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“He Gave Us Back Our History”: Isabel Allende on Gabriel García Márquez in Exclusive Interview

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In an exclusive interview, Chilean novelist Isabel Allende remembers the life and legacy of late writer Gabriel García Márquez. She reads from his landmark novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and talks about how García Márquez influenced generations of thinkers and writers in Latin America and across the world. “He’s the master of masters,” Allende says. “In a way, he conquered readers and conquered the world, and told the world about us, Latin Americans, and told us who we are. In his pages, we saw ourselves in a mirror.” Allende describes the first time she read “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and how it impacted her. “It was as if someone was telling me my own story,” she says. We also air video of García Márquez in his own words and hear Democracy Now! co-host Juan González read from “The General in His Labyrinth.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Today, we remember the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez. He died Thursday at the age of 87. He’s widely regarded as one of the century’s greatest writers. His masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude, sold more than 50 million copies in 25 languages.

To talk more about Gabriel García Márquez, we’re joined by Isabel Allende, the best-selling Chilean writer and one of Latin America’s most renowned novelists. She’s the author of some 20 books, including Maya’s Notebook, The House of the Spirits, Paula, Daughter of Fortune. Her latest book is called Ripper. Allende now lives in California, but she was born in Peru in 1942 and traveled the world as the daughter of a Chilean diplomat. Her father’s first cousin was Salvador Allende, Chile’s president between 1970 and 1973. When Augusto Pinochet seized power in a CIA-backed military coup in ’73, Isabel Allende fled from her native Chile to Venezuela.

AMY GOODMAN: We are joined right now by Isabel Allende, and it is an honor to have you with us for this hour to discuss the person who has so shaped literature, not only in Latin America—

ISABEL ALLENDE: In the world.

AMY GOODMAN: —but has had enormous influence all over the world. Talk about Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel.

ISABEL ALLENDE: It’s hard to talk about him. It’s very emotional. He’s the master of masters. The boom of Latin American literature that took the world by assault in the second half of the century, began in 1963 with a novel by an unknown writer called Mario Vargas Llosa. And that’s the moment when the world noticed that we had great writers. And there were—it was a choir of many voices. But the most important voice, the voice that really was the pillar of this movement, was García Márquez with One Hundred Years of Solitude. And every novel that he wrote afterward was not only acclaimed by the critics and translated, and he had innumerable awards, but they were popular novels. It was like reading Dickens or Balzac. People in the streets read García Márquez. Every book he wrote had popular acclaim. So, in a way, he conquered readers and conquered the world and told the world about us, Latin Americans, and told us who we are. In his pages, we saw ourselves in a mirror, in a way.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, amazingly, in his own country, he was—he was virtually—for a literary figure, it’s unusual—he was like a rock star. Everything that García Márquez said or did, the country followed and talked about and—

ISABEL ALLENDE: In the world.


ISABEL ALLENDE: But, you know, in Latin America, that is not a rare event. In Latin America, some writers, because they were writers, have been elected president. Writers are consulted as if they were prophets or astrologers. They are supposed to know everything. And in a way, it makes sense, because in such a complicated and weird continent as Latin America is, somehow writers summarize our reality, the collective dreams, the collective hopes, the fears. They give us back our history, which is usually magical and horrible.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you remember when you first read One Hundred Years of Solitude?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah. The novel was published in 1967, and I read it a year later. I had given birth to my son, Nicolás, who was born in 1966, and I had gone back to work. I was working in a women’s magazine. And I remember when I read the book, I didn’t go to work. I just sat there with the book until I finished it. It was as if someone was telling me my own story. It was my family, my country, my—the people I knew. To me, there was nothing magical about it. It was my grandmother. I also grew up in the house of my grandparents, as he did.

