JULY 28, 2018
AT FIRST GLANCE, the streets in my Barcelona neighborhood have nothing literary about them. There are no plaques dedicated to the writers who once lived there, no sandwich boards with witty puns in chalk, no bookshops selling the very books that were written just down the street.
So it’s no surprise that, until someone pointed it out to me, I had no idea I was living in Gabriel García Márquez’s apartment.
I wasn’t the only clueless resident. When I probed into the history of my apartment, going straight to the building’s concierge, who had worked there for 20 years, she laughed. “It wasn’t until he died that I knew myself,” she said.
In 2014, after García Márquez’s death in faraway Mexico City, she was bombarded by journalists who showed up at the building’s entrance. Shocked by the unusual commotion in a quiet neighborhood far from the city center, they asked her if they could come up to the apartment where Gabo, as he was known among his friends, once lived.
“At first I told them, ‘You must have the wrong place,’” she said. “I had never heard of García Márquez ever having lived here. When I asked the residents, none of them had any idea.”
I found out García Márquez lived in my apartment with his wife and two sons for a little over a year, from late 1967 to early 1969. Despite having recently published One Hundred Years of Solitude in South America, he had not yet reached celebrity status in Spain — so for the year-and-some-months in my neighborhood, he was able to go about his life and keep a low profile. Yet a look into the seven years he spent in Barcelona — he later moved to a bigger apartment in another neighborhood — opened up another story of the time when Latin American authors filled Barcelona’s streets, inspiring each other’s writings and kicking off what’s known today as the Latin American Boom.
This flourishing is commonly understood to have started in 1967, when García Márquez moved into my apartment and started writing The Autumn of the Patriarch. But others argue its roots are in the prior meeting of García Márquez and his literary agent, Carmen Balcells, a Catalan woman who would change the face of Spanish publishing forever.
Balcells brought a crack platoon of Latin American writers over to Old World Barcelona, including Mario Vargas Llosa and Julio Cortázar, turning this city into a 1920s Paris for expatriate Hispanophones. Balcells was their Gertrude Stein: muse, den mother, and intellectual chef.
All this was going on amid a period of unease in Spain. While the rest of the Western world was caught up in 1960s antiwar protests and social movements, Spain was still trapped under the lid of Francisco Franco, a dictatorship that ended with his death in 1975. Censorship laws were still in place, yet Barcelona — despite the ban on the regional language of Catalan — was the hub of Spanish publishing. These writers were right in the middle of the tension, creating novels that would forever change Latin American literature.
Catalan journalist Xavi Ayén documented those years in his engaging history Aquellos Años del Boom (“Those Years of the Boom”), a near-thousand-page-long anthology of those 10-odd years. He begins by saying that the cultural fusion couldn’t have been born anywhere else but Barcelona, a “city where the book was king and during a time when literature was queen.”
Many books and authors emerged from that era — most notably, the literary genre of magical realism broke out of Latin America into a global readership. But the “who should be included” in this literary period and “who shouldn’t” is still questionable. García Márquez’s biographer Gerald Martin says there are a handful of undisputed Boom writers, whom he calls the Fab Four: Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortázar, and Carlos Fuentes.
“The Boom is best understood as the crystallization and culmination of Latin America’s twentieth-century modernist movement,” Martin writes in his biography, Gabriel García Márquez: A Life. It’s when Latin American literature was, after decades of a post-colonial world, finally introduced to a wider audience.
And the spark that set it off was, arguably, García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Ayén writes that since the novel was published in 1967, it has sold over 100,000 copies every year, a never-before-seen figure in Latin American literature. It was this explosion, he adds, that let other Latin American writers follow suit and, for the first time, become best sellers in European bookstands.
“Latin American literature had been completely marginalized internationally up until that point,” said Ayén when I met him at a cafe in Barcelona. “So for the first time, the best living writers in the world were Latin American. That had never happened before. And it was a huge pride, a huge boost, it was like winning the World Cup in literature for all of Latin America.”
