“You wake up one day, and you’re old. Just like that, with no warning. It is overwhelming.”
Gabriel García Márquez.
“We won’t make it out of this one,” Mercedes predicted to her son Rodrigo. “He doesn’t eat and doesn’t want to get out of bed. He’s not the same.” Author Gabriel García Márquez had been in bed for two days with what would be diagnosed later as pneumonia. It was the prelude to his death.
When we thought that there was nothing new to read or learn about the Nobel literature prize winner – who died in Mexico in 2014 at the age of 87 – I suddenly received an extraordinary book by filmmaker Rodrigo García, one of the two sons of the Colombian writer. “Gabo y Mercedes: Una Despedida” – Gabo and Mercedes, a Goodbye – is beautiful and harsh at the same time, full of love and anecdotes that can only be told by someone who was very close.
Rodrigo takes notes as his father dies. He writes with honesty and overwhelming pain. And even with some unease.
“I am terrified of the idea of taking notes, I am ashamed as I write them, I am disappointed when I review them,” Rodrigo writes. “What makes this theme so emotionally turbulent is the fact that my father is a famous person. More than the need to write, I may face the temptation to promote my own fame in a time of vulgarity.” But in the end, he gives in. “The theme picks you.”
One of the most painful parts of the book describes the writer as he loses his memory. His dementia makes his stop writing and recognizing his sons – “Who are those people in the next room?” – and even his wife Mercedes. “Why is that woman here, giving orders and running the house, when she’s no relation?”
The slow loss of memory must have been especially cruel for someone who insisted that everything he wrote was based in reality. “The first requirement of magical realism, as its name indicates, is that it is a rigorously true event that nevertheless seems to be a fantasy,” he once said.
The moment of the writer’s death is told by Rodrigo, a screenwriter and movie director, with devastating precision and without drama. It is what it is. He describes how it happens and gives us the sense of being there, with him, next to the bed where García Márquez lied. The cremation scene is especially powerful. “The image of my father’s body entering the cremation oven is hallucinatory and anesthetizing,” Rodrigo wrote. “It remains the most undecipherable image of my life.”
I met García Márquez and his wife Mercedes only once. It was 2004, at a journalism conference in Los Cabos, Mexico. I spotted them having breakfast at the hotel where the event was held and introduced myself. He told me, “Come, sit here, so maybe they will stop bothering.” He was referring to all the people who, like me, stopped by to say hello to the great writer.
I suspected Mercedes did not really want me to sit with them. But I withstood her disapproving gaze and we spent more than an hour chatting; a little about journalism, some about literature and even about Fidel Castro. “The ones who talk politics are Mercedes and Fidel,” García Márquez said. Uninterested with the turn the chat had taken, he said nothing more. But those moments, for me, were absolutely magical realism. Never in my life would I have imagined having breakfast with the creator of Macondo. After the coffee, I walked with them to the conference room and lost them forever.
Rodrigo and brother Gonzalo also lost their mother in August 2020. Rodrigo describes what so many around the world have suffered because of the pandemic: how to say goodbye to the person you most love, on the phone. He was in Los Angeles and she was in Mexico City. “Since the pandemic did not allow me to travel, I last saw her alive on the cracked screen of my cell phone, and later, five minutes later, when she was gone forever,” he wrote. “Two short videos … separated by an eternity.”
Despite its harsh theme – death – and its hyperrealistic way of approaching it, I had not read a book so physically beautiful and enjoyable in a long time. Its beige pages are thick; more than touching them, you want to caress them and never again read anything on a cell phone or a computer. I suspect the exquisite Colombian edition, with several intimate photos, is a big gift from Penguin Random House to the writer’s family and readers.
This book, as a good editor friend told me, is “courageous.” But it could have gone unpublished. Rodrigo had doubts about making public something so private. In the end, he published it, remembering what his father always said. “When I am dead, do whatever you want.”
As Rodrigo wrote, it is about “one of the most blessed and privileged lives ever lived by a Latin American.” That’s why we miss him so much and why this book, which records some previously unknown events in his life, is so special. It is, without a doubt, the most human portrait of Gabo I ever read. It’s like having him by my side and listening to him again.