BOGOTA — A long time has passed since the days of a certain telegraph operator and of Luisa Santiaga Márquez Iguarán, parents of Colombia's Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez. All that remains is what the novelist wrote of them and the scenes he recalls — with names and places and landscapes changed.

"History," as García Márquez once remarked, "is not so much what happened as what was written down."

It isn't surprising that a telegraph operator's son would discover a town's little secrets, because in the 1920s and 1930s telegraph operators were like priests. Necessary, silent, prudent... They knew every detail of gentlemen's amorous concerns, the infidelities of wives, transactions yet to be completed, travels and dates — and would sometimes reveal them at home, in lunchtime conversations.

García Márquez, who just turned 87, carried inside him certain images and words that appear in One Hundred Years of Solitude for more than 20 years, as he admitted once to his friend Álvaro Cepeda Samudio. Some of its characters however were taking shape years before they appeared in the novel, perhaps — who knows — as early as the day he was born on March 6, 1927. Or was it before, since his novels began to "happen" with his parents' forbidden romance? "They sent my mother on a trip, far away, so her relationship with my father would come to nothing," one of the novelist's sisters Aída Rosa recalled 70 years later. 

"Love was stronger then"

But love was stronger then, in the steamy climate of the Guajira on Colombia's Caribbean coast. Gabriel Eligio García Martínez sought out his lover as best he could and most assiduously so, amidst the waste paper of provincial telegraph offices. He became friends with those working there, bought them drinks, gave them presents, and all for a clue they might give him. 

On their wedding day on June 11, 1926, Luisa Santiaga fell asleep. Rumors arose that her father, Colonel Nicolás Ricardo Márquez had instructed his wife Tranquilina Iguarán Cotos to drop some pills into her water.

Gabriel Eligio, clad in a morning suit, waited at the cathedral entrance for an hour or two — or perhaps more — imagining the steps his betrothed would take on an endless red carpet extending into the street. There was no sense in leaving. Pride choked him as it turned to fury, then impotence. What could he do? Go after her? Disappear? He later confessed he was obsessively juggling two thoughts in his mind then: kissing Luisa Santiaga and going to Riohacha to have a big old brawl with Colonel Márquez. 

Then his beloved appeared. She became pregnant the next day, or perhaps the following day. She was soon living in Aracataca with her husband, surrounded by the three natives who had always accompanied her — a gift from her father. She believed in God but was superstitious and inclined to give significance to little things. If her hand itched, money would arrive. If a beetle entered her bedroom, she could tell whence it came just by looking at it.

Nine months to the day

Gabriel José was born nine months after the wedding day. "I wanted him to become a lawyer, with all my heart," she said, speaking at her home in Cartagena a few months before dying, but "he didn't like the laws, see?"

Gabriel José García Márquez studied law for two years at the National University in Cartagena. But he often admitted he only managed to pass numerous, complicated subjects, because professors helped him in exchange for writing texts for them. Really, the only thing he cared for was to write and read, and William Faulkner was the first author he read — by day or night, by candlelight, in brothels or in bars. 

One January day in the 1960s he showed his friend Cepeda Samudio his manuscript of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which his friend later described as picturesque or folkloric in style. It was a verdict Márquez tolerated for some weeks in spite of feeling humiliated. One night, exasperated, he went to his friend's house. He met him half — way as he drove a truck, and shouted while practically shaking the pages in the air, that he might have a "local" style but of the best sort, "like Faulkner."

First edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude — Photo: Editorial Sudamericana

His mother never read One Hundred Years of Solitude, or any of his literature. "She read just parts, but would always find the real people who had inspired the characters and ask her son, Gabito dear, why did you make this one a poof?" the novelist's sister Aída Rosa recalled. García Marquez would never answer. Perhaps he sensed his mother did not read his novels fearing she would find herself in one of them. 

At the end of the day, she was an even larger-than-life figure than most of his fictional characters. She was the woman who made him tremble to the day she died, in mid 2002, and who performed veritable miracles with food of which somehow, there was always enough.

Humble and down-to-earth

She had raised 11 children and was not confused by power and fame; she could simplify the most complicated things. When they called her to say her son had won the Nobel Prize, she said, "Lovely! Hopefully they'll give us electricity now," Aída Rosa recalled, adding, "the thing is, my becoming a nun meant more to her than Little Gabi's Nobel prize."

She was not around to celebrate her oldest son's 80th birthday, the 40th anniversary of the first edition of One Hundred Years or 25th anniversary of his Nobel prize. She was absent when the Congress of the Spanish Language released butterflies in his honor in the historic port of Cartagena, or when he said he was sure to write at least a page a day, even if he tossed it away later. She did not hear the secretive rumors about the publisher who was first given and refused to read — or read and failed to understand or was bored by — the first manuscript of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and became an alcoholic the day she found it was a sell—out in Buenos Aires and its author given an ovation there for writing a literary landmark.

She wasn't there in person, but like the most important of his characters, she was present in all the places trodden by her first son, as she is today and will continue to be for centuries more.