A very serious problem that our exorbitant reality poses to literature is the inadequacy of words. When we talk about a river, the furthest a European reader can stretch his imagination is to something as big as the Danube, 2,790 kilometers long. It’s unlikely that he’ll imagine, unless you describe it to him, the reality of the Amazon, which is 5,500 kilometers in length. When we write the word “storm”, Europeans think about thunder and lightning, it’s not likely that they’ll imagine the phenomena we would like to depict. The same thing happens, for example, with the word “rain”. In the mountain chain of the Andes, according to the description the Frenchman Javier Marimier made for fellow Frenchmen, there are storms which can last as long as five months. “Anyone who hasn’t seen these storms”, he says “couldn’t being to imagine the violence with which they develop. For whole hours the lightning bolts follow each other like waterfalls of blood and the atmosphere trembles under the constant peal of thunder, whose roars reverberate through the immense mountain”. The description is not quite a masterpiece, but it would be enough to make the more believing of Europeans shake in terror. And so it would be necessary to create a whole system of new words to fit the scale of our reality. There are unending examples of this. F. W. Up de Graff., a Dutch explorer who crossed the Upper Amazon at the turn of the century, said he came across a boiling stream of water where you could cook a hard boiled egg in five minutes, and that he passed through a region where one had to whisper lest torrential downpours be unleashed. Somewhere on the Caribbean coast of Colombia I saw a man recite a secret prayer for a cow with worms in her ears, and I watched the worms fall out one by one as the prayer was said. That same man assured us that he could preform the same cure from home, as long as you gave him the description of the animal and its location. On May 8th 1902, the volcano Mont Pele, on the island of Martinica destroyed, in the space of a few minutes, the port of Saint-Pierre killing and burying in lava all of its 30,000 inhabitants. Except one: Ludger Sylvaris, the only prisoner in the community, who was protected by the invulnerable structure of the private cell which they had constructed to prevent his escape.
To express the incredible reality of Mexico alone would require countless volumes. After nearly twenty years here, I could still spend hours, as I have many times, contemplating a pot of jumping beans. Well meaning nationalists have explained that this movement is due to a larva contained within the bean, but there is something lacking in that explanation: the marvelous thing is not that the beans move because they have a larva inside them, but that they have a larva inside them so they can move. Another strange experience in my life was the first time I saw an axolotl. Julio Cortázar tells in one of his short stories that he first met the axolotl in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, one day when he went to see the lions. “I looked obliquely at the dull fish until I suddenly came upon the axolotl.” and concluded: “I spent an hour looking at them and left, incapable of thinking of anything else”. The same thing happened to me, in Patzcuaro, except I didn’t contemplate him for an hour, but a whole afternoon, and returned many times. But there was something which made a greater impression on me than the animal himself, and it was the sign carved on the door of the building “axolotl syrup for sale”.
This incredible reality reaches from its densest point in the Caribbean which, in fact, extends northwards as far as the United States and southwards as far as Brazil. Don’t mistake this for an expansionist delusion. No, the fact is the Caribbean isn’t just a geographical region, as geographers of course think, but rather a homogeneous cultural region.
In the Caribbean the original elements of the early beliefs and magical conceptions from before European discovery merged with the huge variety of cultures which converged in the years that followed in a magical syncretism of inexhaustible artistic interest and inspiration. The African contribution was coerced and appalling, but fortunate. In this melting pot a sense of endless freedom was formed, a reality with neither God nor law, where every individual felt that anything was possible and there were no limits of any sort: overnight people went from bandits to kings, deserters to admirals, prostitutes to governors. And the other way too.
I was born and raised in the Caribbean. I discovered it country by country, island by island, and perhaps from there stems my frustration at never being able to think of anything or do anything more astonishing than reality. I have, at least, managed to transpose it through poetic means, but there’s not a single line in any of my books that doesn’t originate in some real life event. One such transposition is the curse of the pig’s tail in One Hundred Years of Solitude. I could have used any sort of image, but thought the horror of the birth of a child with a pig’s tale had the least chance of coinciding with reality. However, no sooner had the novel begun to gain popularity than confessions emerged from various parts of the Americas from men and women with something like a pig’s tail. In Barranquilla, a young man turned up in the papers; he’d been born and raised with that tail, but never told a soul before reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. His explanation was more astonishing than his tail. “I never wanted to say anything because I was ashamed of it” he said, “but now, after reading the novel and listening to people who’ve read it I realize that it’s something natural”. A little time later a reader sent me a clipping from a newspaper of a little girl in Seoul, the South Korean capital, who’d been born with a pig’s tail. Despite what I thought when I wrote the novel, the girl had her tail cut off and lived.
My most difficult experience, however, came with The Autumn of the Patriarch. For almost ten years I read everything I could about Latin American dictators, and especially those from the Caribbean, in order that the book I was thinking of writing would bear as little resemblance to reality as possible. I lost more hope with every step. The intuition of Juan Vicente Gómez was more penetrating than any genuine psychic power. Doctor Duvalier from Haiti had all the nation’s black dogs slaughtered, because one of his enemies, in an attempt to escape persecution from the tyrant, had broken free from the human condition and transformed himself into a black dog. Doctor Francia, whose prestige as a philosopher was so extensive that it was studied by Carlyle, sealed up the Republic of Paraguay as if it were a house and only left open a small whole for post to pass through. Antonio López de Santana buried his own leg with full military honors. The hand of Lope de Aguirre sailed down stream for several days and those who saw it pass shook in terror, thinking even in that state that murderous hand could brandish a dagger. Anastasio Somoza García, in Nicaragua had a zoo on the grounds of his house with cages of two compartments: on one side wild animals, and on the other, separated by just a wire mesh, his political enemies.
Martines, the theosophic dictator from El Salvador, had every public streetlight wrapped in red paper, to combat an outbreak of measles, and invented a pendulum which was held over food before eating to establish whether it was poisoned. The Morazán statue which still stands in Tegucigalpa is, in reality, of marshal Ney; the official commission which traveled to London to get it decided that it was cheaper to buy this old statue in a forgotten warehouse, than have an authentic Morazán made.
In short, the writers of Latin America and the Caribbean have to acknowledge, in all honesty, that reality is a better writer than any of us. Our destiny, maybe our glory, lies in imitating with humility, and as best we can.
Murió mientras yo estaba traduciendo esto. Descance en paz.