Laredo has seen plenty of famous travelers cross the International Bridge going to and from Mexico. Over the years of the 20th Century, Presidents and statesmen, criminals, and entertainers made brief stops in Laredo. Eisenhower, Timothy Leary, and Cantinflas have all appeared on the streets of the famous song’s title.
Internationally known writers have, too. The Beinecke Library at Yale has the postcard with a Hidalgo Street scene on its front that D. H. Lawrence mailed in 1923 with a Laredo postmark. Graham Greene came through town in 1938 and painted an ugly picture of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo in the first chapter of his travel narrative, The Lawless Roads. Malcolm Lowry had his own bad experiences on the border, and they are told in his unfinished hallucination, La Mordida. And Patricia Highsmith’s Laredo connection used to be only the typewriter she famously lost with her luggage on the train crossing the border —until she had a street named after her in a North Laredo subdivision.
New research by a German scholar in the University of Texas Humanities Research Center’s recently acquired archives of the Colombian novelist and 1982 Nobel Prize winner, Gabriel García Márquez, has added an intriguing new detail to the passage of literary figures through Laredo.
The German Doktor, Albern Scherz-Gelächter, Professor of Modern Latin American Literature at The Institute for Latin American Studies (LAI) of the Freie Universität in Berlin has just published an article in Romanisches Forschungen (Heft 130, 2018) pages 41-69 that sheds new light on the importance of García Márquez’ passage through Laredo in 1961.
To put Herr Professor Scherz-Gelächter’s discovery in context though, please bear with me as I provide a little background and context.
García Márquez’s trip through Laredo in May 1961 is well-known to academics. In accounting for his trajectory from newspaper hack and minor writer to world-wide recognition as one of the 20th Century’s greatest novelists, all his biographers, from Mario Vargas Llosa, Hector Javier Torres, Baldemar Huerta, to Ilán Stavans see Gabo’s trip from New York City through the American South, all the way to Laredo on Greyhound buses, traveling with his long-suffering wife Mercedes and their infant son Rodrigo as crucial to his early writing career.
It was a significant moment in García Márquez’ life, one that combined an artistic and personal crisis. The thirty-five-year-old aspiring novelist had published only an inconsequential collection of short stories and no visible means of support, having just lost his job writing for Fidel Castro’s Cuban news agency, Prensa Libre, in New York. Borrowing a hundred and fifty dollars from an old Colombian friend, Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, Gabito was taking his family back to Colombia as a literary failure to start over again from the very beginning.
It was a difficult journey, and not only because of the uncomfortable, rocking spaces for a family with small children on board the Greyhound buses. In the first place, there was the problem of food. Gabo and Mercedes had Colombian tastes, and the cardboard hamburgers, rubbery hot dogs, popcorn, and malted milkshakes were unpalatable. Pretty soon they were sharing the Gerber’s Baby Food with little Rodriguito.
The journey crossed the Jim Crow Atlantic seaboard states on the way south through Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia before heading west through Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana on their way to New Orleans, where there were another hundred dollars waiting for them at the Colombian Consulate. In several bus stations, they were shooed away from the “Whites Only” water fountains. One Atlanta a hotel refused to give them a room because the receptionist considered them Mexicans. In another Southern town, they were shocked by a prominent sign “No dogs or Mexicans.” Not that uncommon in the Jim Crow days of southern states in 1961.
But the real appeal of the trip for García Márquez — if not his family — was to see with his own eyes the heretofore only imagined landscape of the Faulkner novels he loved. It’s easy to imagine the quixotic imagination of the Latin American Faulkner admirer enchanted by the vision of a real-life Yoknapatawpha County passing by outside the Greyhound window, oblivious to the patiently endured discomfort of his wife and two-year-old son who didn’t happen to share his obsessions. Faulkner was García Márquez’ favorite novelist. More than once he said, “Fue cuando lo leí que entendí que debía escribir.” [It was when I read Faulkner that I knew I should write.] As they rocked along those humid Southern two-lane highways, García Márquez was re-reading his well-worn copy of El sonido y la furia, a translation published in Spain years earlier. It was a yellow paperback with a cover featuring the title and Faulkner’s name, along with the line “Premio Nobel de Literatura.”
On March 31st, the refugee family stumbled off the bus at the Greyhound Station on Convent in Laredo. Famished from avoiding the bus station food en route, they walked across the International Bridge and found the Restaurante Alicia just down from the Aduana on Avenida Guerrero. Imagine the bliss on their faces as they heard Spanish again and savored the smells of a delicious caldo de res in the spoons they raised to their lips. At 1961 prices there was enough to order a large side of arroz, too. Mercedes said, “Ya no me voy de un país que hace un arroz así.” (I’m not leaving a country that makes rice like this.)
Later the novelist referred to the food at Nuevo Laredo’s Restaurante Alica, when asked about why he hadn’t taken the family all the way back to Colombia, “Esto fue como el Paraíso y la comida caliente nos decidió quedarnos en México.” (This was like Paradise and the hot food decided it for us staying in Mexico.)
Two days later, after 2 days on the Águila Azteca overnight train, García Márquez and his family were in Mexico City, where they would remain until after their second son, Gonzalo, was born and Gabo completed his masterpiece, Cien años de soledad, six years later.
Now we can return to Doktor Scherz-Gelächter’s article and appreciate the importance of his discovery.
