I can still remember his eyes as they were late that night, full of spark at first, then alternately pensive, empty and tired, with the musicians playing on regardless, endlessly regaling the great writer with the vallenatos of his Caribbean youth. For a while I was sure he had fallen asleep. His head had long stopped nodding to the music, and his heavy eyelids appeared firmly shut. I remained sitting before him like a timid and overawed acolyte, sweating from excitement and the heat. It was then that I noticed that he was not asleep at all. His eyes were half-open and staring quizzically towards me, wondering perhaps who I was. I felt for a few moments that I had turned into his younger self, while he had become a caiman watching me from the banks of a tropical river, somnolent and near invisible, but with eyes that peered above the murky waters, taking in everything.
I had seen him for the first time only the night before. It was January 2010, and a literary festival had just begun in the Colombian coastal town of Cartagena de Indias. People I met on the international festival circuit had been brought together with a large cross-section of Colombia’s incestuous social elite. Any pretence at intellectual exchange had vanished by night-time, when the brightly coloured colonial town revealed its hedonistic core in a near-continuous round of parties. The more hardened revellers usually ended up at the Bazurto Social Club, a celebrated nocturnal haunt in a district full of expats, prostitutes, budget tourists and lovers of the shabbily atmospheric.
I had gone there shortly before midnight. Drinkers were spilling out onto the street, sheltering from the fast, African rhythms of champeta that pounded from the high-ceilinged interior. I went inside. I wound my way past the erotically embraced dancers, squeezed through the jostling, beer-drinking students and reached the bar counter. A group of young publishers and journalists was gathered there in tight proximity, laughing and drinking rum. One of them, an English friend, told me to have a look at the back of the bar. "You won’t believe who’s there," he said with a drunken grin.
Among the faces of those seated at a long table at the back I recognized a Granadan poet, his best-selling novelist wife and a Madrid-based cultural commentator who had just brought out a book of literary memoirs entitled Scrambled Egos. And then I saw him, sitting next to the poet, but talking to no one, completely still, staring into the smoky space. The legendary Colombian writer.
His moustache was unmistakable, as were his receding thick curly hair, large glasses and dark, deep-set eyes. But my first thought on seeing this face almost as iconic for me as that of Che Guevara was that he was not the person everyone thought he was but rather a lookalike, an impersonator, someone who had been hired to lend a touch of parody to this literary occasion. He could have been one of those living statues who pose motionless for hours to attract the attention of shoppers and tourists. He moved barely at all, and then only when the inevitable admirers began shyly approaching him to ask for his signature, to express their devotion. Then his arm would jerk briefly into action, and a curt smile would appear on his face, as if a coin had been placed in a bowl in front of him.
His presence late at night in a popular bar was not, on reflection, particularly surprising. He was a man of the people, a lover of low life, a person with the grassroots appeal of a football star. What was remarkable was that he had finally come back to Cartagena. It was almost as if the Messiah had reappeared. Though he had a house in the colonial centre, he now barely moved from his adopted home in Mexico City. He notoriously avoided literary festivals, and had not been in Cartagena since 2006, when his arrival had created severe congestion of the old town’s streets. He was now in his early eighties and had been seriously ill with cancer. I had heard various rumours about his imminent death.
However, the person sitting in the Bazurto Social Club showed little sign of physical ill health, only of loneliness and a lack of connection with those whom he was with. Extreme fame had perhaps isolated him in his own world, turning him in old age into what his fiction predicted, the patriarch in autumn, the colonel to whom no one speaks, the general in his labyrinth, the embodiment of one hundred years of solitude. And then, as I continued looking at him, in furtive snatches across the crowded bar, I noticed something else. He had a look which I had observed so often in my elderly parents—a slightly angry and puzzled look, as if he wanted everyone around him to go away, as if he had become frighteningly aware that he had no idea who these people were and what he was doing in their company. My father had died of Alzheimer’s in 1998, with no memory of his two children or of what he had done in his life. My mother, now weeks away from her ninetieth birthday, was in an advanced stage of dementia.
