Bogotá

The Street: Bogotá, 1960

Never-before-translated vignettes on city-life by a young Gabriel García Márquez

by Gabriel García Márquez, translated by José Vargas
In 1960 the Camacho Roldan Bookstore published a series of books under the title Colombia: Country of Cities. The first volume, dedicated to Bogotá, included a vivid portrait of the city from a young and then-unknown reporter, Gabriel García Márquez. This is the first time this piece has been published in translation, presented here alongside photos of Bogotá street life. We are publishing this piece alongside an essay on contemporary Bogotá by Juli Delgado Lopera. Read the accompanying piece here. 
Thus was our city, cloudy and rainy, a mere 500 meters below the perennial snow. There was a central tower with a clock, and a central street whose passers-by, umbrellas perched on their arms, dressed in dark colors, spoke in very low voices and went to bed at eight in the evening. We were, it was said, a million people, who managed in many ways to live. We had our very own way of being joyful: on holidays, we went to mass, rang bells and burned gunpowder in the suburbs. It was the pyrotechnics of happiness.
In the morning, there was an hour that seemed placed in parenthesis in time: coffee time. In the fifth parallel, at the same latitude at which the aborigines of New Guinea nourished themselves on human flesh and opium was smoked in Singapore, solemn men dressed too formally spoke of a subject that in our city was always new and always primitive: politics.

Bogotá, 1939. Photography by Daniel Rodríguez
For many years, foreign visitors verified in their diaries what statistics had registered year after year: there were more men than women on the streets. But it pained us that there was no statistic that measured chance. Then it would have been possible to verify that, in a fleeting and astonishing moment, the most beautiful woman in the world passed through the streets of the city.
There was a certain hardness in our way of progressing. We did it in leaps, without being very sure of where we were going to land. But that was the only way we could do it, thus we had become a modern city with the past just around the corner.
We were not even surprised that one day the children asked us, perplexed, why the firefighters had become so sinister.

Bogotá, 1948. Photography by Daniel Rodríguez
Like all the inhabitants of the civilized cities of that time, we were more concerned with the present than the future. We learned, with a minimal lapse of time, the perspective of the Pakistani Minister of Foreign Affairs. We believed in the printed word, in the purchasing power of money and in the need for sleep. We never knew if that was our best defect or our worst virtue.

Wise men had told us: “Look at the books on the outside and you will know the city inside.” Obeying this teaching, one could have discovered that the spirit of the city was composed of sentimental verses, popular science manuals and interplanetary adventure stories. But despite the transcendentalism of the wise men, the anecdote was better: a client who, due to force of (bad) habit, peeked at the last page of a detective novel to discover who the murderer was without buying the book.

Bogotá, 1940s. Photography by Daniel Rodríguez

It rained cruelly in our city. You could spend many hours in front of the window, waiting for something to happen, and nothing looked different from the rain. After ten, twenty years, the spectacle could remain the same. But it was worth the wait: sooner or later, an incredible thing happened.

Believing that after that, a deluge must follow, one could make the mistake of closing the window. A movie scene would then have ceased to be seen in our city that would have seemed fantastic if it had been a scene from real life…

And a scene from real life that would have seemed like fantasy in film.

In at least one thing our city was the same as all the cities in the world: on empty and endless Sundays. We tried, in vain, to fill them with insignificant acts.

Then, for a moment, we were happy delighting in idleness: we ate with our hands stretched out in the grass, we had a portrait taken that would serve as a reason to laugh at ourselves for the rest of our lives, we slept in the shade of the trees with our faces covered with a hat, we were dying of unlikely loves….

In order to avoid being home alone, we would go out in search of company, and sometimes we were happy on a Sunday at three in the afternoon, alone in the middle of the crowd….

Monday, a certainty filled us with fortitude: sooner or later, it would be Sunday again.

This article was published in Spanish in the Colombian journal El Malpensante.

 

CONTRIBUTOR

Gabriel García Márquez, translated by José Vargas

Gabriel García Márquez was considered one of the most significant authors of the 20th century. He was awarded the 1972 Neustadt International Prize for Literature and the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature. He died in 2014.

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