Allegro Barbaro, or Gabriel García Márquez in Oklahoma
García Márquez has studied and read more English than French or Italian, yet perfectly fluent in the latter two, he is hesitant to speak English. Why? “Because the English sentence is too simple,” he explains. As to his tastes in music (he is quite a stereo-buff), he prefers the period from the late Beethoven to the last Bartók. He admires in particular Bartók’s way of breaking up the melodious line to which the eighteenth—and nineteenth—century masters have accustomed us. There is a lesson here for the modern novelist: “The Spanish prose sentence falls almost inevitably into hendecasyllabic or alexandrine verse which I want to avoid. One of the main tasks in polishing the text of my new novel, El otoño del patriarca, a complicated work, will be to break this flow of my sentences. By the way, the double meaning in the English translation of the novel’s title, ‘The Fall of the Patriarch,’ is more apt than the original title but unfortunately cannot be duplicated in Spanish.”
An aversion to simple sentences, a wish to achieve greater rhythmic complexities in the prose of his fiction: it all fits the complicated, intense, cordial character of the Colombian novelist who had come to Oklahoma to accept his prize. He made his stopover of barely two days, 27–28 June 1973, on his way from New York to Los Angeles and from there to a longer vacation with his entire family in Mexico. The best manner of characterizing this brief encounter would be in terms of one of Bartók’s compositions, “Allegro barbaro.” However, for Bartók—one of García Márquez’s most admired human beings—“everything came too late.” Fortunately this is not true in the case of García Márquez, who by forty-five has produced a world-wide bestselling novel and was awarded in 1972 both the prestigious Latin American Rómulo Gallegos Prize as well as the Books Abroad / Neustadt International Prize for Literature.
He had come to accept the Books Abroad / Neustadt award at an informal presentation “with an absolute minimum of witnesses.” Crowds and public spectacles frighten him, hence his insistent request that we dispense this one time with a public ceremony. A few sentences were pronounced by Mrs. Walter Neustadt, who presented the symbolic silver eagle feather (in a box made of three woods native to Oklahoma—cherry, pecan and walnut); Huston Huffman, President of the University of Oklahoma Board of Regents, spoke briefly in Spanish and presented the check for ten thousand dollars along with the hand-lettered leather-bound certificate—in the absence of vacationing University president Paul F. Sharp—while thunder and lightning were raging outside and we looked out to see it raining in Macondo. Two photographers illuminated the scene inside. García Márquez’s thanks came later in the form of a short written statement released to the press:
This is a prize that has taken shape in the fertile imagination of a native of Estonia who has attempted to invent—rather than dynamite—a literary prize that would be dynamite for the Nobel. It is a prize in the mythical Oklahoma of Kafka’s dreams and the land of the unique rose rock, and has been awarded to a writer from a remote and mysterious country in Latin America nominated by a great writer from far-off Iceland. These circumstances suffice to make of the Books Abroad / Neustadt International Prize for Literature the one great international prize for highly deserving writers who are not yet well known.
To be quite honest, the image of dynamite and dynamiting never would have occurred to me; it belongs to García Márquez’s own resourceful imagination. Furthermore, since things are not supposed to be too simple, another news release was simultaneously made in New York by García Márquez’s American publishers Harper & Row, explaining that he intends to establish with his prize money a defense fund for political prisoners in his native Colombia.
In retrospect I am still amazed at how many matters we were able to talk about before the presentation! He related to me, for example, that Pablo Neruda, the runner-up for the 1970 Books Abroad Prize, had expressed his great satisfaction to him in Paris about Giuseppe Ungaretti winning our award a few months before his death. What would García Márquez do in Los Angeles? Talk about Ray Bradbury. Science fiction aside, he thought Bradbury had written three or four of the most amazing pages in all modern prose. And Borges had dedicated some of his finest pages to a Spanish edition of Bradbury, as García Márquez informed me, immediately adding: “There are very few authors whom I have read completely; Borges is one of them.” Spending an evening in the company of two poets, my wife and I, it was inevitable that his expressed dislike of—or better, lack of interest in—poetry had to come up. No, it actually was not quite exact, he considered himself a “clandestine poet,” who liked, among twentieth-century poets, most especially Pablo Neruda, Pedro Salinas, Luis Cernuda, and Jorge Guillén. What about the roman nouveau, structuralism? A dead end.
So the hours passed, with García Márquez alert to everything: food and wine being served, music in the background, questions about literature past, present and future. Too bad I thought of laying the record with Bartók’s “Allegro barbaro” only long after he had left. By now he is surely in Mexico, where his sons Rodrigo and Gonzalo were born, trying to break the backbone of the all-too-natural Spanish prose sentence. But how can you possibly turn the noun “otoño” of Latin origin into anything resembling the Anglo-Saxon “fall”? And I remembered Borges meditating in a similar vein about the advantages of writing in English. No doubt, the major Spanish-language writers today are less provincial than their English-speaking peers who hardly ponder the subtle shades of meaning offered them by the Castilian tongue. . . . Yet isn’t this what Goethe’s world literature is all about: the creative contact between the intensely local and universal relevance and responsibility? García Márquez will stop in Colombia on his way back to Barcelona from Mexico. He promised to return to Oklahoma because of its spaces, silence, and simple sentences.
Poet and literary scholar Ivar Ivask fled from his native Estonia to Germany in 1944, subsequently living in the United States and Ireland. He worked as a professor of Modern Languages and Literatures at the University of Oklahoma, where his writing focused on Spanish-language literature. He served as Editor-in-Chief of World Literature Today—then Books Abroad—from 1967 to 1991, directing the Neustadt International Prize for Literature starting in 1970 and the festival now known as the Puterbaugh Conference on World Literature starting in 1968.
In our sixteenth issue, we celebrate Mapuche poet Elicura Chihuailaf, who in 2020 became the first indigenous writer to receive Chile's National Prize for Literature. We also feature dossiers dedicated to the work of Andrés Neuman, Latin American literary criticism, and the Latin American essay, plus a bilingual selection of texts from Dispatches from the Republic of Letters: 50 Years of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature commemorating Gabriel García Márquez, the first Latin American author to win the prestigious Neustadt Prize.