Vivir Para ContarlaBy Gabriel Garcia Marquez
SudamericanaCopyright © 2002 Gabriel Garcia Marquez
All right reserved.
Please note: This translation appeared originally in The New Yorker in February 2002. Below, you will find the Spanish excerpt from the version that is in stores now. --Este texto se refiere a la edición kindle_edition .
Serenade by Gabriel García Márquez
My mother became a woman in a godforsaken hellhole. She had spent an uncertain childhood plagued by malarial fevers, but, once cured, she was cured completely and forever, and with her health as strong as reinforced concrete she was able to celebrate her ninety-fifth birthday with eleven of her own children, and four of her husband’s, and sixty-six grandchildren, seventy-three great-grandchildren, and five great-great-grandchildren. Not counting the ones nobody ever knew about.
Her name was Luisa Santiaga, and she was the third daughter of Colonel Nicolás Márquez Mejía and his wife (and first cousin) Tranquilina Iguarán Cotes, whom we called Mina. Luisa Santiaga was born in Barrancas, in Colombia, on the banks of the Ranchería River, on July 25, 1905, when the family was recovering from the disaster of the civil wars, and two years after the Colonel, her father, had killed Medardo Pacheco in a duel over a point of honor. Luisa, her first name, was in memory of her paternal grandmother, Luisa Mejía Vidal, who had died the month before her birth. Santiaga, her second name, was in honor of the apostle Santiago el Mayor, St. James the Greater, who was decapitated in Jerusalem. She kept the second name a secret, because it seemed masculine and ostentatious, until a faithless son revealed it in a novel.
Luisa Santiaga had the education typical of a well-bred Catholic girl, brought up by a family of happy sinners. Educated at the Colegio de la Presentación, in Santa Marta, she was a diligent student in all areas, except the music lessons imposed on her by a mother who couldn’t conceive of a respectable señorita who was not an accomplished pianist. For three years, an obedient Luisa Santiaga attended her lessons, and then one day, overcome by the tedium of practicing every afternoon in the sultry heat of siesta time, she abandoned them. Nevertheless, the only virtue that would be of any use to her, in all of her twenty years, was the strength of her character when her family discovered she was madly in love with a young, proud telegraph operator from Aracataca. Her family had moved to Aracataca after the killing of Medardo Pacheco.
The history of their forbidden love was one of the wonders of my youth. Having heard that history told so many times by my parents—sometimes by both of them together, sometimes by each one alone—it was almost intact in my mind when, at the age of twenty-three, I wrote my first novel, "Leaf Storm," though I knew I still had much to learn about the art of writing novels. They were both excellent storytellers, happy in their recollections of their love, but they were also so impassioned in their accounts that when I was past fifty and had decided at last to use their story in "Love in the Time of Cholera," I couldn’t distinguish between life and poetry.
According to my mother’s version, the two of them met at a wake for a child. She was singing in the courtyard with her friends, following the popular custom of singing love songs to pass the time through the nine nights of mourning for innocents. Out of nowhere, a man’s voice joined the choir. All the girls turned to look at the man who was singing and were stunned by his good looks. "He is the one we’re going to marry," they chanted, and clapped their hands in unison. He did not, however, impress my mother. "He was," she said, "just another stranger." And he was. His name was Gabriel Eligio García, and after having abandoned his medical and pharmaceutical studies in Cartagena de Indias, owing to a lack of funds, he’d found work in some of the nearby towns in the more mundane profession of telegraph operator. A photograph from that time shows him distinguished by the equivocal bearing of impoverished gentility. He wore a suit of dark taffeta, with a four-button jacket, very close-fitting, in the style of the day, and a high, stiff collar, wide tie, and flat-brimmed straw hat. He also wore fashionable round spectacles with thin wire frames. He had a reputation as a hard-living, womanizing bohemian, but he never had a cigarette or a glass of alcohol in his long life.