The story that we just heard about his manuscript, of sending it in two batches because he couldn’t afford, the same happened with The House of the Spirits many years later. I was living in Venezuela, didn’t have money to send the whole manuscript, and it went in two batches. So, there were so many similarities. We have the same agent, Carmen Balcells, who many—often she will say to me that I had reactions like him. For example, we would receive a contract. We never read the contracts; we just signed them. And suddenly, for no reason in particular, we would read it and say, “No, this one I’m not going to sign.” So, you know that kind of—

AMY GOODMAN: She was in Spain?

ISABEL ALLENDE: She was in Spain. That kind of struggle where you feel totally identified with his words, with his work, with his personality. He was a difficult man, but he was so creative, so quick in response. He was an amazing man.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what was it about One Hundred Years of Solitude that made it such a—such a powerful book, not just in Latin America, but throughout the world? I mean, here is this—basically the story of several generations of a family in a forgotten part of Colombia, a small little town—

ISABEL ALLENDE: An invented—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —isolated from the world.

ISABEL ALLENDE: An invented place.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Invented, right. But—and what was it about that book that made it such an important and seminal work?

ISABEL ALLENDE: I think that what happened with magic realism and why people all over the world connected to it is because the world and life are very mysterious. We don’t control anything. We have no explanations for everything. And we try to live in a controlled world, because we feel safe. And in this book, and the books that followed, there was this explosion of the unbelievable, which is around us all the time. And it’s an acceptance that we don’t control anything, there are no explanations, that there is something—there are spirits. There are coincidences, prophetic dreams, things that happen that are magical because we cannot explain them. I suppose that centuries ago any phenomenon like electricity would be considered magical. Maybe in 200 years of solitude we will be able to explain what is now magical to us.

AMY GOODMAN: In this clip from the 1998 documentary, Gabriel García Márquez: A Witch Writing Literature, García Márquez talks about the role women played in his life when he was a young boy.

GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ: [translated] We were the only two men in a house full of women. My life was a strange one, because the women, who were ruled over by my grandmother, were living in a supernatural world, a fantastic world where everything was possible. The most unbelievable things were part of everyday life. I got used to this way of thinking. But my grandfather was the most down to realistic man I have ever known. He would tell me about the civil war and all the political tricks. He spoke to me as if I was an adult. So I was split between two worlds—the world of my grandfather, whom I spent my days with as he dedicated a lot of his time to me, and the world of the women, in parallel with my grandfather’s, but with which I stayed alone at night.

AMY GOODMAN: Gabriel García Márquez elaborated on the influence his grandmother had on him as a child and developing writer. This is a clip of an interview he did with the Spanish broadcaster RTVE.

GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ: [translated] My grandmother was like my mother to me. She was a person who was quite superstitious. I always had the impression she had a secret link to certain supernatural powers, because in my infancy it was always a marvel to see how she always had a way of knowing things and foreseeing things and having prophecies that would be fulfilled. She was a nervous type, and she died at a very old age, and quite delirious, of course. But the other thing I remember well is that she spoke a type of Spanish that was extraordinary, full of archaisms, spellbinding images. This has been a launching point for me as a writer. I have now researched all her terminology, all her refrains, her words. Now I know them all consciously, but I grew up with those words and those terms with that construction, as if it was the natural speech of the people, because it was what she used in her speech. With that language, I wrote my books.

AMY GOODMAN: Gabriel García Márquez, speaking to the Spanish broadcaster RTVE. Our guest for the hour is Isabel Allende, in this exclusive, extended interview with her responding to Gabriel García Márquez’s death. Magic realism, how was that phrase coined? And the influence it’s had on, well, you as a writer and people all over the world?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Well, I understand that it—first of all, García Márquez did not invent it. He was the great—the one who was able to put it together in such a fantastic way that it was accepted all over. But it began long before. I would say that magic realism begins with the conquistadors that came to Latin America, and they were writing these letters to the king or to Spain in which they talk about a continent that had fountains of youth, that you could pick up the gold and the diamonds from the floor, that people had unicorns or had one foot so big that at siesta time they would raise it like a parasol to have shade. I mean, this is—I’m not making this up. This is in the conquistadors’ letters. So, in that magical beginning of Latin America and Spain together, this reality was created. And a great Cuban writer was the one who first put the term together, and then García Márquez popularized it. But it was—it is said that it began in Germany, that the first person who ever put together magic and realism was in Germany.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you read the words of Gabriel García Márquez, those words that you read when you were staying home from work because you couldn’t put the book down?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Do you want me to read them in Spanish or in English?

