY: But even as a child, he was – and a as a young man, certainly, he was an irrepressible storyteller, it sounds like. He also loved to tell stories, didn’t he?
Mr. MARTIN: Yes, he did. And being, you know, how grandparents adore children and spoil them and all the rest of it and think that everything they do is wonderful because you’re getting the chance to enjoy it all over again, I think he always had a ready audience, and there were lots of people always passing through the house. And I think the cleverer he got and the more stories he told, the more everybody applauded him. And so I think he did get that feeling which he’s talked about later in life, that people love you if you tell stories. And so he’s always told stories so that people would love him.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MARTIN: And it certainly worked.
NEARY: If you’re joining us, you are listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And we’re talking with Gerald Martin, author of “Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life.”
Now, he grew up and he came of age at a time when Colombia and all of Latin America were going through a great deal of political upheaval, and he himself got caught up in those politics, didn’t he?
Mr. MARTIN: He did. He already had the background of his grandfather being a civil war hero. Then when he was 18 months old, there was a very famous massacre in a town very near to his town, which is really important in his work later on. And, of course, when he was a student in 1948, he was 21. He was a student at the university in the national capital, Bogota. There took place one of the most astonishing events in the whole of Latin-American history, when the liberal politician Gaitan was assassinated in the street. And his supporters literally burned the whole center of Bogota – and all of this at a time when there was a Pan American conference taking place in Bogota to set up what is now the organization of American states.
And Garcia Marquez was in a cancion, in a boarding house 300 yards from where that happened. So that really initiated his extraordinary tendency then and in later life to tend to be around when big things happen.
NEARY: The politics that were taking place in Latin America also coincided with a time of great creativity, especially among Latin-American writers, which, again, he was very much a part of. How did that influence him and influence his writing?
Mr. MARTIN: Well, he’s always talked about as the originator of magical realism, without one to boring, that’s not entirely true. Magical realism was originating right then when he was a student in the late 1940s. There was Alejo Carpentier in Cuba. There was Miguel Angel Asturias in Guatemala. Although the thing about him is that he was less influenced at that time by these people who you would think would be his major influences, and he was actually more influenced by writers from this country, first Faulkner, then Hemingway – very unusual in Latin America, because, of course, most Latin Americans tended to follow what the French were doing rather than what people in the United States were doing.
NEARY: Now, I have to say that in this book, he comes across as having a very sort of mischievous sense of humor. And as we’ve said, he likes tall tales. What’s your favorite story about him?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MARTIN: Oh, there’s a good one.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NEARY: Or maybe a favorite story that he told.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MARTIN: When the Bogotazo took place, that big upheaval in Bogota in 1948, it happened that Fidel Castro was there. And Garcia Marquez had disgracefully pawned the typewriter that his parents gave him for his 21st birthday, and that typewriter got lost in the riots. It was looted.
But Fidel Castro, the first he did during the Bogotazo, because he was there, was to smash a typewriter on the ground. And Garcia Marquez swore to Fidel Castro that that was his typewriter. So that’s the kind of tall tale that he tells. And sometimes, he seems to believe them. Who knows?
NEARY: Do you think it will be his most enduring legacy, ultimately, that book?
Mr. MARTIN: I think so. You can make arguments for lots of other books, and some people think that some of his other books actually are more perfect pieces of literature. And, of course, he himself has always had a rather difficult relationship with this book. He often says it’s just full tricks. But I personally think that it is the Latin-American novel. So many Latin-Americans tell you that they recognize themselves in the book, that they’ve got a grandmother who’s just like Ursula, the central female character, or they’ve got a grandfather who’s just exactly like the colonel.
And apart from that, the book – to me, at least. Of course, I’m a bit prejudiced, perhaps.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MARTIN: To me, the book seems timeless, also. It’s a book like “Gulliver’s Travels” or Rabelais or one of those books that, even when it first came out, seemed to have been around a long time. So, yes, I personally think it is the book that will his book.
NEARY: Do you think that younger people are not as exposed to Gabriel Garcia Marquez is those of us of a certain age, that he’s not read as much as he used to be? Or no?