Although it was the first time my mother saw him, he had seen her the previous Sunday at eight o’clock Mass, guarded by her Aunt Francisca Simodosea Mejía. He had seen them again the following Tuesday, sewing beneath the almond trees near the front door to the family house. By the night of the wake, he had learned she was the daughter of Colonel Nicolás Márquez, to whom he was already bearing letters of introduction. After that night, she learned he was a bachelor, with a facility for falling in love, whose immediate local success arose from an inexhaustible gift for conversation, an ease in writing verse, a grace on the dance floor, and a predisposition for playing the violin with a sentimental flair. My mother told me that when you heard his playing in the small hours of the morning you felt an irresistible urge to weep. His calling card was "After the Ball," a waltz of consummate romanticism that was an invariable feature of his serenades. These heartwarming talents, and his powerful charm, opened the doors of the Colonel’s house and earned Gabriel Eligio a regular place at family lunches. Aunt Francisca adopted him without reservation when she learned that he had been born in Sincé, a town near her birthplace. At these gatherings, he entertained my mother with his proficiency in the arts of seduction, but it never occurred to her that such displays had any significance. On the contrary, their friendly relations were understood to be a pretense, meant to hide the secret love between him and a classmate of hers, and my mother even agreed to act as a godparent at their future wedding. (He took to calling her "godmother" and she called him "godson.") It is easy, then, to imagine the extent of Luisa Santiaga’s surprise when, one night at a dance, the bold telegraph operator took the flower from his buttonhole and handed it to her, saying, "I give you my life in this rose."
There was, he told me many times, nothing spontaneous about the gesture; by then, after meeting many girls, he’d reached the conclusion that Luisa Santiaga was the one for him. She interpreted the rose as nothing more than one of the playful gallantries he used with her friends. In fact, at the end of the dance that evening she left the flower behind. And yet, while she’d had one secret suitor, a good friend and luckless poet whose ardent verses never succeeded in touching her heart, this rose disturbed her sleep and filled her with an inexplicable fury. In our first formal conversation about their love, when she already had a good number of children, she confessed, "I couldn’t sleep because I was angry thinking about him, but the fact that I was thinking about him made me even angrier, and the angrier I became the more I thought about him." For the rest of the week it was all she could do to endure the terror that she might see him and the torment that she might not. One afternoon, Aunt Francisca teased her with mischievous guile, as the two of them were sewing beneath the almond trees. "They say somebody gave you a rose."
Luisa Santiaga was the last to know that the torments of her heart were already common knowledge.
In the numerous conversations I had with her and my father, together and separately, they agreed that their fulminating love had three decisive moments. The first was on a Palm Sunday during High Mass. Luisa Santiaga was sitting with Aunt Francisca on a bench on the side of the Epistolary, when she recognized the sound of my father’s flamenco heels clicking on the tiles of the floor, and he then passed so close to her that she felt the warm gust of a sentimental cologne. Aunt Francisca appeared not to have seen him, and he appeared not to have seen them. But the truth was that it had been premeditated, and he had been following them since they walked past the telegraph office. He stood beside the column closest to the door, so that he could see Luisa Santiaga from the back but she couldn’t see him. After a few intense minutes, she could not bear the suspense and looked over her shoulder. Then she thought she would die of rage: there he was, looking at her, and their eyes met. "It was exactly what I had planned," my father would say with pleasure when he repeated the story to me in his old age. My mother, on the other hand, never tired of saying that for three days she could not control her fury at falling into the trap.
The second moment was a letter he wrote to her. It was not the kind of letter she might have expected from a poet who played furtive serenades on his violin at dawn, but an imperious note demanding a reply before he travelled to Santa Marta the following week. She didn’t answer it. She locked herself in her room, determined to kill this worm of love that was not leaving her enough air to breathe, until Aunt Francisca tried to convince her to give in before it was too late. Aunt Francisca told her the exemplary tale of Juventino Trillo, a suitor who stood guard every night, from seven o’clock until ten, under the balcony of his beloved, while every night she appeared above, hurling at him every insult she could think of, including a chamberpot of urine, which, night after night, she emptied upon his head; Juventino would not be driven away, and after countless baptismal assaults she was moved by his self-sacrifice and invincible love and married him. The story of my parents did not reach those extremes.
