The Visual Arts, the Poetization of Space and Writing:
An Interview with Gabriel Garcia Marquez

This interview is the result of two conversations with Nobel Laureate Gabriel
Garcia Marquez at his home in Mexico City in 1987. The first meeting, which
took place in May was an informal chat, during which Garcia Marquez showed
me several nineteenth-century drawings of Colombia by Charles Saffray and
Edouard Andre that he had used in writing some of his fiction. (I later found
a new edition of the same drawings in Colombia: Fabulous Colombia's
Geography, comp. and dir. Eduardo Acevedo Latorre, Bogot: Litografia Arco
1984.) Encouraged to pursue the dialogue, I returned to Mexico City in October
with my copy of Fabulous Colombia's Geography and a tape recode in hand.

Raymond Leslie Williams
University Of Colorado Boulder

WILLIAMS: The last time we talked, you showed me the drawings you've used
in some of your writing. I was impressed with the enormous importance the
visual arts apparently have had in your work. As I suppose you know critics
have tended to emphasize the literary texts or written documents in your
fiction, particularly since the term intertextuality has come into vogue. Do
you think we're missing something with our emphasis on textuality?
GARCIA MARQUEZ: I don't use written documents. I typically drive myself
crazy searching for a document and then end up throwing it mp Then I find
it again and it doesn't interest me anymore I need to have everything idealized.
Florentino Ariza's very concept of love is idealized in Love in the time of
Cholera. I have the impression that Florentino has a concept of love that is
totally ideal and that doesn't correspond to reality.

WILLIAMS: Would you say it is a concept of love taken from the literature
he has read?
GARCIA MARQUEZ: From reading the bad poets. It is a literary concept from
the bad poets. I think I've said somewhere that bad poetry is very important
because you can only get to good poetry by means of bad poetry What I mean
is that if you show some Valery or Rimbaud or some Whitman to a young
small-town boy who likes poetry, it doesn't say anything to him. So to get to
these poets, first you have to get through all the bad poetry of the popular
romantics, the ones Florentino has read, like Julio Florez [a Colombian poet
well known in his homeland (l867-l925)], the Spanish romantics, and so on.
I deliberately tried not to cite lot of them because they're not universally
known. Imagine the Japanese reading these books and me talking about
Julio Florez. Now I always think of my translators when I write

WILLIAMS: Since One Hundred Year of Solitude?
GARCIA MARQUEZ: NO, since The Autumn of the Patriarch. Since then I've
received lists of questions from the translators, and what's strange is that
in most of the books they're the same questions.

WILLIAMS: Let's return to the visual arts and the fabrication of the nineteenth
century in Love in the Time of Cholera.
GARCIA MARQUEZ: I was aided considerably by portraits, photographs, family
albums, those kinds of things.

WILLIAMS: Would you say that you have a visual memory? Do you remember
things based on what you see?
GARCIA MARQUEZ: I'm not sure if it's exactly a visual memory. At times it
seems like I'm always a little distracted, that I'm a bit off in the clouds. At
least that's what my friends, Mercedes [his wife], and my children say. I
give that impression, but then I discover a detail that reveals an entire
world to me. The detail could be something I see in a painting. Perhaps
the fighting cock in this drawing [fig. 1] could give me the solution for an
entire novel. It's just something that happens to me. I'm totally pas-sive
and it's like a flash.

WILLIAMS: Does this detail tend to be something that you see?
GARCIA MARQUEZ: It is always something that I see. It is always, always
an image, with no excep-tions. A politician came and talked to me over a
1ong weekend once in Cuernavaca. We spent the days talking and having
a good time. But when he left on Wednesday, I gave him a sixteen-page
syn-thesis of our conversation, and not one important matter was missing.
It's not an extraordinary thing but rather an idea 1've had for a long time.
That's why I never take notes. I don't forget things I'm in-terested in, and
I forget things right away that don't interest me. So I have a se1ective
memory, which is quite a comfortable thing. Now when I'm correct-ing a
book I make notes in the margins for correct-ing later on the computer.
The computer has been such an important thing for me. It's been one of the
world's great discoveries. If they had given me a computer twenty years ago,
l would have written twice as many books as l have. For example, I'm
writing a piece of theater right no' and every af ternoon I pull my work out
of the printer. I take the pages to bed, I read them, and I make corrections
and notes in the margin. Now I have the privilege of making changes in the
final page proofs. Before the writer did a last reading on the typewriter and
the reader did the first reading on the printed page. There was a big distance
between the two. Now I make the last correction on the printed page, as if
it were the book.

