For García Márquez, a Magical Homecoming

Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez playfully sticks out his tongue at photographers as he arrives in his Colombian home town Wednesday with his wife, Mercedes Barcha.
Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez playfully sticks out his tongue at photographers as he arrives in his Colombian home town Wednesday with his wife, Mercedes Barcha. (By William Fernando Martinez -- Associated Press)
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 2, 2007

ARACATACA, Colombia -- It had been a long time, seemingly as long as the epidemic of insomnia or the chaotic flood that struck the fictional version of this forlorn town.

This week, with thousands of people as witnesses, this sleepy and self-obsessed community finally had a visit from its most famous son -- Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel Prize-winning author who turned Aracataca into the fantastical hamlet of Macondo for millions of readers worldwide but had not returned in a quarter-century.

On Wednesday, a vintage train -- dubbed the Yellow Train of Macondo -- rumbled past shantytowns on the coast and through what the author called the "hermetic realm of the banana region" before coming to a long halt in Aracataca. Thousands of people had lined the route, screaming "Gabo, Gabo, Gabo" and holding up giant posters featuring the irreverent author's smiling face framed by enormous glasses. They threw confetti, set off fireworks and let loose yellow balloons. Brass bands played and pint-size schoolgirls performed, dressed as butterflies.

"Look at all these people and then say that it was me who invented Macondo," remarked García Márquez, his eyes tearing up.

That a literary master widely regarded as the greatest living writer of Spanish went home might seem unremarkable, even to his legion of international fans. But this is the year of García Márquez in Colombia, with statesmen, authors and artists participating in celebrations marking his 80th birthday next March, the 25th anniversary of his Nobel and the 40th anniversary of the publication of his masterpiece, "One Hundred Years of Solitude."

And in no place has he been more missed than in Aracataca, which the novelist once described as "a good place to live where everybody knew everybody else, located on the banks of a river of transparent water that raced over a bed of polished stones as huge and white as prehistoric eggs."

"I admire the beautiful literature of García Márquez because, despite coming from poverty and humble surroundings, he became a Nobel winner," said Elena Cuello, 77.

To García Márquez, Aracataca, located not far from the Caribbean coast, is all small-town enchantments and tragic dramas. In literature, it becomes Macondo, where the ample Buendía clan roamed incessantly, yellow butterflies fluttered about, people couldn't sleep for years, cows swam and a cast of ebulliently eccentric characters didn't age.

It was here that a young García Márquez heard ghost stories, fairy tales and one adventure yarn after another, drawn from the region's rich and often blood-soaked history. The inspiration led him to become one of the leading writers in the style known as magical realism, with its penchant for weaving sharply drawn realism with dreamlike, even preposterous twists, all presented in a deadpan tone.

Gabo, as he's known to all Colombians, has long stressed that though they may have read like fiction, his stories are rooted in reality. And much of the fuel that fires his imagination came from his grandfather Nicolás Márquez, a veteran of the turn-of-the-century civil conflict known as the War of a Thousand Days, who was a teller of grand tales, tall and otherwise.

"The great old man didn't tell me about Little Red Riding Hood," García Márquez said, according to a brief biography produced by a journalism foundation in nearby Santa Marta. "He told me terrible stories about war, about the massacre of the banana workers that took place the year I was born."

His first eight years, a period in which he learned to read and saw a dead body for the first time, were spent in Aracataca. In the first volume of his autobiography, "Living to Tell the Tale," García Márquez described his return to Aracataca in 1950, noting a lonely, abandoned train station that "was like a tropical version of the ones I knew from Westerns." Accompanied by his mother, he recalled feeling "forsaken beneath an infernal sun" as "all the heavy grief of the town came down on us."

The sun was also infernal Wednesday, but the similarities with his earlier visit ended there. This time, it seemed as if virtually the entire town of 25,000 people had jammed the station and the streets, hoping to get a glimpse of the writer, who wore a traditional white guayabera and tried to shoo photographers away by sticking his tongue out at them.

"I wanted to meet him so much," said Margarita Batista, 39, who brought her three children to the train station. "I live here, but even so, I don't know him. I'm so happy getting to see someone so famous like Gabo."

Not unlike the American press's obsession with Paris Hilton, in Colombia, any tidbit about García Márquez is news. And so his fight with lymphatic cancer has been the subject of considerable press speculation. So has his recent involvement in cease-fire negotiations between Colombia's government and the country's second-largest rebel group.

Perhaps the biggest question is whether García Márquez, whose "Living to Tell the Tale" was published in 2002, would produce a second volume that would take the reader beyond the early 1950s. The author declines to talk publicly about his plans, or pretty much anything else, largely because he is uncomfortable speaking about his illness, friends and relatives say.

Jaime Abello, a confidant and director of a journalism foundation García Márquez created in Colombia, said the second volume is in the works. "He's been working, but this is a process that can take a long time," Abello said. "He's always working. It's amazing. He's 80 years old, and each day he has two or three hours dedicated to work."

Aracataca, of course, played a major role in the first volume.

Recalling his return in 1950, García Márquez said the two-day stay was "so decisive that the longest and most diligent of lives would not be enough for me to finish recounting it." Indeed, it was on that trip that he decided to devote himself to writing.

In a community of grinding poverty and occasional violence -- this region has been hit hard by paramilitary and guerrilla mayhem -- it is no surprise that the town's fathers want to take advantage of the influence Aracataca had on the budding writer. People here, after all, long for better times.

"This is very important, because Aracataca can be divided in two, before and after the Nobel," said César Montero, who helped organize the caravan that welcomed the author. "It's been 25 years since he visited us, and we can't waste this opportunity."

The town is unofficially known as Macondo -- though an effort to officially change its name failed last year because too few residents voted. A five-year-old foundation teaches children García Márquez's literature, and the government in Bogota is rebuilding the rambling house where he grew up (the author remembers it as a place where "there were dead people and memories in every corner," so haunted he dared not get out of bed after dark).

Plans are also percolating to fix up the old telegraph office, featured in his books, and the train station, said Rafael Darío Jiménez, who oversees a museum honoring García Márquez.

"The dream has become a reality, and we're walking on that dream," said Jiménez, an eternal optimist, speaking a mile a minute as he walked through Aracataca's streets. "He's our maximum representative, not just for our culture, but of our style of living, representing Colombia and transmitting a positive image of Colombia to the world."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company