Mr. MARTIN: Well, I think he’s not. I think that’s clearly true. But I don’t think it’s as true as you might think. If you read anything about Garcia Marquez in the newspapers and you then go down to the bottom of the article and go the blogs these days, it’s all young people. There are still 20s and 25-year-old people talking about all the things that they talk about. But Garcia Marquez is still – he’s still, by a mile, the most recognized and recognizable Latin-American writer. And I see that Garcia Marquez is still extraordinarily popular among Latin-American young people. No question about it.
NEARY: Gerald Martin is the author of “Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life.” Thanks. It was good talking with you.
Mr. MARTIN: Very good to talk to you, too. Thank you very much.
(Soundbite of music)
NEARY: And that’s our program for today. I’m Lynn Neary, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let’s talk more tomorrow.
Katie Davis interviews Garcia Marquez in Bogota, Colombia, October 1983.
Courtesy Katie Davis
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Cover for Living to Tell the Tale (Knopf, 2003)
Some writers invent constantly, their creations sprawling outside the page. That is the way of Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez — novelist, short story writer and now author of a long-awaited memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, which was published in English this week.
Twenty years ago, commentator Katie Davis had a chance to sit down with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Afterwards she wasn’t sure whether she had conducted an interview or participated in a piece of fiction.
“I was aware that Garcia Marquez had a habit of making things up during his interviews. He liked to give each journalist a gift, something original, so they didn’t go away with the same old stuff,” Davis says. The author initially misheard Davis’ first name as Vicky — and insisted on calling her Vicky from that point on…
“And in my case, he included a reminder for when I lose sight of ‘the other reality.’ Garcia Marquez opened my copy of One Hundred Years of Solitudeand wrote: ‘To Vicky… with a kiss, Gabo.'”
From Living to Tell the Tale (Knopf, 2003):
My mother asked me to go with her to sell the house. She had come that morning from the distant town where the family lived, and she had no idea how to find me. She asked around among acquaintances and was told to look for me at the Libreria Mundo, or in the nearby cafes, where I went twice a day to talk with my writer friends. The one who told her this warned her: “Be careful, because they’re all out of their minds.” She arrived at twelve sharp. With her light step she made her way among the tables of books on display, stopped in front of me, looking into my eyes with the mischievous smile of her better days, and before I could react she said:
“I’m your mother.”
Something in her had changed, and this kept me from recognizing her at first glance. She was forty-five. Adding up her eleven births, she had spent almost ten years pregnant and at least another ten nursing her children. She had gone gray before her time, her eyes seemed larger and more startled behind her first bifocals, and she wore strict, somber mourning for the death of her mother, but she still preserved the Roman beauty of her wedding portrait, dignified now by an autumnal air. Before anything else, even before she embraced me, she said in her customary, ceremonial way:
“I’ve come to ask you to please go with me to sell the house.”
She did not have to tell me which one, or where, because for us only one existed in the world: my grandparents’ old house in Aracataca, where I’d had the good fortune to be born, and where I had not lived again after the age of eight.
Since 1959—when she first appeared, at age eighteen, at the Newport Folk Festival, singing alongside the banjo player and guitarist Bob Gibson—Joan Baez has been electrifying eager crowds with her elegance and ferocity. Baez was central to both the folk revival and the civil-rights movement of the nineteen-sixties; her protest songs, delivered in a vivid, warbly soprano, felt both defiant and gently maternal. (Baez’s stunning 1963 performance of the century-old gospel song “We Shall Overcome,” at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, remains one of the crucial musical artifacts of the era.)
Now eighty-two, and with twenty-five studio albums behind her, Baez has mostly retired from music, though she is still making poignant and unpredictable art. This spring, Baez released “Am I Pretty When I Fly?,” a collection of line drawings that she created by working upside down and sometimes with her nondominant hand. The results are abstract, quivery, weird, inscrutable, pure, and hilarious. In one piece from the book, a man dressed as an old-timey gumshoe, with elbow patches on his blazer and a Sherlock Holmes-style hat, holds a magnifying glass up to some spiders descending from a shelf. “Look Dierdra! Spidies!” In another, an older, bald head looks on as three young people of indeterminate gender embrace; one of the figures is smoking something. The caption? “Ohhhh shit.”