WILLIAMS: How has this "something that you see" surfaced in your novels?
GARCIA MARQUEZ: When I was writing The Au-tumn of the Patriarch there
was a point at which I was struggling a lot. I had a certain idea about the
palace, which eventually would appear at the begin- ning, but I just couldn't
get it right. Then I came across this picture [fig. 2] in a book, and the photo
solved my writing of the novel. It was the image that I needed.

WILLIAMS: It's the decaying palace and cows described, in the opening pages
of the novel.
GARCIA MARQUEZ: And at the beginning of every chapter.

WILLIAMS: Did you use drawings from nineteenth-century travel books in The
Autumn of the Patriarch and Love in the Time of Cholera?
GARCIA MARQUEZ: More for The Autumn of the Patriarch than for the other
books. I found the idea for some strange images from those drawings; For
example images of dead cocks hanging from times, strung up after being killed.

WILLIAMS: Could you explain more about what you did with drawings in The
Autumn of the Patriarch?
GARCIA MARQUEZ: I had the idea of creating a to-tal world in The Autumn of
the Patriarch. It was a world that hadn't been very well documented. One
would need to read a lot to find out something about the life about daily life
Then, by chance, I came across these drawings when I was already writing
the book. So it was similar to a Lottery, yet something like that always
happens to me. I don't know why but the truth is, once I begin to Work on
a subject, things related to it begin to fall into my hands. Maybe these
things were always there and l never noticed them before.

WILLIAMS: Did the drawings serve to describe everyday life better? Better
than texts could?
GARCIA MARQUEZ: Better than texts. Texts have a lot of paper. The drawings
are like notes for creat-ing the scenes.

WILLIAMS: Setting aside the visual arts for a while, let's talk about visual
images from your own life experiences. What about all those images of
the Mag-dalena River in Love in the Time Of Cholera? Were those images
from drawings?
GARCIA MARQUEZ: No, not all of them. I had im-portant experiences on
that river in different periods of my life, and each experience projected
different images that I remembered later' I traveled on the Magdalena
River for the first time when I was eight or nine years old. I left Aracataca
for the first time when my grandfather died and I went to the town of
Magangue. I made the boat trip to Magangue with my father because he was
born in. Since, a town in the department of Bolivar, and we went to visit his
mother. I believe it was in l936. When I made the trip that time the boat
only went between Barranquilla and Magangue, in over twenty-four hours.

WILLIAMS: It went quickly then.
GARCIA MARQUEZ: No, not really It was a long trip. The boat was wood-fueled,
as in the novel. They had to carry the wood aboard. That was when they
began cutting all the trees down. Unlike today in those days you could still
see alligators in the river, and that was the big entertainment, seeing the
a1ligators at the edge of the river with their mouths open to catch butterflies,
or whatever [fig. 3]. And there were manatees everywhere too. What really
impressed me was the way the manatees nursed their young. Those manatees
are in The Autumn Of the Patriarch and Love in the Time of Cholera.

WILLIAMS: Do you recall any other particularly memorable images from this trip?
GARCIA MARQUEZ: What impressed me the most were the alligators, the manatees,
and the animals strung up, hanging, as in these drawings [fig. 4].

WILLIAMS: Do you remember much from the other river trips?
GARCIA MARQUEZ: I took at least five or six trips down the river from Bogota to
the Caribbean coast while I was in high school in Zipaquira. when I went again,
in l943, the river had changed. The boats no longer ran on wood, they ran on oil.
The river itself wasn't the same as I had seen it before.

