‘Undeclared civic strike’: the euphoria with which Colombia received the Nobel Prize for literature, 40 years ago

Alfred Nobel, who knew a lot about dynamite but did not seem to understand much about literature, specified in his will that the prize in this field be awarded to “the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency.” Since then, a small group of elders has been racking their brains in Stockholm to determine which writer falls into that category.

According to criteria that are still an enigma, they excluded writers such as Tolstoy and Kafka as pessimists, but on the other hand they found self-declared materialists like Pablo Neruda and Sholokhov suitable. This strange group of Swedish scholars, although nobody knows their name or the merits that qualify them as judges, has on their shoulders the responsibility of delivering, year after year, what, by dint of tradition, has become the recognition par excellence, the maximum consecration to which any writer aspires.

The delegates of the old Nobel have awarded authors as unquestionable and of such world prestige as Thomas Mann, Faulkner Hemingway, Sartre, and others whose existence the world only learned of when they received the Nobel Prize and who never sounded again afterwards. Like the Greek poet Seferis.

In recent years, the prize for the anonymous has been so insistent that criticism began to rain down, such as the scandalous text by a journalist entitled “The Nobodies of the Nobel”.

There are those who calculate that none of every 15 Colombians knows the names of the last six Nobel Prize winners for literature. This year, however, and probably to take care of his health, the jury members nominated the world famous García Márquez, they explained, so that it cannot be “said that it has been conferred on an unknown writer”.

It seems that the only ones who are unaware of his fame are three Colombians who were asked on television if they knew García Márquez: a policeman who admitted “I honestly can’t tell him apart”, a gunman who replied: “what would it be for?” and a passerby asked “Isn’t that the one who works in a soap opera?”.

If the Nobel Prize has its brilliant history, that of the writers who receive it and are consecrated also has its hidden history, not least of all, that of the usual nominees who wait for it year after year

Of all the most nominated, and most uselessly, has been Jorge Luis Borges. Despite being the father of contemporary Latin American literature, he has had to see how others collect the merits and today he has to celebrate that an heir of his carries the award. Because as Onetti said of him, “Borges embroiders the sheets where the others make love”. Faced with attempts to explain the refusal to award him the Nobel with political arguments, the octogenarian poet, lucid as always, gave a simpler version: “they don’t give it to me because they don’t like my work.” And he closed the chapter.

– Photo: Private File

A few years ago, not even García Márquez himself seemed to believe in the virtues of the award he received today. According to his statements, now erased from his memory, “the Nobel Prize has become a monumental international lizard.”

One morning, ten years later, a less radical Gabo woke up excited to have become the 79th Nobel Prize winner and 25 million Colombians, delirious with joy, celebrated the appointment.

As of Thursday at six in the morning, when the news began to spread, the country entered a kind of undeclared civic strike. This time the reason was not energy rates.

In all homes, the image of Gabo came to occupy a place next to the Sacred Heart and the novelist was converted, along with the anthem, the coat of arms and the flag, into a national symbol. There was no shortage of cars that blew the whistle down the street like the day Rojas Pinilla fell.

Telephone communications with the outside world collapsed because hundreds of compatriots, starting with the president who was the first to achieve it, sought to personally greet the idol. An euphoric paisa shouted that this was the greatest thing that had happened to the country since Cochise had broken the hour mark. Drunks who stumbled out of the shops at dawn celebrated the occasion by cheering García Márquez, the Colombian Nobel Prize winner.

The directors of the different media sent their star reporters to cover every last detail of the first hours of the Nobel Prize. Anything that had to do with him became the subject of comment in office corridors, ladies’ hairdressing salons, cafes and billiards.

The amnesty that enjoyed so much popularity and that had the front pages of the newspapers was momentarily overshadowed. The drama of the survivors of the FAC and the controversy unleashed by the increase in allowances went into the background, because the concern was centered exclusively around whether Gabo would receive the prize for a tailcoat or a guayabera.

The prevailing Gabomania had, of course, its Macondian features. Doña Luisa Santiaga, the writer’s mother, declared with great naturalness that the news had made her cry because those who receive a Nobel are going to die one or two years later. Gabo himself, however, solved the problem by finding the counter to “death by Nobel”: a yellow flower.

The painter Alejandro Obregón, one of his close friends, who was in Mexico for an unusual reason – to fix the eye of a self-portrait owned by Gabo, which had been blinded by a bullet -, was also startled by the problem of death . He still hadn’t heard the news when he arrived at Gabo’s house. Seeing so many people and so many flowers, he exclaimed: “what the hell, they died!”

Meanwhile in Colombia, Dona Luisa Santiaga herself, with her Ursuline pragmatism, took advantage of the moment and declared on the radio: “let’s see if they can finally fix my phone, now that they have given Gabriel the Nobel.” In ten minutes the Government solved that problem, which had been going on for months.

All Colombians suddenly became close friends of Gabo. Those who did not see it the night before leaving for Mexico had seen it just the day “One Hundred Years of Solitude” was published. Those who did not make their first communion with him had graduated with a thesis on his work or had an autographed copy of “La mala hora”. Except for his mother, who admitted not having read any of them, all the Colombians claimed to have gone to the last point of his Complete Works.

The viacrucis was for journalists. What new thing could be said about a man who had been a favorite subject for 15 years? The investigative units and the reporters went into action seeking to rescue the key piece for their article from oblivion. Thus, the report card from the third year of high school at the Zipaquirá National Lyceum and the purchase receipt for his first typewriter became invaluable chivas. Whoever had a letter or some voucher signed by him boasted of having a valuable unpublished original.

Gabomania has reached such a point that it would not be strange to find street vendors offering lockets made with bits of their first Everfit. There will be no shortage of “souvenirs” with his profile made of Zipaquirá oranges or green ceramics from Ráquira, or T-shirts printed with Che on the back and Gabo on the chest. It is even possible that the pop artist Beatriz González has already thought of designing a new national coat of arms where the already obsolete image of the isthmus of Panama is replaced by the effigy of GM.

Faced with the unstoppable explosion of Gabomania, surely its inspirer must be repeating to himself what he once said: “I am already convinced that in Latin America, when they see a photo of me, they say: García Márquez’s toad again.”

SEMANA Magazine, October 1982

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‘Undeclared civic strike’: the euphoria with which Colombia received the Nobel Prize for literature, 40 years ago