Santiago Gamboa writes a special PEN Atlas dispatch this week to commemorate Gabriel García Márquez, the way that he changed literature, and the deep love for his books all around the world, from everyday readers to presidents

Translated from the Spanish by Howard Curtis

It is no hyperbole, brought on by the sadness we feel, to state that García Márquez was one of the last giants of the twentieth century, the kind of writer who doesn’t seem to exist any more, his works combining at least two elements that are hard to reconcile in today’s world: a boundless popularity among readers and at the same time enormous acclaim from the literary and academic establishment. Today, it would be almost impossible to imagine a phenomenon like One Hundred Years of Solitude, with sixty million copies sold in less than fifty years (more than a million a year), and at the same time read and respected in the highest circles, the object of thousands of doctoral theses, and reaching a universal audience: in India alone it has been translated into 24 languages. Today, celebrity can go one of two ways: either writers are popular, but scorned by critics and academics, or else they are cult figures, loved by the critical establishment, but condemned to minimal sales. The phenomenon of García Márquez is that he combined the sales figures of a Fifty Shades of Grey with the reputation and cult status of a David Foster Wallace or a Roberto Bolaño.

Through his novels and stories, Gabriel García Márquez gave literary form to a world, the world of the Caribbean, and did so with such universality, force and talent that for decades his books became the stereotypical image of the whole of Latin America in the rest of the world. There can be no doubt that One Hundred Years of Solitude is the most important literary work in Spanish since Don Quixote. In it, both the world and the language are born again, revealing themselves with such force that Hispanic culture came back into the limelight. Spanish had not had such prominence in the world since Cervantes, and its literature had not been at the forefront of Western culture.

Another important aspect of the work of García Márquez was his own life. Born in Aracataca, a poor, unremarkable town in the Caribbean region of Colombia, he became one of the most famous people in the world. Presidents, businessmen, actors, sports personalities, even the Pope hoped to have an appointment with him, to meet him and listen to him talk. The arc of his life was one of the most extraordinary imaginable. ‘My luck was badly distributed,’ he said, referring to the fact that up until the age of forty he had neither success nor money and had to do many different jobs to support his family, until he achieved worldwide fame and everything that went with it. ‘Being famous,’ he said once, ‘is like having a birthday every day.’ Like most intellectuals in the 1960s, García Márquez was a Communist and thought that Cuba represented the hope of freedom and independence for the whole continent. He was Fidel Castro’s closest friend and staunchest supporter, which earned him a great deal of criticism. He was also a friend of Felipe González and often took part in his political campaigns, and of Francois Mitterrand, who, in awarding him the Legion d’Honneur, said, ‘Vous appartenez au monde que j’aime,’ which brought tears to García Márquez’s eyes. He was a friend of the Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme and it was during his term of office that he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, when he was just 54. On one occasion he was shut up in the Vatican library with Pope Paul VI and they had to call security. He was also a friend of Bill Clinton, who said on the occasion of García Márquez’s eightieth birthday: ‘One hundred years of solitude is the most important novel ever written, in any language, on the New World.’

I met him for the first time in 1995, at a literary festival in Biarritz. After a photo session in his hotel, the Argentinean photographer Daniel Mordzinski invited him over to a table where a group of writers he was anxious to meet were sitting. I was there, along with Jean-Claude Izzo, José Manuel Fajardo and Luis Sepúlveda. García Márquez greeted each one warmly, and when he came to me he said, ‘I’ve been reading your work.’ The following week he called me and we talked for about two hours. Recently I came across a similar episode in the memoirs of Salman Rushdie, in which he tells of a phone conversation with García Márquez. ‘Gabo! It’s like calling a god a pet name,’ says Rushdie. I felt the same and that’s the reason I never called him ‘Gabo’.  Later I saw him in Bogotá, and worked with him on a book of memoirs by the chief of the National Police. From then on, I met him in a number of countries, especially Colombia, Spain and Mexico. I became a diplomat thanks to his recommending me to the Colombian Foreign Ministry, but my fondest memory of him is a story he told me in 2011, during a lunch with Carlos Fuentes and other guests at the San Ángel Inn. ‘Which part of the world are you in now?’ he asked me. I said India, and asked him if he had ever been there. He said yes. ‘Fidel once asked me to go with him to a meeting of the Non-Aligned Nations in New Delhi,’ he said, ‘and when we landed at the airport I decided to stay on the plane in order not to disturb the protocol. Suddenly, I looked through the window and saw Indira Gandhi getting off the presidential rostrum and coming up the steps of the plane. When she entered the plane she cried, ‘Where’s García Márquez?’ From that time on, we were inseparable. She spoke French, and by the third day I felt as if Indira had been born in Aracataca. She invited me to go on a tour of India, organized by her, and I accepted. She said she would be in touch.’ García Márquez’s face clouded over, his eyes filled with tears, and he said, ‘Then I heard the news that she had been assassinated, and that was why I promised I’d never go to India again.’

In the final years of his life, it was Mercedes Barcha de García, to whom he was married for sixty years, who took care of everything. She was a woman of remarkable character and strength, a true first lady: ‘The only person I know who can tell Fidel Castro off,’ García Márquez would say of her.

In an interview he gave when he turned seventy, he said that he would give everything, his books and his millions of readers, to have another forty years of life. ‘To do what?’ the journalist asked, and he replied, ‘To start all over again.’