WILLIAMS: The novel with the river, of course, is Love in the Time Of Cholera.
What did you do with the river there?
GARCIA MARQUEZ: In Love in the Time Of Cholera I created two trips on the river.
The first trip is when Florentino Ariza leaves Villa de Leyva as a te-legrapher. I
invented this trip for a technical reason, to avoid describing the river during the
second trip, because that would have been too weighty and would have
distracted a lot. Consequently, I decided to show the river first through the
character him-self, the idea being that the second time around the river would
already be described. I didn't have to distract the reader with too many
descriptions of the river.

WILLIAMS: Ail in all, what do you think about the relation of the real river you
saw to the one from the Nineteenth-century drawings, as far as your fiction
is concerned?
GARCIA MARQUEZ: I was well acquainted with the river back in those days.
On the other hand, the drawings helped me realize how for better or for
worse, artists idealized everything in the nineteenth century In the drawings
you find some fantastic birds that don't exist, for example Or these women,
who are idealized [fig. 5]. You see some beautiful women in these drawings,
which is the way the Eu-ropeans of the period imagined them. Indeed, they
are magnificent drawings.

WILLIAMS: Many items from the daily life of the period appear in Love in
the Time of Cholera, besides the idealizations found in the drawings. These
items seem to ref1ect a thorough understanding of what was in fashion at
the time.
GARCIA MARQUEZ: I did study those things of daily life in the nineteenth
century a 1ot. But you have to be careful not to fall into my trap, because
I am also quite disrespectful of rea1 time and space.

WILLIAMS: Are you referring to the anachro-nisms?
GARCIA MARQUEZ: Yes, because I don't write with historical rigor. Someone
could figure out, for examp1e, that Victor Hugo and Oscar Wilde couldn't
have been in Paris at the same time. It'5 not that these are anachronisms
or accidents but that I had no desire to change a detail I liked just to make the
chronology function properly This novel isn't a historical reconstruction.
Rather, it contains historical elements used poetically All writers do this.

WILLIAMS: The physical space in Love In the Time Of Cholera seems to
correspond largely to Cartagena, Colombia, but suddenly the Cafe de la Par-
roquia of Veracruz, Mexico, appears. I guess we need to talk about a
poetization of space too.
GARCIA MARQUEZ: Right. The Cafe de la Parroquia could be in Cartagena
perfectly well. The fact that it isn't is purely incidental, because al1 the con-
ditions exist in Cartagena for it to be there. As a matter of fact, the very
same Cafe de la Parroquia of Veracruz would be in Cartagena if the Spaniard
who built it had immigrated to Cartagena instead of to Veracruz. It's just a
matter of chance, the way it is was for my wife's grandfather, who was an
Egyptian who left for New York and ended up in Magangue. Well, that was
quite a case of the poetization of space--a bit of an exaggerated one. Car-
tagena still needs a cafe 1ike the Cafe de la Parroquia in Veracruz, so I
took the one from Veracruz, which I needed in Cartagena for my novel.
When I'm in Cartagena I sometimes suddenly feel the desire to go to a
place like the Cafe de la Parroquia in Veracruz. I have to go to the bars in hotels
and places like that, and I feel something is missing. How marvelous to
have the freedom to be a writer who says, "Well, I'm going to put the Cafe
de la Parroquia where I want it to be" Every day I'm writing I say to myself
how marvelous it is to invent life, which is what you do, although within the
bounds of some very strict laws because characters don't die when you want
them to, nor are they born when you want. One of the most emotional ex-
periences I have had as a writer relates to all this. It happened in Love in
the Time Of Cholera, with the family of Fermina Daza, when she is a child. I
was creating all her life inside the house where she lives with her father
and her spinster aunt, and the house is a copy of the one that is now the Oveja
Negra bookstore in the Plaza Fernandez Madrid in Cartagena. I was working
on the first draft. I had the girl, her father, her aunt, and her mother, but
the mother alwnys seemed extra. I just didn't know what to do with the mother.
When they were at the dinner table, I could see the father's face perfectly,
and I could see the faces of the girl and the aunt perfectly, but the mother's
face was always blurred. I imagined her one way and then another way I made
her like, so-and-so, I but she remained a constant problem and I didn't know
what to do. She was ruining my novel. The aunt took the girl to school.
The father wasn't ever home. The maid took care of the house. But what was
the mother supposed to do? She didn't have anything to do. And then sud-
denly one day thinking that I was stuck on a deadend road, I realized that
what had happened was that the mother had died when the girl was born.
And this was the reason the aunt was there because the father had brought
her to the household to raise the child when the mother died. And this was the
reason too that the maid took care of absolutely everything in the house.
And also why the mother had nothing to do in the house. It was a precious ex
perience for me, and it explains how the character of the mother began to live
the very moment I discovered that she had died. So she is always a pres-
ence in the house and the characters speak of her as someone who has died,
who has left her mark on her daughter. This a1so explains why the father is
so lone1y and has the type of personality he has. I solved everything once
I said, "I'm mistaken. I'm trying to resuscitate a dead person. This woman
'died." That kind of thing happens in all my books. In some situations you
don't have ally more resources than your own interior world.