Baez has also continued her political advocacy. She was flying from Nashville to Newark recently when she encountered the Tennessee state representative Gloria Johnson and Johnson’s House colleague Justin Jones. Johnson and Jones, along with Representative Justin Pearson, became known as the Tennessee Three after leading protests advocating for gun reform, following the murder of three nine-year-olds and three adults at Nashville’s Covenant School. (Jones and Pearson were later expelled then reinstated; Johnson kept her appointment.) In the Newark terminal, while travellers scuttled past with their luggage, Jones and Baez held hands, and sang a few lines of “We Shall Overcome.” The performance, captured on a phone, is somehow both no-nonsense and wildly emotional. “When you get off the plane with the legendary Joan Baez you know it’s a movement of the spirit,” Jones said in a tweetposted later that day. Two days later, I sat down with Baez in her hotel room in New York City. She was dressed all in black, with a ruby-red manicure. Baez remains strikingly beautiful—as well as funny, frank, and generous. Our interview, which was continued over e-mail, has been condensed and edited.
You had an extraordinary moment at the airport recently.
I was getting ready to board my plane. I heard [my editor, Joshua Bodwell] say, “Wow, Joan, I think that’s Justin Jones.” I was, like, “Justin!” And he said, “Blessings, Joan Baez.” I didn’t realize that he’d written a book on nonviolent resistance. He was soft-spoken. Shy. He was not comfortable doing that video. I obviously wasn’t, either, because it sounded like shit. But it was just extraordinary.
Your new book is a wonderful surprise.
It surprises me, too! [Laughs.]
My mother was a high-school art teacher, but I’m sad to say that I’m not someone who draws—
Anybody can do it. You can’t lose upside down. Just keep going. Because when you’re trying to make it “right”—that’s when it gets all stiff. Sometimes I think about what I’d like to draw, but other times, like now, I just start squiggling the pen around. [She begins drawing on a piece of paper.] You never know . . . I mean, I know those are eyes. And I know that if I draw a certain way, a chin is gonna disappear. But when I turn it right side up, it’s a surprise. The expression is a surprise; the word “ew” is a bird. There are drawings all over my house, on napkins and tablecloths and stationery.
The book has such a great dedication: “To everyone who has ever made me laugh.” Is there someone or something in your life that has reliably made you smile?
The first person who comes to mind is [the folk singer and painter] Bobby Neuwirth. When my sister Mimi and I lived in Belmont, outside of Boston, she was struggling through school. I was pretending I was going to college, which was just awful. We were unhappy all the time. We would call Bobby Neuwirth, and he would come up there and make us laugh. He was just totally reliable. It was refreshing and renewed our lives.
You’ve got a blurb from Lana Del Rey, who calls it “entertaining, moving, ridiculously funny, insightful, and mysterious.” “Mysterious” feels like the exact right word. Childhood is also mysterious; when we’re small, we have a well-developed sense of wonder that seems to wane as we age. How do you stay in touch with that weird, goofy part of yourself?
Unfortunately, it’s probably not something you can hold on to. But again, because I’m drawing upside down, I’m free. I don’t really know what’s happening. Sometimes I say, “Oh, that’s a boy, and that’s a tree.” But when you turn it around there’s wonder. I have a drawing of a boy out in the springtime. Last night, for the first time, I realized he’s standing in water, and his shoes are floating around in the air. I didn’t think that people would get these drawings as much as they have. A little boy with a dead cat, taking care of it. When I show that picture, I hear “aww”—the whole audience, because they feel something. And that, to me, is a gift. That’s a wonderful thing. I think maybe part of the answer to your question is that something gets squashed out of you.
When you first started drawing, you used your left hand instead of your right hand; now you’re drawing upside down. An armchair psychologist might suggest that you do this to give yourself the freedom to be bad at something.
5 a.m. quarter moon
a new path
Juan followed his new path Friday
I didn’t know John for long, in years but knew him well as a person.
engaging, brilliant, a gentleman, a practicing Buddhist, an artist of the world
I liked him immensley
selfishly I go to the obvious of missing him, grieving …
then clarity ~ Hank Williams ‘three cords and the truth’
how fortunate to have someone like Juan in your life
the world was a better place with his energy
Thank you Juan
One of John’s old “Daily” missives about the impermanence of life …
Yokoi Yayu was a wealthy and influential samurai from Owari (today the area around Nagoya). He was a man of diverse interests, talents, and knowledge. He was known for being skilled in warfare, horsemanship, and other essential skills for a high-ranking samurai. In the realm of poetry, he excelled not only in haikai and haibun but also in Chinese poetry (kanshi) and humorous poetry (kyoka). Additionally, he was a talented painter and calligrapher and even gained recognition for his recitation of the medieval war epic Heike monogatari accompanied by the biwa lute and the performance of Noh texts. In Japan, he is also celebrated for his haibun, which are prose sketches in the spirit of haiku. Yokoi published over two thousand poems. The one on this scroll is taken from his book Rayoshu “Ivy Leaves Collection”, published in 1767.
