The one night that cracked open a hundred years of solitude

(photo El Colombio; Marquez (c) and Rulfo (r)) In a recent issue of the New York Times Book Review, the writer and literature professor Valeria Luiselli served up a rapturous essay in praise of the great neglected Mexican novel Pedro Páramo, by the great neglected Mexican novelist Juan Rulfo.

She opens with a shot of literary espresso, an anecdote that has made the rounds in Latin American reading circles for decades.

“It is 1961 and Gabriel García Márquez has just arrived in Mexico City, penniless but full of literary ambition, trying desperately to work on a new novel. One day, he is sitting in the legendary Café La Habana, where Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were said to have plotted the Cuban Revolution. Julio Cortázar walks in, carrying a copy of Juan Rulfo’s novel Pedro Páramo. With a swift gesture, as if he’s dealing cards, Cortázar throws the book on García Márquez’s table. “Tenga, pa que aprenda,” he says. “Read this and learn.”

That night, “García Márquez reads the novel in a single, feverish, sleepless sitting. He is so deeply haunted by this slim book, set in a rural village full of ghosts and echoes from the past, that he reads it again that same night, and starts memorizing it. The next day, he is finally able to begin writing One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

It sounds apocryphal, and indeed Luiselli says that this version of the tale, the one she heard as a young student, contains some errors. “The place was not Café La Habana but García Márquez’s modest apartment, and it was not Cortázar but Álvaro Mutis who gave him the book. But the kernel of this literary legend — the bedazzlement, the rapacious reading, the swell of inspiration — remains true.”

Love it. The Big Day dog in my hindbrain is wagging its tail in delight.

Many of us have had the experience of being so gripped by a book that it swept us into and through the dark night, engulfed in its world, oblivious to ours. For all but a vanishingly small number of truly gifted humans, that is where the spark of inspiration ends. I’ve written about how my friend Jaspreet turned a night like that into a sudden career change, but you’re rarely able to trace a direct transubstantiation of one work of art into another.

I guess that’s what they say about the rich is also true of literary geniuses: they’re different from the rest of us.

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