WILLIAMS: How would you characterize your relationship with the exterior
world, with the city of Cartagena when you were writing Love in the Time
of Cholera in l984?
GARCIA MARQUEZ: It was a very amusing relationship. TO begin with, that
period in Cartagena was the best year of my life, the most mature.

WILLIAMS: Mature in what sense?
GARCIA MARQUEZ: In the sense of feeling an absolute emotional stability
For many years I had only had a vague idea of how l liked to live, but that
year I Learned how to live, how I wanted to live and how I have liked to
live. When I was living in Cartagena during that time I wrote in the morning, and
in the afternoon Iwould go out conscientiously looking for places because
I had two cities: the one of reality and the other one of the novel. The latter
can't possibly be like reality because a novelist can't Literally copy a city
Have you ever noticed what Flaubert did with the distances between places in
Paris? You find that the French writers have their characters take walks that
are impossible. It's a poetization of space. Of course, one can sometimes
eliminate a totally useless trip, and I did the same thing with Cartagena.
Not only that, but when I needed something from another city, I took it to

WILLIAMS: And you took things from several Caribbean cities, right?
GARCIA MARQUEZ: Yes, I took a lot from the Caribbean. There are details
from Santo Domingo and Havana, among other cities. That was easy be-
cause the cities of the Caribbean have so much in common. AS for Veracruz,
Love in the Time of Cholera could take place there perfectly. The only
significant difference is that Cartagena has an aristocracy that Veracruz
hasn't had since the Mexican Revolution. Never before had I had what I was
writing at hand and been able to go out as if with a sack and put in that
sack whatever I waned.

WILLIAMS: And then you could come back to the apartment refreshed.
GARCIA MARQUEZ: NO, weighted down like a sack. And at the same time
it was very comfortable because I was living in a calm city set apart from
the Caribbean, but with the entire world at an arm's reach. Almost two
or three times a week we had friends visiting from all over the world. And ally
time I felt like it I could go to the airport and take off to Europe or New York
or wherever. It's a very comfortable city for that. If I was waiting for some-
one arriving on the four o'clock plane, I would go out on the terrace to read,
and when I saw the four o'clock plane arriving, I would run to the car and
arrive at the airport just as my visitor was coming out of it. Fantastic right?
After traveling around the world one realizes how easy it is to live there. And
then later the situation in the country changes and one is screwed. It seems
to me a great in justice.

WILLAMS: Sometimes when I look at Cartagena from above from the fortress
of San Felipe, it seems like a little fiction.
GARCIA MARQUEZ: Well, it's not possible to define Cartagena. And the
historians have invented another Cartagena, which has nothing to do with
the real one.

WILLIAMS: And what the historians have to say wasn't of ally importance
to you in this book?
GARCIA MARQUEZ: No. In a nutshell, that was my Cartagena experience. In
addition, my geographic and emotional referents in The Autumn of the
Patriarch were Cartagena too.

WILLIAMS: Really? I hadn't ever thought of Cartagena.
GARCIA MARQUEZ: What happened was that I took away the wails because
with them the identity of the city would hot been too definite.