For a brief moment,
the crescent moon,
faint and hazy.
Reading between the brushstrokes of martial arts masters
By John Stevens
In East Asian culture, brushwork is considered a “mind seal”—a single stroke can reveal what is in a person’s heart. It can also express the essence of a master’s teaching. Since it is not the formation of the characters but the spirit behind the composition that matters, few of the most esteemed examples of brushwork were by professionals—and many masterpieces were by martial artists. In fact, Wang Xizhi, venerated as the greatest calligrapher in Chinese history, was a Tang dynasty general.
This collection focuses on the brushwork of the budo (“way of martial arts” or “martial way”) masters of Japan. What defines a budo master? It refers to one who is well accomplished in all the technical aspects of the martial arts and, more importantly, the strategy behind warriorship. Strategy involves the ability to correctly evaluate an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, both material and psychological. However, one can qualify as a budo master even if one has never stepped on a battlefield. Although some budo masters refused to wield weapons (as part of their Buddhist vows), they were as skilled as the best martial artists. While many budo masters were heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism, others were not—they drew on their experiences with esoteric Buddhism, Shinto, Confucianism, Daoism, folk religion, and other traditions. Like Zen, the most effective budo teachings are short and to the point. Due to the compact medium—a single sheet of paper—the essence of a master’s teaching is limited to a few characters; typically a one- or two-line phrase or often only a single “one-word barrier.” Many budo masters painted as well. Although a few were excellent artists, the majority of their paintings are simply composed, and some are more like cartoons, often graced by a laugh-out-loud humor.
This is not an art history survey; it is a meditation manual. The illustrations are to be contemplated, not analyzed. It is an encounter between the viewer and the viewed. Everyone sees the artwork from a different perspective. The captions are “hints”; the interpretations are up to the reader.
Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form!
Paintings of a yukidaruma, or “snow Daruma,” are a common theme in Zen art(Daruma being the Japanese rendition of Bodhidharma, the Indian monk credited with transmitting Buddhism to China and rumored to have founded Shaolin Kung Fu). They are usually accompanied by an inscription of the most famous line of the Heart Sutra. The snowman materializes—in the depth of winter, it is as solid as can be—but when the weather begins to warm up, the snowman gradually melts away. The reality of “form is emptiness, emptiness is form” can actually be seen in the appearance and disappearance of the snowman in a single, short season. This Zen snowman has a rather alarmed expression—he realizes that he is beginning to melt.
As a young monk, Izawa Deiryu (1895–1954) was a student and attendant of Nantenbo (see page 70), who once accused him of copying his work and selling it. Deiryu replied, “Why would I do that? My brushwork is much better than yours!” Later serving as the abbot of Enpuku-ji, he was a master of numerous arts—calligraphy, painting, kendo (a form of swordsmanship), and kyudo (a form of archery).
Let go of
You don’t have,
Forget everything you don’t know,
And just be like this [= Buddha]!
–Inscription by Motsugai
Even demons (oni) can be transformed through Zen meditation; an oni’s bravery and fearlessness can make its enlightenment more powerful and effective. Oni are known for wielding iron rods to beat evildoers as they fall into hell, but this oni has placed its rod on the ground in front of it; it no longer needs it. The inscription is a koan—“How is it possible to give up what we don’t have and forget what we don’t know?”—to be pondered single-mindedly and intently like the fiercest demon.
Takeda Motsugai (1795–1867) became a Soto Zen novice at age 5 and became a martial arts master famed for his prodigious strength, nicknamed “Demon.” Yet his zenga (“Zen artwork”) have a light, humorous touch, displaying a wonderful sense of joy and freedom—not all hard-edged and grim, as we might expect from a demon.
Speak and you get the Nanten staff;
do not speak and you get the Nanten
BO! (Staff )
–[signed] Seventy-plus-four-year-old fellow Nantenbo Toju
The staff in the middle serves as both a painting of Nantenbo’s staff and the last character of the inscription. The calligraphy on both sides of the painting form little staffs. He is telling us, “The essence of Zen transcends speaking and nonspeaking; clever words or mere silence will not cut it. Unless you really demonstrate Zen to me, you will feel a good whack of my staff.”
