The Scandal of the Century and Other Writings

Gabriel García Márquez

Penguin, £10.99

Review by Rosemary Goring

Above all else Gabriel García Márquez was a journalist. Journalism, as Jon Lee Anderson says in his foreword, was his first and most enduring love. Reading this selection of 50 pieces, you can’t help but think that many nascent writers would benefit from an apprenticeship in a trade too often derided and underrated.

When in 1982 Márquez won the Nobel Literature Prize he used part of the money he received to buy a magazine, Cambio, and relaunched it with a new set of editors and contributors, of whom he was one. Cambio didn’t survive but while it did its owner had a ball.

What is clear from The Scandal of the Century is its author’s relish for a form that requires its practitioners to be multi-talented and endlessly adaptable. The best journalists – and on this evidence Márquez fully merits his place at the table – are insatiably curious and find everything fascinating, from the earth-shattering to the seemingly banal. He was a huge fan of Hemingway, who also wrote for newspapers before turning to fiction. Once upon a time in Paris, Márquez spotted his hero on Boulevard Saint-Michel. What should he do? Don his literary beret and express his “unconditional admiration” or try to interview him as any self-respecting hack would? What he did was cup his hands and, “like Tarzan in the jungle”, bellow from one side of the street to the other, “Maeeeeestro!” Hemingway responded: “Adióóóós, amigo.”

Though born in Colombia, Márquez spent a good part of his life as a roving reporter in Austria, France and Italy. In From Paris, With Love, he recalls arriving in 1955 and seeing people kissing everywhere in contrast to Bogotá “where it was even difficult to kiss in bedrooms”. It was the time of the Algerian War, when it was the norm for anyone who “didn’t have a Christian face” to be slung into jail. The police thought he was Algerian even though he looked like “a door-to-door salesman”. It was, he writes ruefully, the only revolution for which he was ever imprisoned.

While his career as a novelist burgeoned and critical and commercial success beckoned, Márquez never forsook journalism and was forthright in denouncing General Pinochet in Chile and in his support of Fidel Castro. He was deeply critical of the US blockade of Cuba and consequently mocked as an idiot savant by hawkish Republicans. In The Cubans Face the Blockade, he reports on the effect the embargo had on the population. Even clothes were rationed. At first nine items were rationed which was upped to 15 within a year. Toys were next. But there was an upside: that Christmas was the first in the history of Cuba when every child received a toy.

The eponymous piece recounts the story of how the mysterious death in 1953 of a young Italian woman sparked a scandal that reached deep into Italian society and showed a more sordid side to La Dolce Vita. It runs to some 60 pages and Márquez spins it like a thriller, artfully reminding less attentive readers to pay attention to salient facts.

Several of the pieces relate to writing. All are required reading. In Misadventures of a Writer of Books, he refers to his occupation as “suicidal”. Most readers, he suggests, have no idea of the effort and anguish that goes into producing a book and the meagre reward their creators receive. He estimates that a good writer needs at least two years and 29,000 cigarettes to produce a book of 200 pages. So why write? “You’re a writer in the very same way you might be Jewish or black.”