The Boom was more than just a time in history — it also resulted in close friendships between the writers that formed part of it. García Márquez and Vargas Llosa both settled in Barcelona in the late ’60s — they lived down the street from each other in the upscale neighborhood of Sarrià, where Gabo moved after living in my apartment. Gabo used to joke that he would tap on his walls to communicate with Vargas Llosa, so close were their apartments to one another. They would spend hours at the neighborhood’s Bar Tomás, an early 20th-century joint still popular today, talking literature and politics.
Their families, and those of their other Spanish and Catalan friends, would spend birthdays together, holidays together, and many evenings listening to music in Gabo’s apartment, a music lover who was known for having one of the best sound systems in the neighborhood. Leticia Escario and her husband, Luis Feduchi, became an integral part of this group, despite not being writers themselves.
“Gabo was a very generous person, kind of shy. He didn’t like to show off,” said Escario when I met her for coffee one morning. “We were like one big family. We would spend Sundays together, we met each other’s extended families. Luis and Gabo would even recite poetry together.”
But not all of the Boom writers built their lives in Barcelona. Cortázar, for example, chose to live in Paris. Yet he spent a lot of his time in the Catalan capital. What held them all together — the rock in a sea of drifters — was their literary agent Carmen Balcells.
I met Carmen Balcells’s son, Luis Miguel Palomares, at the Carmen Balcells Literary Agency offices. He took over the agency when his mother died in 2015. The spacious centuries-old apartment was full of light, despite it being a dreary rainy day; at his desk, he had a white bust of his mother and a collage of photos, including one of them together when he was a child.
When I asked if he thought Balcells and Gabo were the rocks of the Latin American Boom, comparing them to “the John and Paul of the Beatles,” Palomares hesitated.
“There were a lot of other people,” he said, listing a handful. “They were just two of many. I’m not here to comment on the importance of my mother, but you pull up just a few articles on the topic, and you’ll see that biographers and journalists all say the same thing: she changed Spanish publishing forever.”
And it’s true. Just a quick search of Balcells’s name will result in dozens of articles, crediting her with shepherding a generation of Latin American authors. She was one of the big reasons a lot of these writers moved to Barcelona — or at the very least, visited often — and gave them access to Europe’s literary markets for the first time. But it was the way she approached publishing, and the way she treated her writers, that made her stand out. Many of them called her la mamá grande, the big mama.
“She was all about taking care of the author, one hundred percent,” said Palomares, who from a young age helped his mother out at the agency and met many, if not all, of the Boom writers. “This wasn’t about economics or business. It was about the human element.”
On top of negotiating multi-book deals and pushing for better contracts with publishers, Balcells would take care of finding apartments for the writers, often far from the city center to prevent them from getting distracted (in sympathy to García Márquez, I’ve often complained that my apartment is far from everything, inconveniently located up a hill). She would support the writers financially when they couldn’t make ends meet and even help them take care of personal things, like finding a school for their children or a doctor when they were sick.
“They called her for every little thing, like little children,” said journalist Ayén. “But, the agreement was, you do what I tell you then. So, no one questioned her.”
Balcells wanted these writers to do what they did best: write, and only write.
“She took huge economic risks,” said Palomares. “The protection she gave them surpassed what’s normally seen. She would make their lives easier.”
And while Balcells may have held the group of writers together — even after García Márquez and Vargas Llosa got in a famous fistfight in 1976 — biographer Gerald Martin says the key to understanding the Latin American Boom is more than just Balcells; it’s the coming together of her and Gabo.
“He writes the most successful book in the history of Latin America, ever. Which, it still is. So, she falls in and wins the lottery, as they say,” he said over a phone conversation. “The absolute key was that Carmen Balcells got him as her writer.”