WILLIAMS: Cartagena and Veracruz were cities not only surrounded by walls
but built by the same Spaniards during the colonial period.
GARCIA MARQUEZ: Yes, but in Love in the Time of Cholera I used a trick
when they go up in a balloon and pass over the ruins of Cartagena. Do you
remember that? They see the old city of Cartagena abandoned. As an almost
poetic image, it's beautiful, and the use of this image gives an idea of how
things can be handled in literature

WILLIAMS: Once again, the poetization of space.
GARCIA MARQUEZ: Exactly, and just when I have them convinced that this
is Cartagena, then I take them through an abandoned Cartagena. It's a dou-
bling of the city Let's say it's the same city in two distinct periods, two
different temporal spaces.

WILLIAMS: We've spent most of our time talking about visual arts, your
poetisation of space and the like Before leaving behind Love in the Time of
Cholera, one last question. Why a nineteenth-century love story?
GARCIA MARQUEZ: In reality, it's my parents' love story I heard my father
and my mother both talk about these love stories. That's why the story is set
during the period of their youth, although I put much of the story back even
further in time My father was a telegrapher who also placed the violin
and wrote love poems. In Love in the Time of Cholera I was concerned with
the period when the novel ended. Consequently, I made an effort to go far
enough back in time that the couple would be eighty y6ars old when the
novel ends. If I put them at the end of the nineteenth century, it wasn't be-
cause I wanted to but rather so that they could finish with the trip on the
Magdalena River. It had to be a period in which the airplane couldn't be a

WILLIAMS: Setting aside the novels momentarily, I have a more general
question. I remember read-ing about a GARCIA MARQUEZ who always
seemed very doubtful about literary critics and academic scholars. Has your
age or have other factors changed your attitude at all? Are you more in-
terested in what the critics have to say?
GARCIA MARQUEZ: There's an important change, and that's that I don't read
them at all now

WILLIAMS: Not at all?
GARCIA MARQUEZ: No. I don't read them, because I find them very distant.
There's no doubt that the author's vision of his or her books is very
different from the vision of the critic or of the reader. Besides, critics
cause a lot of doubts. On the other hand, I've had the good luck of having
readers who give me great security. For example, books as different as
Chronicle of a Death fortold and Love in the Time of Cholera have given me
security. Readers don't tell you why they liked the books, nor do they know why
but you feel that they really like them. Of course there are also people who say
they don't like the books, but in general my readers seem to be swept away And
my books are sold in enormous quantities, which interests me because that
means that they are ed by a broad public They are read by elevator operators,
nurses, doctors, presidents. This gives me a tremendous security, while
the critics always leave writers with a spark of insecurity. Even the most serious
and ptalsefu1 critics can go off on a track you hadn't suspected, leaving
you wondering if perhaps you made a mistake. Besides, I understand the
critics very little I'm not exactly sure what they are saying or what they think.
The truth is that what really interests me is telling a story Everything comes
from inside or is in my subconscious or is the natural result of an ideolog-
ical position or comes from raw experience that I haven't analyzed, which
I try to use in all innocence I think I'm quite innocent in writing. If someone
studied my books seriously from a political point of view, it wouldn't surprise
me at all if it were discovered that they are completely different from
what I say about politics.

WILLIAMS: Let's finish with a political question of interest to many readers
of PMLA. I know that at different times the Modern Language Association
and other professional organizations in the United States have questioned
the State Department's handling of your status as a foreign visitor In addition,
many US academics would like to see you at conferences and symposia.
The details of your status are not clear for many of us. What exactly has been
your position concerning our State Department?
GARCIA MARQUEZ: That's an interesting question because the problem with
my entrances and exits and the problem of my illegitimacy in the US are
more the US government's problems than they are mine. I'll explain why.
The reason I'm not totally legal in the United States is because of the McCarran-
Walter Act, which prohibits or limits entrance into the United States for some
individuals because of their ideas. That's the serious part. The law is in
total contradiction to the Constitution and supposed political philosophy of
the United States. Of course, I'm not a terrorist. I'm not even a political
activist. I do have political ideas, which I express, although much less than
some claim.

