Gabo As I Knew Him

Eric Nepomuceno

Artwork by Robert Zhao Renhui

It happened on one of the last days of July or on one of the first few of August in 1978, and it happened in Havana. I had arrived in the early hours of July 27 and was to stay on the island for nearly two months, working on a book about the Cuban Revolution. García Márquez was one of the illustrious guests at the Hotel Riviera, at the time Cuba's finest, and I decided I would walk over, unannounced. I wanted to talk about the island. Barely a day past thirty, I was still capable of this sort of boldness. And that's how we met.

One year after those fleeting encounters in Cuba, I moved from Madrid to Mexico City. Regular meetings ensued, and from then on they would be everlasting.

Those years were characterized by disquiet and hope, storms followed by calm, until one day the world changed, while we did not. Not fundamentally. Not in our memory or in our affection.

I remember well how long it took Gabo to write Love in the Time of Cholera, how a few notes and quick drafts became Strange Pilgrims, the painstaking architecture that buttressed The General in his Labyrinth, the irrepressible joy he showed upon completing News of a Kidnapping.

I remember all this and much more: the feeling of emptiness and solitude he conveyed when he finished writing, especially after finishing "The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow," which to this day I still consider the most beautiful of the twelve stories collected in Strange Pilgrims.

I had rarely seen someone so inconsolable. As I was leaving that immense white house at the most improbable of addresses—at the corner where Calle Fuego meets Calle Agua—I asked what was bothering him. And he told me: "I've just written a story of a love so beautiful and so heartbreaking that it's left me feeling like this, completely drained."

In Cartagena, Gabo took me through each scene in Love in the Time of Cholera. He showed me the window through which Fermina Daza, splendid in her youthfulness, melted the heart of Florentino Ariza with impossible loves. And Dr. Juvenal Urbino's house with its enormous mango tree in the courtyard, the mango tree that served as a perch for Urbino's parrot and from which the doctor fell and died after trying to reach the mischievous parrot among its highest branches. He spoke of his characters as if referring to friends with whom we'd had dinner the night before.

I carry with me an enormous trunk of memories. And when I think of Gabo, I reconfirm my certainty of his limitless generosity, of his quiet and absolute solidarity, of his loyalty that knew no bounds. Someone who was never moved by anything besides friendship and affection.

Until the very end, he maintained the same warm smile he'd greeted me with that distant summer afternoon in Havana, and one day it occurred to me that this smile masked a melancholy like the sunset, an intolerable yearning for his childhood.

His last years were spent in the house at San Angel. Sitting still in his little nook, wading through the tranquil waters of his foggy memory.

On a certain April afternoon in 2009, I heard him say in a whisper: "I don't take care of anything anymore, I'm no longer interested in anything, nothing upsets me, I don't worry about anything at all." And then, after a momentary silence, he averred: "That's what worries me." And he let loose that laugh which emitted light without snuffing the glint of sweet melancholy that never left his eyes. As always, he knew what to worry about.

Each one of his books is a book of solitude and nostalgia, and also of the desperate search for second chances that he begged for on behalf of the Buendías in One Hundred Years of Solitude. On behalf of all of us.

Everything he wrote reveals the infinite capacity for poetry to be found in life. He knew, as no one else did, that in Latin America, reality is more hallucinatory than the most delirious fictions.

However, the axis around which all of us rotate was always the same: solitude and this desperate search, the eternal hope we'll find antidotes against our doom.

Finally, I remember how, while in Zurich many years ago, he was caught in a snowstorm. To escape, he ducked into a bar in the late afternoon. About the incident, he later told one of his brothers: "All was shadow. A man was playing piano for the couples there. I understood then that I wanted to be that man who played on without anyone seeing his face. He played only so that the lovers there might love each other more."

That was how he lived the life he was given to live: wishing to hide himself in the shadows while helping lovers flourish in their love.

That's how he spent his final days: anchored in the memory of a large, luminous life. Living on the corner where Agua meets Fuego.

I'll always carry with me the memory of his Caribbean dancer's gait, his glowing smile, his complete surrender to life. And his infinite solitude, interrupted only by the affection of his friends, and by a ray of sunlight known as Mercedes. His solitude shielded behind a mischievous joy, and Gabo wishing only to be that piano player at the back of the bar, the world like an immense piano that he played incessantly, so that all the lovers might love each other more deeply.

This emptiness, I'll always carry, too. An emptiness without end, as deep as my grief.

translated from the Portuguese by Eric M. B. Becker

An abridged version of this letter first appeared in the Brazilian daily Folha de São Paulo in April 2014.