The two maintained a close friendship throughout their lives — they died just one year apart. During the years García Márquez lived in Barcelona, he would visit Balcells’s office several times a week, to talk or just get advice. They spent time with each other’s families; Palomares remembers going to the Gabos’s house and playing with his sons, who were about his age. Even after his Barcelona years, García Márquez visited the Catalan capital often; Balcells’s agency always had his green SEAT 1430 car ready for him to drive.
“She’s the person he went straight to when he arrived. She’s the person who almost certainty fixed him up with the first apartments,” said Martin. “She’s the person who turned his books into commodities, in the most successful way. It was a marriage made in heaven between these brilliant writers and this brilliant agent.”
Though García Márquez was no fan of Franco, his love for all things Catalan began as a young man growing up in Colombia, where he was exposed to the exiles that had fled after the Spanish Civil War. When he arrived here three decades later, Barcelona was still full of anti-Franco activists and underground movements; the Catalan region had been especially oppressed because of its drive to speak its own language and practice its own culture.
“There’s something about the Mediterranean Sea that brings in a breeze of fresh air,” said Leticia Escario, who lived in Barcelona through the dictatorship. “It was more open to the rest of the world, literally speaking. It’s close to France, so it was easier for people to travel.”
Gabo remembers his time in Barcelona as some of the happiest years of his life. In a personal reflection published in Ayén’s Aquellos Años del Boom, he admitted that, in light of the Francoist dictatorship in power, the freedom he found in Barcelona surprised him. But he realized it was a space that had been “won” — though, in this case, not through war — by the everyday perseverance of writers, artists, journalists, and the Catalan people. And now he was like one of them.
The Latin American Boom has largely been washed from Barcelona’s history: the city is often identified with the architect Antoni Gaudí, or perhaps with the years Pablo Picasso spent here, or more recently with the Barcelona soccer team and its Argentine star, Lionel Messi. There are no public memorials dedicated to the writers who started a literary revolution 50 years ago, or their energetic Catalan agent. Though there are dozens of literary tours around the city, they usually revolve around novels and stories set in Barcelona, not what was actually written here.
Alex Lloreda organizes tours through his company Literat Tours, and says that in his 10 years of work, not one person has proposed a literary tour based on the Boom. He’s not opposed to the idea, however; and has for a while considered creating one in Sarrià, where both Gabo and Vargas Llosa lived.
García Márquez will, however, get his name on something: construction for a new library named after him began just some months ago, but the place isn’t due to open for another two or so years.
Many people asked me how it was possible that the apartment’s owner didn’t tell me, when I rented out the place, that García Márquez once lived there. But the owner didn’t even know. My roommate, who had lived at the apartment for years before I arrived, also didn’t know. Nobody in the building or the neighborhood remembers the years Gabo lived here, and nobody who lived through it 50 years ago bothered to pass down the stories to their children or younger neighbors.
Only in the Sarrià neighborhood are there whispers of his having been around. The bartenders at the Bar Tomás, where García Márquez and Vargas Llosa used to drink, speak of them like ghosts. The place was buzzing with customers on a recent Tuesday afternoon, and they kept their eyes on their work as they talked, pouring beers and serving croquetas on little plates. “There are stories about Gabo around here,” one of them says. “And maybe some of the older people around the neighborhood will remember seeing him around. But other than that, everyone else has passed away.”
Just like my apartment, the place where he moved to in Sarrià has no indication of Gabo having lived there. It stands quietly as if nothing had ever happened in there, as if a famous novel had not been written inside there, as if a group of influential writers had not spent hours talking politics in there.
And as I stood outside the building, looking up into the windows that Gabo once gazed through, I wondered if maybe it’s better that way. The local geography is our own little secret; a history relived for those lucky enough to know it.
Lucia Benavides is a writer and journalist currently based in Barcelona, who has worked as a reporter/producer at the NPR affiliate in Austin, Texas. Her work has also appeared in Teen Vogue and Al Jazeera English.