WILLIAMS: Well, you and I usually talk about literature.
GARCIA MARQUEZ: I'm very consistent about what I do. Except for having
political ideas, I can't be accused of an act that violates the McCarran-
Walter Act. The State Department knows that perfectly well and always
has. Consequently, I really can enter and leave the US whenever I want, and
I've been there from time to time. I was a US resident when I was a
correspondent with Prensa Latina in the early l960s. I returned to Mexico when
a group of militant Communists who took over the agency decided I wasn't
trustworthy Just look at all the contradictions in this. Then thcy cal1ed me to
the US embassy here in Mexico one day and told me to turn in my card and
that they would return it to me when I wanted it. Innocently, I turned it in. It
would have been far more difficult for them to have taken it from me. They
probably could only have done so with a legal battle Then a year or two later
I went to a US consulate to get travel papers, and they told me I didn't qualify.
I didn't try again until l97l, when they gave me an honorary doctorate
at Columbia University I discovered I could gain entrance into the US anytime
I wanted, but always as an exception, which made me realize that I was
solving their prob1em. That is, I was solving the problem of the McCarran-
Walter Act for them. As an exception, I always had a litt1e code at the bot-
tom of my visa. Besides that, I'm in a "black book," which must now be a
"black computer" Since there are so many people who would 1ike to go to the US
and can't because of this law it isn't appropriate that I accept the exception
they make for me each time. So I don't accept this visa.

WILLIAMS: And you don't go to any conferences or symposia in the US?
GARCIA MARQUEZ: Well, I don't go to any symposia, because I don't like those
meetings and I attempt to avoid all of them. Besides, in the US, I
maintain this position on the unacceptable visa. I could have gone to any
of the conferences that I've chosen not to attend' They would have given
me the visa, but always with the little code on the bottom. It takes a month
for me to get the visa, but they always give it to me. There is another matter
that is absurdly contradictory. In what other country are my books studied
more seriously? I've always said that if they're going to prohibit my entrance
they ought to prohibit my books, too. My books are everywhere. I'm totally
inoffensive. What's offensive are my books, since they have my ideas and they
are everywhere That's the reason I say the problem is more the State
Department's than mine.


l The dates of the meetings were l2 May l987 and 2l October
l987. These two conversations were the fifth and sixth private
talks I have had with GARCIA MARQUEZ since meeting him in
Bogota in l975; the October conversation reproduced here
represents my first published interview with him. The publica-
tion dates of the Spanish originals of the novels we discussed are
as fOl1ows: One Hundred year of Solitude, 1967; The Autumn
of the Patriarch, I975; and Love in the Time of Cholera, l98l.
I would like to express my gratitude to John Kronik for his en-
couragemcnt and editorial suggestions and to German Vargas
of Barranquilla. Colombia, for his helpful efforts on the years
to bring me together with his friend in GARCIA MARQUEZ.

2 The Period GARCIA MARQUEZ spent in Cartagena writing
for in the Time of Cholera was in the spring and summer of
l984. Since then Political and drug-related violence has escalated
enormously. GARCIA MARQUEZ currently live in Mexico City and
he mentioned to me in one of the l987 interviews that he had
not recently returned to Colombia, because no one not, even
President Virgllio Barco could give him assurances of his per-
sonal safety. The most immediate danger for him would prob-
ably be one of the numerous right-wing death squads that have
been increasingly active since l986. He returned to Colombia af
ter receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in l982 and regularly
during the presidency of Belisario Betancur (l982-86).

3 The severity of the McCarran-Walter Act has been modified
since this conversation. In December l987 Congress set tem-
porary limits on the government's right to deny visas for reasons
Of national security. A State Department authorization bill
provided that no alien could be denied a visa "because of any
past, current or expected beliefs which, if engaged in by a United
States citizen, would be protected under the Constitution of the
United States" (Washington Post 11 May l988). This part of the
interview has been included, nevertheless, in order to clarify
GARCIA MARQUEZ's position on the State Department and the US in
recent years.