AMY GOODMAN: In both. In both.

ISABEL ALLENDE: In both? Let me start with Spanish, because in Spanish this sounds so much better. This is the beginning of Cien años de soledad.

Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo. Macondo era entonces una aldea de veinte casas de barro y cañabrava construidas a la orilla de un río de aguas diáfanas que se precipitaban por un lecho de piedras pulidas, blancas y enormes como huevos prehistóricos. El mundo era tan reciente, que muchas cosas carecían de nombre, y para mencionarlas había que señalarías con
el dedo.

Now, in English.

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.”

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Isabel Allende reading from Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Isabel, one of the—obviously, one of the big influences on his life was not only his own family upbringing, but the political climate in which he grew up, from the time of the infamous La Violencia in Colombia, where over 300,000 people were killed in a civil war, to, later on, the drug wars in Colombia, the enormous dislocation of Colombian society. Talk about his political views and development and how he showed them through his literature.

ISABEL ALLENDE: He was always a leftist. And he became friends with Fidel Castro very early on during the Cuban revolution. He was adored in Cuba, and he lived there and visited Cuba many times. He formed the film institute in Havana. And his views, his leftist views, brought him a lot of trouble in Colombia. He couldn’t live in Colombia for a while because his life was threatened. He lived in Mexico. He lived in many other places. And he died in Mexico, actually. So, he’s not the only one, because many of our writers of that time lived in exile and wrote in exile, in Europe and in other places, because it was unsafe to live in their own countries. It happened also in Chile. A wave of Chilean writers left after the military coup, and they wrote in exile.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to this clip from the documentary, again, Gabriel García Márquez: A Witch Writing Literature, where he talks about his time in Paris, as we talk about the exile—it was the ’50s, he had fled Colombia—and how many of his fellow writers from Latin America, who were also in Paris, faced dictators at home.

GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ: [translated] What had been important for me, in Paris, was the perspective I acquired on Latin America, because in Latin America I was just a Colombian, a Caribbean, and I deeply am a Caribbean, but in Paris I became a Caribbean aware of his culture and of the more general culture the Caribbean culture fits itself into. In the cafés, I regularly met Argentinians, people from Central America, Mexicans, Caribbeans from different countries.

It was at the time of the dictators. There was Rojas Pinilla in Colombia, Pérez Jiménez in Venezuela, Odría in Peru, Trujillo in Santo Domingo. There was Perón in Argentina. There were dictators nearly everywhere. There was Batista in Cuba.

