By DARCY CROWE
The Associated Press
Friday, March 23, 2007; 10:03 AM
BOGOTA, Colombia -- With one right hook, an epochal friendship was destroyed and a rift opened between two of Latin America's most celebrated authors.
At a 1976 movie premiere in Mexico City, Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa _ with no apparent provocation _ landed a punch to the left eye and nose of his once inseparable Colombian friend, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who six years later was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.
After three decades, the circumstances that led to the scuffle have remained shrouded in mystery.
But just in time for a series of tributes this month to Garcia Marquez, who turned 80 on March 6, a new photo and details about the incident have emerged along with the beginning of a reconcilation between the two literary giants.
For 31 years, both authors have kept silent about the shiner, leading to speculation it was motivated by professional envy, a love triangle involving Vargas Llosa's wife or the authors' steady drift to opposite ends of the political spectrum.
Both started out enamored with Cuba's 1959 communist revolution. But while Garcia Marquez, author of "Love in the Time of Cholera" and his memoirs "Living to Tell the Tale," remains a close friend to ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Vargas Llosa tilted to the right and proposed a staunch privatization and austerity measures during an unsuccessful run for Peru's presidency in 1990.
Vargas Llosa has published hard-hitting articles against Castro and more recently, "The Feast of the Goat," a scathing novel about former Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.
Although their careers have followed parallel paths _ both started out as journalists and scribbled their first novels as slumming ex-pats in 1950s Paris _ Garcia Marquez went on to win the literary world's top honor in 1982. But Vargas Llosa, who also won literary acclaim with such works as "Conversation in the Cathedral" and "War of the End of the World," appears eternally doomed to the shortlist of Nobel also-rans.
Before their separation, the two were almost blood brothers _ Vargas Llosa even named his friend the godfather of his second son, Gabriel.
A clue to unlocking the mystery behind their estrangement was revealed this month when Rodrigo Moya, a Mexican photographer, published in Mexican newspaper La Jornada a mug shot taken in his studio of his bruised friend two days after he was punched.
In an essay, Moya recalled being told in his studio how Vargas Llosa was infuriated by marital advice Garcia Marquez and his wife Mercedes, who still looks after her husband, gave years earlier to the Peruvian's wife, Patricia.
Dasso Saldivar, who has written a biography of Garcia Marquez, says Moya's account rings true and dovetails with long-standing rumors that Garcia Marquez encouraged Patricia to file for divorce because of her husband's alleged extramarital affairs. The couple later reconciled and are still together.
The two hadn't seen each other for a long time when Garcia Marquez, spotting his friend on the red carpet for a screening of "The Andes Odyssey" _ later made into the Hollywood film "Alive" _ ran to him with open arms, shouting, "Mario."
"It was the only word he was able to say, because Vargas Llosa greeted him with a sharp blow that threw him onto the carpet with a bloodied face," wrote Moya.
Since then, the two are believed to have never exchanged another word.
Their publishing houses said the authors would not be available for comment. Both have refused to talk about the incident and, according to Saliviar, "It's a real Gordian knot for their biographers to unravel."
Like Saldivar, Gerald Martin, who is finishing an English-language biography of Garcia Marquez, says Vargas Llosa's punch was probably as much motivated by personal jealousies as it was ideological differences or literary egos.
"Then there's the question, which we don't know the answer to, as whether there was sex involved or not, or at least the suspicion of sex," said Martin, who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. "And if you put sex, politics, fame and glory together that's a pretty explosive mix, isn't it?"
Whatever led to the spat, for the first time there are hopeful signs the two famously stubborn authors may reconcile in their old age.
After refusing for years, Vargas Llosa has granted permission for parts of an exalting essay he wrote before the split about Garcia Marquez' best seller, "One Hundred Years of Solitude," to be included in a special 40th anniversary edition.
The commemorative edition _ the first by the Spanish Royal Academy since Miguel de Cervantes' 17th-century classic "Don Quixote" _ will be presented by King Juan Carlos of Spain during a tribute to the author at the Fourth International Congress of the Spanish Language later this month in Cartagena, Colombia.
"Vargas Llosa has broken the ice. ... It's a good sign," said Jaime Bernal, a member of the Colombian Academy of Language.
Still, old grudges die hard. Although former President Bill Clinton and Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes are among the celebrity friends of Garcia Marquez expected to attend the tribute, at least one literary luminary will be conspicuously absent.