As I stood wondering whether the writer was going the same way as my parents, I considered going up to greet him, as so many others in the bar were now doing. The encounter, I suspected, would be as fleeting and meaningless as the touching of a holy relic, but at the very least I would be able to say afterwards that I had shaken hands with one of the giants of modern literature. An acquaintance from the festival handed me a bottle of beer, so I abandoned my plan. I rejoined the heavy drinkers at the bar counter. I doubted whether I would have a further opportunity to meet the writer.
But our paths would cross again the following night, at a party given by a Venezuelan millionaire at a boutique hotel in the tourist heart of the walled city. The guests were largely gathered on a roof terrace, dressed in smart cottons, sipping cocktails, taking in a vista of floodlit domes. The scene had the glamorous unreality of a rum advert, with the statutory quota of the bronzed and the beautiful. After a couple of hours or so, mainly listening to in-jokes and obscure literary gossip, I found myself alone with my thoughts, cut off from the general conversation, until a Moroccan novelist, who had briefly disappeared from our group, came back to join us, trembling with emotion. She had gone in search of a bathroom and had stumbled onto a small patio, where she had spotted the writer she referred to simply as ‘him’. He had just finished eating, and was surrounded by family and friends. A vallenato band was about to start. She was called over to his table. She had spoken to the man himself. "He couldn’t have been more approachable."
Soon we were all downstairs, huddled awkwardly at a corner of the patio, talking among ourselves, listening to the vallenatos, pretending not to look at him, but waiting if only unconsciously for some sign or excuse to draw us into his circle. I identified his wife, one of his brothers and a rotund, angelic-faced friend of mine in charge of a foundation for journalists that the writer had created. During a pause in the music this friend, a much-loved local personality, with a hearty laugh, a forceful manner and an ability always to have his way without ever losing his charm, caught my eye, beckoned me over, rejected my shy protests and led me in front of the writer. "Michael," he told him, "is an Englishman obsessed by the river Magdalena."
This was one of my friend’s typical fanciful exaggerations, based on my having once confided to him a vague scheme to head off one day towards the source of Colombia’s longest river. My knowledge of the Magdalena was derived purely from books. I had devoured since childhood tales of South America’s early explorers, to whom the Magdalena was the main point of entry into the continent’s mysterious interior. But my developing interest in the river stemmed essentially from a passion for Colombia itself. I didn’t visit the country until 2007, but I had had an immediate and uncanny sense of having known the place for most of my life, largely because it reminded me of the Spain with which I had fallen in love in my early teens.
I had steeped myself since then in Colombia’s history and culture, the story of which was inseparable from that of the Magdalena. Not only did the river run right through the heart of the country, it had also served right up to the 1950s as the great artery of Colombia, the main thoroughfare for trade and travellers, the link between the diametrically opposed worlds of the coast and the Andes. And the more I read about the river, the more I thought of it as emblematic of the spirit of Colombia, and—by extension—all that I found fascinating, seductive, strange and disturbing about South America as a whole.
The Magdalena was a river of contradictions. It had inspired pioneering botanical studies, helped foster magical realism and given birth to some of the most exuberant music in the Latin world. It had also been the scourge of early travellers, the focus of Colombia’s period of civil unrest known as La violencia, and the scene of so much deforestation and pollution that the river was now a notorious testimony to the destruction of the planet.
Whenever the subject of the Magdalena came up in conversation in Colombia, the response, tellingly, tended to veer between intense regret, nostalgia and longing. People dreamt of a period in the Magdalena’s history when the river’s beauty was untainted by violence and neglect. The elderly dwelt endlessly on the Magdalena of their youths.
The old writer sitting on the patio of the boutique hotel reacted to the mention of the river with a depth of feeling I had not expected. He burst into a smile, his eyes glowed and he held tightly to my wrist without seeming to want to let go. He looked up at his brother, like a child asking for a favour, and suggested that I be invited to their house, where he would love to talk to me at length about the Magdalena, the river of his life, the river that gave him the one reason for wanting to be young again. So that he could sail along it one more time.