His new article “Aberglauben des Schriftstellers,” (”Superstitions of the Writer”) is based on a forgotten letter in the correspondence between García Márquez and Álvaro Mutis, a Colombian friend from the 1940’s. Mutis was exiled by the turmoil in Colombia and well established in Mexico City. He helped Gabo and Mercedes get established there when they got off the Águila Azteca destitute.
The letter in question, written by García Márquez September 6, 1988 years after the Nobel Prize and twenty years of fame, refers to the low point of that hot day in May in Laredo. Gabo writes to his old pal Mutis that, as he got off the Greyhound in Laredo after the emotionally exhausting journey through the South, he despaired of ever achieving anything literary.
García Márquez continues in the letter explaining how “después de la lectura, mejor dicho, de la re-lectura del Sonido y la furia, la enorme distancia entre la maestría de Faulkner y mi pequeño talento me abrumaba con un fatal pesismismo.” (after reading, actually, the re-reading of The Sound and the Fury, the vast distance between Faulkner’s mastery and my small talent oppressed me with a killing pessimism.)
Mercedes took little Rodrigo off to the Ladies’ Room to change his diapers while Gabo waited on one of the wooden benches.
And then the miracle happened.
Here’s what Scherz-Gelächter found in the next sentences:
“La verdad era que por fin me había dado cuenta de que tendría que abandonar la literatura para ganar el pan con la única carrera que conocía: el periodismo. Pero mientras iba pensando tan lúgubre idea una niña rubia de pelo rizado estilo Shirley Temple se acercó a mí con aquella mirada inocente de un oráculo. Me miró tranquilamente y parecía verme al alma. Después bajó los ojos al viejo ejemplar de El sonido y la furia, ¿te acuerdas? la traducción de Lavalle en Bruguera con la portada amarillenta que compramos juntos hace años in Bogotá. Leyó pausadamente la frase de la portada en mayúscula debajo del nombre del autor, William Faulkner. ‘P R E M I O N O B E L D E L I T E R A T U R A.’ Y se fue como si nada. Y yo atónito, casi de piedra como el Comendador don Gonzalo de Ulloa. No conseguí desterrar la idea de que había sido un agüero, un signo, de que mis ambiciones podían llegar algún día a realizarse. Nunca le dije nada de todo esto a Mercedes ni a nadie. Pero estoy convencido de que las palabras “Premio Nobel de Literatura” fueron una profecía. Y era algo que me ayudó mucho en los inevitables momentos de duda más tarde en el DeFe cuando no me faltaban tanto los pesos como inspiraciones. Todo lo que siguió tenía su arranque en aquella estación de Greyhound en mayo de 1961. Un milagro.”
(The fact is that I’d finally realized that I was going to have to give up literature to support us with the only job I knew: journalism. But as I was brooding on this depressing idea, a blond girl with Shirley Temple-style curly hair came up to me with the blank look of an oracle. She stared at me calmly, and it seemed as though she could see into my soul. Then she looked down at the old copy of The Sound and the Fury, remember?, the Bruguera translation by Lavalle with the yellowish cover that we bought together years ago back in Bogotá. She read slowly the line on the cover below the author’s name, William Faulkner. ‘N O B E L P R I Z E F O R L I T E R A T U R E.’ And she left as if nothing had happened. And there I was thunderstruck, as if I were made of stone like the Comendador Gonzalo de Ulloa [the statue of Don Giovanni and Don Juan Tenorio] I couldn’t get rid of the idea that it had been an omen, a sign that my ambitions might someday be achieved. I never said a word about all this to Mercedes or to anyone else. But I’m convinced that the words, “Nobel Prize for Literature” were prophetic. And it was something that helped me a lot during the inevitable moments of doubt later on in the D.F. [Mexico City] when I had as few pesos as inspirations. Everything that followed had its start-up in that Greyhound Bus Station in May of 1961. A miracle.)
Wow! I’ll skip García Márquez’ other superstitions discussed in typically exhaustive (and exhausting) style by Scherz-Geläuchter. The Laredo story was the important one for me.
On the same day in May 1961, completely oblivious to what happened downtown on Convent Avenue, I graduated from 6th grade at United Day School on Clark Street. Little League games on my team, the Yankees, were on my mind. Literature? Ha!
So who was that curly-haired young blonde angel who looked like Shirley Temple? The girl who sounded out the words on the cover of a book held in the hands of a discouraged-looking man with messy, curly, black hair and a big mustache. The one who spoke like an oracle to a superstitious aspiring author on his way through town.
Perhaps she is someone’s little sister.
Maybe she’s a sixty-three-year-old woman who remembers nothing of this event and is reading this very story.
The same fiction you are just finishing with a smile of belated recognition.
Happy April Fools’ Day, LareDOS readers.
NOTE: All the details about García Márquez’ trip through the south to Laredo in May 1961 are taken from actual biographical accounts. The quotes are real, too.
Of course, my friend Hector Torres and Baldemar Huerta, aka Freddy Fender, did not write biographies of García Márquez
The German scholar is a fabrication. His name means Dumb Joke-Laughter, and there is no article about G-M having a career-changing moment in Laredo. Romanisches Forschungen is an important German scholarly journal.
Plinio Apuleio Mendoza and Álvaro Mutis were real-life Colombian friends of García Márquez, and their correspondence is in the Humanities Resource Center’s archive.
The letter, of course, and all the quotes are all apochryphal. No such letter exists. Or, at least, I don’t think so.