For Gabriel García Márquez, who died on 17 April at his home in Mexico City at age 87, Latin America was the land where the bizarre, the illogical and the strange were able to explain reality. It was, for him, the land of "magic realism".
Reality was central to his fiction, which was magically nourished by his journalism. So while much has been written about his best known works of fiction, One Hundred Years Of Solitude, or Love In The Time Of Cholera, many have forgotten that García Márquez was first a journalist, “the best job in the world”, as he described it.
Gabo, as he was fondly known in Latin America, saw journalism as “an instrument to change reality”. He was foremost a journalist and he shouted it from the rooftops. “Above all things, I have always considered myself a journalist,” he wrote in a 1981 article published in El Pais.
Gabo embraced literature and journalism with conviction and was an early proponent of literary non-fiction. "What's been most appreciated about me is my imagination," he used to say. "In fact I'm a terrible realist. I don't invent anything, everything I write down is already there."
It was already there in the streets, in the alleys and the slums of the northern Colombian city of Barranquilla where he began his journalism career with a short stints at El Nacional and El Universal, followed in 1950 by a longer period at El Heraldo.
Enticed by Alvaro Mutís, a writer and PR man for the oil company Esso, García Márquez moved to Bogota in 1954 and joined El Espectador, a newspaper that offered him a steady salary and a column called “Día a Día” (“Day to Day”).
It was not the kind of writing he was pursuing, but it paid the rent and it was – as he acknowledged – a true writing school where he was forced to depersonalise his writing and adopt a neutral journalistic tone. The monotony and formulaic quality of the writing didn't bother him; he used it as a way to discover and polish his own style.
After enduring several months writing at “Día a Día”, El Espectador opened the door of the crónica to García Márquez – the reportage, literary journalism or however we might want to define it – a door he never closed during his career.
During the 1950s, the period that set the basis for the violence that has engulfed Colombia until today, his long form journalism achieved unprecedented popularity. The crónica, where the brutal and violent reality was told with the tools of fiction, was more effective than any other form of journalism. At El Espectador, García Márquez rose rapidly to become one of Colombia's leading journalists.
His reportage — such as Story of A Shipwrecked Sailor, his account of a man lost at sea; and News of a Kidnapping, a chronicle of Colombians held hostage by Pablo Escobar’s henchmen — became as popular as the fiction that won him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982.
Alongside Mexico’s Carlos Monsivais and Elena Poniatowska, Argentina’s Tomas Eloy Martínez and many others, García Márquez was a major influence on what is now the booming Latin American crónica, that journalistic genre that García Márquez defined as “la novela de la realidad” (the novel of reality).
“A piece of literary journalism is a story that is true,” he used to say, and he never relinquished the mélange of journalism and literature. “After 30 years finally I discovered something we — fiction writers — forget too often, that the best literary formula is to tell the truth.”
His journalistic reportage was deeply truthful, humanised and stylistically unambiguous. Reportage was to him the start of all journalism genres. “It requires more time, more research, more reflection and a sure domination of the art of writing,” he said. “ It is the painstaking reconstruction of the events, so the readers will be able to feel they were there when they happen.”
His love for journalism didn't deter him from expressing his bile when he saw bad journalism. In a 1996 speech to the Inter American Press Society he pointed his accusatory finger to the “frenzied utilisation of the quotation marks for false statements.” Perhaps this brings to mind the contemporary false statements still quoted even knowing they are false.
He warned us too about the newsroom culture — “aseptic laboratories,” as he called them — detached from the “heart of the readers.” The bad journalist was the one who thought that his or her source, especially the official source, was sacred and deserved to be protected and coddled, resulting in a dangerous relationship of complicity.
And he loathed tape recorders: “A diabolic invention … Journalists don’t pay attention to the answers, thinking the tape recorder hears everything — wrong — it doesn't hear the sound of the heart, the most valuable part of an interview.”
I write this tribute from the land of magic realism. Many of us journalists here in Latin America “blame” him for our chosen profession. And many of us thank him too. Personally I thank him for shaping my view of what journalism should be: that the best story is not always the first, but the one that is best reported to the public.
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