I was living in a pension in Cujas Street, right in the Latin Quarter. The poet Nicolás Guillén was living in a pension opposite mine. Our visits to him were like a pilgrimage. Each of us expected news from his country. One early morning, as he woke up as early as he used to in Cuba, he leaned out of his window and shouted, “He has fallen!” Everyone believed it was the dictator of his own country.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Gabriel García Márquez: A Witch Writing Literature, a 1998 documentary, speaking about his time in Paris in exile in the ’50s. Isabel Allende, you were just describing this and also talking about what influenced him: your own country, your cousin, the president of Chile, Salvador Allende, taken down by Pinochet, died in the palace on another September 11, September 11, 1973.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, and García Márquez wrote about that. He was very active against the dictatorship. At the time, Chile was like the most visible military coup and dictatorship in the world. The world paid a lot of attention to Chile. But there were dictators all over Latin America. There were—very soon, the dirty war started in Argentina. And then in Uruguay, the situation in Uruguay was awful. Brazil, in many places, there was nowhere to go. There were masses of people running away from their own countries and trying to find refuge in another place, and then there would be a dictatorship in the other place. That happened to many Chileans that went to Argentina and died in Argentina. So García Márquez, who was aware of all this and had already lived it in his youth in his own country, and he was in Paris because he was running away from repressive governments, wrote about that. And in his book The Autumn of the Patriarch, he—in a great metaphor of all of Latin America, he summarizes the horror of autocratic governments and ignorance and abuse, exploitation, killings. I think that that book represents all those dictatorships.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking with Isabel Allende, the great Chilean writer, one of Latin America’s most renowned novelists, speaking about the death of a giant of the 20th century. Gabriel García Márquez died in his home in Mexico, outside of his country, Colombia, at the age of 87 on Thursday. We’ll continue with this discussion in a moment.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we remember the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez. He died Thursday at the age of 87 at his home in Mexico. He is widely regarded as one of the century’s greatest writers. Our guest here in the studio is Isabel Allende, the best-selling Chilean writer, one of Latin America’s most renowned novelists, as she joins us for this exclusive interview in our studios here in New York. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I wanted to remark, as Isabel has said that the—that García Márquez is still with us in his writings. And all of us who have read his books over the years have our own favorite passages and haunting passages that stay with us for years. I wanted to read one from The General in His Labyrinth.

ISABEL ALLENDE: That’s about Simón Bolívar.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right, the story of the great liberator Simón Bolívar in his last days. And the amazing thing, is here you have Bolívar, a figure who’s known throughout Latin America, revered throughout Latin America, spent his life in wars of liberation, and in his final days, Márquez has a passage where he talks about Bolívar’s disposition to literature and where he had his secretaries reading books to him. And here, Bolívar is dying, and Márquez writes:

“It was the last book he read in its entirety. He had been a reader of imperturbable voracity during the respites after battles and the rests after love, but a reader without order or method. He read at any hour, in whatever light was available, sometimes strolling under the trees, sometimes on horseback under the equatorial sun, sometimes in dim coaches rattling over cobbled pavements, sometimes swaying in the hammock as he dictated a letter. A bookseller in Lima had been surprised at the abundance and variety of works he selected from a general catalogue that listed everything from Greek philosophers to a treatise on chiromancy. In his youth he read the Romantics under the influence of his tutor, Simón Rodríguez, and he continued to devour them as if he were reading himself and his own idealistic, intense temperament. They were impassioned readings that marked him for the rest of his life. In the end he read everything that came his way, and he did not have a favorite author but rather many who had been favorites at different times. The bookcases in the various homes he lived in were always crammed full, and the bedrooms and hallways were turned into narrow passes between steep cliffs of books and mountains of errant documents that proliferated as he passed and pursued him without mercy in their quest for archival peace. He never was able to read all the books he owned. When he moved to another city he left them in the care of his most trustworthy friends, although he never heard anything about them again, and his life of fighting obliged him to leave behind a trail of books and papers stretching over four hundred leagues from Bolivia to Venezuela.

“Even before his eyes began to fail he had his secretaries read to him, and then he read no other way because of the annoyance that eyeglasses caused him. But his interest in what he read was decreasing at the same time, and as always he attributed this to a cause beyond his control.

“'The fact is there are fewer and fewer good books,' he would say.”

AMY GOODMAN: And that is from?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: This is from The General in His Labyrinth. And, to me, the image of a warrior spending all his life fighting, but always carrying this huge retinue of books and somehow trying to read everything he could, is classic García Márquez.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to [Gabriel García Márquez] in his own words, as Juan read them, as well, from his book. This is him talking about himself as a journalist, and this reminded me of you, Isabel. He started out as a reporter in the early ’50s and returned to it periodically throughout his career as a novelist. This is part of a 1971 interview he did with the legendary writer Pablo Neruda.

GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ: [translated] I would like to return to journalism, above all, to be a reporter, because I have the impression that advancing in literature, you lose your sense of reality. On the other hand, the work of a reporter has the advantage of every day being in contact with the immediate reality.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, that was García Márquez speaking in 1971. In this clip from the 1998 documentary, Gabriel García Márquez: A Witch Writing Literature, he talks about why he became a journalist.

GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ: [translated] I’d say I turned to journalism because, for me, what was more interesting than literature was to tell about real things. From this point of view, journalism has to be considered as a literary genre, specially reportage. I’ve always defended this idea, because even the journalists refuse to acknowledge that reportage is a literary genre. In fact, they underrate it. For me, a reportage is a short story completely rooted in reality. Though a short story is also inspired by reality, so is fiction. No fiction has ever been completely invented. It’s always based on experience. I’ve realized the way I came to journalism was part of this process. It was just another stage, not in my getting a literary culture, but in the developing of my true vocation: telling stories.

AMY GOODMAN: Your thoughts, Isabel Allende, on Gabriel García Márquez talking about journalism and fiction? You, too, started as a journalist and—

ISABEL ALLENDE: Many Latin American writers have started as journalists, and even as they became novelists, they continued working as journalists. I think the journalist gives you all the ideas. You are in touch with reality. You are in touch with people, listening to people’s stories. In my case, I started as a journalist, but I was a lousy journalist, and I never could stick to the truth, or I could never be objective.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Neither can most journalists.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Yeah, I could never be objective, and I’m sure he wasn’t, either, García Márquez. He’s making that up.

AMY GOODMAN: But you know that clip that we first played, where he is with Pablo Neruda, and for young people who are watching, listening or will read this in the next days, for those who don’t know who Pablo Neruda is, his significance, but also that meeting you had with Pablo Neruda a few days before he died, talking about journalism?

ISABEL ALLENDE: Well, Pablo Neruda was our second Nobel Prize for Literature, for poetry. The first one was Gabriela Mistral. And he was known all over the world. His poetry was translated all over the world. He won the Nobel Prize. And when he got sick, he went back to Chile, to Isla Negra, because he wanted to die and be buried in his house in Isla Negra where his tomb is now. There is a rock, and under that rock he and his wife are buried.

Shortly before the military coup of 1973, I visited him in Isla Negra. And it was a good day for him. He was—he was up and around with a poncho. We had lunch and a wonderful corvina, a Chilean fish, and white wine. And then I said, “Can I do the interview now, Don Pablo, because it’s getting late, and I have to go back to Santiago?” And he said, “What interview?” “Well, I came to interview you.” He said, “No way. I would never be interviewed by you. You are the worst journalist in this country. You lie all the time. You can never say the truth. You put yourself in the middle of everything. You can never be objective. And I’m sure that if you do not have a story, you’ll make it up. Why don’t you switch to literature, where all these defects are virtues?”

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Pablo Neruda speaking to you. And in this last minute we have, your final thoughts on Gabriel García Márquez?

ISABEL ALLENDE: As I said before, my heart is mourning, but not my mind. In a way, I feel great sadness because he’s gone. But he has been gone for many years now. He has not been writing for many years. But the books are immortal, and they will always be with us, and I will be able to read them over and over forever. So he’s always with us.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for taking this time, Isabel—

ISABEL ALLENDE: My pleasure.

AMY GOODMAN: —for these brief days you’ve been in New York, to spend the morning with us. Isabel Allende, the great Chilean writer, one of Latin America’s most renowned novelists, now lives in the Bay Area in California. She’s the author of some 20 books, including Maya’s Notebook, House of the Spirits, Paula, Daughter of Fortune. Her latest book is called Ripper. She was born in Peru. Her family was in Chile, where she went back to. We will do the full interview with Isabel Allende about her work next week, but for now, this does it for Democracy Now! If you’d like a copy of today’s show, you can go to our website at Special thanks to Andrés Thomas Conteris, to Clara Ibarra and, as well, to Robby Karran.

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