Nakahara Nantenbo (1833–1912) carried his trademark staff wherever he went and applied it liberally to “wake up” his students.
Sporting and sleeping
Amidst the dew in
A field of flowers—
In whose dream
Is this butterfly?
This refers to the famous dream of Chuang-tzu: “Am I a man dreaming of a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming I am a man?” There are several other meanings. In Japan, it is believed that at the time of a person’s death, a butterfly will appear to relatives, friends, and students who are close to the deceased, as a kind of farewell. Rengetsu’s signature is to the side, as if she is enjoying the butterfly and the calligraphy dancing about. The work is animated with no sense of a pause or a break in composition or concentration.
During her teen years, Otagaki Rengetsu (1791–1875) was raised a samurai lady in Kameoka Castle, well instructed in both the fine and martial arts. She was famed for her beauty and married young, but she eventually lost two husbands and all her children to illness. She became a Buddhist nun at age 33 and thereafter devoted her life to spiritual pursuits: meditation, charity, and art—poetry, calligraphy, painting, and pottery.
Good when clear, good even when cloudy—Fuji mountain’s original form never changes.
Life is full of changes, alternating between sunny and dark days, but our innate buddhanature, pure and majestic, remains undisturbed. Tesshu’s Fuji, the simplest painting possible, is formed by three lush brushstrokes. It is a masterpiece of minimalist Zen art, and the rhythmic flow of the calligraphic inscription is outstanding.
Yamaoka Tesshu (1836–1888) was a demon swordsman and an elite soldier. However, when he was defeated by the much smaller and older Asari Gimei, Tesshu realized that it was the mind, not the body, that determined the outcome. Studying Zen with the master Tekisui, he experienced a great awakening at the age of 45 and founded the Muto Ryu (“No-Sword School”) to promote his ideas of the sword and Zen as one.
The two square off for a fight to the death
The one who is not rash,
Who takes a breath [has the right timing] will win—
In the evening cool.
The painting is by Sengai Gibon (1750–1837), but the accompanying inscription is by an unknown calligrapher. Usually this type of encounter—which often takes place in the evening—ends badly for the frog, but this time my money is on the amphibian. The thin, timid-looking snake appears woefully overmatched. The frog is in a sumo stance (tachi-ai); in sumo, timing is key to victory. Sengai’s Zen frogs are typically whimsical creatures, but this killer frog is fierce.
From The Art of Budo: The Calligraphy and Paintings of the Martial Arts Mastersby John Stevens © 2022. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boulder, CO.John Stevens is an author and Professor of Buddhist Studies at Tohoku Fukushi in Sendai, Japan. This was adapted from “What Did the Buddha Eat?” which appeared in the October 1985 issue of East West Journal.
Baldwin had felt asphyxiated in America: his family had expectations of him he hated, his friends were judgemental. He felt observed and intruded upon. Society was moralistic and prurient (not to mention racist). As a result, he couldn’t be creative or free and had the sense of being watched and commented upon all the time; it was like being always at school – or in prison.
So he undertook that most inwardly liberating of moves: he went into exile. From Paris, it no longer mattered what ‘they’ were saying. Public opinion could appear, as it always should have done, parochial and absurd. No one knew him in the French capital. They had never heard of his family. It was as if he had – in a good way – died and been granted a chance of a second, unsigned life. In France, he could create, take risks, dress differently, make unusual friends – and become himself.
Crucially, Baldwin had no interest whatsoever in assimilating into French society. He wasn’t looking to swap one narrow village for another. It was exile he was after – that very particular state in which one is free not to belong anywhere in particular, to escape all tribes in order to be unobserved, anonymous and detached.
It may not always be possible for us to become actual exiles, but we should at the very least strive to become internal exiles, that is, people who can behave like visitors in their own lands, no longer bound by local idiocies, able to cut themselves off from the mean and restricted views of so-called friends or disloyal families, and to grow indifferent to provincial competition and grandstanding.
Baldwin and his fellow exiles are there to teach us about what freedom might feel like. We should strive to follow them in our minds, and one day perhaps, in our actual living arrangements.