The third moment was a grand wedding to which the two of them had been invited as patrons of honor. Luisa Santiaga could make no excuses—the event was too important to her family. Gabriel Eligio had understood this and attended the celebration in the belief that anything could happen. When Luisa Santiaga saw him crossing the room with the obvious intention of asking her to dance the first dance, she could not control her heart. "It was pounding so hard in my body that I couldn’t tell if it was from anger or fear," she told me. He realized this and delivered a heavy-handed blow: "You don’t have to say yes, because your heart is saying it for you." Without a word, she turned and left him standing in the middle of the dance floor. My father understood this in his own way. "It made me happy," he told me. When Luisa Santiaga was wakened before dawn by the strains of "After the Ball," Gabriel Eligio’s poisonous flattering waltz, she could not contain her rage. The first thing she did that morning was return all his gifts. This rejection, and the talk of her walking away from him at the wedding, was like so many feathers tossed into the air and lost forever; people assumed they had witnessed the inglorious end of a summer storm. The impression was strengthened when Luisa Santiaga suffered a recurrence of the malarial fevers of her childhood, and her mother took her away to recuperate in Manaure, an Edenic spot on the other side of the Sierra Nevada.
My mother and father both denied having any communication during those months, but this didn’t seem credible, for when my mother returned, recovered from her ailments, she and my father also seemed to have recovered from their earlier apprehensions. My father said he went to meet her at the station because he had read the telegram in which Mina announced their return, and when Luisa Santiaga greeted him, by pressing his hand, he understood it to be something like a Masonic sign of love. She always denied this with the same blushing modesty she brought to her evocations of those years. But the truth is that from then on they were less reserved when seen together. All that was missing was an ending, which Aunt Francisca provided the following week, while sewing among the begonia bushes: "Your mother knows everything!"
Luisa Santiaga always said it was her family’s opposition that made her leap across the dikes of the torrent that had run, in secret, through her heart since the night she left her suitor standing in the middle of the dance floor. It was a bitterly fought war. The Colonel tried to appear neutral, but he wasn’t, as his wife, Mina, well knew. Everyone else thought that the opposition came from her, not him, when in reality it was inscribed in the tribal code that considers every suitor an interloper. This atavistic prejudice, whose embers still linger, has turned us into a vast family of men with their flies open and unmarried women with numerous children in the street.
Their friends were divided, for or against the lovers, according to age, and those who didn’t have a settled position had one imposed by events. The young people became their enthusiastic accomplices—his above all, for he relished the position of being a sacrificial victim of social prejudices. Most of the adults, however, viewed Luisa Santiaga as the precious jewel of a rich and powerful family who was being courted by a parvenu telegraph operator, not for love but out of self-interest. And she, who had been obedient and submissive, confronted her opponents with the ferocity of a lioness who has just given birth. In the most corrosive of their many domestic disputes, Mina lost her temper and threatened her daughter with the bread knife. An impassive Luisa Santiaga stood her ground. Suddenly aware of the criminal implications of her wrath, Mina dropped the knife and screamed in horror, "Oh, my God!" And placed her hand on the hot coals of the stove in brutal repentance.
Among the powerful arguments against Gabriel Eligio was his status as the love child of an unmarried woman, who had given birth to him at the tender age of fourteen, after a casual misstep with a schoolteacher. Her name was Argemira García Paternina; she was a slender white girl with a joyous nature and a free spirit, who went on to have six more children, by three different fathers. She lived without a steady man in the town of Sincé, where she had been born, and used her wits to eke out a living for her offspring. Gabriel Eligio was a distinguished representative of that ragged breed. Since the age of sixteen he’d had five virgin lovers, as he revealed to my mother in an act of penitence on their wedding night, en route by river to Riohacha, aboard a hazardous schooner lashed by a squall. He confessed that with one of them, when he was eighteen and the telegraph operator in Achí, he’d had a son, Abelardo, who was almost three. With another, when he was twenty and the telegraph operator in Ayapel, he had a daughter, a few months old, whom he had never seen, named Carmen Rosa.
Excerpted from Vivir Para Contarlaby Gabriel Garcia Marquez Copyright © 2002 by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Excerpted by permission.
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