NEW YORK: The feud between the Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez and the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, one-time best of friends, had all the elements of a literary classic: accusations of betrayal, jealousy and adultery, and a brutal encounter 31 years ago when things turned bloody.
What it had lacked, however, was a wealth of documentary evidence.
That all changed this month, with the publication of two black-and-white portraits taken on Valentine’s Day, 1976, in Mexico City that show García Márquez with a shiner – in turns smiling and serious – two days after being slugged by Vargas Llosa. The writers are said not to have spoken to each other since the fight.
The Mexican newspaper La Jornada used the image of the smiling García Márquez as the cover of an issue created for his 80th birthday on March 6. Other newspapers in Latin America have followed suit, said the photographer Rodrigo Moya, who took both images and has recently been interviewed by radio stations in Argentina, Colombia and Chile.
“It’s been a little overwhelming,” Moya said by telephone in Spanish from Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he lives. “I have thousands of very good photos, but this one has generated so much interest due to the subject.” García Márquez won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982, largely in recognition of his masterpiece “100 Years of Solitude.”
Moya said that his friend García Márquez had asked him to take his portrait with a black eye. Though the photographs had never been published, Moya long ago had printed one for a friend who displayed it in his house. A journalist saw the photograph there and inquired about gaining permission to use it for his magazine, but they couldn’t agree on terms, Moya said.
“Word got out that this photo existed, however,” he said, “and I got a call from La Jornada, for which I have worked occasionally and with which I have a good relationship. I decided that sufficient time had passed.”
The emergence of the photographs – after “30 years of solitude” as one French commentator put it – has given renewed interest to the events leading to the celebrated knockout. As a literary showdown, Mario Vargas Llosa vs. Gabriel García Márquez ranks with some of the most famous feuds, including Lillian Hellman vs. Mary McCarthy, Vladimir Nabokov vs. Edmund Wilson, and Norman Mailer vs. Gore Vidal.
(When the encounter between Mailer and Vidal turned physical, if not bloody, Vidal is said to have responded from the floor, “Words fail Norman Mailer yet again.”)
To accompany the photograph La Jornada asked Moya to write an essay, said Pablo Espinosa, the newspaper’s culture news editor, because while “this story was very familiar to everybody, not everybody knew the particulars.”
In his essay Moya sets the scene: a Mexico City movie theater packed with people attending the premiere of a film about the plane crash survivors in the Andes who turned to cannibalism.
At one point Vargas Llosa rushes up to García Márquez, who innocently tries to embrace him. Instead Vargas Llosa decks him, García Márquez’s blood gushing everywhere.
Some had surmised that the fight may have been over politics, since García Márquez has always been on the left and Vargas Llosa at the time had begun to migrate to the right. (He later made an unsuccessful attempt to run for president of Peru in 1990 as a free marketeer.) But, as Moya explains, the cause was a woman, specifically, Vargas Llosa’s wife, whom García Márquez consoled during a difficult period in the marriage.
While one of his photographs shows García Márquez in good spirits, Moya said that the immediate aftermath was grisly. “I took the picture two days after the incident, when he came to my house,” he said. “It was difficult to take a picture in which he looked this good. I have some pictures in which he looks like he was really beaten up, like beaten up by the Mexican police.”
Moya said he had not yet heard from García Márquez about the publication of the photographs. “We were good friends, but we’ve drifted apart,” Moya said. “I live in Cuernavaca. He travels all over the world.”
This week García Márquez is being honored in Colombia by the Fourth International Congress of the Spanish Language, which is meeting in Cartagena. A special 40th-anniversary edition of “100 Years of Solitude,” which includes an introductory essay by Vargas Llosa in praise of the book, will be presented. He is said to have written it before the fight but has kept it out of print until recently.
As for his friend’s motivations at the time, Moya said: “He is very meticulous and likes to document his life in different moments.
“He just had the idea that he wanted to have a picture with a black eye.”
By Noam Cohen
Published: March 29, 2007