The others who had come with me onto the patio, surprised at the attention the writer was giving me, were now advancing towards us, impatient to meet him themselves. One of them told him that his books had made her take up a life of literature; another introduced himself as the person responsible for the first Catalan translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude. The writer nodded solemnly without replying, continuing all the time to hold on to my wrist, waiting for the moment when he could go back to our conversation.
"I remember everything about the river, absolutely everything," he eventually said, behaving as if there were no one else left on the patio, "…the caimans, the manatees…"
The band returned, breaking into his reverie with the sounds of singing, accordions, maracas and drums. His grip on my hand tightened further as he insisted I stay with him to listen to the musicians, who, reading his thoughts, played a famous song about a man who changes into a caiman and sets off for the carnival at Barranquilla, at the mouth of the Magdalena. "…Se va el caimán, se va el caimán, se va para Barranquilla," they sang with an accelerating rhythm that soon had the writer rise to his feet and defy his old age with a lightening outburst of dance and joy.
Then he manoeuvred himself slowly back into his seat, exchanged handshakes and a few warm words with the musicians, and eventually became remote to everyone. The people I was with decided to go on to a bar in another part of town, but I stayed for the time being where I was, detained by the writer’s wish that I should do so and by a hope that I would learn something else about him, if only by observing his eyes. I stayed for two more hours, until the music finally stopped and the writer and his family got up to leave. In a now weary tone, he said goodbye to me, and repeated the invitation to go and talk to him in his Cartagena home. The brother wrote out a number for me to ring.
I walked dazed and elated across the broad, open space separating the walled city from the shabbier district of Getsemaní. I caught up with my friends at around two in the morning, in a crammed, poky and deafeningly noisy bar called the Quiebracanto. I was desperate to tell someone about my encounter, about how kind and human the man was, how he appeared capable of seeing through people’s pretentions and absurdities, and how he had the fundamental humility and simplicity I liked to believe was indicative of true greatness.
In the end I managed to attract the attention of a young group of Bogotá literati who had taken refuge from all the din and smoke on an outdoor wooden balcony. They were not particularly impressed by what I told them. "You obviously got him on one of his more lucid days," said a woman journalist known for her candid accounts of her complex love life. "He’ll probably have forgotten everything he said by tomorrow. He won’t have any idea who you are." The subject of his memory loss, according to her, was one that no one talked about in Colombia, for it was simply inconceivable that the great national icon should be suffering such a humiliating fate. "Forget I told you," she added, giving me one of her teasing smiles.
But I did not forget. Though I never saw him again (several calls to the number his brother gave me were not answered), I kept thinking back to that night in Cartagena and to what I had discovered. On my return to Europe, and to a mother losing all sense of reality, just as my father had done fifteen years earlier, I decided to reread One Hundred Years of Solitude. The novel acquired a deeper resonance in the light of what I had now learnt. Parts of the book I had once interpreted as reflections on a nation’s ability to forget the past now seemed further examples of the author’s extraordinary powers of premonition: the illness that makes the inhabitants of the imaginary village of Macondo lose their memories; the civil war that is fought for so long that neither side can remember what they are fighting for.
And I found new significance in the book’s celebrated opening line, about a colonel, on the point of being executed, remembering the distant time when his father took him to discover ice. I could now imagine the colonel as the writer himself, nearing the end of his life, having forgotten almost everything about it, but still capable of dredging, from some obscure recess, memories full of magic, strangeness and wonder. I remembered him remembering the Magdalena.
"I remember everything about the river, absolutely everything …" And, as I thought about these words, I remembered his eyes as they were later that night, when they had turned into those of a caiman, opening every so often to look at me in a way that made me imagine that nothing escaped their attention, that they could see right through me and read my thoughts, and that they were offering their blessing to a journey I had already begun that night in my mind, up a river that was also a metaphor of memory, into a luxuriant world of marvels and dangers, to areas of the past both brilliant and dark, on to the Magdalena’s high and distant source, in Andean moorland, by the shores of oblivion.