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‘A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes’ review: Gone on a Thursday as birds flew into walls to die

“Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers in order to recount it.” The epigraph of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale, was another indication that he worked with memory, his raw material for the books.

So, when his brother declared in 2012 that Gabo, the name given by family and friends, had been suffering from dementia for quite some time and that he had stopped writing altogether, it seemed like a cruel joke. Two years later, Marquez was gone, at 87. Now his son, Rodrigo Garcia, has penned a beautiful tribute to his parents, Gabo and Mercedes, where he recounts his father’s loss of memory, the bitter-sweet exchanges during moments of lucidity, the painful final days, and his mother’s innate resilience and courage.

‘I have killed the colonel’

Rodrigo, screenwriter and filmmaker, says he felt almost ashamed as he took notes but A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes is an invaluable addition to Marquez’s writing legacy. He recalls stories from the past — how one afternoon in 1966 in Mexico City, Marquez told Mercedes that he had killed the colonel [Aureliano Buendia in One Hundred Years of Solitude], and both “sat together in silence with the sad news.” His imagination was always “prodigiously fertile,” says his son: he had enough material for two more generations of the Buendia family and did not include it “for fear the novel would be too long and tiresome.” Marquez thought great discipline was one of the cornerstones of writing a novel.

Despite being a successful writer, he had a suspicion of literary achievements. Marquez often reminded his family (and himself) that neither Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, or Jorge Luis Borges ever won the Nobel Prize (unlike him), nor did three of his favourite writers: Virginia Woolf, Juan Rulfo and Graham Greene.

Up until late in his life he never reread his books, afraid that he would find them “embarrassingly wanting and that it would paralyse him creatively.” Eventually, says Rodrigo, Marquez read the books in his old age and once asked him, “Where on earth did all this come from?”

In periods of tranquility, Marquez appeared to understand what was going on. He would deadpan, “I’m losing my memory, but fortunately I forget that I’m losing it.” The family ensured he was surrounded by familiar faces, though he could not recognise his boys sometimes, and things he loved like yellow roses. The vallenatos would be played in his room, Marquez’s favourite musical form.

Ripping apart

Rodrigo and his brother Gonzalo lost their mother, Mercedes, last August, her lungs diminishing after 65 years of smoking. Most of Marquez’s drafts of work in progress were salvaged by Mercedes behind his back, because he was against preserving unfinished work. During their childhood, the two brothers would sometimes be called into their father’s study to help him rip up entire previous versions. Marquez’s secretary of many years offers a poignant anecdote: One afternoon she found him standing alone in the garden. “What are you doing out here, Don Gabriel?” she asked, to which he said, “Crying... But without tears. Don’t you realise that my head is now shit?”

Still, there is a touch of Marquezian magic realism the day he passes away. He is gone on a Thursday, the day a bird is found dead inside the house after hitting a glass wall. A friend mails his secretary wanting to know whether the family is aware that Ursula Iguaran, one of his most famous characters [in Solitude], also died on a Good Thursday, on a day which was “so hot that birds in their confusion were flying into walls... and breaking through screens to die in the bedrooms.”

A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes; Rodrigo Garcia, HarperCollins India, ₹499.

sudipta.datta@thehindu.co.in


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