Second Read: Miles Corwin on Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "The Story of a Shipwrecked Soldier"

Second Read: Writers Look Back at Classic Works of Reportage

In his essay for Second Read: Writers Look Back at Classic Works of Reportage, Miles Corwin discusses Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s career of a journalist and how it shaped his later work as a novelist. Marquez’s journalistic work The Story of a Shipwrecked Soldier exposed the Colombian government’s role in covering up the circumstances behind the death of sailors aboard the Velasco. Here are some excerpts from his essay:

By the time the series ended, El Espectador’s circulation had almost doubled. The public always likes an exposé, but what made the stories so popular was not simply the explosive revelations of military incompetence. García Márquez had managed to transform Velasco’s account into a narrative so dramatic and compelling that readers lined up in front of the newspaper’s offices, waiting to buy copies.

After the series ran, the government denied that the destroyer had been loaded with contraband merchandise. García Márquez turned up the investigative heat: he tracked down crewmen who owned cameras and purchased their photographs from the voyage, in which the illicit cargo, with factory labels, could be easily seen.

The series marked a turning point in García Márquez’s life and writing career. The government was so incensed that the newspaper’s editors, who feared for the young reporter’s safety, sent him to Paris as its foreign correspondent. A few months later the government shut El Espectador down. The disappearance of his meal ticket forced García Márquez into the role of an itinerant journalist who sold freelance stories to pay the bills—and, crucially, continued to write fiction.

The relatively spare prose of the Velasco series bears little resemblance to the poetic, multilayered, sometimes hallucinatory language that would mark García Márquez’s maturity as a novelist. Still, the articles—which were published in book form as The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor in 1970, and translated into English sixteen years later—represent a milestone in his literary evolution. “This is where his gifted storytelling emerges,” says Raymond Williams, a professor of Latin American literature at the University of California, Riverside, who has written two books about the author. Prior to the series, he suggests, García Márquez had been writing somewhat amateurish short stories. Now, says Williams, he was rising to the challenge of constructing a lengthy narrative: “The ability he has to maintain a level of suspense throughout is something that later became a powerful element of his novels.”

Corwin concludes by comparing how Hemingway and García Márquez viewed the role of journalism in their fictional work:

Hemingway and García Márquez also differed on how lasting one’s journalistic apprenticeship should be. The former admitted that journalism was good training for a young novelist, but contended that it was important to get out in time, because newspapers could ruin a writer. García Márquez felt otherwise. “That supposedly bad influence that journalism has on literature isn’t so certain,” he has said. “First of all, because I don’t think anything destroys the writer, not even hunger. Secondly, because journalism helps you stay in touch with reality, which is essential for working in literature.”

García Márquez put this belief into practice: even after he attained great success as a novelist, he never abandoned journalism. He used the money from his 1982 Nobel Prize to purchase Cambio, a failing weekly newsmagazine in Colombia. He established the Foundation for New Ibero-American Journalism, where veteran reporters give workshops for young Latin American journalists. And during the past few decades, while writing novels, he has kept reality at close quarters, publishing numerous essays, opinion pieces, articles, and a masterful book of reconstructive journalism, News of a Kidnapping. In the latter, he chronicled the abduction of ten prominent Colombians by Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellin drug cartel, and his painstaking account of their eight-month ordeal might strike some readers as a protracted ensemble version of The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor.

In any case, his breakthrough series went on to be one of his most popular books, selling about ten million copies, the majority of them in the original Spanish. To his readers, this apprentice work, with its early and exquisite balance of magic and realism, fit very comfortably into the author’s canon. The fact that it was told in the first person may have actually made it feel more literary rather than less—a feat of modernist ventriloquism.

As for García Márquez himself, he had mixed feelings about the transformation of his newspaper series into a bona fide work of art—or at least a hardcover book. And in a new introduction he wrote, he seemed to betray some nostalgia for the days when he was simply a semianonymous reporter rather than an international brand name. “I have not reread this story in fifteen years,” he wrote. “It seems worthy of publication, but I have never quite understood the usefulness of publishing it. I find it depressing that the publishers are not so much interested in the merit of the story as in the name of the author, which, much to my sorrow, is also that of a fashionable writer. If it is now published in the form of a book, that is because I agreed without thinking about it very much, and I am not a man to go back on his word.”

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