Monday, 25 January 1999

Celebrated Colombia Writer Returns

BOGOTA -- Pen and notebook in hand, the white-mustachioed elder in the
safari jacket interviewing the tall female guerrilla was no average
reporter. Yet Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, scribbling notes at
this month's peace talks between the Colombian government and leftist
rebels, was merely doing what comes naturally.

At age 71, one of the world's most famous writers isn't just sitting
quietly in his book-lined study writing his memoirs. Instead, he's
rolling up his sleeves and fulfilling a lifelong dream.

The novelist has just bought a struggling weekly newsmagazine, Cambio, which
has a cadre of some of Colombia's finest journalists. He's the principal
shareholder, star reporter, editorial board director and father figure at the

``I'm a journalist. I've always been a journalist,'' Garcia Marquez explained
in a telephone interview. ``My books couldn't have been written if I weren't a
journalist because all the material was taken from reality.''

Indeed, the author's works of fiction -- including his most famous novel, the
phantasmagorical ``One Hundred Years of Solitude'' -- are all anchored in the
fantastic, irrational and often contradictory realities of this violent land.
Garcia Marquez, or ``Gabo'' as he's widely known, made his living as a
hardscrabble street reporter for Colombian dailies for 14 years, after he quit
law studies at the end of World War II at age 19. Later, he was a New York
correspondent for the Cuban news agency Prensa Latina.

When he won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1982, ``I decided that I was
going to dedicate that money to a newspaper.''

The money, it turned out, wasn't enough to assure Garcia Marquez and his
partners the independent editorial voice they sought. So their planned
newspaper never rolled off the presses.

Sixteen years later, the opportunity presented itself again.

``So I withdrew that money. That's all. There's nothing romantic, nothing
sentimental, no news in this,'' Garcia Marquez said Thursday from his home in
the Caribbean city of Cartagena.

He says he's selective about the articles he signs his name to because he
abhors self-promotion. Yet even his unsigned stories are hot commodities.
Spanish-language newspapers outside Colombia recently paid more than $1,000
for the right to publish his Cambio article about Colombia's incipient peace

Garcia Marquez's mere presence is already having the desired effect on
Cambio's bottom line.

In its first month under the new ownership, the 41,000-circulation weekly's
advertising revenues were five times higher than previously, and it was
getting about 120 new subscription requests a day, said Mauricio Vargas,
the managing editor.

Vargas predicted a near doubling of circulation this year at the 5-year-old
magazine, which has been losing money and trailing its main competitor,
Semana, in circulation by a ratio of at least 3-to-1.

Cambio's staying power could well depend on Garcia Marquez's commitment.
``He really says he thinks he'll be devoting himself nearly full-time? I mean
he has about three books that he's writing, one of them his memoirs,'' said
Ash Green, the author's U.S. editor at Random House.

In no time at all, Garcia Marquez has shown he is a reporter with incredible

``Anyone he calls will pick up the phone,'' said Green.

Garcia Marquez, a close friend of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, was in Havana for
Colombian President Andres Pastrana's visit last week and did most of the work
on an unsigned article in Cambio titled ``From Hate to Love.''

The same issue featured an interview with the nation's most powerful
industrialist, Julio Mario Santo Domingo, who has shunned the Colombian media
for years.

Why did he finally agree to speak?

``Because no one less than Gabriel Garcia Marquez, my lifelong friend,
asked me to,'' the magnate said.

In an admiring article this week about President Clinton, Garcia Marquez
called Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr a ``fundamentalist'' and
suggested he got erotic pleasure out of the drive to impeach the president.
Referring to Clinton, he wrote, ``Is it fair that this rare example of the
human species must squander his historic destiny just because he couldn't find
a safe place to make love?''

For all its advantages, Garcia Marquez's celebrity has gotten in the way of
his journalistic reincarnation. Everywhere he goes, reporters hound him with

``I have to beg my colleagues to recognize my right to do my job, and not to
make me help them do theirs,'' he said.

--Copyright 1999 Associated Press